Michael Young, opinion page editor at Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper and contributing editor at Reason magazine in the U.S., is one of the finest analysts of the modern Middle East working in English. He was born in Washington D.C. to a Lebanese mother and American father, and his mother took him to Beirut when he was still a child after his father died. He has lived there for most of his life ever since, even when the country came apart at the seams during the civil war between 1975 and 1990.
He has seen much more of the place than I have, of course, and he understands it and can explain it better than just about anyone. He also understands the region in general better than most because Lebanon is by far the best place to observe and study the Middle East. It’s the most liberal and open of the Arabic-speaking countries, and all the major players have interests and roles there. The Syrians are there, the Iranians are there, and the Saudis are there. Sometimes even the Israelis are there. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon, France administered it for decades after acquiring it from the Ottoman Empire, and American troops have been sent there as peacekeepers twice.
Michael has wanted to write a book about his country for years, and he finally did it when the chronology of events after 2005 took on the shape of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. His book is called The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, and he and I recently discussed it and many of the issues it raises over the phone.
MJT: You wrote in your introduction that Hezbollah’s success is arguably more of a threat to Lebanon than the civil war. Can you explain why?
Michael Young: Lebanon’s cycle of wars between 1975 and 1990 was the result of a combination of factors, including domestic strife and external intervention. It took a decade and a half for the country to emerge from its conflict, in large part due to Syria’s ability to impose its hegemony over all Lebanese territory by force of arms, after 1990. But during all stages of the war, amid the worst dissension, there was nonetheless a consensus over the fact that the end of the war would signal a return of the Lebanese state—whatever that state looked like. Perhaps this was the result of the failure of all other projects, real and imagined, during the war years—projects of partition, of sectarian cleansing and depopulation, of federalism, and so forth.
With Hezbollah, however, we have, by definition, an anti-state: a party whose very existence as an armed organization is conditioned on the absence of a Lebanese state able to impose a monopoly over the use of violence. Structurally, there is no coexistence possible between a sovereign Lebanese state and an autonomous Hezbollah-run mini-state in its midst, backed by a united Shiite community, with a military force more effective than that of the Lebanese army, supported by Iran and Syria.
Michael Young: Hezbollah wants us to believe coexistence is possible, but it knows better than anybody that this is just a pretext to defend its arms, which are there to serve Iranian interests. Such a statement irritates many people, because so many truly want to believe that Hezbollah is authentically Lebanese, with Lebanese priorities. The genius of the Iranians, however, was to allow Hezbollah to anchor itself in the Lebanese Shiite community and psychology, in a collective narrative of suffering and deprivation. Yet the party’s leadership cadre remains very much an extension of Iran’s security apparatus.
In this context, the conflict defining Lebanon today, unlike during the civil war, is really between the Sunni and Shiite communities—between members of the same household who were allied during the war years. Both communities inherited postwar Lebanon, the Christians having lost much of their political power, but they cannot arrive at a consensus around the state. Hezbollah has systematically undermined the sanctity of the state in the eyes of its own followers, in order to set itself up as a legitimate alternative, even as the Shiite parties have, paradoxically, placed their partisans in state institutions, both for patronage reasons and to neutralize all efforts by the state to challenge them.
Anyone perceived as moving against Hezbollah is also perceived by Shiites as moving against the community as a whole. Therefore, it’s impossible to find a modus vivendi between Hezbollah and the rest of the communities, particularly the Sunnis, in the shadow of a state accepted by all. This means that any sudden collapse in the tense equilibrium, let’s say in the aftermath of a possible war with Israel, may quite easily degenerate into a breakdown in civil peace, tearing the society apart. A Sunni-Shiite war in Lebanon would be infinitely worse than anything we’ve seen before.
MJT: You describe Hezbollah, accurately I think, as “a total movement in the least totalistic of Arab societies.” And you describe how the Shia community, Hezbollah’s base of support, is, like the rest of the country, extremely diverse culturally and politically. How long do you suppose Hezbollah can keep going without being undone by these contradictions?
Michael Young: I think it can be keep going for quite a bit of time, all things remaining equal. Shiites, for the first time in Lebanon’s modern history, feel empowered, and they thank the party for that, and for the weapons allowing them this feeling.
Shiites also believe that Hezbollah is a heroic entity for having resisted Israel. And most important, Hezbollah has generally respected the complexities and marvelous contradictions of the Shiite community, even as it has steadily narrowed the boundaries for independent political activities, and even certain types of social activities. This subtle balancing game has involved allowing Hezbollah’s supporters to be themselves, while also dominating the commanding heights of the community—its patronage networks, institutions of communal self-defense, access to power and the state bureaucracy, increasingly education, and even clergymen independent from the party.
What might change this? Perhaps some sort of fundamental shift in Iran, which would undercut the funding so key to the Hezbollah’s instruments of patronage. But even there, I don’t think things would be that simple. The party will remain anchored in the Shiite community, and it does have independent funding networks.
How about a devastating war with Israel? That would certainly represent a challenge to the party, because Shiites don’t feel like seeing their livelihoods devastated every few years in the name of a never-ending “resistance.” But two things play in Hezbollah’s favor. First, Shiites are likely to sympathize with the Hezbollah narrative in adjudicating responsibility for the war, which would of course seek to blame Israel. And second, the Israelis are likely in any future war to behave so brutally, as is their habit, that this will only ensure that Shiites, and probably most Lebanese, rally to Hezbollah’s side.
MJT: You wrote that when some foreign journalists and observers dismissed the revolt against Syrian rule after Hariri’s assassination as a “Gucci Revolution” that their mockery told us more about the critics than the demonstrators. You and I both know some of these people. Why do you suppose they see things this way?
Michael Young: I think that many foreigners, particularly Westerners, who come to Lebanon do so, in a way, to break with a part of themselves and their own culture. It’s a psychological thing. They want to blend into a world not theirs. Perhaps that’s why so many of them tend to embrace Arab causes, or the Palestinian cause specifically, with a mixture of righteous indignation at the purported evils of the West—in a way their own evils—and with the zeal of recent converts.
I believe that the Western critics who mocked the so-called Cedar Revolution as a Gucci Revolution couldn’t stomach what they saw as the movement’s desire to appeal to the West, as well as its appeal in the West.
Initially, the demonstrators who went down to Martyrs Square to protest against the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri tended to be middle class Christians, people who were generally educated, confident with themselves, speaking in many languages, trendily dressed, and so forth. Yet the foreign critics saw them as lacking in authenticity, particularly in Arab and Muslim authenticity, people meriting scorn for being ersatz knockoffs of the West. In other words, the demonstrators were disparaged for demanding the very same things that they, the critics, regarded as their due in the West—the rule of law, freedom, sovereignty, pluralism, and so on.
When Hezbollah organized its counter-demonstration on March 8, and there was a very large turnout, many of the foreign critics cried: “Aha! Now we know where the real Lebanon lies.” Hezbollah, of course, was authentic to them, its supporters real people, Muslims, solid proletarians, quite unlike the pampered Christians of Martyrs Square.
Of course this dichotomy was entirely a fabrication of the foreigners’ narrative. For on March 14, in a massive counter-demonstration to Hezbollah’s counter-demonstration, we saw the largest public gathering ever in Lebanon. Everyone came out to demand a Syrian military withdrawal and justice in the Hariri murder, among them hundreds of thousands of poor Sunnis, who were hardly inauthentic. There was silence from the critics, for what could they say about a largely spontaneous, peaceful, carefree effort to say no to a heinous crime? But many of them continued pursuing their fantastic Orients of the mind and continued to ridicule the March 14 movement for years afterward.
But if I may end with a question. What’s wrong with a Gucci Revolution? I find it rather condescending that foreigners especially should assume that the only changes we Lebanese can manage must be saturated with blood, that the real in Lebanon should somehow be marked by poverty and a rejection of Western liberal values. In their search for authenticity, many packed a hefty load of prejudice. Give me Gucci any time.
MJT: You admit that your book is not objective. My own book, which I’m just now finishing, isn’t strictly objective either, which I’ll freely admit to and won’t apologize for. And you wrote near the end of yours that you know Lebanon well enough to be amused by claims of objectivity whenever the subject comes up. I chuckled to myself when I read that, but can you explain to readers who are less familiar with the country why claims of objectivity are a little ridiculous?
Michael Young: Actually I didn’t quite say that my book was not objective, although, to be honest, objectivity to me is a splendid myth. Which writer does not, in the end, write subjectively? To try achieving the opposite effect is effectively to erase a part of one’s self, which defeats the very purpose of writing. What I explained was that I was striving in the book for a form of subjective detachment.
Lebanon is not a good place to stick to hard and fast ideas. The purpose of my book was to explain the pragmatism and malleability, even the cynicism, of Lebanon’s sectarian system, a system built on shifting alliances and communal self-centeredness. This has created a pluralistic society and has opened up spaces in which the Lebanese can behave with some measure of freedom. But in Lebanon’s unstable chemistry it’s not a good idea to put too much faith in leaders or parties or ideologies, because things are bound to be overturned eventually, depending on self-interest.
I supported the movement to reject Syrian hegemony in Lebanon in 2005 and after—the coalition known as March 14. However, I never had any great confidence in its representatives, even if I count some as friends. The only legitimate allegiance we must have is to preserving our freedoms, pluralism, the rule of law; Syria’s rule over Lebanon represented a daily denial, explicit or implicit, of these values.
That’s where my subjectivity comes in. My detachment rests on the principle that I find it utterly impossible to identify with most of those who make up Lebanon’s political class, yet I find it fascinating to follow their fortunes, which is often the stuff of novels.
MJT: When I first visited Beirut in 2005, I thought it was analogous to Berlin in 1989, but now it looks more like Budapest in 1956.
Michael Young: I don’t like these comparisons in a way because Budapest ended up going in one direction, Berlin in a second, and Beirut went a third, but I agree with you that Lebanon, like Budapest in 1956, has come full circle since 2005. There was a moment when Lebanon managed to get rid of the Syrians, yet the Syrians in some ways have returned. Those who opposed what happened in 2005 have effectively come out on top.
MJT: Just about all the news out of Lebanon lately is bad, especially Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt being forced to make pilgrimages to Damascus to make peace with the regime that murdered their fathers. Can you give us your explanation about how they were compelled to do that?
Michael Young: Lebanon’s fatal flaw is that it’s a divided society open to foreign intervention and manipulation. In February of last year, Syria and Saudi Arabia reconciled. The Saudis took the initiative in reconciling with Syria, and everything in Lebanon changed as a result. The Saudis, as you know, are the political sponsors of Saad Hariri. So from that moment it was only a question of how much time would pass before Hariri followed his political sponsors and arrived at some kind of reconciliation with Syria.
Michael Young: Walid Jumblatt, who represents the weak Druze minority, understood the dynamics quite quickly and knew he wouldn’t stand a chance if he refused to go along. He remembers, of course, that the Syrians and the Saudis reconciled in 1976 during the civil war, and that his father was assassinated by the Syrians the following year, in 1977. He was not going to make that mistake again, so as soon as the regional dynamic changed, everything changed for Lebanon.
The Syrians were effectively given a green light by the Saudis to come back into Lebanon. It took some time for us to see the consequences because there were elections last year that Syria’s adversaries won, or seemed to win, but by and large the anti-Syrian alliance that existed in 2005 began to disintegrate.
MJT: Can you explain why the Saudis reconciled with Syria? Hardly anyone talks about this and even fewer have written about it.
Michael Young: The Saudis and the Syrians, contrary to popular opinion, did not really break over the Hariri assassination. Throughout 2005, the Saudis were looking for some way to return their relationship with Syria to normal. What I believe led to the initial divorce between them was the rapprochement between the Syrian regime and Iran. And also the fact that there was a personal disagreement over the Lebanon war in 2006. As you know, Syria’s President Bashar Assad referred to the Saudi leaders as half-men. Arab politics are, above all, personal, and this incident led to personal animosity that came on the heels of the Saudi fear of the Syrian-Iranian rapprochement. However, between 2006 and 2008 the Saudis were never entirely able to isolate Damascus. On the contrary, the Saudis ended up being more isolated in the Arab world. They weren’t able to impose a united front against Damascus, and by 2009, following the Gaza war, the Saudis, along with other so-called “moderate” Arab states, were accused of being implicitly on the side of Israel.
Michael Young: The Saudis decided that enough was enough. They decided to open up to Damascus because their previous strategy hadn’t worked. They hadn’t managed to isolate the Syrians. And, being pragmatists, they decided to bring about a rapprochement with Damascus.
I believe, however, that Iraq is far more important for the Saudis than Lebanon, and there the Syrians and the Saudis have—for separate reasons—parallel interests. Both have a vested interest in destabilizing the Shia dominated regime in Baghdad.
Michael Young: And so the Saudis saw their rapprochement with Syria as a means for collaborating in Iraq against what the Saudis really do fear there, which is a Shia-dominated regime that they regard as being close to Iran.
MJT: What do you suppose would have happened if Hariri and Jumblatt said to hell with the Saudis and refused to make a deal with Syria?
Michael Young: From the moment the Saudis and the Syrians reconciled, Jumblatt understood that he had no interest whatsoever in opposing that decision, for a number of reasons. Remember, it’s the Saudis who allow Jumblatt to have the power of patronage. Political leadership in Lebanon doesn’t take place in a vacuum. People need money, they need political support.
The same applies to Hariri. There was never a chance that Saad was going to oppose his political patrons because without them, politically he doesn’t stand for much. And remember, at the time he was not yet prime minister. He only became prime minister in late 2009. Had he taken the decision to oppose the Saudis, this would have had negative political repercussions on his future. At the same time it would have had negative repercussions on his business interests in the Saudi kingdom.
And remember that Walid Jumblatt has absolutely no interest in opposing the Saudis, especially when he realizes that the regional mood is changing. It was a foregone conclusion that these men would go along with the decision.
MJT: It’s extraordinary that a country that is, at least on paper, a democracy can have its internal politics basically dictated to it by other governments in the region. Doesn’t it effectively invalidate Lebanon’s independence and democracy if Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia have a vote?
Michael Young: I wouldn’t quite say that invalidates it, but Lebanon obviously has deep and profound problems with its social contract. It’s a country well worth preserving, I believe, but that doesn’t mean the system isn’t dysfunctional. We are a divided society, and in divided societies it’s much easier for outsiders to intervene by sponsoring certain groups and communities. They can manipulate the country’s politics by using the divided communities against each other. This has been Lebanon’s fatal flaw for over a century.
But that doesn’t invalidate the fact that Lebanon, while not exactly democratic, has in a sense developed and preserved a paradoxical form of liberalism—paradoxical because it’s based on illiberal institutions. Lebanon has serious problems, but it is, as you well know, a remarkably liberal space in an illiberal region.
What Lebanon needs to do—and may not be able to do in the foreseeable future—is find a new social contract where we have stability and unity as well as freedom. Unfortunately right now, we have freedom without stability and without unity.
MJT: Bashar Assad and Hezbollah were both scared stiff by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon [to prosecute the assassins of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri], but it now seems to be petering out. You’ve written at length about the twists and turns of this saga, but can you give us the short version of what happened?
Michael Young: It’s still a work in progress, so I need to say this with the caveat that they may well arrive at some kind of result with his tribunal. I’m not optimistic, but bear in the mind that I don’t have all the details.
What happened is in 2005 a commission was formed by the United Nations Security Council to investigate Hariri’s assassination. There was the start of a genuine police investigation under Detlev Mehlis. There were some mistakes made in that investigation, but Mehlis was fundamentally right in understanding that a police investigation was required.
When he left in December of 2005, he was replaced by Serge Brammertz. Now, Brammertz, the information suggests, did not pursue a police investigation. He did not really pursue an in-depth investigation in Syria, which he had a mandate to pursue. The whole thing floundered.
Then he was replaced with the Canadian investigator Daniel Bellemare whose role was transformed later on into the role of prosecutor. He is pursuing the investigation and must at some point in the near future come out with an indictment. But those two years when Brammertz did not pursue an in-depth investigation may have fatefully damaged the investigation of the Hariri crime.
What happens now, I don’t know. But I don’t believe that those who ordered the crime will be brought to justice.
MJT: Do you think the American and European engagement with Syria might have anything to do with the tribunal running out of steam? Some believe—and I don’t know if this is credible—that that may be the case because if high level officials in Syria are indicted, it would scotch Washington’s engagement with Damascus.
Michael Young: Look, there is a serious American engagement with Damascus, but the Syrians have not in any serious way engaged the United States. The United States has decided to send back an ambassador, the previous ambassador having been withdrawn in 2005 after the Hariri assassination. The Obama Administration has named Robert Ford, but his appointment has been delayed by the Senate. For there to be engagement, you really need a give and take on both sides. And at this point, the Syrians have done absolutely nothing that the United States has requested in terms of ending its arming and support of Hezbollah, ending its support of Hamas, or stopping Al Qaeda members from crossing the border into Iraq.
The Syrians, in turn, say the Americans have done nothing to make engagement worthwhile for them. Now that’s nonsense. The problem is structural. Syria will not give up valuable political cards in exchange for a better relationship with Washington, because it feels that this would weaken it. And the United States will not, or rather should not, view engagement as successful until Syria gives up these cards. So we are where we are now, unless the Obama Administration lowers its conditions toward Syria, which, to my mind, would be a grave error.
So coming back to the tribunal, I think that if there is a solid indictment in the Hariri case—and by that I mean that it goes up the chain of command to those who actually ordered the assassination—it will prevent engagement of Syria not just by the United States, but engagement by all the countries that have in a way normalized their relations with Syria. This would be extremely serious for Syria.
But I’m not at all convinced that even if there is an indictment that it will go up the chain of command. If low level figures are indicted—and the likelihood is that they will not be Syrians—it will not necessarily lead to any kind of political tension between Syria and the international community.
MJT: Hezbollah allegedly has Scud missiles now. What are people in Lebanon saying about that? Anything?
Michael Young: I’m not hearing anything, and anyway I think this is in many ways a red herring. Hezbollah has plenty of weapons. Whether it has Scuds or not is a secondary debate at this point. It has plenty of rockets. It may well have advanced anti-aircraft systems. Hezbollah has the weapons required to engage in a substantial fight with Israel. In a future war, Hezbollah will have more firepower than it had in 2006, more advanced systems, and it will create a messier war that what we had four years ago.
MJT: This time around the Israelis are publicly threatening to hold the Lebanese government responsible if Hezbollah starts something.
Michael Young: The next war will be much more devastating. The Israelis will bomb Lebanese infrastructure. They may well bomb parts of Beirut. The Israelis will want to show Lebanon, Hezbollah, and the Shia community in particular that any future war will bring complete ruination. They will want to show that the next war would be the war that ends all wars between Lebanon and Israel.
MJT: But once in a while someone in the Israeli government suggests that Syria will be targeted instead of the Lebanese government if Hezbollah starts another war. What do you think about that?
Michael Young: I don’t believe it. What disturbs me is that any devastating future war would open the door for Syria to return to Lebanon militarily. The Israelis were never particularly pleased by what happened in 2005. They never had a fundamental problem with Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, and as a result if the Syrians used a devastating Israeli war as leverage to reimpose a measure of order in Lebanon through their army, I’m not at all convinced that the Israelis would object.
But the Israelis are divided on this. We don’t know who will be prime minister during the next war.
MJT: What if the Israelis actually do take the war to Damascus instead of Beirut? And if the Israelis were to actually destroy the Syrian government, what do you suppose might happen in Beirut and Damascus?
Michael Young: I’m still not convinced of that scenario. We’d be talking about a major escalation.
Israel’s priority it to neutralize Iran and its proxies, and its most powerful proxy is Hezbollah. So the idea that it would take the war to Syria and not Lebanon strikes me as being unrealistic. They may take it to both Lebanon and Syria, but I don’t think it’s likely. They will already have their hands full in Lebanon.
If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, I think the Israelis will come to the conclusion that they cannot allow Hezbollah to be strong on their northern border. They can manage Hamas to a certain extent, but Hezbollah is a different matter. So I think if Iran develops nuclear weapons, Israel will feel the need to attack Lebanon and try to neutralize Hezbollah. I’m not a military specialist, but I think that would have to involve a ground war and that the Israelis would have to move as far north as they can to destroy Hezbollah’s infrastructure. It would be, as I said earlier, a very messy affair.
MJT: It all looks pretty bleak in the short and medium term, but how do you feel about Lebanon’s long term prospects? I sometimes get the sense that you’re a bit less of a long-term pessimist than I am.
Michael Young: No, I share your pessimism. My book is not an optimistic book. It ends with a question, which is, what happens next? I view the signs of liberalism in our society as something positive, but overall this is a book about a country that came full circle.
In 2005 we had a moment when Lebanon managed to get rid of the Syrian army, and in 2009 the Syrians effectively returned to Lebanon. They only returned politically, but ultimately I think their desire is to return militarily.
MJT: I agree.
Michael Young: But already they’re dominating us politically once again. So in that sense I share your pessimism. It’s difficult to be an optimist in the Middle East.
MJT: It certainly is.
Michael Young: Lebanon’s illiberal institutions effectively cancel each other out and create spaces for liberal actions. Hezbollah is also a beneficiary of this sectarian system. Only Lebanon could have allowed a party like Hezbollah to build up a parallel state.
The spaces our society opens up allow people to be who they want to be, so sometimes it allows the worst characteristics of Lebanese society to go on without any restraint. Hezbollah has managed to use the weakness of the state to build its own state.
As a libertarian, I’m all for weak states, but obviously when a weak state allows a political-military organization to establish a parallel state, or when a weak state allows illiberal institutions to dominate in many cases, we have to look at the proposition a little more closely.
MJT: I share your affection for the country, and I can understand why you prefer to live in Lebanon when, as a dual citizen, you could just as easily live in the United States, but what surprises me is that you and your mother were there during parts of the civil war when you could have returned to Washington.
Michael Young: I was here for ten or eleven years of the civil war. As much as I like the United States, Lebanon is my country. And we weren’t living in the bunkers for all of those ten or eleven years. There were some good years in that period. I was growing up then, and I remember many of those years with fondness. It wasn’t wall-to-wall fighting and wall-to-wall carnage, but there were, of course, difficult years in there, particularly the Israeli siege of West Beirut in 1982, which I lived through. I was at an age where it attached me more to the country than it detached me to the country.
If there is another long war will I have the same forbearance? I’m not sure. But it’s an interesting place, it’s home, and I have to stay.
MJT: So who are you trying to reach with your book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square? What do you hope to accomplish?
Michael Young: I was trying to reach several audiences. First of all, I wanted to write a book for a non-specialist audience in the United States that introduces our political culture. At the same time, I wanted to write a book of reportage about a rich time period. Lebanon from 2005 to 2009 was when many of the best and worst characteristics in Lebanon played themselves out. We’ve had political assassinations, a war in 2006, and very nearly civil war in 2007 and 2008. This was a brief period that offered a lot of lessons, and I wanted to present this to a non-specialist audience. At the same time, I wanted to write a book that the Lebanese themselves would be able to read, whose interpretations they might find interesting. I didn’t just want this book to be for a general Western audience. I want the Lebanese to read it and come away with insights into their own system and political culture. I really did want the book to be engaged with the political debate inside Lebanon, even though it is in English. Whether I succeeded or not, I don’t know, but that was my aim.
MJT: I have to say you are, at least among writers in English, one of the finest analysts the country has produced.
Michael Young: Well, thanks. We should remember, too, that Lebanon is a small place. There’s another book that came out about Lebanon recently by British author David Hirst, called Beware of Small States. Lebanon is a small state, and it is certainly one we should be careful with. It’s physically small and seems politically small until something happens and people realize that it’s not as small and unimportant as it sometimes seems.
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