What Next, Lebanon?

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 30, 2006

MUKHTARA, Lebanon, July 29 -- From his hilltop citadel, Walid Jumblatt was a worried man Saturday. In Lebanon's Byzantine, ever-shifting politics, the leader of the country's Druze community has emerged as one of Hezbollah's harshest critics. But a savvy veteran, he understood the arithmetic of the Middle East these days: In war, survival often means victory. And after 18 days of the conflict with Israel, he was bracing for what Hezbollah's survival would mean for a country seized with volatile uncertainty.

Lebanon's survival, he said, was now in the hands of Hezbollah and its leader, Hasan Nasrallah.

"We have to acknowledge that they have defeated the Israelis. It's not a question of gaining one more village or losing one more village. They have defeated the Israelis," he said. "But the question now is to whom Nasrallah will offer this victory."

In contrast to the first days of the war, with ambitious U.S. and Israeli vows to dismantle the Lebanese group's militia, hardly anyone now expects Hezbollah to fade from a scene in which it has long played an intrinsic part, drawing support from a Shiite Muslim community that feels even more besieged today. And in a country where one community's gain is another's loss, Hezbollah's survival seems sure to fundamentally alter Lebanon, which is already reeling from the shock of a conflict that has killed hundreds of civilians, forced 750,000 to flee their homes and left the country's infrastructure in shambles. For a country whose identity was never settled, its religious diversity more curse than blessing, Lebanon is facing the very contradictions of its history.

Even before a cease-fire has been reached, Lebanese have begun to ask: What kind of a nation will the war leave?

From the southern city of Tyre to the Christian suburbs of Beirut, residents dourly talk about the prospects of civil war in a country still shadowed by 15 years of fratricide that ended in 1990. Divisions between Shiite Muslims and the country's other sects -- Druze, Sunni Muslim and Christian -- have grown deeper than at any time in perhaps a generation. To an unprecedented degree, Lebanese speculate whether the government can remain viable, or even survive.

Nasrallah strenuously tried to address those worries Saturday, in a broadcast on his group's television channel, al-Manar. "I tell the Lebanese that no one among you should be afraid of the victory of the resistance," he said, sounding low-key and assured. "I assert that the victory will be for all of Lebanon, for every Arab, Muslim and honorable Christian, who stood with Lebanon and defended it."

More reflective of the mood were the words of Hassan Taryaki, a Sunni helping care for Shiite refugees in the southern city of Sidon, where 57,000 Shiites have fled their homes.

Taryaki, an earnest 21-year-old, has worked for days with 30 other volunteers at the Saint Joseph University, a hilltop campus in the seaside Sunni city where 440 Shiite Muslim displaced have sought refuge. They slept just a few feet away in the courtyard, in classrooms and on a shady grass bluff overlooking a rocky valley. But a chasm separated his sentiments from theirs.

"The country's all ruined now," he said. "Not just what was reconstructed but everything. It's all ruined."

A student at Lebanese American University, Taryaki was blunt. He said Hezbollah would emerge from the war with its organization intact. It would keep its weapons in one form or another, and Lebanon's other sects would have to respond.

"If Hezbollah wins, it will become the leader of the country, and everyone else will start rebuilding their militias all over again to have their say," he said. "If you have a militia, you can survive. If you don't, you can't. It will be just like the 1980s."

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