Beirut, Lebanon – The Serail is one of the most beautiful buildings in Beirut. Its stately arches and imposing mass convey both authority and permanence — the Serail was built centuries ago to serve as the seat of Ottoman rule here. It was once the anchor of a stable and peaceful state — and maybe one day will be that again.
But today, the Serail hangs in the balance of a political struggle that has paralyzed Lebanon. At night, which is when I saw it, a menacing spotlight illuminates the windows of Prime Minister Siniora’s offices. It is coming from outside the barricades that ring the government compound. Just feet from the outer band of razor-wire is the Hezbollah tent camp. Shiite music can be heard blaring from amplifiers inside the camp (it has the redeeming quality of being melodious and soothing), alternating with the steady voice of Lord Hassan Nasrallah. Hundreds of tents strong, filling up the parking lots and highway underpasses in the neighborhood, the Hezbollah camp has some of the silliness of an ANSWER protest or even a Pfish concert. Posters of Ché Guevara are as common as those of Nasrallah — even though pretty much the only things those two might ever agree on is their disdain for homosexuals.
What’s not silly is that all these people are armed — and heavily armed.
The barricades are themselves a menacing defense-in-depth: One or two bands of razor-wire are braced by concrete road barriers. Behind this, at intervals of 20 yards, are several bands of new tires laid methodically across the roadway, backed by trucks full of gasoline canisters, ready to set the rubber ablaze in case the outer perimeter is breached. Armored personnel carriers of the Lebanese army are placed at strategic positions well within the government compound. Atop each sits a soldier in firing position behind a heavy machine gun, more often then not peacefully asleep.
The remarkable thing about this entire spectacle is how deeply peaceful it all seems. It has the air of a theme park after dark — all lit up and largely empty. But when you consider that the people around you could at least in theory be killing each other in minutes with any provocation, and that their numbers would swell quickly if there were any firing, you have the impression that you are in a room full of tigers each of which is pretending to be asleep so as not to wake the others.
Maybe “peaceful” is not the right word. Maybe “balanced” — as on a tightrope — is better. Lebanon is by now well accustomed to the twisted contortions acrobats often have to assume to maintain momentary balance. The current crisis in Lebanon — a profound crisis of sovereignty for the state — really started in 1969 when the Lebanese government ceded partial sovereignty to the Palestinian Liberation Organization so the latter could conduct autonomous military operations against Israel from south Lebanon. This fateful compromise soon led to the tragedy of civil war — or rather several of them. After the 1982 Israeli invasion, the PLO finally left Lebanon, but Lebanon never got its sovereignty back.
Unlike an acrobat, Lebanon does not manage to make its contortions look easy. Especially to an American — accustomed as we are to the most stable political institutions on the planet — Lebanon’s contortions seem excruciating and unnatural. Backed by Syria, Hezbollah and its allies (who include the Maronite Christian General Michel Aoun, former leader of the anti-Syrian resistance) have shut down the government of Lebanon for weeks now stretching into months. After pulling their six ministers out of Siniora’s cabinet, they are demanding a minority veto as the price of their participation in government. Hezbollah sees this as another step forward in its great plans. For the Christians who support Aoun, the veto represents protection against a the acts of a future Sunni-majority government.
Arranged against Syria on the Muslim side are two powerful clans — the Hariris and the Jumblatts — who now share with a majority of Christians the standard of the Cedars Revolution, a majority of parliamentary seats, and what remains of the cabinet. Thus the two competing sides of Lebanon’s terrible civil war — who just thirty years ago were guilty of massive civilian massacres against each other — now hold hands in an uneasy embrace against new coreligionist enemies.
President Émile Lahoud, a pro-Syrian Christian, declares that the anti-Syrian government of Prime Minister Siniora is illegitimate without the Shiite ministers — a dubious constitutional claim which unfortunately cannot be resolved except by popular opinion. Just days ago, he announced that he would not hand over power at the end of his term to an illegitimate cabinet — thus threatening to extend his term illegally once again. (It was extended once before by the then-Syrian controlled parliament). On the Hezbollah side calls for a campaign of civil disobedience to bring matters to a head remain a focus of deliberation among the leadership. Hezbollah is fearful of causing a fight it cannot win except with a great deal of bloodshed. And it’s had one too many pyrrhic victories lately. Christians here will tell you that Hezbollah learned an important lesson in last summer’s war against Israel: Don’t wake sleeping tigers — they always wake up angry.
Hezbollah’s many civic activities are taken in the West as evidence of Hezbollah’s humanitarian side. But the recent stoning of a French medical team reveals Hezbollah’s civic side for what it is: the erection of an alternative state — one that wants to create exclusive dependence among its supporters, and whose supreme political leader is not Lebanese but rather the Iranian religious leader Ali Khamenei.
In the Middle East, borders are often meaningless concepts — as is, for many Muslims, the difference between religious and political leadership. And if confessional and ethnic loyalties trump both territorial sovereignty and the rule of law, personal political ambitions just as easily trump those loyalties. Add into that mix the foreign sponsors backing — and manipulating — nearly every group in Lebanon, and what you have is one of the most politically turbulent situations in the world.
That was the storm around us that calm Sunday night inside the barricades at the Serail.
— Mario Loyola is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He is currently in Lebanon.