The month of carnage that was Israel’s failed attempt to destroy Hezbollah left Lebanon with a few bitter certainties. Its status as a holiday destination for the Persian Gulf’s sybarites is on hold, with 1,100 people to bury, much infrastructure in ruins and oil spilled by Israeli bombing lapping at Beirut’s shores. So too is Lebanon’s role as a success story in US regional strategy, proclaimed in Washington after Syrian troops left last year but now rendered comic by Hezbollah’s survival and immensely heightened popularity in the Middle East.
Less clear is the answer to a question asked by all Lebanese: What kind of country can this be? That question, in one form or another, is Lebanon’s modern history writ crude, from the construction of the republic during France’s mandate, with political privilege skewed toward its Maronite Christians, to the tug of war with a broader Arab identity that marked the road to the 1975-90 civil war. The question looms again now, leading many to wonder whether a politics based on tortuous sectarian consensus will collapse into renewed civil war should Hezbollah, flush with military victory, emerge as the country’s dominant armed player.
“What happens now? Do you have to bring a gun to get in the door in Lebanon now?” wondered 39-year-old Tony Hayek, a shopkeeper in one of the capital’s mainly Christian eastern neighborhoods. He feared that Hezbollah’s survival with its arms intact might resurrect the sectarian militias of Lebanon’s wartime bloodletting. “Everybody knows how to do that, and nobody needs encouragement. I don’t want to believe things can go in that direction, but I don’t have any guarantee that they won’t.” Those worries emerge from the fact that political divisions between Lebanon’s Shiites, the country’s largest group, and its other sects are more profound than at any time since the civil war, with the fate of Hezbollah’s weapons the main point of contention.
The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in February 2005, in which a preliminary UN investigation implicated Syrian intelligence officials and their Lebanese allies, triggered huge street demonstrations that helped force Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after nearly three decades of occupation. The date of the largest protest, March 14, gave a name to the coalition of Hariri allies who now lead Lebanon’s government; broadly sympathetic to US and French ambitions to end Syria’s sway in Lebanon, they have also sought a negotiated path to Hezbollah’s disarmament. They sit uneasily next to Hezbollah, which is represented in the Cabinet with ministers, in the Parliament with deputies–and was represented in the streets with a massive pro-Syrian protest earlier that March.
Efforts to square those two political forces foundered, most recently in a months-long “National Dialogue,” which was devoted in part to resolving the question of disarming Hezbollah, the only one of Lebanon’s militias not to formally surrender its weapons after the civil war. The group’s role in forcing Israel from Lebanon in 2000, and its remarkable performance against Israeli troops in this war, have settled that question for its partisans.