Identity Crisis

Lebanon's tangled past -- cosmopolitan but divided -- has set the stage for tragedy, again and again


If Lebanon were a Shakespearean play, it would be one of his tragedies.

Certainly almost any country in that troubled part of the globe would qualify for that status, but it is particularly appropriate for this swath of land along the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Those who have visited Beirut in times of peace and prosperity can wax eloquent about its Paris of the Middle East status, its heritage of French colonialism and a stunning physical beauty mixing with vigorous commerce and a polyglot culture to produce a city of unquestionable appeal.

Now, it is once again the scene of war and mayhem, an established peace and a nascent domestic democracy derailed by the tensions that pull on the country from within and without.

Waleed Hazbun, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, says that the very elements that make Lebanon so appealing carry with them the potential seeds of destruction.

"There is no centralized authoritarian state that imposed a certain national order," he says. "This allows pluralism to flourish. But within that pluralism, voices and movements from all around the region are able to be there.

"You don't have a centralized power to prevent militant groups, like the PLO and other things, from establishing themselves," Hazbun says. "So there is this contradiction in Lebanon."

The current problem illustrates that. In the same country where academic institutions and a free press flourish, the southern region is controlled by Hezbollah, which keeps its own militias armed and organized even as it participates in the most recent version of Lebanese democracy. The contradiction is clear: Hezbollah and its militia are part of a pluralistic government whose army is supposed to disarm Hezbollah.

"There is no unified national army that protects a single national interest," Hazbun says. "To the degree there has been an army, it has been dominated by various factions, so there is the fear that using it could spark sectarian tensions."

He notes that the Hezbollah militia is in some ways Lebanon's most professional force, hardened by its frequent fights with Israel.

It was Hezbollah that went across the border into Israel on July 12, killing and capturing Israeli soldiers, and that now is launching missiles into the Jewish state. And it is Israel that has responded by bombing not only much of the Hezbollah-controlled region, but also much of Beirut.

As with most aspects of the Middle East, these dynamics at once reflect recent contemporary realities and deep-seated historical tensions.

What we now know as Lebanon was a product of the colonial era. The French cobbled it together from the mandate over Syria they were given after World War I. But there had been long-standing ties between the French and the region, dating back to the Crusades when Frankish invaders took up residence in the region, welcomed by the large Christian community there.

In the 19th century, the area was the site of a proxy war with the French backing their allies the Maronite Christians while the British supported the Druze.

During these years, Beirut developed into a prosperous port, its historical contacts with Europe making it a gateway of sorts to what was still a mysterious part of the world to most Westerners.

"When Lebanon falls to the French, they patch it together in ways that are distinctive and distortive," says Madeline Zilfi, a historian at the University of Maryland, College Park. "They do the same thing that the British did in Iraq, support the people who seem most likely to support you.

"First they did that through trade, and then it becomes a legal reality under the mandate system," she says. Those people were France's long-standing allies, the Maronite Christians.

"The French mandate period aggravated or hardened a lot of the confessionally based religious lines," Zilfi says. "In part, the French were interested in making sure that the real majority of the population - the Muslims - did not come to rule. It's not that they were anti-Muslim, they were anti anybody who was opposed to French rule."

When the French left Lebanon during World War II, a dubious census left the Maronites with more power than they democratically deserved. Essentially, power was divided between the two relatively prosperous urban groups - the Maronite Christians and the Sunni Muslims.

Left out with barely a nod were the numerous Shiite Muslims, mostly rural and poor. Thus it is no surprise that is the population providing support for Hezbollah, which is also aided from the outside by the Shiite-dominated government in Iran, yet another example of regional struggles visited on Lebanese politics.

What Zilfi describes as Lebanon's "imposed creative tension" - France's artificial division of political powers - led to inevitable problems. The United States landed Marines there in 1958 during one of the periods of adjustment. Still, the country prospered in the 1960s. But eventually the tensions of the region overwhelmed its relative openness.

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