On the Streets of Beirut

Lebanon seemed particularly adept at producing scenes out of a motion picture; it was place where a stone fortress might contain a relic of the Cold War and a mountain stronghold might conceal a mystic. Involuntarily, the words of James Elroy Flecker's Journey to Samarkand came to mind:

Beyond the last blue mountain barred with snow,

Across that angry or that glimmering sea,

White on a throne or guarded in a cave

There lives a prophet who can understand

Why men were born.

And maybe we had stood before him.

The message of these charismatic men was re-emphasized by all the minor players of the coalition: from a soberly dressed group from the Muslim Brotherhood, who were denouncing Israel when they weren't excoriating Hezbollah, to a loose association secular, intellectual Shi'a who would be at home in any Western intellectual salon. In each case, the message was that Lebanon should be allowed to rule itself according to its unique constitutional arrangements. The alternative was re-subjugation to Syria, or worse -- as some Sunni darkly feared -- to Teheran. If the Lebanese state disintegrated, either because Hezbollah smashed the system or the communities were pushed too far, then the fragile unity that kept the country together might dissolve and it might revert, like a werewolf under the full moon, to sectarian conflict and civil war. Commitment to democracy was, in a way, the alternative to national suicide. The idea of Lebanon rested on an allegiance to a process rather than any specific outcome; it was the commitment to that method, which seemed to hold the March 14 movement together. Lebanon might acceptably shape-shift, depending on the exigencies of the moment, but it had to do so under certain rules or all bets were off. Stability for Lebanon seemed less a matter of attaining a definite policy, than adhering to definite process. The trouble with Syria and Iran, and their proxy Hezbollah, was that they wanted to replace consensus with hegemony. That would break the process and as a byproduct, possibly smash the country.

On February 18, our group of journalists met with senior Lebanese political figures and the question on everyone's mind, with Senator John Kerry's presence still fresh in the region, was what the United States was going to do regarding the peace process it was pushing in the region. Time and again it was emphasized that Lebanon's fate, as the proxy battlefield of outside powers, was bound up in the way regional political conflicts were resolved. The Lebanese were deeply interested to know what the powers had in store for it. It was felt that one of the chief indicators was whether the International Tribunal, due to be convened in early March, would charge the Assad regime in Syria with Hariri's murder. The Lebanese were watching the Tribunal's actions with great interest, not simply as a criminal proceeding, but as a bellwether for the future of the International Community. Would Washington force Israel into concessions in an effort to "peel Damascus away from Teheran?" or would the peace process fall flat on its face and by miscalculation ignite yet another war between Israel and Syria/Iran/Hezbollah, with the Lebanese caught in between? There were many questions and no definite answers.

An account of the trip would be incomplete without some record of my personal impressions. Facts can be acquired from secondary sources but emotional information can only be gathered first hand. Actual people have a way of blurring categories: the terms Sunni, Shi'a, Maronite acquire, on the ground, a human face, and all of a sudden one is less convinced of one's calculations than confirmed in the certainty of one's ignorance. The ironic outcome of more information is to reduce false certainty. But if the future was analytically unforeseeable, in human terms the future seemed clear: Lebanon would be free one day, according to its lights. It was too complex to live under something like Hezbollah: like Dylan Thomas' anonymous youth, it would sing in its chains like the sea.

Richard Fernandez of the Belmont Club, in Pajamas Media Express, was invited to visit Lebanon by the New Opinion Group between February 12 and February 19, 2009.