Middle Israel: Where did Lebanon go wrong?

What went wrong with the country that had the potential to be, and for a while seemed ready to become, the Switzerland of the Middle East?

Lebanese band members take part in a military parade to celebrate the 74th anniversary of Lebanon's independence in downtown Beirut, Lebanon (photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
Lebanese band members take part in a military parade to celebrate the 74th anniversary of Lebanon's independence in downtown Beirut, Lebanon
(photo credit: MOHAMED AZAKIR / REUTERS)
Hypocrisy, tragedy and irony joined hands in downtown Beirut Wednesday, as the Land of the Cedars wore an artificial smile for its Independence Day in a heroic effort to appear happy, unified and sovereign.
American-made Patton tanks rolled by Martyrs’ Square, while white-socked horses – the cavaliers atop them gripping bed sheet-sized Lebanese flags – ambled by the red-carpeted podium, where the country’s lost son, Prime Minister Saad Hariri, exchanged whispers with the ally of his father’s assassins, President Michel Aoun.
Next to the pair, the speaker of parliament for the past 25 years, Nabih Berri, sat regally, enjoying his role as nominal leader of the Shi’ites, even though all know that their real leader is the gowned cleric ensconced underground several blocks from the parade.
All also listened politely as Aoun warned Israel of an “appropriate response,” should it operate in Lebanon, just like they nodded fatalistically the previous week when he made the laughable claims that Hezbollah plays “a complementary role to the Lebanese Army,” and that Lebanon needs the Shi’ite militia because otherwise it won’t be able “to battle Israel.”
The absurd insinuations – that Israel and the Christian Aoun want to duel, that Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese national interest rather than its scourge, and that Hassan Nasrallah is subordinate to the government which he undermines every day – are perfectly acceptable rhetoric in Lebanon, a land where what you think you don’t say, what you say you don’t think, and anything your leaders do or – as happens more often – don’t do is immediately understood as a foreign plot.
Yes, it’s been an eventful 74 years since France set Lebanon free; so many years, and so little independence, security and self-respect in a land of beauty, wealth and worldliness that became a kingdom of hatred, treachery and deceit.
The future's ailments were hinted at already in 1941, when French fascists clashed in Lebanon with British and Free French forces (and also several dozen Hagana fighters, including Moshe Dayan, who then lost his eye in a battle south of Tyre).
Lebanon thus emerged as an arena for other people’s wars, a role it would play intermittently to this day, mocking its founders’ hope to make it the Switzerland of the Middle East.
Benefiting from a commercial heritage that harks back to the ancient Phoenicians, the only Arab land without one inch of desert could have been that regional oasis, both physically and politically, and for a while indeed was a colorful island of tolerance, prosperity and hedonism in an otherwise austere and angry Middle East.
Yes, the real future was hinted at again in 1958, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and Dwight Eisenhower sparred in Lebanon, as the former’s demand that Beirut sever diplomatic ties with Western powers made its leaders invite an American invasion. Even so, Lebanon soon returned to storm life.
In the 1960s Beirut was home to 100 mostly foreign banks which offered shady depositors full secrecy, minimal taxation and lax currency restrictions alongside a booming gambling industry studded by 64 nightclubs and laced by azure beaches that bustled with bikinied women, all of which was unthinkable elsewhere in the Arab world.
The country thrived. Car purchases soared more than tenfold between 1950 and 1965, tourists crowded ski resorts nestled in pristine cedar forests, per capita income was higher than Saudi Arabia’s, hundreds of seaside restaurants served exquisite international menus and new hotels were adding new stories even before inaugurating their lobbies.
It was not to last.
First, Yasser Arafat used Lebanon for his attacks on Israel. Then Syria, which saw Lebanon as part of a Greater Syria, fueled a Muslim-Christian war, before invading the country it would occupy for 29 years. Then Ariel Sharon sent the IDF chasing after Arafat all the way to Beirut. Finally, following Iran’s Islamist revolution, Tehran pocketed the poor and neglected Shi’ite south, soon turning it into a radical state within a state.
The 15-year civil war took 100,000 lives, while Lebanese patriots were assassinated by the dozens, from former president René Moawad (1989), former prime minister Rafik Hariri (2005), president-elect Bashir Gemayel (1982) and former finance minister Mohamad Chatah (2013), to the sons of former presidents Suleiman Frangieh, Amin Gemayel and Camille Chamoun, respectively Tony (1978), Pierre (2006), and Danny (1990), who was mowed down in his apartment along with his wife and two boys.
The end of the civil war saw some of the previous Lebanon’s cosmopolitan spirit restored, but the island of tolerance it once seemed ready to become had vanished.
Lebanon found itself repeatedly between the lion and the tiger.
Having finally seen Syria and Israel leave, it woke up with Iran pulling it from the head and Saudi Arabia by the feet. After having somehow restored peace between Christian and Muslim, it now found itself smack on the cracking Sunni-Shi’ite fault line.
Now, as it prepared to celebrate what its leaders call independence, Lebanon saw its prime minister survive Saudi brutalization, only to return to Iranian emasculation, after having been redeemed by the same France whose historic departure Beirut’s cheering crowds, titular leaders, parading horses, bereted cavaliers and husky chariots of war have all gathered to hail.
Why is Lebanon so subjugated, disjointed, disoriented and helpless? What is its original sin, and could its fate have been different? Of course it could have.
Lebanon could have avoided, and still can shed, the parochial system whereby its parliament and key offices are pre-allocated according to religious affiliation, and it could have avoided, and still can shed, the norm whereby political leadership passes from father to son.
Had it been a country of all its citizens, Lebanon would not have been the fractured state and compilation of estranged communities, militias and warlords that has been such tempting prey for successive abusers, from Nasserist Egypt to Islamist Iran.
Such thinking crosses no mind in Lebanon. Like Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya, the Land of the Cedars remains addicted to a feudal mindset whereby tribe supersedes state, and lineage overpowers merit.
That is why Lebanon, instead of becoming its neighbors’ antithesis, is a microcosm, engine and battleground of a hopelessly tribal, sectarian and hateful Middle East.