Sunday, June 17, 2012

Jordan Challenge 36: Untangling the Politics of Lebanon

One of the many things I've learned from my ten months in Jordan is that I absolutely love Beirut.  As my good friend and fellow political science Fulbrighter Mike and I often concur, it is a political scientist's stomping ground of the first order.  No decision could have possibly easier, then, when Mike and Cooper graciously invited me to join them for a return trip to Lebanon for a week.  Although the three of us are, admittedly, a bit nerdy in our fascination of the politics of the place, I am proud to say that we also got in touch with our more adventuresome side and did a Middle Eastern version of one of my favorite things from my year of 52 New Things: 24 hours without sleeping (this time in Beirut instead of New York City). But work before pleasure (even if learning the politics was pleasure to our rabidly political brains), and the story of 24 hours on the go in the not-so-sleepy city of Beirut will get its own post.
Mike and Cooper on the Corniche at the beginning of our week-long quest to learn more about the complicated realm of Lebanese politics.

If I could neatly explain Lebanese politics in a single blog post I would be brilliant and probably worthy of some sort of important prize, because that is an impossible task.  So, I shall not attempt it, but rather content myself with briefly mentioning two of the obvious features that make the politics of the country at once impossibly complicated but endlessly fascinating.  The first is Lebanon's sectarian make-up and the second is its neighbors.These two things cause tiny little Lebanon to pack a punch far greater than its size -geographic or population-wise - would normally warrant.

 When Lebanon got its independencefrom the French in the 1940s, there was a national census that found that Christians were a slight majority of the population. A system of governance was set up that gave different sects different roles in the government. The demographics have shifted over time because of a number of factors including the outward migration of Christian Lebanese to other parts of the world, differential birthrates, and the influx of Palestinian refugees in 1948 who now number some 400,000 (in a country with only 4 million people). But there has never been another census -- one of many points of contention among politicians and the citizenry. The system still works by setting aside special roles for each religious group -- Christians still hold the Presidency, Sunni Muslims the Prime Ministership, Shia'a Muslims the Parliamentary Speakership. The fourth largest group are the Druze (a religious sect that broke from the Shia'a in the 11th century), and they have often constituted a sort of wild card in parliamentary politics, where their votes and positions are needed to form a viable government or bloc on an issue.

At various points in time Lebanon has been occupied by both Israel and Syria, and has been engaged in its own civil wars, with those two neighbors also playing pivotal roles in aiding particular sides in the fighting. These two countries also played important roles in the emergence of what is probably the most well-known faction to Americans, Hezbollah. In the 60s, 70s and 80s Palestinians organized through the PLO and Christian militias known as Phalanges with the backing of Israel fought each other, and the situation became an outright Civil War in 1973. The civil war gave Syria a reason to come in as an occupying force in 1976, which it did, and then Israel came in to occupy the southern part of Lebanon in 1978. Hezbollah emerged in 1983 as an Iranian and Syrian-backed resistance movement that used terror tactics to drive out Israel. Now in 2012 Hezbollah continues to control a lot of Southern Lebanon. It also holds twelve seats in the Lebanese Parliament and considers itself still at war with Israel, in part because of some disputed territory still under Israeli control called the Shebaa Farms.
A place I never knew existed, much less ever imagined I'd visit -- the Hezbollah Museum in the town of Mlita in Southern Lebanon.  If you want to understand Lebanon, you have to learn about Hezbollah.  And to do that, go to the source.

This centerpiece exhibit features captured and destroyed weaponry from fights with Israel.

The occupation by Syria was also highly controversial and the cause of much fighting, which came to a head in a terrible car bombing in 2005 of former Lebanese Prime Minister (who was running again for office), Rafik Hariri. Hariri had been a very successful businessman-turned-politician. He was seen as a good coalition-builder and who had been increasingly moving to a position of demanding Syrian withdrawal. His assassination was credited with galvanizing a critical mass of the country and a political coalition known as the March 14 Alliance into demanding Syria's withdrawal. Although the Alliance eventually succeeded in forcing a formal withdrawal, Syria's presence remains a reality in many ways in Lebanon and Syria's civil war has spilled over into the North. A coalition of groups, including Hezbollah and its fellow Shiite group Amal, known as the March 8 Coalition continue to back the Al-Assad regime in Syria, while the March 14 Alliance opposes it.
The memorial to Rafik Hariri is a permanent tented display next to the giant mosque he paid for and had built for the city of Beirut.

With Hariri in the upper right, the other images are of other people who were killed the day of the bombing.  The total eventually extended to 23.  One of the deaths I thought was most tragic was of the young man in the lower left hand corner.  He was a paramedic in the convoy who was on hand in the event of just such an attack.  He burned to death when the blast caught his ambulance on fire.

As I hope even this extremely brief and superficial description of a few salient features and events illustrates, Lebanese politics is not an undertaking for the faint of heart. But we threw ourselves into it. We read books on the subject while we were there, plied Mike's friend and former student turned Lebanon journalist Steven with many questions, visited Beirut neighborhoods and areas of the country that visibly identify themselves with various political factions and discussed, discussed, discussed.
Book club!  In between our wanderings, all three of us were reading books to help us make sense of what we were exploring.  Mike and I were reading Killing Mr. Lebanon, the story of the Hariri assassination, and Cooper tackled Warriors of God, the story of Hezbollah, both of which were written by the journalist Nicholas Blanford.

And of course, we had to discuss -- at great length -- our questions and discoveries, preferably over sunset waterfront dinners such as this one we were having in Byblos.

As I told Mike and Cooper at the conclusion of our week, I now believe I know quite a lot more, but understanding is a whole different thing. It's a good thing I love Beirut, because I think the path to clarity on this one is long and winding, and maybe even never-ending. That's hardly a burden, though, when the quest for understanding is happening in such an amazing place, with two fabulous and equally curious friends and travel buddies. I'd be ready for another round just about any time.


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