Just as it was half a century ago, Lebanon is once again a pioneer and pace-setter in the Arab world, though this time the direction of movement may be toward destruction and incomprehensible violence.
For years Beirut and Lebanon were known as the Paris and Switzerland of the Middle East, reflecting their freewheeling leisure activities, liberal culture, human talent in banking, education and engineering, and their open, welcoming capital that accommodated exiled politicians from all parts of a very ideological Middle East. This week, those who rule Lebanon and Beirut seem to be saying that they are also capable of being the Afghanistan and Mogadishu of the Middle East, characterized by inter-communal warfare and collapse of law and order, brought on by the irresponsibility that all sides have practiced in bringing the country to the brink of inter-communal clashes. The street clashes in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon last Tuesday, and again on Thursday, have left over half a dozen people dead and several hundred injured, led to a Thursday night curfew in Beirut, and heightened fears that the situation could turn into full-fledged sectarian warfare. This occurs, paradoxically or deliberately, during the week that many countries in the world met at the Paris III gathering and pledged over $7 billion to assist Lebanon in its economic recovery program. The tragedy of the current clashes among angry politicized youths and spontaneous neighborhood and sectarian gangs is that neither side is totally right or wrong. The opposition led by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement has already been widely blamed for escalating tensions to their current dangerous level, and is more likely than the pro-government side to lose politically if things persist in the current direction of tension and clashes. Hezbollah has already elicited criticism by many Lebanese that it recklessly triggered the war against Israel in July 2006 that destroyed much in Lebanon and set back the country’s economy for many years. The party is now widely accused of pushing its legitimate demands beyond reasonable limits, and acting more like a tyrant on a rampage than a respected and powerful opposition that operates through the existing political and constitutional system. Hezbollah and its smaller partners in the opposition are correct to point out that the ruling political elite that has dominated Lebanon for the past two decades has irresponsibly raised the national debt to some $41 billion, and is taking on more debt through the Paris III mechanism. They are correct to demand more integrity, efficiency and rationality in state policies, less corruption and nepotism, and a more effective defense system.
They also raise some reasonable concerns about aspects of the tribunal being established to try those who will be accused of killing the late prime minister, Rafik Hariri. These are relevant issues that require serious debate and resolution, which Hezbollah and its junior partners should have forced through the political structures that exist, such as Parliament, the Cabinet, the judicial system or the several national dialogue sessions. Instead, they detracted from the validity of many of their grievances and concerns by pushing their street protests to the point of widespread disruption of life and a weakening of the economy.
Their tactics, and the response they triggered from pro-government groups, stoked the flames of sectarianism, unleashing hazard of groups of young men with guns and sticks roaming the streets of Beirut looking to fight or destroy cars and property. There is nothing special about Lebanon’s current predicament in terms of the wider Arab world. It is just another Arab state that has suffered the tensions inherent in a situation where the central government and institutions of statehood are weak and inefficient, and most citizens turn instead to their religious, tribal or ethnic identities.
The problem is compounded by support from external forces – Iran and Syria behind Hezbollah, and the United States and France behind the government of Prime Minister Fouad Seniora and the parliamentary majority – which creates deep suspicions among the Lebanese themselves. Lebanon’s strong external support, as demonstrated in the Paris III pledges, should be a blessing for the country, and the structural reforms in state finances that will be enacted as part of this process should also benefit all Lebanese.
There is a chance this will not happen now, which could plunge the country into years of low-intensity conflict and simmering tensions – well below the level of the 1975-1990 civil war, but enough to keep Lebanon mired in perpetual mediocrity and stagnation. The stakes are very high, and very clear. Lebanon is at an ominous moment of reckoning, and sadly its fate might be determined by the vagaries of gangs of angry and fearful young men with sticks and guns. The modern Arab state is tested once again, and is not doing very well.
Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR