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Opinion: Pity the Nation

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-07-17

Pity the nation. First it was radicals of Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization who tried to hijack Lebanon in the 1970s and transform it into a permanent cantonment to fight Israel. Now it's the radical Islamists of Hezbollah who are successfully using it as a launch pad against the Jewish State.

Pity the nation. Sixteen years after the Taif Accord that the Saudis brokered to end 15 years of civil war between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon, this Mediterranean country - often called the Switzerland of the Middle East - is being torn asunder again. The great reconstruction led by Prime Minister Hariri that restored the capital city of Beirut to its pre-1975 glory and injected fresh energy into the economy has unraveled in less than a week.

Pity the nation. As with the civil war - in which 200,000 people died, and another 250,000 were seriously injured, altogether almost 10% of the population of 4 million - the ideologies and grudges of the outside world are fueling the strife.

Pity the nation. As in the long years of the civil war, the national government - such as it is - has proven thoroughly incapable of withstanding the radicals. Worse, President Lahoud - a Maronite Christian and former military commander whose spine has become permanently curved from genuflecting before his Syrian masters in Damascus - has acquiesced in the takeover of his traditionally secular country by Hezbollah, which wants to transform it into an Islamic theocratic state.

What sort of a national leader - indeed, what sort of a people - would allow such a thing?

To understand the ease with which the ideologue and storm troopers of Hezbollah consolidated power since the terrorist group was founded in 1982 to counter the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in pursuit of Palestinian radicals, it is necessary to understand Lebanon's mottled history.

Lebanon and Syria were once joined as part of the French Mandate established after the Sykes-Picot Agreement in 1916, which broke up the old Turkish Ottoman Empire and parceled it out to the French and British. The Ottomans, of course, were among the losers in World War I, having recklessly allied themselves with the Germans.

The establishment of Lebanon created a problem of governance: Who would rule this country, which is barely four-fifths the size of Connecticut?

Under a National Covenant agreed to in 1943, it was decided that the country's president would always be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. This apportionment was based on a 1941 census that showed Christians constituted 52 percent of Lebanon's population, with the Sunnis next and the Shias third.

No one believes these demographic figures any more, not the least because the population growth of Muslims has been much higher than that of the Christians, many of whom fled Lebanon during the civil war. (Indeed, the Lebanese Diaspora is now said to be nearly 10 million people, more than a million in America.)

In addition, there are 402,582 Palestinian refugees living in camps in South Beirut and southern Lebanon, according to the United Nations.

While it's fashionable to say that Hezbollah has found willing recruits among the minority Shiites of Lebanon and from the displaced Palestinian community as well, that alone doesn't explain why such a small group of militants has been able to dominate Lebanon.

A more revealing answer may lie in the fact that the Lebanese have always been a nation of merchants and entrepreneurs who would trade with the devil. For example, even though most of the Maronite militias and their warlords were aligned against the Muslims during the 1975-1990 civil war, the Christians were also largely opposed to Israel. That did not prevent some Maronite warlords from dealing with Israel: in September 1982, Maronite Phalanges militias raided the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in south Beirut and killed hundreds of Palestinians while Israeli troops stood outside.

So it is little wonder that some Lebanese Christians since built alliances with Hezbollah. This past weekend's bombing by Israel of Lebanese ports in the Christian dominated areas of Jounieh and Tripoli - Lebanon's second largest city and port after Beirut - suggests Israeli concern that Maronite ports have been weapons conduits for Hezbollah.

Still another explanation for Hezbollah's control of Hezbollah may lie in what German philosopher Max Weber called the "routinization of charisma" - the empowerment of the everyday citizen within the civilian control of state services. Discussing Weber, a longtime oil industry consultant in the Middle East, Grant Leslie Hopkins, told The New York Sun yesterday that although Weber said that the monopoly over legitimate violence was the state's defining characteristic, "He did not foresee that the proliferation of small arms and explosive ordnance could empower and threaten the state's monopoly to conduct effective war."

"States during Weber's lifetime and preceding it knew how to deal with each other. Actors outside of state control can now threaten the state's existence - which is exactly what's been happening in Lebanon with the Hezbollah," Mr. Hopkins, who is also a member of the prestigious Web discussion list G2K, said.

The organization by Hezbollah of disaffected citizens has resulted in political pre-eminence to the point where it captured 23 of the 128 seats in the national parliament, and was given three seats in President Lahoud's 30-member cabinet.

Before he was assassinated in February 2005, Prime Minister Hariri telegraphed his concern to this reporter that he seemed powerless to thwart Hezbollah's growing influence because of its patron, Syria, which dominated Lebanon militarily at the time. (Syria withdrew its troops after huge protests following Hariri's murder.)

Hariri was also concerned that Hezbollah's prominence frightened Western investors into not to putting their money in Lebanon. And he was prescient in his concern that - with a foreign debt exceeding $22 billion - Lebanon's economic collapse would also constitute a severe setback to American efforts at stabilizing the Middle East and promoting the free market as well as a more transparent style of government.

The one man who stood up to the Hezbollah-appeasing President Lahoud and who could have, in time, found political solutions to undercut Hezbollah is gone. Pity the nation.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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