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Sect Symbols | The Nation

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Sect Symbols

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The 2005 uprising forced Syria to withdraw its troops after twenty-nine years of military presence in Lebanon. But it also split the country into a new clash of paradigms. Lebanese alliances are notoriously unstable, shifting with the slightest wind of political change. Today, the Sunnis have joined hands with their old competitors among the Maronite zaims, as well as the Druse followers of the formerly anti-American Walid Jumblatt, all of whom now look to the United States and Saudi Arabia for protection.

About the Author

Annia Ciezadlo
Annia Ciezadlo, a journalist based in Beirut, has written for The New Republic and the Christian Science Monitor.

Also by the Author

The wounds of the country's long civil war and Israeli occupation were
gradually healing. That fragile recovery now lies buried under the
rubble of renewed fighting.

As Lebanon braces for a descent into an all-too-familiar chaos, anger and the quest for comfort have sent people to the streets in search of bread and someone to blame. Anna Ciezadlo reports from Beirut that when Iraqis are text-messaging from Baghdad to see if you're OK, you know it's not good.

Meanwhile, their Shiite countrymen have forged a temporary marriage with the Maronite Christian supporters of former army commander Michel Aoun, who fought against Syria during the civil war. The general, whose followers were a driving force behind the anti-Syrian uprising of 2005, has now joined forces with Hezbollah, a party backed by both Iran and Syria. The rallying cry of this new and vehemently anti-American opposition--uniting the militantly Shiite Party of God with the mostly Maronite Aounists--is the ruling coalition's corruption and the country's crushing public debt, inherited by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora from his mentor, Hariri.

Today, downtown Beirut is divided once again. In December Hezbollah, Amal and Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement, as well as some smaller parties, set up camp in the heart of Hariristan, and they have vowed to stay there until Siniora's US-backed government steps down. Tent cities flowered overnight, each flying its own flag, subdividing Solidere's sovereign territory into ever-smaller statelets: Hezbollahstan, Aounistan, Communistan. Across a border of concertina wire, Siniora hunkers in his office, the old Ottoman-era barracks known as the Grand Serail.

The summer's war with Israel has politicized the postwar reconstruction of Lebanon once again, with money flowing in from various would-be patrons to repair the shattered infrastructure in exchange for political allegiance. Iran is pouring money into the Shiite south through Hezbollah; the United States and Gulf monarchies are lavishing funds on the Sunni-led government through a donor's conference held in Paris. Once again, Lebanon's political elite is poised to find salvation--and big, big money--in the reconstruction racket. And once again, Lebanon is facing the oldest, saddest choice in the modern Arab world: between undemocratic religious militants and a greedy, corrupt elite whose biggest selling point is its dubious ability to keep those militants at bay.

There was one man who might have resolved these competing visions of Lebanon: Hariri, who cultivated a close relationship with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Their friendship may surprise Westerners, especially as the Middle East sinks into Sunni-Shiite strife. But in Lebanon, it made perfect sense: Both were self-made zaims, powerful politicians, first among their equals. With Hariri around, Hezbollah would not have feared disarmament under Saudi and American pressure; and the Sunnis, with their powerful patriarch, would not have feared domination by the country's Shiites. Were he alive today, Hariri might have fixed the problem, at least temporarily, the way he always did: with money.

In the end, Hariri was no worse than any of the crooks who compose Lebanon's political class. In fact, his tragedy is precisely that he held so much promise to be different from the rest--few of them built anything enduring, however corruptly, or put kids through school--yet he ended up adopting their strong-arm ways. He outgrew his Syrian overlords and their Lebanese lackeys by beating them at their own game; and that, in the end, is very likely what killed him. He was a mythic figure, all right, as the books say. But by overlooking Solidere's corruption and its state-sponsored thuggery, they rob Hariri's story of its lurid greatness. Besides being more accurate, Hariri the big-hearted bandit is a much more interesting character than Hariri the martyr, the noble shaheed who gave his life to heal his war-torn country. Saints are boring; but as any Sopranos fan can tell you, a gangster who feels occasional flickers of conscience, sporadic signs of integrity, is a character well worth writing about. The book that would truly do Hariri justice would read less like a hagiography and more like the classic sagas of big-city political machines: Robert Caro's portrait of power-mad master builder Robert Moses, The Power Broker; and two masterly biographies of Chicago's legendary Mayor Richard J. Daley, Mike Royko's Boss and Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor's American Pharaoh. Hariri had far more in common with Daley Senior--the Mubarak of the Midwest, father of its current mayor and the man who, for better and for worse, reshaped the city's skyline and its politics--than the saintly statesman of popular myth. And despite his corruption, he held together a country that, without him, seems to be coming apart.

Beirutis have a saying about Hariri: Ammar hajar wa dammar bashar--he built the stones and destroyed the people. But my favorite obituary of Hariri is more charitable. It came from the mother of a friend of mine, an old woman who has seen decades of zaims, of warlords with the same last names, come and go. As we walked past the patch of seafront where the big man was killed, she shook her head. "Hariri kaan mujrim, allah yirhamu," she sighed, with ironic resignation--Hariri was a criminal, may God have mercy on his soul.

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