Lebanon after the Cedar Revolution Dancing on the Volcano

If the US government is to be believed then the "cedar revolution" is proof of the effectiveness of its Middle East policy. But with Beirut's new leader, Saad al-Hariri, the situation in Lebanon is not quite as different as Bush would like to believe.
Von Erich Follath

Everyone comes to see him: Christian and Druze leaders, Sunni sheikhs and Shiite dignitaries. Their suits are dark, their expressions are somber and their briefcases, which they watch like hawks, have locks on them. They bow silently before the photograph of the prime minister, framed in black and displayed at the building's entrance and submit to security checks by burly bodyguards. They then wait patiently, in chambers filled with expensive candelabras and dozens of images of mourning, for their audience.

Representatives of Lebanon's prominent families, the Gemayels, the Shamuns, the Franjiyes and the Jumblats have all come to the Kureitim family palace in downtown Beirut to pay their respects to Saad al-Hariri, 35, the son of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, who was murdered this year on Valentine's Day. The younger al-Hariri, a political novice who stepped into his father's shoes, won Lebanon's national elections in a land-slide election in May and June and now controls the most powerful political faction in parliament. He's the new kingmaker in the cedar state.

Who's Backing Who?

What's surprising are the kinds of people who are suddenly eager to align themselves with the winner and the alliances that have resulted. For example the Maronite Christian General Michel Aun, 69, who was an enemy of Hariri's for years during his exile in France and who only recently accused the younger Hariri and his Future Movement of "scandalous election fraud." Now he is angling for four cabinet posts for his Free Patriotic Movement, in particular the position as head of the ministry of justice. Sunni clan leaders are also calling for, and receiving, positions in the new government. Even the radical Shiite Hezbollah ("Party of God") movement, branded as a "terrorist organization" by Washington, is apparently lobbying for cabinet positions for two politicians closely allied with the group.

Saad al-Hariri has appointed a capable technocrat and friend of his father, Fuad Siniora, 62, to the position of prime minister, despite the fact that Siniora is viewed as a less than convincing figure on the international stage. But the status quo has prevailed when it comes to the country's other top political offices. Lebanon's hated president, Emile Lahoud, 69, has no intention of giving up the position he was granted by Syria, which occupied the country for years. While the controversial president of the parliament, Nabih Berri, 67, also a politician in the pro-Damascus camp, was even ratified by a majority of legislators.

The Cedar Revolution

In the Lebanon, last Spring's protest movement, which brought a million people onto the streets after the popular prime minister at the time was assassinated by terrorists, is known as the "cedar revolution." The demonstrators' biggest achievement was to force Syria to withdraw its occupying force of 14,000 in April. When the peace treaty ending the country's horrific, 15-year civil war was signed in 1989, the Syrians stationed troops there to maintain peace between warring factions. But despite all agreements, Syria kept its soldiers in Lebanon and infiltrated its governmental institutions. As well as the Syrian withdrawal, the demonstrators also managed to achieve something else: A United Nations commission has now begun an investigation into the Hariri assassination.

The US government celebrated political change in the Levant as a victory for its Middle East strategy, claiming that by exerting pressure on the "rogue state" Syria, it encouraged change in Lebanon. After all, the affable young Hariri, promptly flown to America to meet with the US president at his private ranch, was the perfect propaganda tool -- a "model democratic" for an entire region.

And now comes this tug-of-war for influence in the new administration. Many of those who demonstrated in the streets of Beirut clearly wanted more than Hariri junior and his four-party coalition are now offering. They were fighting for a complete renewal of their country beyond religious and family-based power structures, and against the political old guard. But Washington must feel especially duped by recent developments in Lebanon. Hariri, courted turning point, and he did not take up the position of prime minister, as the United States had expected. The French president had apparently advised the young man to be satisfied with the role of king-maker, to encourage stability and not to push for change too quickly.

Has the cedar revolution degenerated into indecision? Or is Hariri being smart by taking the role of king-maker, precisely because it is not too radical? Which domestic political reforms are unavoidable for Saad al-Hariri? And what kind of foreign policy role should Lebanon play as one of the key countries in the Middle East conflict, with its "hot" borders with Israel?

Both in real life and on television, Hariri comes across even younger than in photographs. With his goatee, his long black hair and his sparkling eyes, he could easily be a Hollywood leading man, Zorro the Avenger or a dashing, sword-wielding musketeer. But in reality he is anything but a swashbuckler, with his limp handshake and quiet, almost shy, voice. He recoils physically when asked questions, almost as if he feels threatened. "I have never been able to imagine a political career. But now I would like to learn the political trade first, so that I can make a good prime minister," he says. In four years? "We'll see," he responds, "perhaps earlier, perhaps not at all."

Saad, one of five children in the Sunni Hariri family from the southern Lebanese city of Sidon, studied business administration at Georgetown University in Washington. At 22, he joined the firm of his father, considered one of the biggest and most successful construction tycoons in the Middle East. By the age of 28, Saad al-Hariri was already named director of the company. To manage his "Saudi Oger" group, a conglomerate with $2 billion in annual sales, Hariri lived and worked in Saudi Arabia: an ambitious businessman with global interests, but most of all someone who enjoyed his luxurious private life.

After his father was murdered, the family council convened in Beirut and left Saad with no other choice but to enter politics as his father's political heir, with the entire dynasty at his side to champion democracy. Saad's aunt, Bahia al-Hariri, became his unofficial campaign manager and returned to parliament. The elder Hariri's widow, Nasik al-Hariri, took charge of all the major social and charitable organizations "that the martyr of Lebanon had financially supported."

This reluctant politician clearly sees his new role as a burden. But now that he has decided to take on this new challenge, he is dynamically attempting to give it his best. Hariri says that the new government's most important goals should be to combat corruption, to reduce the country's enormous national debt and to reform its election laws. Doesn't this go against the interest of his own clan, which profits from the country's system of proportional representation by religion? "I hope that the Lebanese will stop making decisions based on clan and religious affiliation, but rather for parties and programs," he said.

In terms of foreign policy, Hariri wants to convince Washington to exert more pressure on Israel. "The Israelis," he says, "continue to occupy a part of our country -- the Shibaa farms in the south." Many experts in international law view this insignificant bit of land of no more than a few square kilometers as Syrian sovereign territory. Hariri vehemently vows that he is passionate about the issue. "That's nonsense," he says, "we have proof -- entries into the land record -- that Shibaa belongs to us."

And what about United Nations Resolution 1559, which calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah, which on the one hand bills itself as a normal political party, while at the same time maintaining its own 20,000-troop militia in southern Lebanon, near the border with Israel? "This is an internal Lebanese matter. Hezbollah is a movement to resist Israeli occupiers. A disarmament by force would be completely inconceivable." But isn't it also inconceivable that the Hezbollah forces continue to operate autonomously as a quasi second Lebanese army? "That's something we will negotiate."

Tracking Down the Murderers

Saad al-Hariri is confident that the international commission headed by Berlin district attorney Detlev Mahlis will track down his father's murderers. "I have already discovered that the man is very thorough - after all, he is German," he says. President Lahoud has suggested that Al-Qaida "fundamentalists" or "the enemy, Israel" could have been behind the assassination. Hariri declines to speculate openly, although he has said privately that he believes Syrian intelligence agents -- the behind-the-scenes men who ran Lebanon for years -- are probably responsible. "I hear that spies from Damascus are still in our country," says Hariri. "They must leave. I expect Syria to respect our sovereignty one hundred percent."

The investigators' UN mandate expires in about two months, but it can extended for another three months after that. By then, Mehlis & Co. will have to publish a report on their investigation. If it contains more than just vague suspicions of involvement by Syrian agents, Hariri will likely use the report to force his opponent Lahoud out of office. If the report implicates Syrian intelligence, Lahoud, whose term was extended by three years in 2004 in response to pressure from Damascus, a move that circumvented the Lebanese constitution, could be considered partly responsible for the Hariri assassination. After all, his position as president also places him in charge of all intelligence services operating in the country. "Oh, Lahoud," says the heir to the Hariri throne, sighing, "I'm counting the hours until he is out of office."

How worried is Saad al-Hariri about his own safety? He plays with prayer beads, allowing them to glide through his fingers. Then he says: "I take precautions, just as my father did. But dedicated assassins would be unstoppable." His wife, who is expecting her third child, has remained at the family's villa in Saudi Arabia for the time being. That's where Hariri's next trip will take him, but first he plans to visit his father's grave and pray there.

The remains of Rafik al-Hariri were laid to rest next to those of his bodyguards, in a large tent on a sea of flowers. The memorial is located behind a large, new mosque on Martyrs' Square, in the heart of this city that the now dead Hariri helped rebuild -- an enormous political effort, but one that also brought his own companies lucrative contracts. The scene of the murder, just a few hundred meters from his grave, remains a gaping wound to this day. The shore road in front of the St. Georges Hotel is closed to traffic. The site, a giant crater full of melted metal, looks like it was made by a meteorite. Besides Hariri, the force of the explosion tore 20 other victims to pieces here on February 14.

Over the next few months a mysterious series of assassinations with unknown terrorists were committed in eight further attacks. In June, the prominent newspaper columnist Samir Kassir and former Communist Party leader Georges Hawi, both harsh critics of Syria, were killed by car bombs containing the same type of explosive material used in the Hariri incident.

Life Goes On

Surprisingly, there is no sign of fear in the streets of the Lebanese capital. Every evening at about 9 p.m.,as the summer heat dies down, Beirut's beauties parade through the pedestrian zone, and Lebanon's different worlds collide -- but playfully, not as enemies. It's late evening and its show time in the Levant.

Young Christian women wearing skin-tight jeans, high heels and the tiniest of tops flirt with deeply tanned beach boys. Young Sunnis, slightly more conservative in their loosely tied headscarves, but nevertheless wearing tight trouser suits, join the promenade. Interspersed in the evening throngs are "Ninjas" or "Black Moving Objects," as fully covered Shiite women are derisively called. Beirut's men study these ladies encased in black from their seats in sidewalk cafés with the same unconcealed interest as they watch the city's Angelina Jolie wannabes. After all, the unattainable can also come across as sexy.

Beirut is an inviting city, a city like no other. It's always been avant-garde, bringing together the irreconcilable. It's the blue-blooded bastard child of Western fathers and Arab mothers, addicted to pleasure, susceptible to disaster. Beirut has been destroyed by earthquakes, defiled by armies, burned to the ground by fire. Phoenicians, Romans, Turks and, in the last century, the French have all left their mark.

In 1920, Paris received its mandate for Lebanon from the League of Nations, and the 1926 constitution stipulated for the first time that Lebanon's ethnic and religious communities were to be "proportionally represented in public offices." Lebanon became independent in 1943. After the 1967 Six-Day War, the cedar state saw itself confronted with a flood of Palestinian refugees, who tore apart the country's fragile structure and transformed Beirut into a center for the PLO's violent struggle with the Jewish state. The "Paris of the Middle East" eventually descended into a bloody civil war, in which individual militias were organized along religious lines. In 1982, the Israelis occupied Beirut, allowing gruesome massacres to take place as they looked the other way. One year later, the city became the scene of the first Middle Eastern suicide bombers, who succeeded in driving out the US Marines with their car bombs.

The peace treaty signed in 1989 in Taïf, Saudi Arabia, by the exhausted parties led to amnesty for all militia leaders, to an increased Syrian military presence and to the system of proportional representation by religion. Under the new law, the president would always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, the parliamentary leader a Shiite. Christians and Muslims were each awarded half the seats in parliament. This was certainly an unavoidable compromise for a transitional period, but the pact that called for permanent proportionality and discouraged dealing with the past was ultimately what triggered this year's cedar revolution.

The buoyant mood of those euphoric spring days has vanished. Most young people now ignore what's left of the Freedom Camp that was set up to reflect the Kiev model, a place where a few diehards continue to hold down the fort and distribute flyers. "Hariri, not Hara-kiri," is one of the slogans written in fading letters on a building wall. The offices of Al-Nahar and the Daily Star remain shuttered. This despite the fact that they are among the Middle East's most compelling newspapers. Last year, when Syria was still attempting to censor the Lebanese press, the organization "Reporters without Borders" named Lebanon the country with the freest press in the Arab world (although it was only ranked 87th in the world).

This evening, only a few students from the American University, meeting for a beer, discuss politics and their faded revolution. No one has any faith in the US initiative to democratize the Middle East. "That's just hogwash, when Secretary of State Rice says that Washington doesn't intend to cooperate with the region's dictatorships in the future," says Ahmed, a future engineer. "Lebanon is a special case, and it doesn't lend itself to Washington's dreams for the Middle East," says language student Issam. And Rafi, a budding historian, adds: "Hariri may be our best chance against Lebanon's collective suicide. But he's ultimately a child of this system, and a highly privileged one at that. Loyalty to the family clan is still far more important than any alliance based on the issues. The only refuge for most people is their respective religious group."

Learning to Love the Bomb

And because that's the way it is, and because one can never tell how quickly terror will spread like a cancer in Lebanon, they celebrate on a nightly basis. It's almost as if they felt a need to live life to the fullest in a never-ending, wild party -- as if there were no tomorrow, only today's feverish purgatory. Beirut's young people have a macabre sense of humor.

At midnight, they give up their seats on Martyr's Square and make their way to Club 1975, where the décor is decidedly militaristic: sandbags, grenade shells and fake bullet holes on the walls. At 2 a.m., they move on to a disco, BO 18. The club occupies an underground bunker in a giant, empty, UFO-like square at the site of the worst massacre in Lebanon's civil war. Steps lead down into the darkened space. Each of the club's mock altar tables, next to stacks of beer bottles, is adorned with the portrait of a "martyr" who lost his life to sharpshooters or torturers here in Karantina. Seating areas are stylized wooden coffins that can be opened and converted into plush benches. The crypt-like dance floor is covered by a rusty, arched steel roof that's opened in the early morning hours -- to the heavy metal sounds of Black Sabbath -- offering a view of a starry sky. Young men, as if entranced, tear off their shirts while half-naked women dance on the coffins.

Meanwhile, on the Other Side of Town...

Things are decidedly less frivolous in the Shiite section of the city, Hureik, five kilometers to the south. This is Hezbollah territory, where - as in the regions near the Israeli border -- Lebanon's demographic future lies. Families with more than ten children are not a rarity here, while mothers with six children are the norm. The Shiites, with an estimated 32 percent of the population, are already the largest religious group in Lebanon. The streets are narrow and overcrowded, while balconies overflow with belongings. Most women wear veils. Even the modest lingerie shop, "Romance," not far from the inconspicuous headquarters of the party deemed a terrorist organization by Washington and Tel Aviv, seems out of place.

Mahmud Kumati, one of the deputy heads of Hezbollah, receives visitors under giant posters of Iranian revolutionary leaders Khomeini and Khamenei. Tehran is said to send Hezbollah $20 million a month, money the organization doesn't just invest in new weapons for its militia, but also spends on schools and kindergartens.

In southern Lebanon, the "Party of God" is a state within a state and commands great respect, because its functionaries are considered proper and incorruptible. "That's why Hezbollah was able to increase its share of votes even further in the elections," says Kumati, clearly pleased. Of course, he says, it would be out of the question for Hezbollah to give up its weapons as long as the "Zionists occupy land. It is our duty to liberate Shibaa and to support the Palestinian resistance." Kumati says he "cannot rule out" the possibility that there could be more "border incidents" with Israel soon.

In addition to maintaining its own army, Hezbollah operates an electronic archive, a research institute and a television station. "Al-Manar" ("The Lighthouse") broadcasts from its ultramodern studios near party headquarters. Its most popular program is a soap opera featuring the teary farewells between suicide bombers and their girlfriends -- after the girlfriends have spurred them to action.

Another program is a quiz show offering as its first prize a sum of money and a virtual ticket to a "liberated Jerusalem." A sample question: What is the name of the gray limestone building, on which construction began in 1792, and which later became the center of all malicious decisions against the Arab world? Of course, everyone knows the correct answer: the White House in Washington.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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