Tomorrow, When The War Began
By Jess HillAugust 13, 2012
It’s only a matter of time before the Syrian war ignites tensions in Lebanon — or so people here like to say. But predicting the next war in Lebanon is as common as predicting the weather. Just who benefits from keeping the Lebanese psyche on edge?
In the sitting room of her Ottoman-era apartment it was dark, in the way that old places often are, no matter the time of day. As her Sri Lankan maid poured the tea, Madame Saadeh, our landlady, fixed her gaze on me.
"When do you think the war will begin?" she asked.
"You would know more about that than me," I stuttered.
"No," she said matter-of-factly. "Your embassy will tell you when to get out. Would you please tell me when they do?"
War began with nervous whispers in 1975; now it's casually anticipated in polite conversation. The threat from the war in Syria may have heightened anticipation in the past few months, but it's really just a new riff on an old tune. One Australian expat who moved to Beirut in 2010 said he was advised at the time to "pack light", since he would almost certainly have to evacuate.
Beirutis will tell you it's just common sense to expect another war here, because even when the fighting ends, the conflict is never resolved. Guns are lowered, deals are struck, domestic factions regroup and foreign actors retreat — until their interests are better met by war than by peace. What's likely to trigger the next round — Syria, Hezbollah, Israel — is almost a trifling detail. War will always return to Lebanon, sooner or later. What can a Lebanese citizen do but look out for themselves, their family, and their sect?
Or so the story goes. Will war return to Lebanon? Maybe. But the expectation that it will is arguably more destructive. Fear drives many Lebanese to withdraw into sectarian identity, which in turn polarises the society and fuels the very cycle of violence and corruption the Lebanese so lament. By retreating behind the defensive wall of their sect they buttress Lebanon's thuggish political class, the hereditary clan chieftains (zaims) and former warlords who maintain power by ruthlessly pursuing advantages for themselves and their co-religionists. Carved up into political blocs based on sectarian alliances rather than political vision, Lebanon's 'pluralistic' democracy is actually little more than a collective of warring factions who consistently put their own interests ahead of — and often in direct conflict with — the interests of the nation.
And despite what they may say, Lebanon's politicians by and large do their utmost to resist real national reconciliation, because keeping the Lebanese psyche on a knife-edge is precisely what keeps them in power.
Unsurprisingly, Lebanon's government has become virtually unworkable, which just reinforces the belief that Lebanese citizens can only depend on their family and their sect. Protect your people and they will protect you. Challenge the system and risk being left to the wolves. Thus, fear assures the longevity of Lebanon's divisive sectarian system, which assures the inevitability of conflict.
It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 1943, when Lebanon won its independence from France, a unique system distributing government offices across Lebanon's 18 religious sects was designed precisely to avoid the kind of fratricidal violence that would consume the country 32 years later, after the murderous start to a 15-year civil war. Back in the 1940s, government positions were distributed according to the results of a 1932 census, which found Christians to be in the majority — barely. This locked in government roles according to the size of each sect: the President would always be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim.
The ratio of Christians to Muslims in parliament was set at six to five, assigning the dominant role to the Maronite Christian sect — until 1989, one year before the end of the civil war.
In Saudi Arabia that year, Lebanese parliamentarians signed the Taif Accord, which divided the parliament equally between Christians and Muslims. The Lebanese warlords, after butchering innocent Lebanese civilians for 15 years, also granted each other mutual immunity, thereby giving them the right to assume ministerial posts in the new government. A little less to their liking was the fact that the Taif Accord was explicit about abolishing political sectarianism, calling it 'a fundamental national objective'. Twenty years later the warlords are still in power, but nothing has been done to abolish Lebanon's confessional system that allocates power in religious ratios: if anything, it's more deeply entrenched than ever.
The depravity of Lebanon's sectarian system is best illustrated by the government's notorious electricity sector. More than 20 years since the civil war ended, Lebanon is still disabled by daily blackouts. In wealthy areas of Beirut, the blackouts last for three hours a day (a blackout-schedule app can tell you when to expect them). Meanwhile, in the southern suburbs of Beirut, the Shiite Hezbollah stronghold of Dahiyeh, electricity may only come on for a few hours a day, or not at all.
The subject of electricity is a common icebreaker when strangers meet. "Do you have power?" people ask, followed by a comparison of supply, disclosure on the possession of a private generator, a mutual head shake about how such third-world conditions could malign a wealthy country like Lebanon, and then a final shrug on how pigheaded its politicians are.
In the first week of August, the government's electricity company threatened to close down altogether. Why? Because its workers are on strike. Why? Because they earn a pittance on casual wages, and are demanding permanent contracts so they can at least get public health benefits. They've been at an impasse with Lebanon's power minister for several weeks. Why? Because the electricity workers are mostly Shiite Muslims, and the energy minister is a Christian. He (supported by other Christian parliamentarians) refuses to give them permanent contracts, because this would tip the confessional balance of labour at the power company.
Energy Minister Gebran Bassil, and the Christian parliamentarians backing him, would prefer to plunge Lebanon into hot, sweaty darkness and cost its economy millions of dollars in lost productivity than to lose one inch of ground to a rival sect. In early August, in local newspaper The Daily Star, the editorial page accused Bassil of treating electricity "as a political tool, used to garner electoral support in some areas, or punish others". This is Lebanon's politics of schadenfreude: winning votes by illustrating how one's policies bring misery to people from rival sects.
What makes the notion of 'confessional balance' even more absurd is the fact that this fervently guarded 'balance' is a fiction, based on 80-year-old data. That census in 1932, which showed Christians to be in the majority, has never been repeated. Needless to say, Christians are extremely reluctant to conduct a new one; it would certainly reveal that the Muslim population overwhelmed the Christian population many decades ago. This would, at the very least, legitimise Shiite claims to greater representation, and void the Christians' claim on the presidency.
In the past hour that I've spent sitting here at Urbanista, a hip new café in Gemmayze, the power has blacked out three times. I just leaned over to ask a young waitress here how she's been dealing with the protracted blackouts. "We hardly ever have electricity where I live," she says. That's outrageous, I say. Why aren't people out in the street about this? "What to do?" she shrugs. "It is what it is."
What can a Lebanese citizen do but look after themselves, their family and their sect? The inevitability of war, the pigheadedness of politicians, the intractability of Lebanon's sectarian system — it's all beyond what any individual can change. So why waste time trying?
After all, life in the capital is pretty good — as long as you've got money.
On the weekend you can sunbake at a pool on the Mediterranean shore, feast on fresh seafood overlooking the sea, dine at one of the city's excellent restaurants, then drink and dance in its fleshfest clubs and urbane bars. And for a city divided down religious lines, Beirut's wealthy suburbs are surprisingly secular. At the supermarket checkout in the Christian area of Achrafieh you'll find miniature bottles of Glenfiddich whisky on one side and flavoured condoms on the other. In Hamra, on the city's Muslim side, women strut past armed soldiers in outfits that would raise eyebrows in Sydney.
A Westerner — especially one like me, who's just moved from Cairo — can have a very good life here. But there's something immediately unsettling about Beirut. "It's laissez-faire capitalism gone mad," explains one British financial journalist who lives here. "It's take what you can get while you can get it, before the next war begins."
Laissez-faire thinking is nothing new in Lebanon; it's long been referred to as a 'Merchant Republic', and lauded by institutions such as the World Bank for being a shining example of the old Washington Consensus: a small-government society essentially run by the private sector. The plus side of this is that the Lebanese are remarkable entrepreneurs, and excellent problem solvers. This makes living in Lebanon a welcome change from living in Egypt, where the process of solving problems invariably creates new ones, and the endless repetition of the phrase insh'allah (god willing) excuses in advance the failure to meet any commitment, and renders attempts at scheduling a rookie mistake.
But the notion of a laissez-faire society in Lebanon has, in the words of the esteemed Lebanese scholar Samir Khalaf, been "exacerbated by the ravenous postwar mentality".
"The moral and aesthetic restraints which normally control the growth of cities have become dispensable virtues," he writes. "Victims, having suffered human atrocities for so long, become insensitive to these seemingly benign and inconsequential concerns or transgressions."
Case in point: When the late former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was rebuilding war-ravaged Downtown, Solidere, the multibillion-dollar real estate company he founded, forced between 100,000 and 150,000 land owners and tenants to give up their deeds in exchange for shares in the company. Hariri was both majority shareholder of Solidere and prime minister of Lebanon, which meant he was able to grant authority to his own company to take other people's land, and develop it for his own profit. The value of these properties was assessed by judges appointed to judicial committees whose salaries were paid for indirectly by Solidere. Needless to say, most owners were well under-compensated.
Once the heart of Beirut, Downtown is now, as the late historian Samir Kassir describes it, "a sterile island of commercial rationality cut off from the rest of the capital". Pedestrian malls are reserved largely for high-end fashion brands, which only one per cent of Lebanese, and the oil-rich citizens from the Gulf, can afford. The 'Gulfies' abandoned their travel plans to Lebanon this summer on the urgings of their leaders — a political rebuke against Lebanon's pro-Assad government stance disguised as a safety concern. Consequently, Beirut's centre is virtually deserted, recalling a time during the long civil war when Downtown was a zone few citizens dared to enter.
When Hariri was assassinated by a car bomb on Valentine's Day in 2005, he was memorialised in the world's media as the 'father of Lebanon', a kindhearted magnate who sank his own hard-earned money into Beirut at a time when nobody else would invest. And it's true that Hariri did represent a new future for Lebanon — he was not a former warlord, and governed across sectarian lines. But Beirutis have another saying about Hariri: Ammar hajar wa dammar bashar — 'He built the stones and destroyed the people'.
Hariri went further than any other public figure to legitimise the 'bend the law to grab what you can' culture that is rapidly undermining Lebanon's society. It's in this same spirit that virtually every patch of public space in Beirut has been privatised, from beaches that charge entrance fees just for swimming to marinas like the glitzy new Zaitunay Bay, where private security guards dole out official warnings to people who've sat for too long on a bench or taken too many photos.
One bar owner in Mar Mikhael recently tried to raise funds for a public protest against Beirut's excessive privatisation, by buying a number of crates, and writing 'Where's My Space?' on the side of them. The crates were USD5 each, and he was planning to distribute them all over private and public spaces in Beirut. "We could barely raise enough for 20 crates," he told me one night. "Nobody cares."
And why should they, when the next war is just around the corner? Live for the moment, get a nose job and a fancy car, forget about politics, bunker down with your sect and live through it the best you can.
When I moved to Lebanon from Egypt a fortnight ago, an acquaintance asked how I felt about living in Beirut. "It's on a real knife's edge, isn't it?"
Yes, it is — but not because there's about to be another war. Lebanon will remain on a knife's edge until its citizens stand up to the system that is keeping their psyche in chains. Until then, as that bar owner in Mar Mikhael says, "the war is in our minds".
And as long as the war rages there, it will always be only a matter of time before it spills back out onto the streets.