The Magazine

Going Backwards in Beirut

Hezbollah still holds power despite losing the election.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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"If you think you understand Lebanon," a friend counseled me as I prepared for my first trip to her native land, "somebody's just explained it badly." Six days in Lebanon confirmed her wisdom. They also confirmed that the United States can ill afford to neglect this tiny, beautiful, strife-ridden country, which is in the Arab world but not entirely of it, and which since the 1980s has served as a battleground in Iran's quest for hegemony in a region critical to vital American national security interests.

My host on the trip was New Opinion Group, a Lebanese NGO. Created in the wake of the March 2005 Cedar Revolution, it is dedicated to "achieving a nonsectarian, democratic, and sovereign Lebanon." The small group of American journalists, policy analysts, and scholars of which I was a part met with civil society activists, professors, journalists, TV personalities, and leading politicians representing Lebanon's major sects.

Our conversations gave a sense of the elusive depths of the tribal, ethnic, and religious divisions that crisscross the country. They also made clear that the question of Hezbollah trumps all others in Lebanese politics today. A Shia-based and Syrian-backed Iranian proxy, Hezbollah operates not merely as a political party and military force but as a state within a state in the Shia dominated south of Lebanon. It holds in its hands the power to again drag Lebanon into a ruinous war against Israel or another civil war.

In addition, our meetings brought into focus the elements of Lebanese exceptionalism. The country is about 28 percent Sunni, 28 percent Shia, and 39 percent Christian, but all told it contains 18 constitutionally recognized sects. Under the constitution, the president must be Christian, the prime minister Sunni, and the speaker of Parliament Shia, while cabinet positions must be evenly allotted to Christians and non-Christians. Further, France's persisting influence--French is widely spoken--and the impact of the Christians, who form the single largest community, give a particular prominence to Western ways.

Geography and climate also give Lebanon its special feel and flair. Occupying a sliver of land bordered in the south by Israel, in the north and east by Syria, and to the west by the Mediterranean, Lebanon is shaped by the sea, mountains, and valleys. Its capital, Beirut, is a natural deep water port. Because of the commerce it nourishes, people are constantly coming and going, acquainting the Lebanese with the wide world beyond their shores. Its natural attractions and cosmopolitan spirit also make Lebanon a favorite regional vacation spot. In the summer, Saudi princes and the middle class from around the Gulf enjoy Lebanon's beaches and cool mountain air, and in the winter they take to its excellent ski slopes and unwind at fancy mountain resorts.

In discussing Lebanese exceptionalism, one mustn't slight Beirut's famous nightlife. In the evenings Sunni, Christian, and Shia put aside political differences to dine on fine food, and to drink and smoke until all hours. There is nothing in the Middle East quite like the exuberant cabaret-style nightclubs where patrons begin to trickle in around 10, dinner is served at 11, and near midnight the curtain goes up on a succession of performers who effortlessly interweave Middle Eastern, European, American, and Latin American music. Soon patrons pour out into the aisles or hop up on chairs, tables, and even bar counters to dance.

Despite the worldwide financial crisis, Lebanon's economy, which is built around banking, tourism, and other services, is growing at a 6.5 percent clip, but the good times coexist with the constant threat of political crisis. Government had been on pause here since the June 7 elections. But on November 9 the majority and minority coalitions finally struck a deal to form a national unity government with Saad Hariri as prime minister. The March 14 bloc--a moderate, pro-Western, pro-democracy coalition led by Hariri--upset expectations in June and obtained a small parliamentary majority. To understand why Hariri had been unable to form a government for almost half a year, it is necessary to appreciate the significance of two other dates--March 8 and May 7--which have become synonymous in Lebanon with pivotal political moments.