Jul 25, 2005
For anyone who is not Lebanese, trying to understand what is happening in a nation long regarded as an example of how Christians and Muslims could work together to govern and prosper remains a confusing matrix of competing religious factions.
Lebanon, i.e. Beirut, was the Paris of the Middle East. It was modern and cosmopolitan. It was a financial hub. It was a place where a Muslim could go and enjoy its secular pleasures. Osama bin Laden reportedly sowed a few wild oats there in his youth.
That was, of course, prior to its fifteen year civil war from 1975 to 1990. It was triggered by an influx of heavily armed Palestinian refugees, many of whom arrived after being driven out of Jordan followed a failed attempt to overthrow the Hashemite monarchy. Today, Lebanon is the misbegotten child of French colonialism and its present troubles are usually dated to its independence in 1943. Prior to that it was a French protectorate, “carved out of the Ottoman province of Syria in the 19th century,” notes Gwynne Dyer, a London-based journalist.
In modern terms Lebanon has been a sovereign nation only since the last century, but its nationhood goes back thousands of years, having been mentioned at least sixty-six times in the Torah, Judaism’s holy book.
“Nobody alive today is to blame for the fact that every Lebanese is defined politically by his or her religion—not just as Muslim or Christian, but as a Shia, Sunni, or Druze Muslim or a Maronite, Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox Christian,” says Dyer. This was a practice of the Ottoman Empire which the French adapted in order to impose a government in which half the seats in its parliament would permanently be reserved for Christians and the Lebanese president would always be a Maronite Christian while its prime minister would always be a Sunni Muslim.
It seemed to work but it is also the reason there hasn’t been a census in Lebanon for more than seventy years. Much of the former Christian population has either been killed or emigrated to North America, Europe, and Australia. As a result, the vast bulk of the population is Muslim. In a recent election held in southern Lebanon, the Shia Muslim parties, Hezbollah and Amal, won all 23 seats. A previous election in the north gave all 19 Beirut seats to an alliance headed by Saad al-Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime minister, Rafik al Hariri.
It was that assassination in February of this year that led to the forced withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon after massive demonstrations in the streets of Beirut. The real problem Lebanon faces can be summed up in one word, Syria. A close observer of events, Ziad Abdelnour, founder of the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon, says bluntly, “Nothing is really going to change in Lebanon until the current President Emile Lahoud, a total Syrian puppet, is evicted.”
The Bush administration agrees. In mid-July, National Security Council spokesman, Frederick L. Jones II, charged that Lahoud, a Syrian ally whose term was extended by three years under pressure from Damascus, was “preventing the will of the Lebanese people from being carried out.”
Syria has also been busy undermining Lebanon’s economy, blocking its exports so that millions of dollars of produce rot at the Lebanese-Syrian border. Trucks that would normally carry agricultural and other goods imported through Beirut’s port on the Mediterranean to Syria, Iraq, and Gulf countries have been stopped. The closure, noted Robin Wright of the Washington Post, threatens “50,000 jobs in Lebanon” and had cost Lebanon $1.5 million by mid-July, an estimated $300,000 a day. In a nation of some 3.5 million people, everyone is affected.
Abdelnour, along with countless other Lebanese knows that, so long as Bashar Assad runs Syria’s Baath regime, Lebanon’s progress toward true independence will be blocked. A pragmatist, he notes that, “Lebanon has got to sign a peace treaty with Israel.” The likelihood of that is unlikely due to the grip Hezbollah holds on much of the nation. Designated a terrorist organization by the US, it has not ceased from its attacks on Israel. In an effort to defend itself, Israel had occupied southern Lebanon for twenty-two years, ending it in May 2000.
A United Nations Security Council Resolution, 1559, sponsored by the United States and France, and adopted in September 2004, calls for all of the militias in Lebanon to disband and disarm. Hezbollah has made it clear it has no intention of doing that. It’s worth noting that Hezbollah is funded by Iran. As such, it poses a threat to the stability of Lebanon, though a significant portion of its population sees it primarily as a political organization. As we have seen in the past, fifteen years of similar UN resolutions regarding Iraq were finally enforced by the US invasion and the subsequent efforts to reform that beleaguered nation.
To understand Lebanon’s dilemma, one needs to stand back and look at the entire Middle East which is still in the grip of despots like Syria’s Assad, Muslim revolutionaries like the Iranian mullahs, or monarchies like the Saudis. The larger, strategic US goal of changing the Middle East will only be achieved when democracy is imposed and protected by the armed might of the United States.
In Lebanon, the old ways of governance must give way to the reality of a Muslim majority population. If they can demonstrate tolerance for Lebanon’s Christian population; if they can establish the rule of secular law; if they can make peace with Israel, tiny Lebanon has a chance to become a real nation again. As things stand now, the prospects are not good, but the Lebanese people may yet surprise everyone.
Alan Caruba writes a weekly column, “Warning Signs”, posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center, www.anxietycenter.com.
© Alan Caruba, July 2005
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