Michael Totten

From Baghdad to Beirut

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(Here is a piece I wrote last year for City Journal that was bumped to this year’s winter issue to make room for more time-sensitive articles.)

I recently made my seventh trip to Iraq to try to answer an important question: Will the country explode after American soldiers withdraw? But the answer may lie 600 miles to the west—in Beirut, where I traveled from Baghdad. The best-case scenario for Iraq may be that it becomes a more backward version of Lebanon. The two countries share encouraging traits that neither has in common with any other country in the Arab world: ethnic and religious diversity, more or less free and fair elections, and at least some degree of freedom of speech.

Then again, Lebanon isn’t in great shape these days. The country’s future had seemed bright when I rented an apartment there during parts of 2005 and 2006—after the “Beirut Spring,” when massive nonviolent demonstrations ousted the occupying Syrian military regime. But in 2006, war returned to the Land of the Cedars. Two more wars have been fought there since, and more are nearly inevitable. Even an optimistic observer can’t help noticing some less encouraging similarities between Lebanon and Iraq—above all, sectarianism and a tendency to encourage foreign meddling. If in some ways Lebanon is a model for Iraq to follow, in others it’s an example of what Iraq must avoid.

Traveling from Baghdad to Beirut felt like moving hundreds of years into the future. Beirut may not be the Paris of the Middle East, as many have called it, but it’s far more sophisticated than Cairo (the cultural capital of the Arab world) or any other Arabic city. Hundreds of thousands of tourists every year visit Beirut for its fine dining, film festivals, art galleries, and outdoor concerts. Or for its vice: many tourists are wealthy Gulf Arabs who, when they need relief from their fanatically conservative homelands, can hop over to gamble, drink, and chase girls. Bookstores proliferate, many of them well stocked. Most titles are available in English and French; a huge percentage of Beirutis are fluent in both.

Though the apartment complexes built during the 1975-90 civil war look only slightly better than the grim tower blocks built in Communist countries, the city’s old architecture can be beautiful. Tiled roofs, European moldings, Oriental arches, and wrought-iron balconies are common, and some streets are still paved with cobblestones and closed to traffic. Very recent buildings are sometimes attractive in a different way, particularly the glass skyscrapers, in spaces that were recently rubble, reflecting the turquoise Mediterranean. Most Middle Eastern capitals outside Israel are filthy; Beirut is the cleanest I’ve seen.

The most striking difference between Lebanon and the rest of the Arab world, though, is the treatment of women. Women are elected to Lebanon’s parliament, and few Lebanese seem to consider that a problem. In Beirut, most women don’t wear headscarves or abayat—they dress more like Italians. Young Lebanese women who do cover their hair often wear knee-high boots, tight blouses, and skin-tight jeans.

It’s true that Lebanon suffers from “brain drain” to such countries as the United States and Brazil—both of which contain more Lebanese than Lebanon itself does—and to the Persian Gulf states, where most people in the creative class are Lebanese. But Lebanon replaces these talented, educated professionals by creating new ones. The country’s education system, at least for the middle and upper classes, is excellent. Much of it was built in the nineteenth century by Western missionaries, who largely failed to convert Muslims to Christianity but left behind quality English- and French-language schools modeled on those in the West. And the American University of Beirut, founded in 1866, is still considered the Harvard of the Middle East.

No wonder so many Arabs are envious of the liberties Beirutis enjoy. Many would happily leave what An-Nahar newspaper publisher Ghassan Tueni calls the Great Arab Prison—that bloc of dictatorships from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic—for the dangerous freedom of Lebanon. “I’m in Lebanon now because I have to live in a civilized country,” Saudi-born novelist Mohammad Rashid told me after he gave up on his self-imposed exile in France. “I want to live in Lebanon,” a Libyan shopkeeper once said to me. “Beirut is civilized! Women and men mix freely in Lebanon.” Peter Grimsditch, the British-born managing editor of Beirut’s English-language Daily Star, told me in 2005 that there was nowhere he’d rather live: “I haven’t been anywhere in the world where I feel the power of the state bearing down on me less. Europe is absolutely intolerable.”

“Why does Iraq get credit as the first Arab democracy?” asks Lebanese restaurateur Makram Zeeny. “We teach democracy in schools here, and we’ve done it for more than 50 years,” ever since the country’s independence from France in 1943. To be sure, Lebanese democracy is a mess, but it’s downright Jeffersonian compared with anything else in the Arab world.

The country is also a comparatively safe place to speak your mind. It has long been an escape hatch for dissidents from other Arabic-speaking countries and even for disgruntled Western expatriates. I’ve met almost as many human-rights activists in Beirut as in the United States—and I’m not talking about Western transplants who went native, though I’ve met them, too. Lebanon has a homegrown human rights community that frets about the same issues that its Western counterparts do: free speech, land mines, political prisoners, civil rights for gays. Greenpeace petitioners stand outside Starbucks in West Beirut asking for donations, just as they do in Seattle and Portland.

One reason for Lebanon’s unusual liberalism is its history of Western influence. As Fouad Ajami wrote in Beirut : City of Regrets, this is a place “where Westerners recognize fragments of their own world.” The ancient Phoenicians, who first developed and civilized the area, were influenced in many ways by the Greeks and were partly Hellenized by Alexander the Great. What is now Lebanon was part of the Roman Empire for centuries; during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, it was ruled by crusaders; and France administered it from the end of World War I until 1943. Even today, many Lebanese speak French at home instead of Arabic. “We are inheritors not only of the Persian Empire and the Arab world,” says Salim al-Sayegh, vice president of the Kata’eb Party. “We are also children of the Roman Empire, of the Western tradition.”

Unfortunately, Lebanon’s liberal pedigree may not be enough to save it. Two things may yet drive this modern, developed, and relatively prosperous country into the ground: sectarianism and a related willingness to welcome foreigners looking for places to fight. Roughly one-third of Lebanese are Christians, one-third Sunnis, and one-third Shi’as; about 5 percent of the population are Druze. Power is divided up among the leaders of the three major groups: the president is always Christian, the prime minister Sunni, and the speaker of parliament Shi’a. Lebanon’s system does not easily generate dictators. No man rules alone; passing legislation is almost impossible without consensus. Political checks and balances work more or less smoothly, when the system is free of outside pressures.

The problem is that Lebanon is rarely free of outside pressures. On the contrary, it’s a geopolitical black hole that draws in foreign powers. The 1975-90 civil war, to take one obvious example, began with an encroacher: Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian state-within-a-state in West Beirut and South Lebanon, which was backed by local Sunnis but opposed by most Christians, including Christian militias. The Soviet Union got involved, aiding Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party militia in its “resistance” against these “right-wing” Christians and in its struggle on behalf of the Palestinians. When Israel invaded in 1982 to evict Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Iran’s Revolutionary Guards forged the Hezbollah militia to fight the Jewish state. Israel, in turn, formed an alliance with the Christian militias against the Palestinians and backed the South Lebanon Army as its own proxy militia against Hezbollah. To this day, money, training, and weapons flow from Iran to Hezbollah.

Read the rest in City Journal.