Lebanon Left to Face Most Basic of Issues
War Exposes Deep Conflicts About the Nation's Identity and Its
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 10, 2006; Page A20
-- From the terrace of former president Amin al-Gemayel's
ancestral mansion, Lebanon appeared so beautiful that it seemed
it should go on forever. Traditional houses of ocher stone
huddled far below in close-knit villages, and churches with tiny
domes stood sentinel along the twisting roads. In the distance,
the Mediterranean gleamed under a warm Middle Eastern sun.
But the recent
33-day war between Israel and Hezbollah has raised fundamental
questions about Lebanon's future and its identity, straining the
political institutions on which the country was built, perhaps
to the breaking point. In Bikfaya, Gemayel's tranquil little
town in the hills behind Beirut, and across the rest of Lebanon,
people have begun to think that their country and its historic
melding of Christians with Muslims may not prevail after all.
"Lebanon is at a
crossroads," said Gemayel, who was president during wars from
1982 to 1988. "Either we draw the lessons from the war and build
a Lebanon that is genuinely democratic and liberal, and an
example of intercommunal coexistence, or we are headed for the
disintegration of Lebanon."
In their own
ways, Israel and the Bush administration have grappled with the
same problem in Lebanon. In parallel policies, they have
insisted that Hezbollah disarm and fully join in the Lebanese
political process. But because Lebanon's political institutions
do not reflect Hezbollah's wider support in the population, the
militant Shiite Muslim movement has made it clear that greater
changes will be needed before it lays down its arms.
family, Maronite Christians, had a lot to do with the creation
of Lebanon's old landscape, a place where Christians and Muslims
coexisted and business flourished while the tax man looked the
other way. Amin al-Gemayel's father, Pierre, was a pharmacist
who became a leader of the independence movement. His elder
brother, Bashir, was president briefly in 1982 before being
assassinated at the behest of the Syrian government.
The Lebanon most
foreigners think of -- tolerant, easy-living, Western-oriented
-- bore the imprint of Maronite families such as the Gemayels,
and not by accident. France, the mandate power here until just
after World War II, originally carved Lebanon off from Syria to
provide a place for the Maronites in the predominantly Muslim
Middle East. They made it into a "hinge country," linking East
To rule the new
country and preserve its unusual personality, France left behind
a system under which the president and the army commander must
be Maronites, giving decisive power to what was then the major
community. The prime minister was to be Sunni Muslim and the
speaker of parliament a Shiite.
demography has changed drastically since then. No official
census has been taken, a reflection of how delicate the issue is
here. But academics said that over the past two decades, Shiites
have become a plurality -- estimates range from 32 percent to 45
percent of the population -- and Maronites a minority of less
than a quarter. With Sunni Muslims and other sects counted, the
overall balance has changed to more than 60 percent Muslim.
emergence as a political party and armed militia was in large
measure a response to that shift. In effect, the organization
stepped in to represent Shiites because many of them felt the
government did not, particularly in the southern hills along the
border with Israel.
"We are not a
replacement for the state," Hasan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah
leader, said in a recent televised interview. "But where the
state is absent, we have to take up the slack."
The war with
Israel further dramatized the gap between Lebanon's institutions
and its new political demography. Communal strains had been
swept under the rug for years under the leadership of Prime
Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005. But in
the crucible of a destructive, bloody war, those strains
suddenly seemed glaring.
official, Maronite-led army sat out the conflict, for instance,
while Hezbollah's militia, which was better armed, did the
fighting and dying. President Emile Lahoud, the other Maronite
pillar of power, was also on the sidelines because of his
association with Syria, an ally of Hezbollah.
As a result,
Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, a Sunni economist, spoke in the
name of Lebanon and received foreign visitors such as Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice for negotiations about the war. But he
had to check with Nasrallah regarding important decisions,
because Hezbollah was the seat of Lebanon's real power of war or
institutions do we have?" asked Social Affairs Minister Nayla
Moawad, a Maronite and the widow of assassinated president René
Moawad. "We have inherited a non-administration. The Lebanese
government is like this box," she said, holding up a silver
coffee-table decoration. "There is nothing in it. It is empty."
Moawad and other
Christians, along with Sunni Muslims, have stressed that the
right response is strengthening the Lebanese government.
Hezbollah must recognize that only the state can have the power
of arms, they said, and it must turn away from Iranian-style
theocracy to become part of the relaxed mix that has made
Lebanon so attractive over the years to investors and Arab
"It is up to
Hezbollah to make this decision," Gemayel said. "Unfortunately,
Lebanon is hanging on the choice."
country's Sunni establishment fought the Maronites in the 1950s
and again in the 1970s in the heyday of Arab nationalism, it has
recoiled at Hezbollah's politically charged brand of Islam and
its ties with Iran. In the debate over Lebanon's identity,
conducted before the war in a round of meetings called the
National Dialogue, most Sunnis opted for alliance with the
Maronites and endorsed their demand for Hezbollah's disarmament.
been lying to us all along," sneered a Sunni minister in
describing Hezbollah's participation in the National Dialogue.
gone out of his way to reassure fellow Lebanese that Hezbollah
has no intention of remaking Lebanon to look like Iran. In his
recent interview, he pledged loyalty to the Lebanese tradition
of religious and social tolerance.
"Lebanon is a
pluralistic country," he declared. "It is not an Islamic
country. It is not a Maronite country. It is not an Orthodox
country. It is not a Shiite country. It is a country of
consensus. You have nothing to fear from anybody from
pledge was not well received by many Sunnis and Maronites.
Hezbollah only weeks ago went to war without consulting the
government, they noted, and moved as soon as the cease-fire took
effect to help refugees without reference to government agencies
charged with the same task.
important, they noted, was Nasrallah's postwar assertion that
Hezbollah must be taken into account in government deliberations
from here on out. The party ran for office in the last
elections, gaining seats in parliament and two ministers in
Siniora's cabinet. But Nasrallah seemed to be saying his group
will be seeking more power now that, in his words, it has fought
a war on Lebanon's behalf.
A share of power
that reflects the Shiites' true place in the population would
probably change Lebanon's orientation significantly, the Sunni
and Maronite observers predicted. But a refusal to acknowledge
the demographic change and Hezbollah's enhanced status after the
war, they said, would be a recipe for more intercommunal
conflict. As a result, the timeless view from Gemayel's terrace
may be in for a change.
"I don't see
Lebanon surviving as it is today," said Dori Chamoun, leader of
the Maronite-based National Liberal party and son of a former
president and longtime political figure, the late Camille
Chamoun. "It is inevitable that the Christians will have a
smaller share of the country. I only see one solution,
cantonization. Everybody wants it. Nobody says it out loud."
In a recent
book, Gemayel proposed abandoning Lebanon's current system and
replacing it with election of the president by popular vote and
decentralization along the geographical lines that largely
define where Muslims and Christians live in any case. "The
institutions of Lebanon are tired," he said. "They are drained
of their blood."
The losers in
such a change would largely be Sunni Muslims, Chamoun pointed
out, because by and large they have not carved out sections of
the country as theirs. Public Works Minister Mohamad Safadi, a
Sunni who lives in Beirut, said he was discussing the problem
with his wife recently and reassured her that, if worse comes to
worst, they could always live in their weekend house -- in the
quintessentially Christian port of Byblos.