Lost in the Levant: Lebanon Reappraised

18th May 2011

The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness
Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle
Michael Young (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010)

A country of just four million people, Lebanon has enchanted, infuriated, rewarded, and bedeviled the legions of outsiders who have intervened in its affairs. In part because of its diverse religious composition (the country boasts no fewer than seventeen officially recognized sectarian groups), Lebanon has attracted the attentions of powers not just in the Levant, as the region around the Eastern Mediterranean is known, but around the world. The American experience in Lebanon has mostly been tragic. In 1983, the United States retreated from the country after 241 of its soldiers, part of a multinational peacekeeping force, were killed in a truck bombing perpetrated by Hezbollah, the Shiite terrorist group founded by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The attack was a devastating blow to Ronald Reagan, a president who bestrode the world with a message of resolve against tyrants and terrorists alike. But even for this most tough-minded of American leaders, Lebanon proved too treacherous.

Why Lebanon matters, or why it should, is a question that Michael Young attempts to answer in this beautifully written, at times lyrical account of his country’s tumultuous recent history. The premier journalistic chronicler of Lebanon’s internecine politics and a sharp observer of the Arab political predicament more generally, Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star, Beirut’s English-language newspaper. He paints a picture of a “paradoxically liberal country in an autocratic region,” paradoxical “because its illiberal institutions tend to cancel each other out in the shadow of a sectarian system that makes the religious communities and sects more powerful than the state,” which, in his classically liberal view, serves as “the main barrier to personal freedom in the Middle East.” Because of the involvement of so many outside powers, a consequence of its religious diversity, Lebanon has long been a playing field for foreign forces, and a testing ground for competing visions of the Middle Eastern future. Amidst this power struggle, Young asks a simple question: will Lebanon “become Hanoi or Hong Kong,” that is, will it be transformed into the territorial vanguard of jihad favored by Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah, or emerge as the cosmopolitan entrepôt conceived by its late prime minister, Rafik Hariri?

The assassination of Hariri, who was killed, along with twenty-one others, on Valentine’s Day, 2005, sets the stage for Young’s narrative. Murdered in a massive car bombing, Hariri had gradually earned the ire of what has come to be known as the “resistance bloc,” an alliance composed of Iran, its proxy Shiite militia Hezbollah, and Syria, which, under the brutal rule of the Assad family, treats Lebanon as a satrapy excised by the colonial powers. The straw that ultimately broke the camel’s back was Hariri’s opposition to a constitutional amendment extending the term of the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud. (Under Lebanon’s political system, the posts of president, prime minister, and parliamentary speaker are reserved, respectively, for a Maronite Catholic, Sunni Muslim, and Shia Muslim.)

Hariri’s murder was hardly the first political assassination in Lebanon, nor would it be the country’s last.But the sheer brazenness provoked a massive and unprecedented response, primarily from Sunnis and Christians but also from Shiites unconvinced by Hezbollah’s claims to represent their interests. On March 14, an estimated one million people—a full quarter of the country’s population—gathered in Beirut’s appropriately named Martyrs’ Square to call for an end to Syria’s three-decade occupation of the country. They gathered there to promote the idea of a country “where a citizen could be a citizen, not the factotum of a religious community; where political leaders could be held accountable to the law, not behave as overbearing patriarchs; and where (it was never quite expressed this way) everyone could fall into a fraternal embrace so often eluding the Lebanese, usually defined by their differences and parochial agendas.” It was perhaps a “naïve” vision, as Young admits, but liberal nonetheless.

To the surprise of most observers, Syria promptly withdrew its military from Lebanon. And what followed was a period of strong international support for the anti-Syrian coalition (which subsequently took the name of “March 14”) at the helm of a “Cedar Revolution.” Young writes: “The United States adopted a template of intervention in Lebanon that it had avoided in Iraq . . . work[ing] through the U.N., in consultation with other nations, in the shadow of an international consensus, in support of international law and justice.” In accordance with this strategy, the US backed the creation of a UN Special Tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination, “a novelty in the Middle East, where political crimes had always gone unpunished.” But for nearly four years, the tribunal has plodded on without result, periodically leaking that it is on the verge of issuing indictments.

Anyone with a cursory understanding of Lebanese politics knows that Syria (perhaps cooperating with Hezbollah) is responsible for Hariri’s assassination. Assad obviously wanted Hariri dead and he heads the only force in the region capable of pulling off such a spectacular and well-coordinated operation. But what has played out in the years since Hariri’s murder is a bizarre spectacle emblematic of, but hardly unique to, the Middle East, in which everyone knows the answer to the question but has to pretend that it lies elsewhere (in the case of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, that means surreally blaming “the Zionists”).

But Lebanon is a place where politicians say things that everyone knows they don’t mean; in this sense, its immature political discourse is of a piece with the rest of the Arab world. Of course, duplicity is a feature of politics everywhere, but it’s more pernicious in Lebanon, where the proverbial Sword of Damocles (in the form of Iranian- and Syrian-backed terror) is forever hanging over the scene. To watch a man like Saad Hariri—who succeeded his father in the role of prime minister, only to see his government fall in January after Hezbollah walked out over his refusal to cut Lebanese support for the UN tribunal—repeatedly bow and scrape before the bullies in Damascus who killed his father is to know the tragedy and farce that is Lebanon.

Hariri’s rapprochement with Bashar Assad illustrates how Syria never really left; his humiliation at the hands of his father’s killers was but the culmination of a years-long process of Western engagement with Syria, in which Assad has been rewarded with diplomatic recognition while continuing to sow terror in Lebanon and arm insurgents who kill coalition soldiers in Iraq. Justifying a 2007 trip to Damascus, which, at the time, did not have ambassadorial-level relations with the United States, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared that, “the road to solving Lebanon’s problems passes through Damascus.” She was more right than she knew. For “solving” the problem of Lebanon requires nothing less than a change of regime in Syria, from one which uses political murder to one that respects its neighbor’s sovereignty. As the Assad regime faces massive protests, the severity of which it has not seen in decades, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently came under fire for her statement that, “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.” While Clinton’s lending credence to this perception was morally and strategically dubious, her report of bipartisan complicity in whitewashing the Syrian regime was entirely accurate. If the definition of insanity “is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” as Albert Einstein famously quipped, than Washington’s Syria policy has been nothing short of insane.

A year after it was published, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square carries even more resonance today, as, at the time of this writing, popular revolutions in the Arab world have brought down two authoritarian governments and may very well bring about the downfall of other regimes that long took their vaunted “stability” for granted. Some have attributed this political awakening to the example set by the nascent democracy in Iraq. Young would probably argue that Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution also played a significant, and overlooked, role in laying the groundwork for today’s “Arab Spring.” Iraqi democracy, after all, required the toppling of a dictator by outside forces. And the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were amorphous in composition and motivation, having earned the support of illiberal elements like the Muslim Brotherhood. In both countries, there is no telling what sort of governments will form, or if they will be more democratic than the ones that preceded them. The Cedar Revolution, on the other hand, was unmistakably liberal, in the classical, Western sense of the term, even if, as Young makes clear, there was a strong sectarian impulse for those who rallied behind the March 14 banner. There was no Islamist component to the movement; those who rallied in Martyrs’ Square in the weeks after Hariri’s assassination were united, above all, in opposition to Hezbollah’s Khomeinist ambitions in Lebanon.

In addition to his reportorial talents, Young possesses literary flair; he writes of the Syrian legislature as “the kind of parliament that applauds a dictator’s semicolon and stands up at a full stop.” Elsewhere he describes a Lebanese politician’s “Arabism” as “that of the courts and presidential palaces, with their old men, wedding cake furniture, sealed windows, an Arabism of ornate compromises and weighty silences, of putrefying immobility.” He introduces us to a cross-section of the country’s colorful political figures, like the wily Druze politician-cum-warlord Walid Jumblatt, who shifts allegiances as the Cedar cones fall. His political tergiversations were embodied for me personally two years ago on a visit to his chalet in the Chouf mountains outside Beirut, where I saw a pistol lying atop an issue of the New York Review of Books . And as much as it’s a political history, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square is also a work of urbanism, exploring the uses of physical space and how Lebanon’s divisions are manifested in the streets, neighborhoods, and plazas of Beirut.

This work is ultimately a plea to Western policymakers to recognize that there are liberal, pluralistic forces in Lebanon—as there are across the Middle East—and that it is the duty of free peoples to embrace the cause of these brave figures as their own. Critics like Francis Fukuyama, the author writes, argue that the gulf between an “amorphous longing for freedom” and a “well-functioning, consolidated democratic political system” is too great to bridge. Yet “societies caught up in the fragrances of emancipation don’t pause to consider where they stand in terms of their institutional evolution,” Young responds, an observation that is particularly perceptive today, as millions of people in Muslim countries have risked their lives to overthrow dictatorships. “To have a fighting chance at succeeding, efforts at emancipation in the Middle East sometimes had to combine a domestic popular impetus with outside coercion.” The revolutionary change sweeping the Muslim world, from Tripoli to Cairo to Tehran, in other words, is not happening in a vacuum. There is a role for the United States to play in this drama.

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