Middle East

AFTER SYRIA LEAVES

War-weary and fractious, Lebanon dares to dream of unity

BENOIT AUBIN April 25 2005
Middle East

AFTER SYRIA LEAVES

War-weary and fractious, Lebanon dares to dream of unity

BENOIT AUBIN April 25 2005

AFTER SYRIA LEAVES

War-weary and fractious, Lebanon dares to dream of unity

BENOIT AUBIN

Middle East

IN BEIRUT, they say your social class is reflected not so much by the make of your car as the age of your Mercedes. They range from wrecks salvaged from the civil war to gleaming behemoths befitting mafiosi or oil sheiks, but everybody seems to have one. Here, questions about politics, religion, corruption, violence, instability, hope, car bombs or democracy, make the Lebanese cringe—it’s not as simple as you’d think, they say.

But there are some who say their society can be explained by a look at Beirut’s perpetually chaotic traffic. “Just watch how we drive, it’s all in there—all our problems, in a nutshell,” says Joy Homsi, 26, an advertising producer.

Beirut’s street scene is scary, but also funny in a slapstick kind of way. Cars on sidewalks, pedestrians on the street, triple-parking, gridlock, traffic cops chatting, oblivious and ignored, everyone inching forward, focused solely on getting ahead, by all means, against all rules and common sense. But: no hard feelings, no fingers, no fits. “That’s Lebanon

for you,” Homsi says. “Civilized chaos.” Apart, of course, from the civil war that began in 1975. It ended in 1990, after 150,000 people had died, with Syrian troops occupying the north and Israeli forces the border area to the south. The Israelis departed five years ago; now, the Syrians are leaving, after mounting domestic and international pressure following the assassination of popular former prime minister Rafik Hariri on Feb.

14. And with the previous proSyrian government having stepped down, the country now

faces the daunting task of putting together a new administration.

It’s a short step from watching traffic at street level to discussing the current political crisis in Ghada el Yafi’s lofty ninth-floor apartment overlooking Damascus Roadpart of the infamous Green Line that used to divide Christian east Beirut and the Muslim west. El Yafi, 67, a retired hematologist, doesn’t hold out much hope. “What the Lebanese refuse to understand,” she says, “is that they must sometimes keep their personal or communal interests in check, to favour the common good. They don’t—and never have.”

She should know: her father, Abdullah el Yafi, was prime minister of Lebanon on 10 different occasions between 1930 and 1970. That makes her a Sunni

Muslim, by the way: the prime minister is always Sunni, the speaker is Shia, and the president is Christian. This sort of system is called “consociative democracy.” But el Yafi has another definition. “I call it corrupt feudalism,” she says. “I loathe the political class here at the moment, because they’re all sectarian. Nobody has a vision for the whole of the nation. None of them

will be able to meet the expectations.”

And there are expectations. Last month, the Lebanese surprised the world, and themselves, by pouring into the streets of Beirut by the hundreds of thousands after Hariri’s death, which was widely blamed on the Syrians. They demanded that Syria pull out, and chanted heady slogans about independence and democracy. The big news was not just the size of the crowds, but the composition. Christians and Muslims, rich and poor demonstrated together, in this division-conscious and still battle-scarred city. “If you consider that every man over 30 here has probably aimed a gun at a neighbour, and fired, that was quite a step forward,” remarks Marie-Josée Taya, a student.

Except for the new round of car bombs that started going off in various Christian neighborhoods in mid-March. They were small by Beirut standards—30 to 80 kg of explosives (by comparison, the device that pulverized Hariri’s motorcade, killing him and 16 others in downtown Beirut, was estimated to weigh one tonne). But they still created bedlam.

Take, for example, the bomb that exploded at suppertime on March 26. It was the third in less than two weeks; it was not

to be the last. Within minutes, cars, trucks and mopeds were zooming in all directions. Frazzled neighbours fled the blaze, running into gangs of excited youth speeding toward the action. Fire raged on two streets. Very young, heavily armed soldiers tried to control the crowds as officers shouted contradictory orders to fire trucks and ambulances. Fortunately, there were no fatalities

because the bomb went off after hours. Strategic bombing: terror, but lite.

It worked, though. Monot Street in downtown Beirut is where rich tourists from neighboring Arab countries like to share the penchant of the Lebanese for gaudy fash-

‘HEZBOLLAH

has street cred here, and must be taken into consideration in view of any peaceful resolution’

ion and conspicuous revelry. On Saturday nights it’s usually shoulder to shoulder here. But on the evening of the blast, you could hear your own footsteps. Beirut, the city where massive crowds demonstrated just weeks before, was frightened. “It’s horrible—someone is trying to sow panic,” said Jesus de Molero, inside her empty Spanish restaurant. “Things are going for the worse now. I was hopeful two weeks ago, but now I am worried for Lebanon. Too many

people think of their own cause first.”

But Lebanese are resilient. “This city was destroyed seven times over the last 3,000 years, but we’re still here,” says Edmond Rabbath, 34, a business consultant. He’s been frequenting the ragtag tent village that sprouted around Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut after Hariri’s murder. “If there is a crucible for the new Lebanon, it’s right here,” Rabbath says. “You’ll find some of the toughest, most militant elements of each community. But here, we live, discuss, pray to different gods together, because we believe only unity can save Lebanon.”

Unity may be a loaded word and an airy concept in this minuscule country of four million, where 18 different religious or ethnic communities all have specific political privileges and prerogatives—not to mention armed militias, active or dormant. But Rabbath is determined that everyone flies one flag. Each night, he holds a unique ceremony: trading old sectarian ensigns for brand new Lebanese flags with the crowd that shows up like clockwork at 7 p.m. “The new cement that will hold all Lebanese together is being mixed right here,” he says.

MIXED, perhaps, but it has yet to stick. And not all in Lebanon want the Syrians out. Just ask Hussein Naboulsi. Ten years ago, he was selling subscriptions to Maclean’s in Hamilton. He’s since graduated to a tougher sell: as spokesman for Hezbollah, the militant and pro-Syrian Shia Muslim group that battled Israeli forces in the south.

To meet him, one has to leave the Côte d’Azur style of central Beirut and its near suburbs, clinging to the steep mountainside that rolls down to the sea. Naboulsi is based in south Beirut, a world of big trucks, old cars, donkey carts, stray dogs, veiled women, bearded men and robed street vendors hawking water, grilled meat, sweets or cigarettes. It’s Shia territory: here, posters of “martyrs”—those who died fighting against Israeli troops—hang from telephone poles, election-style. “But don’t call this a Hezbollah stronghold, please,” Naboulsi says. “This is our home. We are not an occupying force.” But still a political force—and the only group to have maintained a highly trained military wing. “If they weren’t [Muslim] fundamentalists, I’d vote for them,” one Christian journalist told me. “They’re the only party with a coherent social program, and the only

ones that are not basically corrupt.”

Lebanon has not had a census since the early 1930s. But Muslims are known to be the majority, and Shias are the biggest group among them. The poorest, too, and for many the scariest. “Christians are afraid of us because we are religious,” Naboulsi says. “But we could not impose Islamic rule here even if we tried. That’ll never happen in Lebanon.”

Washington calls Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and demanded recently that its members turn in their weapons. “Come and get our guns,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the group’s charismatic leader, shot back. As one European diplomat put it, “Hezbollah has street cred here, and must be taken into consideration in view of any peaceful resolution.” And Frédéric Daumont, a French journalist who just published a book about Hezbollah, says: “The situation could easily slip back into chaos, or ease toward a solution, and Hezbollah probably holds the key.”

When other Lebanese marched to oust the Syrians, Hezbollah organized its own mass showing—hundreds of thousands of men and women, marching separately—to support Syria. “That doesn’t mean we’re not good Lebanese,” Naboulsi says. “But Syria deserves some gratitude. If they hadn’t been here at the end of the civil war, there would be no Lebanon left to speak of. Everybody is denouncing Syria’s occupation of Lebanon now, but where were they when Israel was controlling half of the country? We invited everyone to join in the fight, but nobody else showed up.”

In Lebanon, you need to know who your friends are, and stick with them. That’s a big problem for some nowadays. “Why am I forced to choose between the opposition and the resistance?” asks Zeid Hamdan, a 28-year-old Druze Muslim who plays in a punk-rock band called Government. He’s using code words. “Opposition” does not refer to parliament, but to what happened after Hariri’s death when Druze and Sunni politicians walked out of the coalition government to side with the Christian groups opposed to the Syrians. “Resistance” is Hezbollah, and its armed campaign against Israel and, by extension, the U.S. government’s Middle East policy and American culture and globalization.

Loyalties are torn. Syria and Lebanon have always been close. For many Lebanese

Muslims, the two peoples are essentially the same. Christian Lebanese see a different picture, of course. It’s all being exacerbated by the confused political picture. Since Hariri’s death, the government has fallen, the prime minister has resigned, was reinstated, resigned again—and, last week, a new prime minister was named. Opposition forces have refused to join pro-Syrians to form a new government, while Hezbollah has refused to join the opposition. An election is supposed to be held before the end of May, but there is no government left to prepare for it. And there are up to 50 different political parties, although not all equally active.

So, how to build a new Lebanon? “First, eliminate the corruption,” says Jo Faddoul, an economist and businessman. “Systematic corruption organized by the Syrian regime, and carried out by its Lebanese accomplices, cost Lebanon about US$3 billion a year, half the national budget.” Where does Fad-

‘THE problem is not with God, whichever God. The problem is with what bad men can do in the name of God.’

doul stand politically? “Nowhere,” he says. “I am waiting for a national, secular, liberal party to emerge. Separating politics from religion is just as urgent.”

Can it happen? Samir Frangié, a leading reformist intellectual, is optimistic. “Hariri’s death has shattered the old political barriers. It has created a public opinion that is not confined to the old communal ghettos. The situation has evolved very rapidly, and the politicians are now racing to catch up. They know they will have to be much more accountable—and to the whole population.”

A sign of the new times in Lebanon: perched in her falafel parlour, Mourabi Battyiée is reading on the job. Her book? The Arabic translation of an essay on the Talmud by a Jewish scholar. In west Beirut, that’s worth a double take. “It helps me realize that the problem is not with God, whichever God,” the mother of two says. “The problem is with what bad men can do in the name of God.” In Lebanon, that kind of wisdom could save lives, and perhaps even a whole country. i?H