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Lebanon is a sectarian nation, yet it has avoided civil war while the Middle East burns – here's why

Reconstructed after the civil war, the army is the only totally non-sectarian force in the country. It’s also the only institution that still works. Without it, conflict may yet have reignited

Robert Fisk
in Beirut
Friday 21 October 2016 11:02 BST
'The identity of Lebanon is sectarian': Hezbollah supporters demonstrate against the Lebanese Government, Beirut, December 2006
'The identity of Lebanon is sectarian': Hezbollah supporters demonstrate against the Lebanese Government, Beirut, December 2006

Maybe it’s because I live in Lebanon, and return to Beirut from Aleppo and Damascus, that the place seems so “normal”. While all around this little jewel, the Middle East burns – Syria, the occupied West Bank, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, increasingly Egypt and, alas, Turkish Kurdistan – Lebanon glistens brightly in the darkness, largely untarnished by the horrors on the other side of its borders. Or so it seems.

We might be forgiven for believing that this little paradise still exists in the Arab world. True, Lebanon has no president, no functioning government and constant power cuts (I currently have three electricity outages a day, sometimes totalling six hours, without a generator). Reading by candlelight might seem as romantic as Milton – preferably without its physical effect on him – but it gets a little boring after a while.

True, the Syrian war has stained Lebanon. Mosque bombings, the attempted destruction of the Iranian embassy by suicide killers, the brief capture of the Lebanese town of Ersal by Isis and the beheading of Lebanese soldiers who were seized there, seemed to foreshadow a replay of the country’s old civil war. Hezbollah fighters from southern Lebanon receive military funerals when they are driven home by the dozen from the Syrian battlefields. Sunni and Alawite (Shia) gunmen have fought in the northern city of Tripoli.

But the new Lebanese war didn’t happen.

I have a few pet theories about Lebanon’s survival. It has the most educated population in the Arab world and the most talented (in the literal sense of the word) people. Its own civil war, with its 150,000 dead – a little common grave compared to Syria today – taught the Lebanese that no one wins, although the Christian minority continued to hold the presidency and the Shia Hezbollah continued to keep their guns.

For their own safety, tens of thousands of Lebanese children – offspring of the middle classes and the elite, of course – were sent abroad by their parents during the 1976-90 war. They lived in Geneva, Paris, London, New York. They studied at Oxford, Harvard and the Sorbonne. They grew into adulthood in Western nations where dignity and freedom were natural rights rather than privileges.

Dramatic footage shows Elite Iraq forces battle on road to Bartella in fight for Mosul

They returned to their country appalled at its sectarianism, its corruption, the hatreds of the family “zoama”, the seigneurs who believe they have a blood-right to power. The returning children loathed the stigma of mixed marriages and their self-righteous priests. Good on them, I used to say. They’ve even forced the government to accept civil marriages – to the meddlesome fury of both Muslim and Christian prelates.

Yet the old traditions persist. I recall a Muslim friend whose son attended a British university and whom I would meet in the UK from time to time. He enjoyed his freedoms – beer, girlfriends, the freedom to speak his mind – but in his final term he asked his mother back in Beirut to find him a Muslim bride. I was saddened. He enjoyed the good life, and then wanted mummy to find him a teenage bride of the right religion.

Almost every six months I encounter a Muslim or Christian friend whose parents threaten to disown them if they marry a man or woman from a different religion. Up in the Chouf mountains at Beit Eddine, I attended a conference on sectarianism at which a worthy Western academic suggested that the youth of Lebanon must be encouraged to marry whomever they love, whatever their religion. No, I said. It’s their parents to whom they should preach.

And what do you do about corruption? It’s a cancer in the Middle East (and a lot of Western countries, I might add). I regularly meet with men and women who have dodgy backgrounds. It’s part of my job as a journalist. They defrauded a bank, or have civil war blood on their hands, or are trying to smear a rival politician. I used to frequent a vegetable shop whose owner had murdered another man in a family feud. He kept a rifle beside the cauliflower stall. Last week, an internal security force officer used his service pistol to shoot his neighbours in the Kesrouan region over a dispute about their pit bull dogs.

Banks which levy outrageous charges on current accounts threaten their customers. My own bank in Beirut (its charges are not outrageous and it’s owned by former prime minister Saad Hariri, of whom more later) used to send me a letter in which I was supposed to promise not to break US federal banking laws. The bank was so frightened of US money-laundering threats – if a bank can’t deal in dollars, it’s out of business – that it went on sending me this wretched note year after year until I sent them a lawyer’s letter which told them that they had no legal right to make this demand of a British citizen. At which point, the whole fandango immediately came to an end.

Every few years, the government commences an “anti-corruption drive” in which civil servants immediately refuse to take bribes (for a few weeks) to avoid being fired. But then what happens? Quite a while back, my landlord captured this nonsense rather well. When his phone line was cut in the past, the PTT man came right away. He received a few Lebanese pounds for his work and the line was fixed. “Now when my phone line is cut,” my landlord moaned, “the PTT man won’t fix the line because he’s not allowed to take a gift. How do I get my phone back?”

Corruption, even small scale, oils the wheels. But what is Lebanon to do with Sister Syria next door? It’s calculated that $10bn of Syrian money lies in Lebanese banks, apartment blocks, investments and cash. You can imagine how the Americans – who’ve put around 80 Syrians on their economic blacklist – might roar with outrage at this statement. But it’s true.

And thanks to the Middle East’s former colonial masters (French, of course) who broke Lebanon off from Syria, many Lebanese families are also Syrian families – this might apply to about a third of the population of Tripoli, Lebanon’s northern city – and many of these Lebanese also hold US citizenship and are, of course, perfectly entitled to hold accounts in Lebanese banks. And if they withdraw it and spend the money in Damascus, who is to know?

There is – thank God, say all the Lebanese – the army. Reconstructed after the civil war, it’s the only totally non-sectarian force in the country. It’s also the only institution that still works. Without it, that civil war may yet have reignited Lebanon. The Saudis were going to pay for its rearmament – three billion dollars’ worth, the weapons to come from King Salman’s chum Francois Hollande. But when the Saudis were angered by the Shia Hezbollah’s attacks on the Kingdom, they pulled the plug — and so Lebanese soldiers are still protecting their nation with old British SLR rifles once used in Belfast and outdated Humvees and even more outdated Huey helicopters of Vietnam vintage.

In the absence of a president, the most powerful man in Lebanon is General Abbas Ibrahim, head of the country’s internal security, a Shiite who is a good friend of Qatar – he has helped to negotiate the release of soldiers and nuns who were held captive by the Islamist Nusrah group – and a brave (some might say foolhardy) man. Whenever I see him (the last time was in Qatar) I always tell him to take care of his life because I fear he is the most endangered species in Lebanon: a very brave man whom an awful lot of people would like to kill.

If he is vain (as his critics claim), he is also courageous. When he was the senior army intelligence officer in southern Lebanon, it was his duty to maintain contact with all armed groups in the area. He would walk, at night, alone and unarmed, into the Ein el-Hilweh Palestinian camp to talk to members of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. He deserves to survive.

So does Lebanon. But in the very latest bit of roguery to appal the Lebanese, it looks as if ex-General Michel Aoun might at last achieve his ambition of becoming president of Lebanon. Aoun was the Lebanese army general who in 1990 thought he was the president and went to war with the Syrian army. After hundreds of his soldiers were “martyred” by the Syrian army (and quite a few hundred Syrians “martyred” in a minefield by the Lebanese army), Aoun fled to the French embassy, set off to Paris in self-exile and then returned triumphantly to Lebanon to become (wait for it) a friend of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Hezbollah allies. Quite a lot of Lebanese thought he was completely crackers.

None was more infuriated than Saad Hariri (yes, the owner of my bank), the former Sunni prime minister whose own ex-prime minister father Rafiq was assassinated – so Saad believed – by Syrian security personnel in 2005. Saad could not stand the sight of Aoun. He raged at his words. But now, to the shock of Lebanese Sunnis, Hariri is declaring himself (after visits to France and Saudi Arabia) in favour of Aoun’s presidency.

Girl cries out for father after Syrian airstrike

In other words, Hariri is cosying up to support a man who is an ally of the regime which he believes murdered his father. Could this possibly be because Saad wants to become prime minister again – even Aoun’s prime minister? In Lebanon, the president must be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia. But the Shia speaker of parliament is Nabih Berri who says he will not tolerate Aoun as president. So do at least 13 of Hariri’s own top party supporters.

It’s sectarianism again; the system in which every Lebanese Christian and Sunni and Shia Muslim lives in mutual love, suspicion and fear of each other, love always trumping fear if the people don’t want another civil war. Politely, this is called the National Pact. And that’s why Lebanon will always be a nation-in-waiting.

To be a modern state, Lebanon must de-confessionalise so that anyone, whatever his religion, can be president or prime minister. But if you de-sectarianise Lebanon, it ceases to exist. For the identity of Lebanon is sectarian. It’s a Rolls Royce with leather seats, flat screen TV in the back, a cocktail cabinet – but square wheels. Beautiful, luxurious, coveted, it doesn’t work. But thank God it’s got the Lebanese people.

Which is why Lebanon will survive. Its people have what so few Arabs enjoy: relative freedom, education, a love of books (real books outnumbered e-books at the last Beirut book fair) and an abiding belief in their history: Roman ruins, Crusader castles, ancient mosques, the Phoenician love of travel and adventure (which is why the national airline is always packed, even if does show advertisements for medical facelifts). The Lebanese are their own heroes.

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