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 …