Twelve years a ghost

Reflections on the Cedar Revolution and Lebanon’s loss of hope.

Beirut’s quiet, by its standards. Stumbling through the morning haze, Lebanese folks seem determined to caricaturize themselves today. Wading through mud, barrel-chested men moan about their shoes and socks—again proving that the season’s first rain, not war or constitutional crisis, is the hobgoblin of Lebanese resilience. Sitting outside of a shuttered store, two men stare at passersby with an intensity that suggests they’re about to get into some fisticuffs. A scooter-hero races down the road. Swerving to avoid a three-car traffic jam at the bottom of the hill, he swears at a man in a black hatchback. The man responds—proportionately, almost dispassionately—with just enough disrespect to preserve the balance. Two women walk up the hill, chatting in Armenian and carrying breakfast pies that smell of thyme, oil, and spice.

A man honks, at nothing. What the hell… It’s Independence Day.

Making my way towards downtown Beirut, I stroll down a street that snakes its way from the city's eastern hills; past two industrial districts now crammed with prefab bars, copycat cocktail spots, and an abominable “plub;” and towards a sterile city center that separates—and, indeed, divides—Beirut as the Green Line never could.

Some soldiers are manning checkpoints around the state-owned power company’s headquarters—where the staff can’t even manage to keep a sign, “Electricity of Lebanon,” lit. (They’ve since fixed the sign, probably out of spite. Bastards...)

“Where are you going?” a soldier asks.

“The parade,” I respond.

“You need an invitation,” he says.

“What? It’s Independence Day.”

“It’s a restricted event.”

“It’s… a parade.”

***

Twelve years ago, the Lebanese were high on hope. On Valentine’s Day, 2005, assassins killed Rafiq al-Hariri—a billionaire, former prime minister, and titan of Lebanon’s postwar political order. Sure, Hariri was never as beloved in life as he was in death, but he had—for better and for worse—shaped Lebanon’s fitful, frustrating rise from the ashes after its fifteen-year-long civil war ended. In the months before his death, Hariri was considering overtly opposing Syria’s occupation. Had he done so, Hariri—a Sunni, moderate Arab nationalist, and billionaire with international and regional contacts to boot—would have seriously challenged the Syrian regime, its Syro-Lebanese security service, and its stooges in the state.

Hariri’s assassins were, to put it glibly, trying to prevent a coup from above. Having already gotten away with murder—literally and figuratively—for decades, they resorted to a tried and true tactic: killing. But they overplayed their hand and triggered a revolt in the streets. Hariri’s funeral became a communal rally and—then, as Christians, Druze, and now-forgotten Shia joined Sunnis even that day—a political protest. In a series of protests, tens of thousands of Lebanese turned out to demand “truth,” “justice,” or “accountability.” Activists camped out in Martyrs’ Square—a public space that, in another of those delicious and dark ironies of Lebanon, is still shrinking today due to development driven by Hariri himself—to fly the flag of defiance. The Lebanese marked the moment of Hariri’s death every week for a month of Mondays and, in the process, toppled a government stacked with stooges. Then, on March 14, 2005, after a war waged with Hezbollah’s supporters through protests and counter-protests, more than a million free-minded Lebanese took to Beirut’s streets and squares. Despite their differences, they made a simple demand: “Syria Out.”

As the Lebanese marched for a “free, sovereign, and independent” state, a counter-elite—politicians and professionals who, for all their significant faults, coalesced to harness hope, brand the revolt, and craft a political strategy with domestic and international components—aligned against Syrian occupiers that they’d spent more than a decade essentially, though not always enthusiastically, helping. Lebanon’s leaders and citizens signaled strongly to the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia—states whose officials had, from the late 1980s to at least 2003, shunned free-minded Lebanese—that an idea’s time had come. All of a sudden, a free Lebanon was no longer a pet project of those committee-forming lobbyists that pepper the fringes of power; no, the tiny state became an issue inviting bipartisan and transatlantic consensus—with Republicans and Democrats in Washington converging even as the Bush administration and Chiraq clique did the same. American and French officials drove the UN Security Council to call for Syria’s withdrawal, while the Saudis adjusted an Arab consensus that they had helped created and consecrate since the late 1980s.

The Syrian regime calculated that it couldn’t continue occupying Lebanon. Thirty years after entering the country at the request of local leaders and international powers, Syrian troops left Lebanon at the request of local leaders and international powers. And the Lebanese cheered their departure just as they’d cheered their arrival—with rice and rose petals.

***

Helicopters zip across the sky. Approaching some soldiers near the highway that leads from Beirut to northern Lebanon, I wonder if this’ll be the closest I’ll come to a goddamn parade today: a soldier on a tank; three others milling about a gas station, swapping stories and cigarettes; a woman just standing on the corner; and the choppers above.

“What are you doing?” a soldier says. “Where are you coming from?”

“Walking,” I answer, pointing back up the hill. “From there.”

“Where are you going?” he smiles, satiated.

“I’m trying to watch the parade.”

“You need an invitation.”

“It’s a parade!”

“Not for us. You need an invitation.”

***

The Cedar Revolution, like the Arab Spring that has since dwarfed it in the Western imagination, was a magical moment. But it was only a moment.

Since that breakfast of hope, the Lebanese have dined on disappointment. Lebanese leaders—not democrats or liberals, in the fullest sense, but still somehow more democratic and liberal than others in the Levant—coped with brutal behavior that would’ve tested leaders unencumbered by their peculiar weaknesses, legacies, and constraints. While those leaders may not have been true believers, they possessed the power necessary to translate hopes and aspirations into policies and strategies.  And while they failed, they were—and may still be, as much as it pains me to say it—the only people capable of succeeding. (Disagree? Eh, hizz tizzak.)

From 2005 to 2013, for instance, assassins killed more than a dozen of their friends, associates, and allies—to say nothing of Lebanese officials whose only crimes were, it seems, competence and commitment. They killed MPs such as Pierre Gemayel, Antoine Ghanem, and Walid Eido; journalists Gebran Tueni and Samir Kassir; Lebanese army general Francois Hajj, police intelligence chief Wissam Hassan, and police captain Wissam Eid. Pouring acid on the wound, they killed Mohammad Chatah—a statesman whose death, coming eight years after the height of hope, might have deterred others from practicing politics but for the fact that his life far outweighed what his killers did, and what any killers could ever do, with bullets or bombs. (Again, none of these people were as beloved in life as they were in death. Nor were they as perfect or as principled as memories have made them. Who the hell is, anyway? But they’d all “inconvenienced Syria”—and thus became, as an Englishman might put it, “bad liabilities from the life-insurance point of view.”)

Lebanese leaders also had to cope with Hezbollah—a Lebanese Shia Islamist organization that controls a political party, militia, social services institutions, and commercial enterprises in Lebanon and beyond. Hezbollah has been a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization since 1997 and American intelligence officials have long believed that it—or, at least, one of the proto-parties that preceded it—carried out the 1983 Marine Barracks Bombings. Even so, it remains popular among certain segments of society in Lebanon. The Party of God began to obstruct and intimidate free-minded Lebanese even during the Cedar Revolution. For starters, Hezbollah organized counter-protests in Riad al-Solh Square, a different public space for citizens harboring different hopes and struggling with different memories and fears. On March 8, 2005, Hezbollah mobilized hundreds of thousands of Lebanese to “thank” Syria for its occupation and remind other Lebanese of its political power. (No word yet on whether the Partisans of God meant, or merely happened to, commemorate the Syrian Baath Party’s coup—nay, revolution—of March 8, 1963…)

A year later, Hezbollah and the Israeli army fought the July War of 2006. Hezbollah kidnapped two soldiers—and killed another five—in a raid against an Israeli patrol near the Israel-Lebanon border. Although it was probably trying to orchestrate another of its then-routine prisoner exchanges with Israel and thus divert discussions on its disarmament, Hezbollah triggered a strategic struggle that its Iranian patrons—and everyone involved, really—would’ve preferred to avoid. Launching an aerial assault against the Lebanese, the Israelis killed more than 1,000 people; displaced hundreds of thousands of people from South Lebanon, while driving many Lebanese back into self-imposed, disgust-driven exile; and caused billions of dollars in (direct) damage. Hezbollah, which did its fair share of killing and destroying, declared the devastation a “Divine Victory.” Like so many Lebanese before them, the Partisans of God snatched a political victory out of the jaws of military defeat.

In 2008, Hezbollah and its allies—including the secular Amal Movement and the thuggish Syrian Social Nationalist Party—launched another war on hope. They attacked Beirut and the Chouf Mountains, breaking yet another of Hezbollah's not-so-solemn promises: that it would never turn its guns against other Lebanese. (Never mind that the party had already been lording its guns over its rivals’ heads since the end of Syria’s occupation.) Under political pressure from Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who was either probing the limits of American support or severely miscalculating, Lebanese ministers dismissed an airport security official sympathetic to Hezbollah and tried to disable the party’s telecommunications network. Hezbollah overran Beirut in a few days and, after a struggle, encircled the Chouf Mountains. Not content with killing scores of Lebanese and embarrassing the government, the fighters vandalized property, set buildings ablaze, and flew fascistic flags in areas still marred by their presence today.

Suffering through assassinations and watching wars, Lebanese leaders also had to deal with their allies’ asinine adjustments of policy towards Lebanon. Throughout 2005, the American, French, and Saudi officials had cultivated a coalition they hoped could confront the Syrian regime and—depending on developments—Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon. In the ensuing years, however, they sometimes seemed eager to fold Lebanon back into their Syria portfolios. Not only did they basically blame Lebanese leaders for failing to do domestically what they—with all their financial, commercial, legal, diplomatic, and military might—couldn’t do internationally, but they carried on as if their own policies hadn’t contributed to the conditions they’d sought to avoid or reverse. In 2007, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy began bringing the Syrian regime in from the cold. By 2008, he’d all but founded the Friends of Bashar—a group of self-styled statesmen, realists, and area specialists “doing their damndest to save the skin of a man [who’d] never shown any sign of recognizing Lebanese independence,” leaving the Lebanese without “a clue as to [who’d] save their skins.” In 2009, the Obama administration reengaged the Assad regime without conditions, benchmarks, or parameters—posting an ambassador in Damascus and sending then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry on a fruitless round of dinner diplomacy. With Hezbollah outgunning them on the ground and their international patrons utterly undercutting them, Lebanese leaders nonetheless won parliamentary elections in 2009. Not wanting to again confront the men with guns, they—for the third time in four years—formed a national-unity government that included parties from the disloyal opposition. Perhaps feeling left out of the Club Bashar's “soft opening,” the Saudis launched a so-called “S-S Solution”—an ill-conceived, poorly-executed, and quickly-abandoned attempt to extract nothing and give away everything.

After cutting squares for a year, Hezbollah shared its solution for Lebanon. In January 2011, it served Hariri and his allies a three-course heap of humiliation. First, having compelled Lebanese leaders to form a national-unity government after it lost the 2009 elections, Hezbollah toppled that self-same government just as Lebanese and American leaders were discussing how to support the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Second, they resigned en masse while Hariri was—literally—entering the White House to meet with then-U.S. president Barack H. Obama. Hariri walked in a premier, touting the benefits of a painful compromise he’d made with men he believed killed his father, and walked out a dazed and confused caretaker. (Sound familiar?) Third, they had Gebran Bassil—the political protégé and son-in-law of a man who spent fifteen years in a Parisian townhouse, before allying with an erstwhile enemy that submits to ayatollahs in Tehran—declare that Hariri had to choose between “Beirut or Washington, or Beirut and any other capital.

And, so, Hariri did. Embarrassed and facing a death threat that Western, Arab, and Lebanese intelligence officials assessed as credible, he chose Paris and Riyadh. Spending the next five years in exile, Hariri—like the Lebanon he so unwittingly epitomizes and represents—reemerged as relevant only in the worst of ways: a crisis, a tiff, an accident, and so on. Towards the end of 2016, however, Lebanese leaders forged another of their periodic cross-communal consensuses. In addition to preserving their position, the leaders were trying to maintain order, support a currency under pressure, and insulate Lebanon from the closing chapters of Syria’s struggle. (As a bonus, of course, they divvied up their shares of state institutions and connected enterprises.)

Hariri returned to Beirut. But he came home to a city whose citizens might be forgiven for abandoning hope in favor of anger, then abandoning that anger in favor of apathy, during his long absence.

***

“This year’s a little different,” another soldier at another checkpoint says.

Every year’s a little different!”

“Listen,” he replies, offering me a cigarette. “Go home, make yourself a warm cup of Nescafe, and watch the parade on television—like everyone else.”

“Some parade.”

“Some independence!” he smirks. “Eh?”

***

This year was “different,” alright. After Hariri returned to Beirut, Lebanese leaders returned to the politics of convergence and compromise. They didn’t deliver much. Lebanon remains rife with problems that have been destroying people’s spirit. Traffic is terrible, leading to billions in lost dollars and invaluable lost time each year. Roads and related infrastructure are poor, being neither comfortable nor safe. Public transportation consists of a network of buses and taxis that, while relatively cheap, are often unsafe and subject to the aforementioned traffic and road issues. Water is wasted, with at least twenty percent of the water pumped into Beirut simply leaking through pipes—and with collection, storage, and other management practices bordering on the farcical. Power is generated, transmitted, and distributed inefficiently, expensively, and hazardously—and that’s to say nothing of the state-owned power company’s unwillingness to properly bill and collect for the services it does manage to provide. Telecommunications remain slow and expensive, with any attempt to access the Internet requiring three rounds of swearing, two rounds of prayer, and a series of sacrifices to pagan, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish gods. Zoning, construction standards, and sensible building don’t exist. The environment is under siege, with the Lebanese having some of the worst rates of greenery per person, air quality, and noise pollution in the world. Then, there’s the trash, which was the crisis du jour until this year—when it was displaced by a public-sector salary scale debacle, an aborted tax increase, and a war against Islamists in Lebanon’s northeastern borderlands.

And, yet, Lebanese leaders delivered stability. They did, finally, agree to an electoral law that will give citizens a small chance to reset their politics—or at least vent through the vote. And, in their inter-elite bargaining, they resurrected the state institutions they had been strangulating in the prior phase of bickering. In doing so, they at least allowed the Lebanese to help themselves in peace.

Then, the circus came to town—or, to Riyadh. On November 4, 2017, Hariri resigned in Riyadh and thrust Lebanon into another of those constitutional crises that have defined its existence since the Cedar Revolution. As it turns out, the royals in Riyadh had pressured Hariri—a Saudi subject, with significant personal and financial interests in the Kingdom—into the decision. (Delivering a scripted and stilted speech, Hariri might as well have been holding up his ID card and a copy of the morning paper.) In an ensuing month of mystery and misery, President Michel Aoun and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah—whose parties have humiliated Hariri and scorned Sunnis for much of the past decade—propped up their erstwhile enemy, now humiliating him by helping him. Aoun refused to accept Hariri’s resignation, unless it was delivered in writing and in Beirut, although neither condition is a constitutional requirement. Nasrallah gave a rather restrained, somewhat sympathetic, and politically patronizing speech in support of the Vanished Premier—a man now joining the Vanished Imam in the pantheon of Lebanese Lords. Deeply divided about whether to confront or compromise with other Lebanese, members of Hariri's party quickly rallied around him. “We’re not herds of sheep,” one politician said, making the sort of comment that exposes a truth it’s meant to hide. After that, American and French leaders waded into the mud. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, perhaps sympathizing with Hariri’s plight as a political hostage, bluntly supported him as “a strong partner of the United States.” French President Emmanuel Macron traveled to Saudi Arabia, invited Hariri to France, and promised to receive him as a prime minister—a face-saving gesture, par excellence. Hariri flew to France, then through Egypt and Cyprus, and touched down in a Lebanon so beaten down that some people took to the streets in glee.

Cutting another Levantine deal, Hariri and other Lebanese leaders agreed to put his resignation on hold. (Never mind that, to cut through the constitutional and legal debate, he was and is a caretaker premier.) In return for his troubles, and Saudi brinksmanship, Lebanese leaders might tweak their next cabinet’s policy statement or perhaps refrain from including Hezbollah ministers in the government itself. They will not—and should not—careen towards confrontation soon.

Since the deal, however, Hariri has basically backtracked on everything. On the one hand, Hariri has—like many who bear the burdens of leadership—been trying to make a virtue out of a necessity. His problem, judging by the past twelve years and the end of 2017, is his habit of making himself far more “virtuous” than is necessary. Hezbollah, meanwhile, has basically backtracked on nothing. It may declare that it has no interest in Yemen, where it has played a marginal role at best. It may—and even this is a stretch—agree to withdrawing its ministers from government, for which it sets the red lines and participates in through allies and intermediaries anyway. And it may agree to move the Republic of Lebanon back towards the neutral column, on the international diplomatic stage, even while the Lebanese, Arabs, and Westerners understand that Lebanon's neutrality is both fictional and irrelevant. (Nothing will change in the short term. But these are yet more heaps of humiliation that could, at some point down the line, sow seeds of strife.)

And here we are. Again.

The Lebanese have taken the “scenic route” to nowhere: an odyssey of occupation, war, paralysis, corruption, and assassinations—and yet another crisis-cum-circus to close out 2017.

Twelve years after the Cedar Revolution, Hariri’s still a shadow of his father. Although he’s beloved, Hariri sometimes struggles to stir hope, instill fear, or command respect. He is to leaders what Beirut is to cities: the best of a bad bunch, the “Paris of the Middle East.” He is reluctant, almost awkward, when it comes to wielding the tools of power available to Lebanese leaders—and so, like middling moderates around the Middle East, has sort of stumbled into an exaggerated Platonic trait best described as dunaphobia. He isn’t a saint; but he’s sinned the least.

The rest of Lebanon’s leaders are still kings in cages, too. For all their posturing, and for all their jibber-jabber regarding Hariri’s limitations, they’re also beholden to foreign patrons, trapped by their legacies, and constrained by communal constituents—who drive and demand elites’ behavior more than is recognized. They’ve all spent years in exile, jail, bunkers, or compounds that might as well be prisons. Their conflicts—constitutional, political, military, economic—remain as intricate and as intimately internationalized as they were fifty, a hundred, and a hundred-and-fifty years ago.

What's worse, the Lebanese now struggle to summon a ghost of the hope they once harbored. They aren’t the activists, journalists, and humanitarians who inhabit the Beirut Bubble, benefiting—whether they care to admit it or not—from the chaos and mediocrity engulfing everyone else. They aren’t the sort of trilingual libertines who, in painting the cartoonish backdrops of most outside observers’ lives here, distort the world’s sense of the place. They’re the people who, well, weren’t invited to the parade. They’re the sorts of people who no longer allow themselves to have hope—which they see as an inconvenient, troublesome, and luxurious feeling at best—because it’s only without hope that they can cope. Having clamored for change—or for guarantees that change wouldn’t unduly undo progress—they live in purgatory: a people neither free nor unfree, a state neither sovereign nor subjugated, a land neither independent nor occupied. And now they’ve had to watch Lebanese leaders, basically a half-dozen men and their errand boys, turn a public parade into a private party—one held in poor taste, with no citizens present and nothing, certainly nothing much, for them to celebrate anyway.

***

After four rounds of rejection, I take a taxi back up the hill. For some godforsaken reason, I’m still trying to watch the spectacle on television.

“Euf!” the cabdriver huffs, after a minute of silence. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing…”

“Aren’t you going to wish me a happy holiday?”

“Happy holiday.”

“For what?” he says, cackling and grabbing my knee. “Independence Day? Wait until Christmas. We might all be feeling better by then.”

I stare ahead.

Scanning me for a minute, he nods gently. “Look. It could be worse.”