“This country is like a cake. On the top it is cream. Underneath it is fire.” So a Hezbollah spokesman told me last June, speaking in the shabby Beirut apartment that served as the party’s press office until an avalanche of Israeli ordnance leveled the building, along with the surrounding neighborhood, in the war that flared a few weeks later. Intimated as a bit of finger-wagging local wisdom, the clumsy metaphor seemed hackneyed at the time.
Yet it is true that while Lebanon whets appetites with its gorgeous landscapes, clement weather, energetic people, and wonderful food, trying to consume too much of it tends to bring on heartburn. Just ask the Ottoman Turks, the imperialist French, the US Marine Corps, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, or any number of Lebanese would-be overlords. The country’s infernally complex ingredients seem chemically incapable of melding into a digestible dish.
This wedge of Mediterranean littoral may be densely crowded, yet close neighbors manage to live in very different worlds. A Beirut socialite’s calendar this past season might, for instance, have taken in the abundance of pink cheeks daringly displayed at the annual catwalk for fancy lingerie on the ski slopes of Faraya, or the opening at Surface, a chic gallery in Christian East Beirut, of a startling exhibition by two young women artists titled “Erotika.” Another must would have been the funeral of Alia Solh, the eldest daughter of Riad Solh, the first prime minister of Lebanon after it gained independence in 1943. One of five glamorous sisters who married well during the halcyon years before the 1975–1990 civil war, her obsequies, at the Solh mansion in Sunni West Beirut, drew a crush of luminaries from as far afield as New York, Paris, Riyadh, and Rabat, including Walid bin Talal, the billionaire Saudi prince, and Moulay Hisham, a cousin of the Moroccan king known for his liberal views.
Of course, should one not be part of Beirut’s hedonistic and dauntingly branché elite, the calendar might have looked rather different. Bombed out of your cramped walk-up in the Shia southern suburbs during last summer’s war, you may have moved into the sprawling tent city at Riad Solh Square in downtown Beirut. Erected in December by Hezbollah and its allies to shame the “collaborationist” government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora into quitting, the squalid encampment remains defiantly in place. You may have marched in the fervid, self-flagellating Ashura parades that on January 30 commemorated the martyrdom of the Shia hero-figure Hussein, or attended the angry funerals of the more recent Shia “martyrs” who were gunned down—not far from the Solh mansion—by suspected Sunni snipers during sectarian clashes earlier that month. (Or if you were Sunni, you might have joined the equally emotive memorial for two Sunni youths held in May, after they were kidnapped and executed in apparent vengeance.) But perhaps, if you have the misfortune to be one of 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees, you merely sit, jobless and anyhow barred, under Lebanese law, from most decent trades, in a cinderblock shack in one of the country’s archipelago of little Gazas, dreaming of jihad.
It is easy enough to counterpoint the opulence and squalor, hope and despair that remain such close bedfellows here. It is far harder to untangle the network of shifting allegiances that make up the spider’s-web-in-a-kaleidoscope of Lebanese politics. Differences between the eighteen sects that are formally recognized in the Lebanese constitution, which reserves political offices proportionally for representatives of different religious communities, form only part of the puzzle. Other elements include clan loyalties, class, historic alliances, ideological currents, the grievances of refugees from throughout the region, money interests, guns, and foreign intrigue involving everyone from the Vatican to the CIA and Mossad to the rival Shiite seminaries at Najaf in Iraq and Qom in Iran.
Scholarly attempts to clear this thicket are fraught with risks, starting with the fact that there is scarcely an overarching narrative on which enough Lebanese can agree to establish commonly accepted truths. Rather like in modern Italy, but more so, this is a place where achieving any sort of closure on important national traumas, such as the “Events” of 1975–1990—known to the rest of the world as the civil war—has proved dismayingly elusive. Historical happenings that elsewhere would be simple signposts on a recognized road become instead prisms, used to construct mutually negating paths.
Take the assassination of Riad Solh. Lebanese schoolbooks describe the Sunni leader at the time of Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943 as a national hero. It is true that the National Pact of that year, a founding document of the new nation, owed much to a practical meeting of minds between Solh, by inclination a pan-Arab nationalist, and Bishara Khoury, a Maronite Catholic leader who advocated a more Mediterranean-oriented, Christian-flavored Lebanese republic. Their alliance was institutionalized by the fixing of a 6–5 Christian–Muslim ratio of parliamentary seats, and a division of key powers between a Maronite president (Khoury was the first) and a Sunni prime minister. Other sects, it was understood, would have their share at every rank in government, including the cabinet, under a system known as muhasasa, or apportionment.
That deal brought three decades of uneasy calm and rapidly rising prosperity as Lebanon—an island of relative democratic liberty amid a sea of coup-prone dictatorships—attracted capital and talent from across the region. Yet the ideological seam of Arabism versus Lebanese particularism eventually pulled apart. From the beginning, too, the distribution of powers among Sunnis and Christians chafed what was then the country’s third-largest confessional group, the largely rural and marginalized Shia, for whom the topmost allotted post was speaker of parliament. It also annoyed the fourth-largest sect, the Greek Orthodox. Many were attracted to the quixotic vision of Antoun Saadeh, who founded a radically secular and socialist party that sought to incorporate Lebanon within a Greater Syria, along with Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, and Kuwait.
Following the failure of Saadeh’s comically inept coup plot in 1949, he was tried for treason and shot. As Ghassan Tueni, the debonair, still-prolific, and politically active publisher of the Beirut daily An-Nahar, warned at the time, “They have made of him a great giant, stronger than Saadeh ever was, and have made him a martyr.” Two years later, one of Saadeh’s followers created another martyr by killing Riad Solh in revenge. To this day, members of the Syrian Socialist Nationalist Party (which, ironically, was banned in Syria until last year) regard Saadeh as a hero and Solh as a villain.
Lebanon’s political landscape is thickly littered with such controversial martyr-figures. One of them is Ghassan Tueni’s own son, Gebran, whose car was blown off a mountain road by a powerful bomb in December 2005. Passionately opposed to Syrian interference in Lebanon, Gebran Tueni made a rousing call for national unity before a million-strong rally on March 14, 2005. It was perhaps the most dramatic moment of the so-called Cedar Revolution that convulsed Lebanon that spring, forcing Syria to end its three decade-long “peacekeeping” presence. Yet many Shias prefer to recall that Tueni once described Hezbollah’s followers as mindless sheep.
Similarly, the passing of Pierre Gemayel, a young, right-wing cabinet minister and vocal critic of Syrian influence, who was gunned down on a Beirut street last November, was widely mourned, if only because the ill-fated Gemayel clan of Maronite Catholics has produced more than its share of martyrs. (His uncle was also assassinated.) But in some quarters of Beirut it was said that vengeance had been claimed for Gemayel’s unwise public boast that while Muslims may have the quantity, “we” Christians have the quality.
Such examples may imply that Lebanon’s troubles are simply sectarian. Yet the very precariousness of the balance, with Sunnis, Shias, and Christians each representing around a third of the population, plus memories of the civil war with its 150,000 dead, tend to dampen cross-religious strife. The most vicious political sniping often takes place within sectarian groups. Hezbollah’s sharpest critics are, in fact, dissident Shias. And consider the comments made following Pierre Gemayel’s death by Suleiman Frangieh, the current don of a rival, pro-Syrian Maronite clan. First insinuating that Gemayel was probably murdered by yet another right-wing Maronite party, the Lebanese Forces, Frangieh reportedly jeered at a visit paid by several widows of slain Christian politicians—including Gemayel’s—to the eighty-seven-year-old Maronite Patriarch, Cardinal Sfeir. Don’t they have a man among them to send, he jibed, adding that the cleric probably got a hard-on.
Of all the modern martyrs to Lebanese politics, few achieved the stature and scale of influence, either in life or death, of the Sunni millionaire Rafik Hariri. Five times elected prime minister, Hariri stamped a personal style and vision on Lebanese society in the years following the end of the civil war in 1990. His efforts to rebuild the country justly earned him the title of Mr. Lebanon bestowed by Nicholas Blanford, a longtime correspondent in Beirut who has written a brisk portrait of the man’s travails and legacy. The killing of Hariri, along with twenty-two others, in a huge blast on Valentine’s Day 2005, stunned even the drama-inured Lebanese. Shattering fifteen years of relative calm, it provoked a wave of revulsion that was to radically alter the face of the country.
The son of a poor Sunni orange farmer, Hariri won a scholarship to the Arab University in Beirut and eventually, like so many Lebanese, sought his fortune abroad. Canny, hard-working, and disarmingly frank, he cashed in mightily on Saudi Arabia’s 1970s oil boom, building a giant construction firm on a reputation for efficiency that drew him extremely close to the Saudi ruling family. In one oft-cited incident, he is said to have impressed a royal Saudi client by wheeling in jet aircraft engines to quick-dry the cement at one short-order palace. He was to leave to his heirs a globe-spanning business whose assets have been valued conservatively at more than $8 billion.
During the bleakest civil war years, Hariri spent prodigiously on his home country, clearing rubble-strewn roads, sending some 35,000 poor Lebanese students through college, and financing repeated attempts to staunch the bloodletting by brokering hostage releases and talks between rival militias. Finally, in 1989, Hariri’s powerful Saudi patrons cajoled Lebanese politicians to attend a conclave at Taif, a mountain resort near Mecca, and effectively locked them in a room until they succumbed to a deal. The resulting Taif Accord updated the 1943 National Pact, reducing the powers of the Maronite presidency in favor of the Sunni premiership and Shia parliamentary speaker, and allotting parliamentary seats on a 1–1 Muslim–Christian ratio. Wartime militias were to be disbanded, but the principle of muhasasa was maintained.
This was hardly to everyone’s liking. But the deal was backed by Gulf Arab money as well as by Syrian troops occupying the country (who had first entered Lebanon in 1976 to prop up flagging Maronite forces, then lingered until all the rival militias were exhausted); and it was supported by the understanding that Hezbollah would be allowed to continue harassing Israel (whose army had invaded in 1982 to wipe out the PLO, then lingered in occupation of the mostly Shia-populated South). With those advantages, the Taif Accord eventually stuck and Hariri himself became its political godfather, the deal-maker whose cheery persona, deep pockets, and diplomatic savvy held the place together.