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.
Ali Mohammad Alayan, 47, who fled the southern village of Qalaouay in the first days of the war to stay in a Beirut park with his family, laughed–gently, then bitterly–at the idea that Hezbollah ought to give way to the Lebanese army. He recalled the fate of a Lebanese internal security force whose barracks Israeli troops seized after occupying the southern town of Marjayoun on August 10. (The commander of the unit, which was evacuated in a refugee convoy subsequently bombed by Israeli forces, was detained briefly by Lebanese authorities after Israeli and Lebanese TV stations broadcast footage of him having tea with Israeli soldiers at the base.) “They had their weapons taken away by twenty Israeli soldiers, with nobody firing a shot while they’re getting stripped down to their shorts. And these are the people who’ll protect the south?” asked Alayan. “If the resistance wasn’t backing them up, there’s no way they could even talk about this.” That dim view of the institutions intended to represent and serve the Lebanese, as Lebanese, is all that unites the many voices now asking what will become of the country.
In an address broadcast on Hezbollah’s TV station the evening the cease-fire took effect, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared victory. Answering critics who accused him of dragging Lebanon into war on behalf of Hezbollah’s Iranian and Syrian patrons, he called his triumph Lebanon’s, linking its future to the group’s arms. “We’re an essential part of this country and we believe in the state. But what state?” asked Nasrallah, who in a previous address said he had opposed sending Lebanon’s army to the south out of fear for its safety. He said he hoped for a state capable of defending Lebanon, so that “you no longer need to be in popular frameworks called the resistance.”
Nasrallah’s remarks seemed almost to anticipate the words of Druse leader Walid Jumblatt, who has said Lebanon cannot survive with an armed Hezbollah. Speaking three days after the cease-fire, Jumblatt said: “If Israel wants to attack Lebanon tomorrow, it’ll attack the army–which will hold out for hours, or days, then be torn apart. And the resistance will remain.” Invoking the threat of domestic strife, he asked, “But who will protect us internally?” Jumblatt’s question pointed to the peril inherent in Lebanon’s present balancing act: deploying an army never used to defend the country to fulfill a cease-fire resolution that leaves Israel latitude to attack Hezbollah, while postponing the question of the group’s weapons, since all here acknowledge that any attempt to strip them by force would mean internecine bloodshed.
“We’re not speaking of a Jacobin state robbed of its monopoly on violence,” said Fawwaz Traboulsi, a historian at the Lebanese American University who helped lead Palestinian-allied militias during Israel’s 1982 invasion. Citing that period, he added, “This is a state that has long ceded major functions to society.”
A diplomatic compromise that effectively charges the state with disarming Hezbollah demands that Lebanon be immediately what it has never been at all. “Hezbollah is a mirror that shows the flaws of the Lebanese state,” said Joseph Samaha, editor in chief of the Al-Akhbar daily. “As a secular leftist, I’m behind the resistance while wanting a real, active, credible state that meets its responsibilities. If that’s there, I’m happy to say there’s no justification for your existence as an armed group. Give me a proper state and I’ll hand you the resistance.”