A New Lebanon?


Lebanon is smaller than Connecticut and scarcely more populous. Its economy, still struggling to recoup the losses of the 1975–1990 civil war, hardly amounts to the annual turnover at McDonald’s. What is so special about the country? The immediate answer is that this statelet, which was subtracted by French imperialists from greater Syria, has suddenly found itself to be the fine point upon which the fate of a much wider region balances.

That sounds an oversized claim, but an extraordinary passion play has been unfolding in Beirut over the last few weeks. It is a drama that happens to pit forces which, in a particularly stark fashion, seem to represent the competing narratives that will ultimately define the Arabs’ vision of their recent past and soon-to-be-revealed destiny. These forces are, in many ways, similar to those that have clashed within every Arab society, and continue to do so, in what some historians describe as a struggle between the cosmopolitan Arabs of the coastal cities and those of the inward-looking hinterland. And just now, on the Arab airwaves transmitting scenes from the streets of Beirut, a turning of the tide in this struggle may be fleetingly discerned.

On one side stand what might be called the Pan-Arab nationalists, whose strident voice has dominated the past half-century. This voice was first raised in anger against European imperialism, and later against the intrusion of Israel into the Arab heartland, but it has grown increasingly inflected with the rhetoric of militant political Islam. On March 8 these “nationalists” poured into the city center in force, heeding the call of Hassan Nasrallah, the forty-one-year-old leader of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia-cum-political-party that became a national force through its resistance to Israel’s long occupation of Lebanon’s south. Perhaps half a million people, poor Shiites from South Beirut’s slums, Palestinians from the country’s miserable archipelago of refugee camps, young and old, veiled and not, cheered the bearded Nasrallah (whose name, incidentally, means Victory of God) as he denounced the usual villains, Americans and Zionists and their lackeys. Death to Israel, they chanted, to a backbeat of amplified hymns condemning America as the Mother of Terror.

It was the largest gathering of people in Lebanon’s turbulent history, and a persuasively fervent show of support for resistance to all forms of non-Arab, non-Muslim influence. In local politics, this meant support for Baathist Syria, seen as a last redoubt of Uruba, or Arabism, amid a rising sea of American hegemony. It also meant backing for the Syrian-supported components of the post–civil war Lebanese order, including political parties allied with Syria, the intelligence services, and of course the small but effective Hezbollah guerrilla army which, having hounded Israel out of its long occupation in the south, is seen by many as the only deterrent to future Israeli aggression. To the “loyalist” camp, those who support the connection with Syria, this is the order that has ensured Lebanon’s return to peace and to its natural place as an integral part of the Arab-Muslim motherland, or umma.

Yet less than a week later, this show of force was trumped by a considerably larger gathering. As many as a million Lebanese, mainly young and middle class and largely Christian, but including representatives of all the country’s seventeen recognized religious sects, converged on Martyr’s Square, the giant, as-yet unreconstructed empty space in the historic heart of Beirut. A quarter of the country’s population was there, and despite the variety of political parties in attendance (for which, in Lebanon, read: people who used to kill each other) the convergence of feeling was both palpable and poignant.

One feeling in evidence was a newfound pride in simply being Lebanese, and an even more newfound exhilaration at having the power to show this pride. Another was a deep hope that the future promises release from the country’s peculiar burdens: from its paranoid divisions among religious factions, from its people’s hapless despair and cynicism, and from the nation’s unwilling entrapment in the wider Arab-Israeli conflict. It was, in other words, the hope, at least for many Lebanese, of joining the community of peaceable nations enjoying secular, open societies, democracy, and the rule of law. But perhaps the emotion that most unified this vast crowd was of pent-up rage against the forces that many Lebanese see as having blocked this kind of evolution, forces which many also hold responsible for the Valentine’s Day bombing that killed Rafik Hariri, the controversial and visionary former prime minister, a very rich businessman who oversaw the country’s emergence from the ruins of civil war.

This anger is directed most readily against Syria. That is partly because the larger, more backward neighboring state is a convenient villain, a specter against which to piece together a coherent identity out of Lebanon’s own fractured parts. After all, Syrian troops entered Lebanon, way back in 1976, at the invitation of Lebanon’s then president and with the goal of separating warring Lebanese. They succeeded, in a fashion, after serially bloodying virtually all of Lebanon’s myriad factions, including later allies such as Hezbollah.

Yet the anger is also grounded in the experience of Syria’s subsequent meddling. Since imposing peace fifteen years ago, the occupiers have increasingly worn out their welcome. Syria’s presence is subtly pervasive. The ill-paid conscripts who man scruffy checkpoints represent merely the visible tip of a pile that includes racketeering Baathist political bosses and a shadowy army of plainclothes thugs. Specifically, Syrian agents have been implicated in, though never charged with, several of the frequent assassinations that have shaken Lebanese politics.

There is among Lebanese another, subtler layer of anxiety about Syria. The two countries are unusually close, sharing the same language and culture and religious diversity. Damascus and Beirut are barely two hours’ drive apart. The flight of Syrian capital and migrant labor have helped to sustain Lebanon’s more dynamic economy. Yet history and trade have bequeathed radically different outlooks, with liberal, freewheeling Beirut serving as a sort of Hong Kong for the gray, conservative Beijing of Damascus. Capitalist, cosmopolitan, and by tradition democratic, the Lebanese tend to look on the Syrians as country cousins. Being ruled by them, however veiled that rule, is humiliating.

Yet the onus of resentment falls equally on what many Lebanese see as their own collaborationist and parasitical political class. One thing practically all Lebanese share is a sense of being a talented but thwarted nation. They are right. Lebanese emigrants (some ten million people, from Mexico to West Africa to Australia, claim Lebanese origins) make up one of the most widely dispersed, successful, and influential global diasporas. In the rich Arab Gulf they dominate such professions as advertising, entertainment, and banking. Lebanon itself remains, despite its violent unrest, a well-educated and surprisingly prosperous society, with a level of personal income that is more than double Jordan’s and triple Syria’s. Its banks hold assets equal to three times its GNP.

Yet for all its entrepreneurial flair, Lebanon has remained stymied by very slow growth and a huge public debt, for the simple reason that its politicians have spent more time bickering over spoils than figuring out how to make the economy grow. At the same time, Syrian tutelage is seen by many as having slowly undermined the key institutions, such as the judiciary, that vitally underpin Lebanon’s service-based economy.

Lebanese politics had, in recent years, degenerated into an increasingly ugly tug-of-war that threatened to destroy the vision of a revitalized country that Rafik Hariri embodied as prime minister and was elected, and then reelected, to fulfill. A billionaire construction magnate, he strongly believed that, given confidence and a decent infrastructure, Lebanon would inevitably prosper. During the 1990s his free-spending ways transformed Beirut from a gutted wreck into a city that is, in parts, a gleaming model of a modern metropolis (in other parts it remains a warren of sweatshops and shanties). In doing so he amassed a $35 billion national debt; paying it off hinged on sustaining growth through privatization and encouraging foreign, particularly Arab, investment.

This tricky gamble stumbled into increasingly entrenched resistance from Syria’s allies in Beirut, led by President Émile Lahoud. Their objection stemmed partly from fears that the flamboyant Hariri, who built his estimated $4 billion fortune in Saudi Arabia, and then spent much of it winning friends through charity and generous patronage, was bent on further enriching his own favorites and giving them more power. They also saw that Hariri’s reforms threatened the web of patronage and monopolistic concessions that sustain other Lebanese political grandees, and in many cases tie them closely to the Syrian regime.

Increasingly deadlocked, the contest between the president and the prime minister reached a breaking point last fall. First came news that Syria, in a direct snub to Hariri, was pushing its allies in Lebanon’s parliament to amend the country’s constitution so as to extend Lahoud’s mandate. Syria’s president, Bashar al-Asad, bluntly warned Hariri not to oppose the move. Soon after, the UN Security Council took a sudden interest in Lebanon, voting to demand an immediate Syrian withdrawal, proper elections, and the disarming of all remaining militias.

Perhaps rightly, this unusual motion was read by Hariri’s opponents as having been inspired by the prime minister himself, who was known to be a close friend of the French president Jacques Chirac—France, along with the United States, being the main proponent of the resolution. Barely a week later, Syria’s allies rammed through the amendment granting a further three years in office to Lahoud. Hariri, perhaps believing he could still play a mediating role, voted reluctantly in favor of the motion. But shortly thereafter he resigned.

It was not only that Lahoud’s and Syria’s interventions in Hariri’s cabinet were now rudely obstructionist. On October 1 a car bomb targeted, but narrowly missed, Marwan Hamade. A respected economist from one of Lebanon’s main Druze clans and a close friend of the prime minister, Hamade had been one of four ministers to resign over the constitutional amendment. This warning seemed clear. The cabinet installed following Hariri’s retirement was solidly pro-Syrian.

This appeared to be the end of the game, a sign that Syria, in defiance of the world, was at last exerting full control. Many analysts concluded that the Damascus regime, isolated by America’s invasion of Iraq, its army dwarfed by Israel’s military might, its socialist economy lumbering toward extinction, had decided to take a defiant stand over Lebanon. What was expected next was that President Lahoud, backed by his security chiefs, ministers, and a mostly pliant parliament, would so arrange things that by the time of legislative polls scheduled for this May, the election of a crushingly pro-Syrian parliament would be assured. Hariri would be relegated to the political wilderness.


One of Lebanon’s oddities is that it has maintained, throughout decades of Machiavellian maneuverings, corruption, and violence, at least a semblance of a democratic process, although the country’s constitutional arrangements have always been flawed, as Lebanese are quick to admit. From independence in 1943 to the end of the civil war in 1990, an unwritten compact granted Christians a 60-to-40 dominance of parliamentary seats, in addition to the powerful presidency and control of the judiciary, senior economic posts, and the main armed services. The weak prime minister was by custom a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of parliament a Shiite. Other top positions and parliamentary seats were apportioned to lesser minorities, such as the Druze, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and Alawites.

As the civil war sputtered to a conclusion, a new deal was hammered out at the Saudi resort town of Taif, by the expedient of summoning the last elected Lebanese parliament to meet there. The Taif Accord did not change the principle of distributing power among religious groups. It simply trimmed the Christian portion, in recognition both of changing demographics and of the bitter divisions among Maronites, the largest Christian sect, that had weakened their hand in the final stages of the war. The accord’s chief provisions bolstered the role of the Sunni prime minister, expanded parliament’s powers, and apportioned seats equally between Christians and Muslims. It was a stopgap solution that fell far short of the aspirations of most Lebanese, who wished then as now for an end to haggling among the different faiths. But it did, to an extent, reflect political realities.*

Rafik Hariri, a Sunni Muslim untarnished by the civil war and adept at making profitable compromises, quickly came to dominate the post-Taif scene. Assiduously courting Damascus (he cut in the family of Syria’s vice-president, Abdel Halim Khaddam, on an immensely lucrative mobile phone concession), he also managed to maintain a share of independence. Money, public relations savvy, and a powerful network of friends bought Hariri a degree of immunity from Syrian pressure. Inevitably, though, those assets also aroused suspicion and jealousy in Damascus.

Earlier this winter, as it became clear that the pro-Syrian faction was maneuvering to change the electoral rules so as to shut their opponents out of May’s polls, the unseated prime minister found himself pushed toward a closer alliance with Syria’s more outspoken Lebanese foes. At the center of this group was an emerging coalition that united once-bitter civil war enemies such as the Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt and Maronite Christian parties, as well as independent liberals and business leaders fed up with the drift toward Syrian-style authoritarianism.

Associates of Hariri say that he was on the verge of throwing his full financial and political power behind this opposition coalition. This would, for the first time, have created a strong alliance that cut across sectarian lines and would have challenged Syria’s grip. Hariri himself believed that, barring blatant rigging of the election, he and his allies could have pulled off a slim majority. But on February 14, a huge bomb blasted Hariri’s motorcade to pieces, killing the former prime minister and eighteen others.

This being the Middle East, accusations flew like shrapnel. Some claimed that Israel was to blame, though it was hard to see why Mossad, admittedly good at assassinations, would bother to kill an out-of-power Lebanese politician. Others suggested that the CIA, perhaps through fanatical Maronite proxies, might have targeted Hariri with the covert aim of implicating Syria, thereby fomenting a backlash that would embarrass Damascus into retreat.

Whoever planted the bomb, this is exactly what happened. Most Lebanese, as well as Hariri’s own family and friends, instantly concluded that the most likely culprit was indeed Syria. It did not matter whether the hit had been directly ordered by Syria’s embattled president, or by some rogue agency beyond his shaky command, or perhaps even by one of Lebanon’s own Syrian-backed security services. The fact was that it had happened under Syrian occupation, in an atmosphere of intimidation that Syria had itself created, and by a method Syrians had primarily used. The bloodiness of the deed after a decade of relative calm, and the destruction of a man who, for all his flaws, embodied hopes of prosperity, peace, and decency, inspired a tidal wave of enraged revulsion that has unified more Lebanese than ever before, and swept away much of Syria’s prestige and influence.

In their defense, Syrian officials have said simply that they could not have committed the crime, precisely because of the backlash it would produce against them, especially at a delicate moment of increased tension with the US over Iraq. It is not a bad argument, and in fact Syria has now been chastened into a hasty pullout of its forces—including intelligence agents—from much of Lebanon.

But during Lebanon’s civil war, the blindly self-destructive behavior of some warlords was often explained by reference to the fable of the scorpion who wishes to cross a river. Having failed to convince anyone else to carry him across, he finally persuades a frog by pointing out that should he unleash his sting, both passenger and bearer would drown. In midstream the scorpion stings the frog. “Why have you done this? Now we both die,” moans the frog. “Because I’m a scorpion,” comes the reply.

In other words, what many Lebanese believe is that the gangland instincts of the Syrian regime are such that its leaders just might commit a blunder of this scale. Rafik Hariri was too powerful, too independent, and, worse, he threatened to betray them. By the calculations of an unsophisticated mob leader, this might have seemed a cue to rub him out, and strike fear into other enemies. In the words of one Syrian dissident, it was an action worthy not of The Godfather’s Michael Corleone but of his feeble-minded brother Fredo.

Whatever the case, Syria and its allies are paying a steep price for Rafik Hariri’s death. They have tried hard to hold on to power. After the first mass protests against the bombing, the government felt obliged to resign, but President Lahoud soon reappointed the outgoing pro-Syrian prime minister, Omar Karami, to form a new one. Lahoud has also resisted key opposition demands, such as allowing an international investigation of Hariri’s killing, and firing the chiefs of Lebanon’s seven security agencies. More recently, nighttime car bombings in Christian neighborhoods have signaled a warning that opposing the Syrian-dominated order is not free of danger.

But it may be too late. A barrier of fear has for years led many Lebanese to pay lip service to Syrian-inspired “national” themes, such as the brotherliness of neighborly relations, the maintenance of a united front against Israel, and the nobility and necessity of Hezbollah’s resistance militia. That fear is now largely gone. Syria and its local allies are openly taunted in the Lebanese press, as well as on Beirut’s streets. “Surprised you, huh?” read a popular banner at Beirut’s mass protests, using a typically Syrian way of posing a question. Several of these protests, moreover, have directly flaunted government bans.

The opposition has not budged from its demands. Indeed, some of its leaders have taken to insisting on the retirement not just of the security chiefs but of President Lahoud himself. Meanwhile, the ranks of the opposition have been swelled by the defection to it of several prominent politicians, including ministers in the outgoing Karami government. Most ominously, perhaps, for Syria, the murder of Lebanon’s leading Sunni figure has alienated, perhaps permanently, much of the Sunni Muslim middle class, who over the decades have proved Syria’s staunchest base of support. Syria’s loyalists now face a fairly solid wall that joins nearly all Christians and Druze, a probable majority of Sunnis, and a good many secular Shiites as well.

Even Hezbollah’s giant rally, which brought the expanding demographic weight of the historically marginalized Shiites into plain view, was seen by many not so much as a flexing of pro-Syrian muscle as a favor granted by Hassan Nasrallah to save some face for Syria’s president. Despite his bluff rhetoric, the Hezbollah leader did not ask that Syrian forces stay. He showed a desire to be in touch with the opposition by calling for dialogue, and for a full investigation of Hariri’s murder. At Nasrallah’s order, no Hezbollah flags or slogans were raised, only the Lebanese national colors.

The fact is that, despite the clash of slogans, Lebanon’s “loyalists” and “opposition” are not so far apart concerning the immediate issues. Syria’s departure is now regarded as a fait accompli. With memories of the civil war still fresh, there appears to be a general keenness to avoid violence and intimidation. The relaxed and peaceful nature of the mass demonstrations—so far—would be remarkable for any country, let alone one with a history as bitter as Lebanon’s. The main parties appear resigned to fighting their ultimate battle not on the streets but at the ballot box.

There are, of course, some dangerous imbalances. The most obvious one is that, even after the departure of Syrian troops, Syria’s allies retain a virtual monopoly of weapons. The army and police forces remain, for the time being, under “loyalist” command, i.e., loyal to Syria, though the willingness of the rank and file to fire on fellow citizens is doubtful. Hezbollah was exempted from the general, post–Taif Accord disbanding of militias because its own was engaged in fighting Israel, and it maintains a well-trained guerrilla force. But Hezbollah is also a Shiite political party, with 12 percent of the seats in Parliament. It has probably invested too much prestige in its patriotic resistance against Israel and in building a political base to risk tarnishing these credentials through domestic squabbles.

Like most of Lebanon’s players, Hezbollah’s leaders are, in the end, realists. They seek, for their constituents, a fair share of the Lebanese pie. Despite commitment to Islamic ideals, they know these cannot be imposed on so diverse a nation. And the evolution of their attitude toward Iraq, from fierce condemnation of the American invasion to grudging acceptance that Iraq’s Shiites may have gained from it, could have wider implications. Hezbollah has not given up its sense of Lebanon’s own Shiites being an embattled and oppressed minority. Parts of its constituency are fanatically committed to sustaining “resistance.” But given time and persuasion, there is no reason why Hezbollah should not move toward being a normal civilian party, able to gain more power for its constituents by peaceful means.

With its impressive network of social services, Hezbollah is widely viewed as the only pro-Syrian party to enjoy a solid popular base. The once-popular rival Shiite party, Amal, has degenerated over the years into a patronage machine for its leader, Nabih Berri, the unctuously corrupt and slippery speaker of parliament. Christians in the pro-Syrian camp, aside from President Lahoud, include a motley group of political stooges and the Franjieh clan, a feudally entrenched Maronite family from north Lebanon. Its traditional closeness to Syria was clinched during the civil war, when a rival Maronite militia massacred the father, mother, and sisters of Suleiman, the current Franjieh patriarch. Syria’s other allies consist of a collection of clan leaders from other sects, and a few fading leftist parties.

In other words, aside from its nominal control of the country’s weapons and the threat of violent sabotage that carries a risk of alienating ever more ordinary Lebanese, the loyalist faction is weak. Yet the opposition is hardly strong, either. So far, it has proved capable of mustering huge, enthusiastic crowds. Having the sympathy of most of Lebanon’s press corps, as well as the backing of its main private broadcasters, the opposition has also won the battle for public opinion hands down. But the assassination of Rafik Hariri has left it with no leaders to match the stature of Hassan Nasrallah, for example. Such figureheads as it has are, in many cases, tainted by their civil war pasts. These include the wily, pugnacious Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt, right-wing Maronite clan leaders, and General Michel Aoun, a brash former army chief who allied himself with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and tried clumsily, in the closing chapter if the civil war, to lead a last stand against Syria. He has since lived in exile in Paris.

The opposition’s determination, so far, has surprised no one so much as the Lebanese themselves. Few expect it to last, and in fact the opposition has failed to articulate more than demands for immediate justice and accountability for Hariri’s killers, and Syrian withdrawal. Without Hariri’s martyrdom, it might never have found a unifying cause. Its underlying divisions are manifold. Many Christians, for example, regard the disarming of Hezbollah’s militia, which is called for by the UN Security Council, as vital. Others, however, and not just Shiites, still detest Israel, mistrust America, and take pride and comfort in Hezbollah’s resistance.

Yet there is another, wholly new element that plays to the advantage of the opposition. This is the intangible yet powerful sense that a deep historical process is at work. Lebanon was created, in the wake of World War I, by a convergence of Maronite ambition and French colonial legerdemain. It was economically successful but failed as a nation-state. The Lebanese never seemed quite able to settle the core question of identity, never able to achieve a shared sense of belonging. The dominant Christians tilted too far toward the West; this led to a loss of control and then a tilt too far toward the East.

That balance is now shifting to the center. Those vast, flag-waving throngs in the streets of Beirut showed themselves, if only fleetingly and in spite of their differences, to share a common pride and a common vision. Sectarian hotheads and saboteurs certainly still lurk in the shadows. But a chance has emerged, and it is one that most Lebanese would love to grasp, of creating a real nation at last.

—March 31, 2005

  1. *

    Lebanon has not dared to run a census since 1932, when Christians were a clear majority—which is one of the reasons Catholic France thought creating Lebanon was a good idea. Beirut then was a largely Sunni and Greek Orthodox town, with Druze and Maronite Christians in the mountains, and the largely impoverished, marginalized Shia concentrated in the rural south and east. In the interim, emigration among Christians has run higher, and birthrates lower, while urbanization, accelerated by waves of civil war refugees, has turned Beirut into a rich tabbouleh salad of confessions. Current guesstimates break down Lebanon’s 4.5 million population as 35–40 percent Shia Muslim, 15–20 percent Sunni Muslim, 25 percent Maronite Christian, 10 percent other Christian sects, and 10 percent Druze and other heterodox Muslim sects. There are also between 200,000 and 350,000 Palestinian refugees and perhaps half a million foreign laborers, most of them Syrian.