Last Thursday, Americans celebrated Thanksgiving and Lebanon commemorated its independence. It was 75 years to the day that French troops, who occupied the country and divided it from historic Syria in 1920, departed. Since then, Lebanon has suffered two civil wars that killed about 150,000 people, a Palestinian revolution that backfired, Syrian occupation, Israeli invasion, innumerable assassinations of politicians and journalists, the arrival of millions of Turkish Armenian, Palestinian and Syrian refugees, and the exodus of promising youth who cannot advance in a corrupt patronage system that awards jobs and prizes to the well-connected over the hard-working. As military bands played and soldiers paraded on Beirut's seafront to mark the occasion, many Lebanese must have wondered what they had to celebrate.
Their politicians cannot agree on a government after May's parliamentary elections, and negotiations have descended into a squabble between Shiite Hezbollah and the Sunni Muslim prime minister in waiting, Saad al-Hariri, over one seat in the Cabinet. The electricity supply is intermittent and depends on private generators belonging to what local media call the "generator mafia." Garbage collection is a disgrace and waste management nonexistent. Tap water is unsafe to drink, forcing everyone, rich and poor, to rely on bottled water. Building roads and constructing buildings requires paying heavy kickbacks. Lebanon, as every citizen complains, is a mess. Yet it remains the most livable country in the Arab world.
A Four-Decade Vendetta
They say that if you think you understand Lebanon, you should think again. When a Lebanese wants your attention, he or she simply asks, "Do you want to hear a story?" Everyone wants to hear a story. Here is one to explain something of the tribal, feudal past that Lebanon has yet to escape.
Forty years ago in Ehden, a mountain village in northern Lebanon, Christian militiamen murdered a fellow Christian leader, his wife and their 3-year-old daughter. Their son, who was 12, survived because he had been staying with his grandparents. The people of Ehden and its sister village of Zgharta buried Tony, Vera and Jihane Frangieh in the family tomb. Tony's father, former President Suleiman Frangieh, forswore vengeance, later explaining to a television documentarian: "That was the past and it must be forgotten. I do not seek revenge because God is the only judge; thus their conscience will haunt them for the rest of their lives." Yet, in accord with mountain tradition, many if not most of Ehden-Zgharta expected revenge.
The culprits were gunmen of the Lebanese Forces militia, then headed by Bashir Gemayel. Gemayel, son of Phalangist party founder Pierre Gemayel, sent Elie Hobeika and Samir Geagea with more than 200 armed men to remove Bashir Gemayel's rival for leadership of the country's dominant Maronite Catholic minority. They slaughtered the family, the bodyguards and the family's dog. Four years later, in 1982, the Lebanese parliament, under pressure from the occupying Israeli army, would elect Bashir Gemayel president, his reward for supporting the Israeli invasion of that summer. Pro-Syrian elements would assassinate him before he could be inaugurated. A few days afterward, Hobeika would lead the forces that massacred unarmed Palestinian women, children and old men in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps before shifting his allegiance from Israel to Syria. Shortly before he was due to testify in Belgium against former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Hobeika would be killed by a car bomb. Samir Geagea would take the Lebanese Forces into the Chouf mountains in 1983 to lord it over its Druze community. Geagea's depredations led to a Druze campaign that killed hundreds of Maronites and forced the rest from their homes. It was later said, "Where Samir Geagea steps, no Christian remains." He would serve 11 years in prison for murder, receive an amnesty in 2005 and assume leadership of the Lebanese Forces, which had transformed itself from a militia to a political party.
They say that if you think you understand Lebanon, you should think again.
Bashir Gemayel's and Hobeika's deaths provided only partial retribution for the people in Ehden-Zgharta as long as Geagea remained alive. The blood feud went deep: Geagea's family originated in the rival northern Maronite village of Bcharre. Bcharre is known for its most famous son, the poet Kahlil Gibran, but animosity between the two Maronite strongholds of the north would appall that gentle soul who wrote, "I love you, my brother, whoever you are — whether you worship in a church, kneel in your temple, or pray in your mosque."
The vendetta ended this month with a handshake and kisses on the cheek. Under the gaze of the patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church, Suleiman Frangieh, the now 53-year-old son of Tony Frangieh and grandson of the former president whose name he shares and whose political party, the Marada, he now leads, publicly forgave Geagea for murdering his parents and sister. This might be of local interest only, but Bashar al Assad's victory in Syria, the growing strength of Hezbollah's combat-tested veterans and the interest that Russia is taking in the country are affecting Lebanon. Frangieh and Geagea may have buried a hatchet, but Frangieh supports Syria and Hezbollah while Geagea aligns himself with Saudi Arabia and the West. It's never just about Lebanon. The title of David Hirst's excellent history of Lebanon, Beware of Small States, comes to mind.
Fears of Renewed Destabilization
The United States has enabled the Lebanese army to rebuild itself after the civil war ended in 1990, providing $1.7 billion in aid. The army, with assistance from Hezbollah, expelled the Islamic State from Arsal village near the border with Syria last year. The British have overseen the construction of watchtowers along the border to prevent infiltration by fanatic Islamist militants. This Western commitment to Lebanon's security is coming into question as a result of the parliamentary elections in May that left Hezbollah's political wing with the upper hand in forming a government. The possibility that the United States will extend its embargo of Iran to include Lebanon causes all Lebanese to fear renewed destabilization of the country.
The 1989 Taif agreement that ended the civil war required all Lebanese militias to disarm. All of them, except Hezbollah, did. Its rationale for retaining its military units was that it needed to resist Israel's occupation of the country's south. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, the militia still refused to disband. The excuse for retaining arms was that Israel's withdrawal was only partial, because Israel kept an 8-square-mile plot of Lebanon called the Shebaa Farms. No one in Lebanon, apart from Hezbollah, had heard of Shebaa. It is Lebanese territory, but Syria had taken control of it after the war with Israel in 1948. Israel conquered the territory in 1967 from Syria, not Lebanon, and insists its future depends on negotiations over Syrian territory, including the Golan Heights. The peaceful way to deprive Hezbollah of a pretext to hold on to its armed forces would be for Israel to offer to return Shebaa to Lebanon in return for Hezbollah's disarmament.
That won't happen. The United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia’s obsession with Iran threatens to turn Lebanon into a battlefield for outside powers, this time Israel and Iran, to settle their differences. Meanwhile, Lebanon's politicians squabble over how much of the country's treasure each of them is entitled to steal.