ANDREW ADONIS on the country’s troubled past and its hope for the future.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Lebanon was known as ‘the Switzerland of the East’ and Beirut ‘Paris of the Middle East’. Then came a civil war. Switzerland had one of those too, in 1847, lasting 26 days with 93 deaths. Lebanon’s lasted 15 years with 120,000 deaths, and it hasn’t really finished.
All this in a country half the size of Wales with the population of London and a political and religious history and geography as complicated as Byzantine’s, indeed intertwined with it at every stage.
It is a miracle that Lebanon has survived at all; maybe it won’t do so for much longer. Like Poland for much of its history, it has effectively been carved up by outside powers, but none strong enough to annexe it entirely. It is also overwhelmed with refugees, many from its own civil war and many more from neighbouring Syria’s.
During Lebanon’s civil war, Syria from the north and east and Israel from the south largely occupied the country. They came close to formalising the partition but a modicum of decorum on Israel’s part, and intense competition between different Saudi and Syrian Sunni factions, and between those two powers and Shia-majority Iran, led to the shell of a state surviving.
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The label ‘Hezbollah’ is bandied about, but this Shia political party/terrorist group is as faction-ridden as its international sponsors. The best way of understanding the forces besieging Lebanon is to watch Game of Thrones – except that the powers vying for the Levantine republic are far more complex and ruthless than those contesting the iron throne of the Seven Kingdoms.
The crucial moment was when forces around Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad overreached and on February 14, 2005, assassinated Lebanon’s then Saudi-sponsored ex-prime minister Rafic Hariri. This happened by means of an enormous bomb in Beirut, which will have been in the minds of many Lebanese last week after the explosion of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate supposedly stored ‘unsafely’ at a warehouse in the port.
In the civil and international reaction to Hariri’s 2005 assassination, Assad was forced to retreat. France, the former colonial power with some continuing economic and political sway, thereafter helped shore up a nominally independent but chronically clientelistic coalition government. For about half of the last decade it was led by Rafic’s son Saad Hariri, until he was forced to stand down this January after huge street protests against corruption and misrule. Hence the weak technocratic government under Hassan Diab, an engineering graduate of Surrey university, until he was figuratively, almost literally, blown away by last week’s explosion.
‘I discovered that the system of corruption is bigger than the state,’ Diab said in his resignation address on Monday, after just 202 days in office. Which makes him maybe the last Lebanese adult alive to have discovered that fact. To grasp the astronomic, humongous, gargantuan scale of Lebanese corruption, understand that Rafic Hariri was one of the hundred wealthiest men in the world. When prime minister, he was reportedly the fourth-richest politician in the world.
Where did this poor Sunni trainee teacher accumulate his billions? He emigrated to Saudi Arabia, switched from teaching to construction, or rather the brokering of construction contracts, and one thing led to another. Reappearing in Beirut as a philanthropist and national saviour in the depths of the civil war, he was just about able to take – or purchase – the leadership of a nominal government.
Rafic’s former deputy later accused him of helping to destroy central Beirut by ‘terrorist explosions’ in order to rebuild it again and make billions of dollars in the process. Who knows. I doubt the truth is stranger than what really happened in the port of Beirut last week.
Amazingly, many great things continue in Lebanon regardless. One of the greatest is wine-making in the Beqaa Valley, a tradition dating back 6,000 years. Serge Hochar, a heroic Lebanese patriot and entrepreneur, continued to produce the wonderful Chateau Musar throughout the 15 years of civil war, dodging shells and roadblocks. Where there’s life there’s hope – and good wine.