BEIRUT — With its sun-kissed Mediterranean coast, and cedar-laden snow-bound mountains, Lebanon, like California, is one of the few places where you can top up your tan in the morning, and ski in the afternoon.
Add that to Beirut’s seen-to-be-seen party-hard attitude, great cuisine and plush shopping malls, it is easy to see why this tiny country was a Middle East culture-hub during the 20th century.
But, as Scripture puts it, “the flower of Lebanon languisheth.”
A recent power sharing deal cut in Doha, between the pro-West March 14 coalition and the Iran-backed Hezbollah-led opposition, might seem like progress for the politically-polarized nation, but in reality, Lebanon remains unstable.
There is good and bad. Mona Yacoubian, a Lebanon specialist at the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) in Washington, D.C. told me that “the Doha Agreement is a positive development, launching a badly needed reconciliation process among Lebanon’s competing factions. Prior to the accord, Lebanon stood at the brink of another civil war.”
The deal came only after Hezbollah overran west Beirut, with the U.S.-backed Lebanese Army either unwilling or unable to confront the Shiite militia, which calls for Israel’s destruction.
Hezbollah now has a cabinet veto, stifling discussion of the groups potent arsenal – including missiles able to reach Tel Aviv – and the U.N. tribunal set up to investigate the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005, which sparked the pro-democracy Cedar Revolution, and saw occupying Syrian troops leave Lebanon.
I drove around Hezbollah’s southern Beirut stronghold last week, and saw dozens of large-scale building projects, funded by an Iran flush with high oil prices, replacing the craters left by Israel’s 2006 aerial bombardment, which left 1,200 Lebanese dead.
With elections set for next spring, the question remains, can the Shiite militia achieve a predominant status in Lebanon’s poly-confessional tapestry?
Hezbollah, though Shia, has seen its star rise across the Arab world, with reclusive leader Hassan Nasrallah far more popular than Sunni politicians in the Middle East. After all, Israel’s 2006 counter-attack, after Hezbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in an incursion into Israel’s north, did not break what six countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Australia designate as a terrorist group. In the end, too, Hezbollah got what it wanted last week: the return of prisoners held in Israel’s jails.
But Lebanon’s Westernized urbanites – be they Muslim, Christian or Druze – turn cold at the prospect of a Tehran-style theocracy in their Levantine riviera. Even in southern Beirut, women dressed in jeans and T-shirts outnumbered those in Islamic dress.
I spoke with a group of students at the American University of Beirut. Half were brought up overseas, a legacy of Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. Hana, a 21-year-old business major, said “we will never accept the lifestyle here you see in Saudi Arabia or Iran,” while her friend, Arwa, from Jordan, said, “Jordan is relatively free, but people still come here to do things they cannot do at home: drink, party, have a normal life. Rich men from the Gulf don’t want to lose their casinos and discos in Beirut! Where would they go?”
Back to politics: by breaching a long-standing pledge never to turn its guns on fellow Lebanese, by overrunning west Beirut in May, Hezbollah may have compromised itself.
So has the March 14 coalition, by what one human rights NGO leader in Beirut – a March 14 supporter requesting anonymity – told me was its “fawning over a child killer,” a reference to Samir Quntar, one of the prisoners released last week by Israel in exchange for two soldiers abducted and killed by Hezbollah in 2006. Quntar was jailed in 1978 after an attack in northern Israel that culminated in him crushing a toddler’s head with his rifle butt.
But March 14 playing political tag-along is another sign that Hezbollah is ascendant.
As is Syria’s coming in from the cold, with Israel engaging in Turkish-mediated dialogue and Sarkozy rolling out the red carpet for Syrian President Bashar Assad during the recent Euro-Med summit in Paris.
This all despite Syria’s abysmal human rights record and sponsorship of Hamas, Hezbollah, and more recently, Sunni jihadists in northern Lebanon, aiming to split the pro-Western, but anti-Israeli Sunnis in the March 14 coalition.
Beirut’s ice-cream parlors are selling “reconciliation,” a multi-flavored composition of all the colors in Lebanon’s national unity government. I gave it a shot. But in the 90 percent humidity, 30 degree celsius city heat, the cone soon melted. That does not augur well, perhaps, for Lebanon’s latest political settlement.Show