Eighteen different religious communities and several different ethnicities existing in sometimes uneasy equilibrium, squeezed into a mountainous country 200 km long and less than 50 km wide. On paper, Lebanon doesn’t look like it ought to work. In reality, it sometimes doesn’t.
The last, and most spectacular time it failed to do so, the country was plunged into almost two decades of fratricidal wars that pitted community against community, communities against themselves and allowed foreign players to fight proxy wars through the Lebanese as well as face to face.
Doves of peace? Lebanon is still
recovering from its 15-year
Since the end of those wars, a series of conflicts so complex that the Lebanese prefer to call them the “Events”, peace, though cool at times, has held.
Slowly, Lebanon has begun to knit together. Disputes are no longer settled with gunfights. The country is no longer physically divided, although on many levels mental divisions remain, and the 18 communities have come to accept that in Lebanon it’s all for one or none for all.
Viewed from Beirut, the war in Iraq was painfully familiar.
“Plain clothes guys with guns, checkpoints, militia men threatening people and putting guns to their heads, it's the 1980's all over again,” commented a Lebanese friend who can’t bring himself to watch the war any more. “The worst were the expressions on peoples’ faces, it made me feel the same fear I remember from the war.”
Admittedly, the same could be said about Chechnya, East Timor or El Salvador. War is a bloody, destructive business everywhere outside of Hollywood and in many ways Baghdad is not Beirut, principally because the Iraqis have not (yet) begun to fight one another
Still, there are parallels. Enough that some Lebanese wonder if they aren’t watching their past being played out in the present.
Like Lebanon, Iraq is a patchwork of different religious communities and ethnicities, many of which have long-standing and unresolved problems separating them.
Like Lebanon, Iraq has a sizeable Shia population, a community that in both countries has a history of political and economic repression.
Like Lebanon, a foreign force has invaded in the name of restoring security and peace, with the aim of ending a regime not to their liking. In Lebanon, that force was Israel. Is the US Iraq's Israel?
“It’s very difficult for us to believe the American objective is to liberate the Iraqi people and bring democracy,” explains Hassan Krayyim, a political scientist at the American University of Beirut. “Especially when the US has blatantly disregarded international law and the United Nations. Hardly very democratic.”
More parallels. Israel also invaded without an international mandate. The pretext then was the attempted assassination of the Israeli ambassador to London by a Palestinian faction that was not even based in Lebanon.
The goal then was also regime change. After a relatively short but extremely bloody campaign, Israel besieged, bludgeoned and then entered the capital. In the first two weeks alone of the 1982 invasion of Beirut, an estimated 17,000 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians were killed.
protested against the US-led war
Initially, Israeli troops were welcomed by the Lebanese. After seven years of war, all the country’s communities were eager to be rid of both the armed Palestinians and the various factions that had waged war on each other since the mid 1970’s. Israeli troops were showered with rose petals and rice, the traditional way of welcome, by Christians, Muslims and Druze.
It looked like Israel would get what it wanted; a compliant Maronite government in Beirut and an end to the armed Palestinian groups operating out of southern Lebanon. Twenty years before Washington dreamed up its own war on terror, Tel Aviv was already using this to justify their regional ambitions.
Once people realised that Israel intended to replace the Lebanese militias with a militia of their own, the situation changed. Suddenly the only thing showering down on the Israelis were RPGs.
President Bashir Gemmayel, head of Israel’s new client state, was assassinated. The following day the Palestinian refugees in the camps of Sabra and Chatila were added to the already long list of massacres in Lebanon.
“Most probably what they mean by ‘bringing democracy’ is creating a system loyal to them, that will directly serve their interests and continue to depend on it,” continues Krayyim. He is talking about the Americans in Iraq but could just as easily be talking about the Israelis in Lebanon. “Such a regime would not last long. They must know that wherever authority is imposed by occupation, it will be rejected.”
The question, he believes, is when that same fate will befall the Americans.
Oxygen to think rationally
“I think with the collapse of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqis will get enough oxygen to think rationally and then they will realise their freedom is important. They will ask themselves why they should replace one authoritarian regime with another.”
When the Lebanese asked themselves this same question, the answer was swift.
Remembering: Lebanese women
carry pictures of their lost relatives
Just weeks after entering Beirut, Israeli forces were driven out of Beirut by a multilateral resistance force, broadcasting appeals in Arabic that the population not attack them as they left. Within a year, escalating attacks and growing unwillingness by the population to cooperate forced Israel out of the mountains around Beirut and down to the south of the country.
“The Americans have a lot to deal with, I don’t think they realise the complexity of the situation in Iraq,” says Krayyim.
One of the most persistently repeated rumours in the Arab World at the moment is that the new Iraqi administration will make the recognition of Israel one of its priorities.
“The Americans may be able to impose certain agreements on Iraq but they won’t be accepted and they will lead to various forms of resistance," he continues. "That’s why the lesson of Lebanon is important.”
Sayyed Hani Fahes, a Lebanese Shia Imam who was trained in Iraq, also believes Lebanon is a valuable lesson to the world. Like any spiritual leader, Sayyed Fahes is a firm believer in the essential goodness of humankind. He believes a better kind of regime could emerge from Iraq’s present despair.
Together with other Lebanese Shia leaders, including Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah and Sayyed Hussein Fadlallah, one of Lebanon’s highest Shia authorities, Fahes believes that the new government in post-Saddam Iraq could do worse than emulate Lebanon’s own post-war multi-sectarian system.
Under it, all sects are represented. While the balance is not always maintained, it has resulted in a government that is more national than religious.
Many blame its flaws for the problems facing Lebanon but Fahes maintains it was the best solution to a very bad situation. The alternative, he believes, would have been continued war or the permanent division of the country, Balkans-style.
For that not to happen in Iraq, Fahes says that all Iraq's communities have to be invited to the table. Regional analysts agree that more than any other group, Iraqi Shia reaction will determine the success of the new regime. According to Sayyed Fahes, that reaction will depend on what happens in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
“We say about Najaf that it exports imams and imports death,” says the Sayyed, emphasising the central social, spiritual and educational role this city and its gigantic cemetery, the Wadi as-Salaam or the Valley of Peace, play in the Shia world. He might have also mentioned that historically both Najaf and Karbala have also exported revolution.
The revolt against Britain’s monopoly of Persia’s tobacco industry began here, as did the unsuccessful uprising in 1920 against the British Mandate and later against the communist-led government of the late 1950’s and most recently, against Saddam Hussein during the 1991 Gulf War.
Iraqi Shias make their way to
The clerics of Najaf and Karbala have also been proponents of peaceful change. The wave of democratic reforms in the Persian and Ottoman empires in the early 20th Century were instigated by religious leaders trained in Najaf.
“Then, the Shia and the Sunni were able to transcend religion, more interested in changing and rebuilding their societies,” says the imam.
“If the Americans show wisdom now, the Shia will cooperate but if they act stupidly, the Shia will become revolutionaries. The Sunni and the Christians won’t just be spectators either.”
Such a situation could make Iraq ungovernable and a continued American presence impossible. It did in Lebanon. Just a year after the 1982 invasion, cultural and political blunders committed by the Israelis and other foreign troops stationed in the country transformed Lebanon’s Shia into warriors.
The bombing of the US embassy was followed by human-bomb attacks against American and French troops. Two years later, the Lebanese Hizbullah was born.
Sayyed Fahes uses a historical example to explain how in Shia eyes, liberators can quickly become oppressors.
“The Umayyad Empire was not good to the Shia but when the Abbasids replaced them, they were not good either,” he says. “Because of their broken promise, the revolution against the Abbasids was even more intense than the revolution against the Umayyads.”
At the moment, things don’t look good in either Najaf or Karbala. Both cities have experienced tremendous instability since the war began. Two senior clerics have just been murdered and a recent attempt was made to force a third, Ayatollah Sistani, into exile.
“The Americans can’t even get a statement out of Sistani and Najaf and Karbala are 100 percent occupied,” comments Krayyim. “Is this really because the Shia are still afraid?”
Sayyed Fahes, who remains in daily contact with colleagues in both cities, believes it is, at least at the moment.
“Western countries want to stop jihad, so do we, we want jihad to evolve,” he says. “For the first time, we have something in common, we both want democracy.”
As the co-founder of a group dedicated to exploring inter-faith dialogue in Lebanon, Sayyed Fahes has his own take on the American refrain that since 11 September, the world is a different place.
“Sunni, Christian, Jew, East and West, we want to work with them all,” he says. “The Arabs and the Shia have to be integrated into the world. If they are kept aside, they will be a big problem. I believe, as we have learned in Lebanon, that our future together will be difficult but it will be possible.”