A Letter from Beirut: Disoriented Lebanon

Carole Corm.

Almost 100 days after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon has gone through a time warp back into the future, if you will. "If you don't look at a newspaper's date, you might think you are reading the news from 20 years ago,'' exclaimed a friend of mine not long ago. With the death of Hariri, a political void is felt in Lebanon, and with no new generation able to reach the acme of power, the country is left with the same people who were busy fighting each other during the war. Except this time round, they seem to be allying themselves, much to the dismay of the families who lost a son, brother or husband defending these factions from one another during the war. Was it all for nothing then? Or, is Lebanon - and this is definitely worth looking into - finally coming to grips with its own devils?

Signs of a national recognition were seen for the first time during the "week for unity" marking the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the war in April through a series of political and cultural events. In this sense, talk shows and debates on all the Lebanese TV channels and radio stations have been instrumental. A good example is how hundreds of families spoke out for the first time about relatives kidnapped during the war and now rotting in Syrian jails. The Lebanese Broadcasting Co. (LBC) invited some mothers and wives of Lebanese individuals reported to be missing to speak about their predicament in the face of governments who until recently refused to recognize the existence of these people.

Yet the "oceanic feeling," to use a term coined by Sigmund Freud in "Civilization and its Discontent," which characterized the massive street protests that followed the assassination of Hariri, has lost momentum. The supra-confessional economic-oriented vision which the slain former Prime Minister had managed to create, despite many obstacles, seems to have disappeared at least for now, and the country is left with its old clanic reflexes. Headlines these days focus on General Michel Aoun's return to the country, the possible release from jail of Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, the surrealist political alliances of Walid Jumblatt.The Syrians have left, but the day of their withdrawal did not seem to carry much significance for the Lebanese, perhaps because no one could quite believe it actually happened. The Syrians had been present in Lebanon for 29, almost 30 years. In comparison, the French mandate lasted 22 years. Few seemed to have fully realized the historical moment this was; least of all, the political dialogue which failed to seize on this incredible opportunity, instead playing its usual petty, self interested games, just as when the occupiers were here.

In the coming legislative elections, which start at the end of May and end in late June, the Lebanese will be voting according to a law drawn up by the Syrians in 2000. This law structures Lebanese political forces into obedient clans and marginalizes minorities, thus embittering part of the population. Despite some calls to rectify the law, international pressure to secure the elections as soon as possible, in addition to the passive-aggressive actions of many politicians who have a personal interest in keeping the law as it is, has led to an unhealthy situation. Many feel as if the Cedar Revolution has been diverted from its objective. Sure, we have gained independence from Syria , but why is justice still so tightly tied to politics? Why aren't the Lebanese represented properly in the coming elections?

To secure seats, politicians have made the most incredible and extreme alliances, showing the cracks in the political opposition that emerged in the aftermath of Hariri's death. The main unity did not last long. And with no alternative being offered, young voters who never lived through the war reluctantly support the clanic warlords. Other youths among those who had actively taken part in the protests simply want to get rid of the whole political spectrum, "throw them all into the sea," in the words of a disappointed young woman who had kept a vigil in Martyr's Square. There are also those who have decided not to vote, and this includes young people as well as some entire villages.

A glimmer of hope exists, though, in the person of Saad Hariri, who seems intent on following in his father's footsteps, promising to change the electoral law of 2000 once he gets into Parliament. He also plans to get rid of the "political mentality" at the government level, which he believes to be partly responsible for the death of his father. The other political figure who appears to establish a bit of sense in the country, such as making Lebanon a secular state, is returning from exile: General Michael Aoun. The challenge for both these men, though, is to manage to speak a language that people from other religious denominations can relate to. This will ultimately prove to be crucial, and will reflect a great deal on whether the Lebanese have evolved since the war years. Will Saad Hariri or Michel Aoun offer a vision that surpasses religious divides? Will they be capable enough to propose a real political, social and economic program for the future that speaks to the Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians alike? With the date of these Byzantine legislative elections approaching, it seems Hariri will be more likely to carry out such a task, as Aoun is still uncertain of his chances of victory in an election that follows the Syrian-drawn law of 2000.


Beirut May 22, 2005


This essay appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, no. 49 
Copyright (c) 2004 by Al Jadid

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