“Well, we can all agree that the sea took 70 per cent of the blast!” a close Lebanese friend announced to me this week, with intriguing if doubtful science. I had asked him – because I knew the answer – which of Lebanon’s religious communities had suffered most grievously from the explosion that changed the nation. Or did not change the nation, as the case may be.
Like everything in Lebanon, his calculation may have been right. Because Beirut, like Tripoli – and Haifa, for that matter – is built on one of those ancient east Mediterranean promontories, like “the face of an old fisherman” as Fairouz memorably called her capital city. The great clap of sound may have embraced more salt water than buildings. And the fish, so far as we know, are not religious.
But my acquaintance – a Sunni Muslim, a civil servant of many years, a reader of books rather than memos – was quick to caution me. “Let’s not see this in civil war terms. But yes, the Christians were hit worse because they live next to the port in the east of the city, the Maronites mostly. The Muslims side of Beirut lost its windows, the Christians lost their lives.” But even that wasn’t quite true.
Those who said that the dead contained Lebanese of every faith were also correct. There were Muslims – Sunni and Shia among the firefighters, shopkeepers and others – not to forget the dozens of Syrian refugees who may be a quarter of all the fatalities. In fact, the Syrians somehow got included in the death toll for Lebanon. But there was something slightly odd about the way this tragedy was retold in the west.
In France, in Britain and America – and, I noticed, in Russia, too – the narrative (a word I hate) was a little different. The “Lebanese”, so we were told, were now protesting against the “elites” and the government – which had corrupted the country, bankrupted its economy, failed to protect its people – and now demanded a new system of politics, democratic, non-sectarian, uncorrupted, etc etc, etc. True again.
And yes, the smashed houses and apartment blocks and devastated streets were indeed part of the destruction of Beirut. But their names – Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael, Ashrafieh – were presented as mere locations on a city map rather than the very epicentre not just of the blast wave but of the old Christian heartland of the Lebanese capital. These districts were beautiful, their Ottoman heritage magnificently preserved – just look at what has happened to the breathtaking Sursock Museum.
These areas were joyous, centres for young people (largely middle class but Muslim as well as Christian), filled with restaurants and bars, immensely popular not only among Lebanese youth but with the westerners who lived in the city and felt safe in a French-speaking, English-speaking, largely pro-European (and often anti-Syrian, anti-Iranian) population.
Before the civil war, it was the other way round: foreigners lived in the west of Beirut, clustered around the American university with its liberal education, its protest demonstrations, its (then) Palestinian movements, its middle class Sunnis and Druze and – if, you drove south twenty miles, its large, ignored Shia minority. In subsequent wars with Israel, it would be these and other Muslim areas which would be smashed by bombs, decimated by explosions, its people cut down in swathes. The Christian districts would be partly spared.
Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael were Christian Phalangist front lines, the streets of west Beirut patrolled by a mixture of venal Palestinian and Muslim militias. When the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982, they were greeted as saviours by tens of thousands of Christians and welcomed into their streets. Ariel Sharon would meet Christian militia leader and later murdered president-elect Bashir Gemayel in the magnificent “Au Vieux Quartier” restaurant in east Beirut, the hostelry long ago redeveloped but the street in which it stood devastated on 4 August.
And no, the ball of fire whose shock waves broke those people’s lives last week was not some kind of hideous political revenge for the past. The Christians stood up to months of Muslim militia bombardment during the war and Syrian bombardment afterwards – and in recent months, their people have been among the cheerleaders of those demanding an end to Lebanon’s rotten governments. But among them, too, are those who hysterically welcomed home from exile the awful and – many believed – crazed Christian general Michel Aoun, he who was Syria’s enemy and who is now Syria’s friend and whose son-in-law is now the foreign minister (hence the attack on his ministry at the weekend).
On the day Aoun returned to Beirut in 2005 after years of pleasant exile in Paris, his supporters, singing and waving banners, repaired to Gemmayze to celebrate his return. “We’d better go and listen to them and find out what they want,” a Sunni businesswoman said to me at the time. “After all, we now have to live with them.” True, yet again. But then this week steps forward the son of the aforesaid assassinated president-to-be, young Nadim Gemayel, a former member of parliament, to tell the world that Hezbollah and thus Iran was behind the corruption of Lebanon.
And this is a story being heaped into the “narrative” of this most recent of Lebanon’s crises. By Saturday, we were being told – this in the Financial Times – that “it has long been an open secret that Hezbollah controls sectors of Beirut’s port, as it does its airport…” Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. Television channels then hinted that Hezbollah’s weapons were smuggled through the same harbour. Was the ammonium nitrate to be used for Hezbollah bombs? Indeed, perhaps some of it had already been used for violence, its supposed 2,750 tons long ago reduced in weight?
So perhaps it’s time for a visit to my favourite all-purpose Lebanese government ministry, the Department of Home Truths. Hezbollah does indeed control parts of Beirut airport next to the southern suburbs, which it rules. Watch who runs the security in the terminal when Iranian airliners land and Hezbollah members pass through immigration control. But the port?
Here’s a little home truth from a Beirut shipping agent whom I’ve known for several decades. “Every Lebanese party has its people in the port – Sunnis, Shia, Christians, the lot. If I need to bring in a vessel and I want to move goods quickly through the port, I might get customs men who are Berri’s party people.” He is talking about the Amal movement, the Shia pseudo-militia belonging to the speaker of the Lebanese parliament. “And if the Berri people are asking too much? Well, I go to Hezbollah to see if I can get a lower rate from their customs people.” Or to the Christians. Or even (though not many, it seems) the Druze who work in the port.
And that’s the point. With every major party – their intelligence sought by every major foreign power – operating in the port, would Hezbollah really store explosives, munitions, bombs, even missiles in the harbour? In a Hollywood movie, of course. But in real life? No, their weapons come across the Syrian-Lebanese frontier to the east. During the civil war, the Christian Phalange in east Beirut controlled the entire ‘5th Basin’ (so it was called) in the port. But did they import weapons and ammunition into Beirut through the harbour? Of course not. (They shipped them in industrial crates into their port of Jounieh to the north, but that’s another story). Beirut’s port was not a weapons dump. It was a roulette wheel for everyone. And the casino, its dice loaded by every faction in Lebanon, spectacularly blew up last week.
But the present tale is now acquiring wings with a series of dangerous but unspoken associations. For Hezbollah, read the Shia of Lebanon who, alas, do not largely support the protests – although, at the start last October, they bravely stood up to the Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon. And on several specific occasions, Hezbollah thugs have arrived in central Beirut to threaten and beat the anti-corruption protestors in an effort to sectarianise the demonstrations, to force them into an endangered Maronite-Sunni alliance opposed to the government.
For Hezbollah – and here is their real shame – have sided with the Lebanese mafiosi. They may be representatives of the “masses” of southern Lebanon, the self-proclaimed and major “resistance to Zionist aggression”, but they have chosen to support the very same “zoama” – the big families – who have corrupted Lebanon. Hezbollah have seats in the government. They want to keep them. So the principle representatives of the Shia are against any change in the corrupt regimes which rule Lebanon.
What all this suggests is that the very sectarian element in Lebanese life – which permeates the politics, economy, society and (dare I use the word?) culture of the country – is now being grafted onto last week’s detonation. We don’t call the blast zone Christian and we don’t call Hezbollah Shia – and we very definitely don’t mention the war – but all this is true, and it’s about time we realised this before we dress up the mushroom cloud as a nursery story about big bad greedy politicians – or “elites” as I now hear them being called – and the streets of east Beirut as symbols of all Lebanon.
The real story of this exquisitely tormented and brilliant nation, of course, goes far further and wider. It’s a truism – as well as true – to say that corruption is the cancer of the Arab world (and not just the Arab bit, if recent events in Israel taken into account). But somehow, we find the Lebanese version of corruption more terrible, more shameful, more grotesque than that which is practised in every other Arab country. Is this because it is more obvious? Or because it exists in the only Arab nation that actually publicises its own decay?
So let’s return, briefly, to the Department of Home Truths and take this story outside Lebanon. Every Arab dictator who wins around 90 per cent or more at the polls runs a corrupt country. Yet Egypt, whose army controls shopping malls, real estates, etc – enough to make the average Lebanese politician weep with envy – is left out of the corruption stakes by which we measure the Lebanese. We do business with Sisi (a 97 per cent vote in 2018), and Trump calls him “my favourite dictator” after Sisi has overthrown Egypt’s only elected president, locked up tens of thousands of his opponents and tortured inmates to death. And we encourage UK citizens to prop up his bankrupt country’s tourist industry, send the Royal Navy on courtesy calls to Alexandria and praise Egypt’s stability under its wretched tyrant who is – here we go – fighting Islamist “extremism” etc, etc.
The same applies to Syria. The Russians do business with Assad (an 88.7 per cent vote in 2014), may rebuild his entire country, their ships pay courtesy calls – rather a lot – to Syrian ports and the regime is regarded in Moscow as a bulwark against Islamist “extremism” (etc, etc, again). Saudi corruption – in a land which would not dream of any elections even if its king or crown prince were to win 99.9 per cent of the vote – is itself so respected that the UK Fraud Squad can be called off corruption cases unless we upset the chief corruptors in the kingdom. Tony Blair had much to say about the Britain’s “national interest” when it came to letting those who allegedly took backhanders off the hook. The line is: Arab dictators are corrupt, the people merely repressed. We know their votes – when they pretend to hold elections – are fiction.
But the Lebanese, very oddly, are held by us to higher account. Their parliamentary elections never produce 90 per cents or 80 per cents. They are often in single figures. Because the sectarian list system of voting is so thorough, so carefully crafted that it really does take the population – their religious origins, that is – into account. In its way, it is actually quite fair – if you ignore the graft and cash handouts and if – and only if – you accept the system of confessional voting and the utterly sectarian politics of the state and the inevitable fact that the vote will produce a series of leaders on revolving chairs who hold power because of their religion rather than their abilities.
What the young people of Lebanon desire – or those we actually observe demonstrating today – is easy to understand. No nation whose president must be a Christian Maronite, whose prime minister will always be a Sunni Muslim, whose speaker of parliament must always be a Shia, will ever be a modern state. The very certainty of power-through-religious-sect ensures corruption. There can be no checks on dishonesty when power rests on mutual fear rather than compromise.
And by giving a vote to every citizen – in an election process so contorted that even MPs must “study the form”, so to speak – the Lebanese people are themselves brought into the electoral wheel of shame. Their very participation in elections has thus contaminated them with the corruption they so viscerally and correctly hate. No wonder their rage is so incendiary. The resignation of a government – like Hassan Diab’s little theatrical performance on Monday – is just another invitation to participate in the state’s next act of self-humiliation: let’s have another election and bring the same crooks back to the casino!
And to think – and yes, this is true – how often we outsiders praise Lebanon’s unique “democracy”, adding that it is, if “flawed”, at least better than the surrounding dictatorships. Yet without leaders, how does such a genuine, young, politically honourable movement – rightly insistent on an end to the outrageous “national contract” in which Lebanon is imprisoned – bring about constitutional change? We’ve heard more and more voices talking of how much better the French ruled Lebanon, a nonsense which any reading of modern Lebanese history should destroy – take out the works of Kamal Salibi, Samir Kassir and the inimitable Brigadier Stephen Longrigg if you have any doubts.
But more serious ideas are now floating about; that there should be some form of international mandate to restore Lebanon’s economy, to force the banks and government into transparency, its leaders into representative government rather than seigneurial privilege . Yet the moment the west arrives in the form of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – indeed, the UN on some as yet unthought-through, untested mandate – the Christians and Muslims of Lebanon will unite to throw them out as bravely as their grandfathers did the French.
We’ve specialised in the western world this past century in creating new nations, new constitutions, new “peoples” gathered untidily within frontiers which make no geographic and even less political sense. We can hardly start tinkering with the system all over again, punishing the Lebanese for their greed if they wish us to rescue their economy and their banks, to provide them with food and reconstruction and new political systems. Indeed, the price of our western bail-outs – from the US, the EU and all our financial empires – will look less like the colonial mandates of 1919, more like the cruel reparations levied on Germany after the First World War. To impose our law on a crushed and starving nation in 1919, to ensure they paid their debts, we had to occupy part of the German nation. To “clean up” Lebanon today, the west would have to make sure its people obey the new rules. Which UN force would be called upon to undertake this mission impossible?
The only conceivable vehicle would be the combination of a new international league attached to Marshall Plan largesse, a re-envisioning of the world’s commitments – not just to little Lebanon but the whole Middle East tragedy, a multinational work of imagination which could embrace all the sectarian and expansionist wars that have afflicted the region over the past hundred years. Think of the UN at its inception in 1945, a place of near-euphoria (and almost virgin purity) compared to the old donkey which clip-clops before us today.
But we live in the age of Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and nationalism of a kind which only Arab tyrannies might have dreamed of a few years ago. The Lebanese are not alone in seeking an end to corruption. We are all demanding the same thing across the globe. We are, to coin a another cliche, all Lebanese now. That’s why the cataclysm which swept through their capital was so powerful and so frightening.