On the Top Floor of Lebanon’s Civil Society

BEIRUT — On March 14, 2005, Lebanon captivated the world when one-third of the country demonstrated in downtown Beirut and demanded free elections and the withdrawal of the occupying Syrian military dictatorship.
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A nakedly imperialist Baath government was defeated by its foreign subjects, and it was defeated live on TV. Lebanon had pushed itself far out of the Middle East mainstream and liberated itself from what Ghassan Tueni calls “the great Arab prison.” Later that year Ghassan would see his son Gebran, An Nahar newspaper editor and a member of Lebanon’s parliament, murdered on a hillside road above the city by a Syrian car bomb. Beirut’s spring was a short one, and may yet go the way of a similar uprising that exploded in Prague in the late 1960s before it was smashed under the treads of Soviet tanks.
The Assad regime in Damascus brooded over its loss of face, property, and cash flow in Lebanon, and responded with a vicious campaign of terrorism and murder in the streets of Beirut. The city started to look once more like its old frightening self when it epitomized urban disaster areas. Hezbollah’s unilateral instigation of war with the Israelis and their ongoing now-violent push to topple the government make Lebanon look more like Iraq than it looks like Prague.
I’ve contributed to this image myself with my own writing and photographs, though I try not to do so. The unspoken media rule “if it bleeds, it leads” applies to blogs and independent journalists as much as it does to mainstream media reporters. Warmongers, terrorists, and jihadi fanatics are more interesting to read about than quiet shopkeepers who never hurt anyone and wished they lived in a normal country. I am well aware that my recent work portrays a skewed image of Lebanon, but it’s hard to avoid in the media business.
So I met up with Eli Khoury, one of my old acquaintances from the Beirut Spring, who I met immediately after March 14 two years ago while the Syrians were still rulers of Lebanon. Eli was one of the elite of the movement back then. He still is today even while he and his kind get almost no press. They are, for the most part, staying home, hugging their flags, and waiting for the darkening Hezbollah storm to blow over or explode in conflagration.
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Eli Khoury at a follow-up anti-Syrian rally in downtown Beirut, April 2005.
Eli is the CEO of the advertising firm Saatchi and Saatchi in the Levant. He worked on Iraq’s first post-Saddam get-out-and-vote campaign, then applied his advertising and design skills to Lebanon’s movement to oust the Syrian occupation. His work was seen all over the country back then, and it’s still all over the country today.
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He also runs a professional political consulting firm called Quantum. I went to see him in his futuristic post-modern office on the top floor of a glass tower in East Beirut. I felt like I had been whooshed into the 23rd century when I walked in there. The lighting, the windows, the walls…the whole place appeared straight out of a science-fiction movie. His employees looked like they had been genetically engineered to human perfection. I should have taken some pictures.
“It’s good to see you again,” he said. “How can I help you?”
“Lebanon is a disaster right now,” I said, although it certainly didn’t look that way from his spiffy uber-modern tower looking out toward the mountains and the Mediterranean. “And it looks even worse than it is in the media. I wanted to check in with you again and interview somebody sane, show the other side of the story. Lebanon looks like a terrorist state again to Americans. And also to the Israelis.”
He put his face in his hands then blew out his cheeks. “This,” he said ominously and nodded. “This is the most important thing.”
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Eli Khoury in his office
“What are you working on these days?” I said.
“Have you seen the I Love Life billboards?” he said.
I had.
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They appear everywhere I’ve recently been in the country except (I am sorry to say) where the Shia live, where Hezbollah’s terrorist and “martyrdom” propaganda is erected instead. The I Love Life billboards are written in English, French, and Arabic, and they are ubiquitous in Christian, Sunni, and Druze areas.
“Hezbollah intimidates me on their TV channel,” Eli said. “They are calling me a racist now because of this campaign, because I am implying that they love death.”
The campaign’s Web site says as much explicitly on the Mission Statement page, but “racist” is a silly label to stick on it. Hezbollah’s propaganda is extremely violent and grotesque.
Below is a photo I took of a Hezbollah billboard on Sheik Abad Hill along the border with Israel. In the lower-left corner a Hezbollah fighter is shown holding up a severed Israeli head by its hair.
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“What do you think,” I said, “about Hezbollah’s reported use of human shields? Some Lebanese have a hard time believing it really happened.”
“Of course the whole concept of Hezbollah is to use human shields,” he said. “Not everyone in Lebanon understands this, though, because Hezbollah tries so hard to cultivate an image of decency. Also politicians here are reticent to say everything they believe. They have to be careful how far they go when they criticize Hezbollah and the Syrians. Sometimes they go back and forth for a while and contradict themselves before they are able to take a firm stand.”
You see this even with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, the fiercest critic of Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah in the entire country. Jumblatt calls for regime change in Syria now, and he accuses Hezbollah of having a hand in the ongoing assassinations. For a while after the Syrians left even he kept his ties with Hezbollah, referred to them as a legitimate “resistance,” said they should keep their weapons, and so on. Only lately, almost two years later, has Jumblatt’s opposition become absolute.
Eli and I first met at the headquarters for the Movement of the Democratic Left, a leftist group that split with the Communists over their support for the Syrian Baathists. I sat in on political strategy meetings with Eli, journalist/activist Samir Kassir, Member of Parliament Nayla Moawad (whose husband was briefly Lebanon’s president until the Syrians killed him after a few weeks in office), and other assorted March 14 leaders.
I didn’t dare write about these meetings at the time they were held. Bombs had been exploding somewhere in Beirut every four days or so, and these were strategy meetings with people who were surely on a Syrian hit list. I did feel slightly nervous around them, especially in that party headquarters which for all we knew could have been taken out at any time.
Samir was later killed by a car bomb on his way to Eli’s apartment.
His photo is still displayed all over Beirut.
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He and others murdered by Lebanon’s former occupiers haunt the city like ghosts. I still can’t walk past portraits of Samir, whom I briefly knew at the end of his life, without shuddering.
I remember innocently asking at one of these meetings if the March 14 movement had considered taking the parliament building by force as Serbian activists had in Belgrade when they ousted Slobodan Milosovic from power.
Everyone in the room wanted to do it. But they didn’t dare. “There will be blood in the streets,” Asma Andraos told me. They weren’t worried the Syrians would kill them. They were worried Hezbollah fighters might storm out of the dahiyeh and massacre the liberals on behalf of Damascus.
Later, just before the Syrians finally left, a few people at these meetings openly advocated storming the parliament anyway, Hezbollah’s weapons be damned. Their political calculus was moving fast. Lebanon’s democracy and independence movement would not, and will not, surrender to foreign powers or tyrants. March 14’s demands were met shortly after this happened. The Syrians went away. Free elections were called by Damascus’ puppet regime. Who can say if parliament would have been seized if they hadn’t backed down?
“What do you think about last July’s war?” I said to Eli.
He sighed. “The Israelis bombed these bridges all over the country. Why? If you want to hit the most important bridge bringing weapons into Lebanon, hit Syria. Why do they want to protect him?”
It does look, from Lebanon’s point of view, like Israel is sort of aligned with Syria. There is a Syrian-Iranian axis with malevolent designs on Lebanon, and there is also what looks like a de-facto Syrian-Israeli axis.
There is no Syrian-Israeli axis, not in the real world. But from a practical Lebanese point of view that doesn’t make any difference. While most Lebanese want regime-change or at least regime-punishment in Syria, the Israeli government openly, categorically, opposes any such thing. The Israelis dread the idea of post-Baathist Syria, and they therefore swear they will do nothing whatsoever to weaken or punish Assad. They want to negotiate with him and preserve his regime.
This is horrifically offensive in Lebanon, especially after the Israelis bombed Lebanon and left Syria alone last July. Lebanon only shares a border with two countries, and both of them are Lebanon’s enemies. The fact that these enemies don’t like each other helps Lebanon not at all since both kill Lebanese and leave each other alone. The Israelis even called Assad in Damascus last July to soothe him when their troops landed in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border. They didn’t want him to worry that they were gunning for him.
“99 percent of our problems are Syrian,” Eli said. “An Alawite government in Syria is good for us. Just not this Alawite government. Anything, even a bin Ladenist government, would be better than the Baath government.”
Israelis feel constantly threatened in their (as they see it) weak and small country. Lebanese feel the same way, and even more so. Syria insists Lebanon has no right to exist, and both Israel and Syria can pulverize Lebanon militarily at will.
Most Lebanese people I know, from every sect including the Shia, would have been perfectly happy if the Israelis bombed Syria after Hezbollah launched their attack. A large number of people in an Arabic country openly supporting an Israeli war against another Arab country would have been something to see. It would have changed forever some of the geopolitical dynamics in the Levant.
“If the Israelis were smarter there would be a lot more pro-Israeli opinion in Lebanon,” Eli said.
His personal assistant brought him a thin boring sandwich.
“I’m on a diet,” he said, “so this is all I get. I eat when I get stressed. Nasrallah makes me gain weight. I put on ten kilos during the war.”
“What was it like here during the war?” I said. “I was in Iraq, Jordan, and Israel at the time.”
“Most of us sympathized with Israel’s response for the first couple of days,” he said, ”until they bombed the airport.” Lots of Lebanese people I know told me the same thing, and they said it during the war not just in hindsight. “We thought it was fishy, though, when there was no ground war. They fought the war like it was a Nintendo game. I know the Israelis are careful with their targets. But you never know if the guy flying the bomber over your head at any given moment might miss.”
“The Israelis were hoping Lebanon would rise up against Hezbollah,” I said.
“How are we supposed to deal with Hezbollah when Israel’s Syrian buddies keep arming them?” he said. “And when the Israelis themselves can’t beat Hezbollah?”
“There’s an old idea that’s been around in Lebanon for a while now,” I said, “and I think it confuses a lot of people. [Lebanese Prime Minister] Fouad Seniora recently said it again. He said Lebanon will be the last Arab country to make peace with Israel. Can you explain to a Western audience what that’s all about?”
“The last Arab country,” he said. “This is the statement of those who want to make peace but know that they can’t. They don’t want to get ganged up on by the Arabs. We are the least anti-Israel Arab country in the world.”
There’s another old saying that has been around for a while, and it’s directly related: No war without Egypt. No peace without Syria. Lebanese can’t make a separate peace with Israel without Syria, not when Syria still partly rules Lebanon through its proxies, its intelligence agents, its bought men (including the president), and its assassins.
“It sounds crazy, though,” I said.
“What sounds crazy?” he said. He had no idea what I was talking about.
“When Seniora or anyone else says, without any context, that Lebanon will be last Arab country to make peace.” I said, “It sounds like he’s saying Lebanon hates Israel more than everyone else, that Lebanon is the most fanatical country.”
He thought about what I said for a second, then startled himself. “My god,” he said. “I never thought of it that way.”
“Maybe the Israeli government gets it,” I said. “I don’t know. They aren’t stupid, but there is a lot they don’t understand about this place.”
“What should Seniora say instead?” he said. I could tell I disturbed him. Lebanese at times have no idea how some of their statements sound to Western ears.
“I don’t know,” I said. “He could explain the problem more clearly, but that would only get him in more trouble with the Syrians and with Hezbollah. He’s in an impossible position. So he should probably just shut up and not saying anything about it one way or another.”
Eli looked pained. “I will tell him you said that when I next see him,” he said.
“You will?” I said. That surprised me. I have no idea if the message was ever relayed.
“What do you think of Michel Aoun?” I said.
Michel Aoun is the former general who recently returned from exile and formed a realpolitik alliance of sorts with Hezbollah. His (predominantly Christian) Free Patriotic Movement joined Hezbollah’s “March 8” bloc, yet he and they still think Hezbollah should be disarmed and not allowed to start unilateral wars with the Israelis.
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Michel Aoun
“Aoun just wants to be president,” Eli said. “He doesn’t give a flying fuck how he gets there, even if he destroys Lebanon. He’s positioned himself as the bottleneck so he can be the solution. He learned this well from the Assad regime. His intelligentsia is gone. He’s left with people who think he is right about everything. 20 percent of Aoun’s people are militant and will do whatever he says. Another 20 percent believe his silly story that Saudi Arabia is trying to take over Lebanon.”
“How many Christians actually find him appealing?” I said. He used to be one of the most popular Christians in Lebanon, but his star has fallen since he broke with the March 14 movement.
“Most Christians are liberal and will not be attracted to narrow sectarian parties like the Lebanese Forces,” Eli said. “Except in times of danger. Aoun provided this outlet for these people by being deliberately non-sectarian. The problem with his strategy, though, is that he lost a lot of Christians and didn’t gain many Shia. Before Pierre Gemayel was assassinated Aoun polled at around 37 percent of Christians. But he lost a lot of support since then. Geagea is at around 27 percent.”
Samir Geagea is the leader of the Lebanese Forces, a sectarian Christian political party that had a militia during the civil war. The Lebanese Forces and the Kataeb (previously know as the “Phalange,” another Christian militia from the civil war days) are sometimes accused of being fascists by their detractors. What did Eli think of that?
“Is the Kataeb fascist?” he said. “I don’t think so. They saw that the number of Christians in Lebanon was decreasing. And they dug in because the region was on fire. They want to preserve themselves. I told the Phalange and the Lebanese Forces that they should change their names. They sound like they’ve come out of the 1940s. You know about the Syrian Social Nationalist Party? Those people are the real fascists. They modeled themselves after Hitler and Mussolini. Look at their flag.”
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A Syrian Social Nationalist Party member joins the rally downtown Beirut to overthrow the March 14 government
The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (think “national socialists,” aka Nazis) put a spinning swastika on their flag. They are basically the Lebanese branch of the Baath Party and want to merge Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and even Cyprus (!) back into “Greater Syria.” Several members were recently arrested by the army for plotting terrorist attacks inside Lebanon. One of their offices was torched by angry citizens a few weeks ago. The few hundred members who remain have aligned themselves with (who else?) the Hezbollah bloc.
“There are two long term strategies for Lebanese Christians,” Eli said. “One half wants a unified country and a liberal democracy. The other half wants a federation. There is no fascism. They just want to be left alone.”
“How likely is another civil war?” I said.
“The odds of civil war?” he said. “Between the Christian factions, zero. Maybe between Sunni and Shia. Less likely would be a war between Christians and Shia.”
“What about the Sunnis?” I said. “Where are they at right now?”
I asked Eli questions like these because he knows the Lebanese “street” better than almost anyone else in the world. He is paid a lot of money at his consulting firm for his advice, and he has hard data to back up what he says. He is not just mouthing off, and what he says comports well with my own readings of the country after living there and visiting several times.
“Recent polls show that 65 percent of Sunnis are at least moderately pro-American,” he said. “Most Sunnis who don’t think of the U.S. as an ally wish the U.S. was more of an ally.”
When my mother visited me in Lebanon I told her that the Sunni Muslims were slowly coming around and are no longer the anti-Americans they once were when they supported Yasser Arafat’s state-within-a-state in West Beirut. Today around 80 percent of them rally behind the Arab-style neoliberal agenda of Saad Hariri’s and Fouad Seniora’s Future Movement. The American support of Lebanon’s Sunnis against Hezbollah and the Syrians is paying off, though it is dampened by American support for the Israelis. She had a hard time believing me at first and was touched when a conservative Sunni shopkeeper in the northern city of Tripoli said “You [Americans] are new friends of ours here in Lebanon.”
“Before the 1970s our democracy was at least as good as in Italy or Greece,” Eli said. “[Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser and the Arab-Israeli war ruined us. Without Nasser, the PLO, and Assad we would be like Italy is right now, or at least like Greece. Our circumstances are bigger than the country. And our biggest problem right now are the ‘realists’ in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Israel.”
Most Lebanese think the American and Israeli “realists” who want to negotiate with the Syrians are painfully naïve at best, and downright sinister at worst. There’s an old saying about the Damascus regime in Beirut: Assad starts the fire, sells the water, and never delivers. And Lebanese will never forget that Secretary of State James Baker green-lighted Syrian domination of Lebanon for completely unneeded “help” in ousting Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.
“We want to replace the March 14 movement with a broader civil society movement,” Eli said. He has been a big civil society booster in Lebanon since I have known him. “This way we can include the Aounists and isolate the pro-Syrians. Only around 30 percent of the Shia are ready for a movement like this, but the overwhelming majority from all other groups are already there. March 14 was the day the Muslims joined the Christians in the Lebanese project. It was in the making before, but it finally came into being then, on that day.”
I remember March 14 activists back in the day telling me the Christians and Sunnis of Lebanon were working on the formula to resolve the clash of civilizations. This can obviously never happen while Hezbollah blows up the country with their adventures on the southern border.
“The Druze, of course, have joined us as well,” Eli said. “I really like the Druze. They have deeply civilized values up there in those mountains.”
“What will it take to get the Shia on board with this project?” I said.
“The Shia are naturally liberal,” he said. “They are not, when left alone, interested in jihad. Traditionally they have been secular and leftist. Do you know why they used to be secular leftists?”
I didn’t.
“School teachers who were leftists weren’t wanted in Beirut,” he said. “So they were sent out to small towns in the Shia parts of the country. Then Iran came in and replaced them with Hezbollah. They will come around when Hezbollah is gone. [Samir] Kassir’s Democratic Left used to be communist and pro-Syrian. But now they are militantly anti-Syrian. When political theories fail in the Middle East they fail hard. People who believed in them have a tendency to support a total opposite point of view later. That’s why the Shia will be okay after Hezbollah is defeated.”
“Hezbollah will always have some support, though,” I said.
“Yes,” Eli said. “Among irrelevant people. The fact that we have some of these silly leftists who support Hezbollah just shows we are a normal country. We are like everyone else. Those people are everywhere. Did you see the protestors in London who said We are all Hezbollah now? Give me a break.”
“How many people in Lebanon hate Israel and want no peace ever?” I said. Rarely have I met anyone who says they never want peace. Online polls of Lebanese (which are of course unscientific) show overwhelming support for peace with Israel now or after outstanding issues between the two countries have been resolved. I have never seen “Peace never” receive more than a 10 percent response in these polls.
“Very very few,” Eli said. “60 percent of the [Israeli-backed until the year 2000] South Lebanese Army was Shia. The Shia were pro-Israel until Hezbollah came in from Iran, and they will be again when Hezbollah leaves.”
“How will Hezbollah ever leave, though?” I said. “What is the solution to this problem?”
“The solution to Hezbollah is [a United Nations] Chapter 7 [resolution],” Eli said. “Like in Kosovo. When there is a will, there is a way. It will take fighting, though. Hezbollah will not just give up their guns. One thing we can do is bring back General Aoun’s old officers. They have guts, and they are multi-confessional.”
He pulled out a piece of paper and drew, in a single flourish, a remarkably detailed silhouette map of Lebanon that included most, if not all, the contours of Lebanon’s coastline and borders. Then he drew circles around the Shia areas in the South and the Bekaa Valley.
“Block off the Shia areas,” he said. “Surround them utterly with international troops, like from NATO. NATO can do this if Israel stands aside, withdraws from the [allegedly occupied] Shebba Farms, and stops all these over flights. Then deploy smartly, and do it slowly. I’m not saying storm Lebanon, go house to house, and kill a bunch of people. Just surround them, block them off from Syria forever, and announce that it’s over. 80 percent of Lebanon would accept this if it’s done right, with government and international approval, and if Israel, at the same time, resolves the outstanding issues.”
I instinctively opposed Israel’s invasion in July because I had little faith they could achieve their objectives, that the destruction would be mostly pointless. But I think this plan might actually work if the international community could ever be persuaded to go along, and if the Lebanese government ever actually asks for it. I don’t see either as terribly likely any time soon, though, and resolving the problem by severing Hezbollah’s links to Syria and Iran is probably better.
“If [Speaker of Parliament] Nabih Berri doesn’t vote for the tribunal [to put Syria officials on trial for assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri] this is where we are going. Only Hezbollah will seriously oppose it, plus the fools on the radical left, but they are irrelevant. Aoun keeps telling Lebanon that the United States doesn’t care about our problems and will never save us. If this happens he will lost all his credibility. You have to have faith in the Lebanese public to move forward. If Seniora calls all Lebanese to go downtown tomorrow and publicly oppose Syria and Iran, they will do it.
Of course they would. They already did it on March 14, 2005, and they did it without being asked.
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Beirut, Lebanon, March 14, 2005.
“If Lebanon gets a strong anti-Hezbollah leadership,” he said, “the country will enthusiastically follow.”
I told him I thought it would be a better idea to cut Hezbollah off from Syria and Iran, but he didn’t agree. “Cripple Hezbollah and Syria. Then go after Iran. Half the problems in Iraq would be solved at that point.”
The problem with all this is that it’s purely intellectual and theoretical. None of it is going to happen. Like it or not, the United States is retreating for now into a “realist” posture where tyrants and the status quo are frozen in place. Many Republicans and even most Democrats are behind this even though it’s the old right-wing position the left used to hate.
Eli isn’t happy with this at all. “I am a liberal by nature,” he said. “But this is a luxury in the Middle East. We have to be a little bit neocon here in Lebanon. Otherwise we cannot survive.”
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