I avoid writing about Lebanon. I have a very conflicted relation with the country of my birth. I have the sweet and painful memories of childhood and youth, of losing my father at age eleven, of first love, and writing the first poems, and discovering how liberating imagination can be while reading novels, watching (mostly American) movies and listening to music. Summertime in Qoubaiyat, my parent’s ancestral village in Northern Lebanon with my brother Michel and Sitti Martha were the sweetest. I still see a cocky kid roaming the rugged mountains trailing his older brother and admiring the way he handled his hunting rifle. Our fearless dog was our constant companion; we protected each other, and on the numerous occasions when dogs engaged in fights, their owners joined the melee. We all had scars. And we all practiced stoicism. In mountain cultures you learn early on how to endure and how to inflict pain unflinchingly.
In my youth I was thoroughly politicized. I was firmly in the Left, given my social and economic conditions, which forced me to start working in factories at age eleven. In my late teens I had hostile views against the Lebanese system, particularly its contemptible, and predatory political class, resembling the views of the Anarchists of the 19th century that I studied later on in America. I had friends from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and I could not tolerate a political system based on sectarian preferences and divisions. In Lebanon, the state sees you as a member of a religious community, not as a citizen. There was, and still is a tenuous balance among the communities, which flares up in spasms of communal violence every few years. But for all its flaws, the Lebanese system allowed for basic freedoms and a modicum of state institutions. At that time we did not appreciate that the communal balance made it impossible for the weak state to become a repressive Leviathan like most Arab states. In a typically Orwellian sleight of hand some Lebanese politicians celebrated this paradox claiming that ‘Lebanon’s strength lies in its weakness’.
Sophisticated but not civilized
For most of the 20th century Lebanon’s aura and its cultural contributions were incommensurate with its size. Beirut boasted the best universities, newspapers and publishing houses in the Arab world along with Egypt. You would meet in its cafes and lecture halls the best and the brightest from neighboring countries. Even its paradoxes were liked. People came to Beirut to prosper and to create, to seek refuge from persecution, but also to engage in intrigue and to peddle conspiracy theories. Lebanese politicians exude outward sophistication and they are quick to tell you that they are fluent in three languages. But if you scratch them slightly, you would discover how sectarian and petty they are. Beirut was full of energy and spunk, it had an abundance of self-confidence and cockiness, and that may explain why no one noticed the onset of decline.
Lebanon was reeking rottenness long before its garbage was decomposingHisham Melhem
The civil war, and the decades of tensions, polarizations and foreign interventions that followed exposed the country’s myriad vulnerabilities. When Lebanese fight, they like the company of outsiders, so they invite them to the fray. The Syrian army was welcomed by its allies, just as the Israeli army, was greeted by its collaborators. And the same goes for Iranian ‘advisors’ and political operatives, and the western powers that landed in Beirut after the Israeli invasion of 1982.
That was the onset of decline. The warlords agreed to a series of ‘reforms’ that were supposed to lead to ridding the system of sectarianism, and the establishment of a Senate for better representation of the religious communities, but most of the reforms were not implemented. In fact sectarianism after the war became more entrenched, and all the ills of the pre-war system re-asserted themselves with vengeance, particularly what the Lebanese call ‘political feudalism’, that is passing the mantel of political leadership of the community or sect, or even the small political party from father to son, proudly and unabashedly. This political/feudal class of leaders shows that a Lebanese politician can be sophisticated but not necessarily civilized.
The dog days of summer in Beirut can be nasty. Suffering from many indignities resulting from unprecedented political dysfunction and paralysis that allowed the position of the presidency to remain vacant for 15 months, a broken parliament that rarely deliberate (but of course found the time and the energy to renew its mandate, illegally some legal scholars content), the Lebanese finally said enough when they were surrounded in the last few weeks with mounting pyramids of uncollected garbage. For the second time in a decade, Lebanese activists not affiliated with any bankrupt or compromised political groups or bosses, along with angry average citizens took to the streets. The youth, Lebanon’s only remaining hope, organized peaceful and smart demonstrations seeking a solution to the immediate problem but in transparent,(public bids, not subject to the machinations of shady companies beholden to politicians) and in environmentally acceptable way. The recent demonstrations were marred by violence cause by what the organizers called ‘hooligans’ who, in an organized fashion, disrupted the demonstrations by attacking and provoking the police. Some activists and commentators accused the Amal militia controlled by the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berry of being behind the disturbances. Mr. Berry, with support from Hezbollah, has monopolized the speakership of Parliament for decades. For crass political expediency, the unscrupulous Berry on many occasions would refuse to convene the parliament, with support from Hezbollah and from the Free Patriotic Movement, headed by Michel Aoun, a man who suffers from a malignant case of megalomania, who is bent on keeping the presidency vacant unless he becomes president.
Something other than garbage is rotten in Lebanon
Lebanon was reeking rottenness long before its garbage was decomposing. During and after the war, Lebanon began to lose its unique role in the region. Lebanese universities are no longer the magnet for Arab students; Beirut is no longer the place for regional conferences, and its once lively and freewheeling media has lost its regional dominance and non-Lebanese satellite news and entertainment channels have been dominating the Arab market for years. Many Lebanese have yet to come to grips with the fact that their country is diminishing domestically and regionally. Lebanon’s free space has been shrinking steadily because of the deepening political dysfunction and the growing military power of Hezbollah and its debilitating political aggressiveness. The inherent contradictions of the Lebanese system, along with the bloody machinations of the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, which are suspected of assassinating former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, and other critics of Syria, have hallowed out what was left of Lebanese institutions and allowed Hezbollah to penetrate these institutions in dangerous ways (Hezbollah’s men monitor who enters and leaves the airport) and even to collude with the army.
The modern day assassins
Today, Lebanon faces new fundamental, even existential threats to its being as a state that still enjoys some, albeit shrinking freedoms. Syria stupendous violence, which drove close to a million and a half Syrian refugees to Lebanon, and more dangerously, Hezbollah’s military intervention on the side of a regime that has been waging a brutal war against its own people for more than four years, constitute a litany of challenges that could literally unravel the brittle Lebanese system. What is difficult to understand is the degree of willful denial of reality that Lebanese leaders exhibit.
Lebanon today, is dominated and intimidated by Hezbollah and its allies and hooligans. It is impossible to enact anything politically meaningful if Hezbollah is opposed to it. In 2008, Hezbollah unleashed its thugs on West Beirut and subdued it with little resistance. Hezbollah is a disciplined, efficient, and fascist-like sectarian force in the service of the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran guides Hezbollah spiritually and politically and supports it militarily and financially. Hezbollah’s operatives act as the modern day Assassins who are dispatched by the Iranian regime to engage in terror beyond the border of the Islamic Republic. The regime in Damascus was saved by Hezbollah muscle and blood.
It has been ten years since I visited Lebanon. I was in Beirut when the city shook violently when PM Hariri was assassinated. I watched the dark plumes rise over the city. But a different darkness was setting in. Then the trail of blood and tears became longer and more treacherous. Even before the assassinations, Lebanon and I were drifting apart. Every time I am in Beirut I would experience a cultural shock. Having normal conversations, that is not laced with conceit or conspiracies became so rare. The political discourse, to the extent one could call it such sounded surreal or otherworldly. The political categories that others use to explain political events or decisions seemed to be alien in Lebanon. Sometimes when I am asked about U.S. policy in Lebanon or the region, I would be allowed to say few words before I am interrupted and forced to listen to a lecture about the ‘real’ U.S. objectives in the Middle East. There is very little to watch on Lebanese television stations, or deserve to be read in its newspaper, (something that can fairly be said about a wide segment of Arab media). In recent weeks I have found myself asking, what is the matter with America? What is the matter with Egypt? Now I am asking the Lebanese, including myself, what is the matter with Lebanon? It has been a treacherous journey into a long winter. And the Lebanese continue to smell garbage, not spring.
I have been watching the demonstrations with awe, and trepidation. What is good about this nascent movement is that it is spontaneous and not lead by a centrally organized group with clear and delineated leadership roles or a political plan or objectives. But that is precisely what could be its Achilles heel. Luckily Lebanon escaped the horrors of the Arab uprisings. This should not be an uprising to bring down the ‘Lebanese regime’ because there is no such thing. The demands should remain limited, very well defined, and can be implemented, while insisting on the things that appeal to all communities, and please keep it peaceful, peaceful, peaceful. I have some wonderful friends among the activists and commentators who are in the middle of this movement. They keep me away from succumbing to total despair about the prospects of the land of my ancestors.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem