Lebanese Seek To Map a Future Mired in Past

Walid Jumblatt, right, a Druze Muslim leader, listens to community members seeking favors and advice.
Walid Jumblatt, right, a Druze Muslim leader, listens to community members seeking favors and advice. (Michael Robinson-chavez - Twp)
By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 29, 2005

BEIRUT, May 28 -- It was a little after 9 a.m. Saturday when Walid Jumblatt awoke to the gaggle already gathered at his idyllic mountain redoubt of Mokhtara. There were supplicants and well-wishers, admirers and job seekers. As he passed, in his trademark jeans, they hushed. As he took his seat in a stone-walled salon, they lined up for an audience.

In Lebanon, Jumblatt, a lanky man with an ironic streak, is many things. He is a statesman renowned for his ever-mercurial politics, a militia chief during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war, unquestioned leader of the tiny Druze Muslim community, the scion of its most storied family. To those in Mokhtara, he is Walid Bek, a feudal title inherited from the Ottoman Empire and a symbol of his stature.

"Write him a note!" the 66-year-old Jumblatt shouted to his harried aide, Yasser Heidar, after hearing the first appeal. And so Heidar did, penning a request on a card embossed with Jumblatt's name, asking the United Nations to hire the supplicant as a security guard. A few minutes later, another card: asking the manager of Beirut's airport to provide a job for a mechanical engineer. And on it went.

"It's an old tradition," Jumblatt said afterward, as more people gathered in a courtyard ringed with roses and gardenias and bisected by a spring-fed canal. "It has been that way for centuries, and it's not going to change now."

It's politics as usual in Lebanon, more than two months after hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Lebanese poured into downtown Beirut this spring, furious over the assassination Feb. 14 of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, which they blamed on Syria. In what they proclaimed the Cedar Revolution, they demanded the end of a generation of Syrian dominance over their tiny, mountainous country. The Syrians have since left, but Lebanon is perhaps most remarkable for how little else has changed.

In past weeks, Jumblatt and other sheiks, power brokers, tycoons and their sons have struck backroom deals in the best Levantine tradition, ensuring victory in all but a handful of seats in parliamentary elections that begin Sunday. The fragile coalition that helped drive out Syria has split along ingrained religious fault lines, dominated by many of the same figures who fought in the civil war.

In language redolent of a decade ago, Hezbollah, in a rally of tens of thousands of its Shiite Muslim followers this past week, vowed never to disarm and never to end its struggle against Israel. The haggling along sectarian lines has unleashed disenchantment, especially among the hopeful youth who drove the protests in Beirut's Martyrs' Square.

Forcing Syria to leave was one thing; making Lebanon's democracy a model for the Middle East is another. In a region often defined by the black and white of dictatorship and democracy, Lebanon is an example -- writ large -- of the challenges in navigating the gray area in between. Shadowed by its civil war, centuries-old tradition like that at Mokhtara and the politics of an always unsettled region, this country of 18 religious sects is trying to chart a future that remains entrenched in the past.

In the end, the election that begins Sunday may be less the crowning of a new era and rather a first, tentative step toward answering the question: What exactly is Lebanon?

"We gave an impression to the world that we were united again," said Sarkis Naoum, a respected columnist for An Nahar, a leading newspaper. "But this unity is still on the surface, this unity is still superficial, it's not deep. If the political classes and the politicians and the leaders of the religious communities don't deepen this national unity, it will melt like the snow.

"Everybody talks about change, but what kind of change?" he asked. "In the end, you have 18 tongues speaking a different language."

Hariri's Legacy

The visage of Hariri, a tycoon who made his fortune in Saudi Arabia and served twice as Lebanon's prime minister, stares out at the cosmopolitan capital, traversing its neighborhoods of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Armenians, Greek Orthodox and Maronite Catholics. His portrait, showing his distinctive heavy eyebrows and thick hair, peers from billboards along the gleaming downtown and walls still scarred by fighting 20 years ago, from banners across congested streets and from slogans that call him "the martyr."

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