By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 18, 2008
BEIRUT -- Time haunts Lebanon.
At the entrance to Hamra, once the cosmopolitan heart of the capital, a billboard reads 1,188, the number of days since former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri was assassinated in 2005, plunging the country into a crisis that persists today. A mile or so away, another marker stands frozen at one year since Hezbollah and its allies erected a tent city, occupying Beirut's tony downtown. No one has updated it for the past 168 days.
But in the span of just eight days, some of the most tumultuous since the end of the civil war in 1990, the Shiite Muslim movement has refigured, both through its own actions and the repercussions that ensued, the arithmetic of politics in a country once hailed as a centerpiece of the Bush administration's now-tattered vision of a new Middle East.
Hezbollah today stands unquestioned as the single most powerful force in Lebanon. By routing government-allied militiamen in hours last week, as the army stood by, it proved it can occupy Beirut at will. Its show of strength forced the government into a humiliating retreat from decisions that targeted the group. And the group itself has ensured that the independence of its sprawling military, political and social infrastructure -- deemed a state within a state by its opponents -- will remain untouched for the foreseeable future.
By doing so, Hezbollah, once a shadowy, Iranian-inspired band born in the civil war, has decided a question that has divided Lebanon since Hariri's death: whether it would embrace a culture of accommodation with Israel, as a mercantile Mediterranean entrepot, or one of confrontation that Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons exalt.
"In this war, over a span of a few days, Hezbollah was able to translate a minor military victory into a major political achievement. It has succeeded in breaking the deadlock and achieving the aims the opposition has been calling for for two years," said Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, an analyst at the Beirut Center for Research and Information.
But the new calculus in Lebanon, where tension is combustible and diversity is claustrophobic, may prove that Hezbollah's victory was Pyrrhic, as it inherits a country whose sectarian and political contradictions suggest another civil war ahead.
Even its supporters cringed at the sight of Shiite militiamen sipping coffee at Starbucks, their rocket-propelled grenade launcher resting in a chair. Tension between Sunnis and Shiites echoes the sectarian divide in Iraq. And across Lebanon, a crisis that remains unresolved even now has inspired revulsion in a country that has only rarely been a state over its short, often nasty, usually brutish history.
"The old Lebanon cannot be at all rebuilt or mended the way it was," said Assem Salam, an 83-year-old architect and scion of one of Beirut's most prominent Sunni families. "It's become more and more difficult to piece Lebanon back the way it was."
"I'm very worried," he said. He paused, smoking a cigar, then repeated the words.A Cost to Its Image
Yahya Thibyan, a member of Lebanon's small Druze community, populating the Chouf Mountains outside Beirut, said scouts had borrowed his Russian-made telescope to watch for the arrival of Hezbollah's fighters. At 7:30 p.m. last Sunday, he said, they came.
Hezbollah and its allied militiamen had already briefly occupied predominantly Muslim West Beirut, cutting off the airport and seaport. The effective surrender of their opponents illustrated the new balance of power in the capital. Within days, the government repealed decisions aimed at Hezbollah's telecommunications network and reassigned the chief of security at the Beirut airport, a Hezbollah ally. A day later, government supporters agreed to a dialogue in Doha, Qatar, almost completely on Hezbollah's terms, to decide on a cabinet, a law for parliamentary elections and a president.
"Hezbollah made clear that it will be here, it will be independent, it will be an army and it will not tolerate any Lebanese government doing anything about it," said Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center. "That's a no-go zone."
But a different dynamic emerged in the Chouf, whose picturesque terrain was some of the most blood-soaked in the 15-year civil war. There, Hezbollah's fighters met far fiercer resistance from the Druze who populate those mountains. While Hezbollah has long guarded a vaunted reputation won by success in ending Israel's occupation in 2000 and fighting it to a draw in 2006, this time Shiite fighters shed their old image of guerrillas for a new one of invaders.
"I know my land better than they do," Thibyan said simply.
Residents there said two convoys of Hezbollah fighters passed the village of Niha along a road that Israeli forces had built during their invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The first had 13 vehicles -- motorcycles and pickups with guns mounted in back. A half-hour later, 22 more vehicles followed, heading on a 25-mile trek to Maasar Chouf, a village on the road to Mukhtara, the feudal residence of Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader.
At 9:30 p.m., residents said, Hezbollah's fighters were ambushed by Druze villagers in their heartland, some of whom, until that moment, had stood on opposite sides of the 18-month-long crisis, divided by politics and leadership. For perhaps the first time in Hezbollah's history, it had deployed as an army of conquest rather than an insurgent band, fighting Israel, that could exploit its own terrain and the support of its people.
Two hours later, residents said, its fighters were trapped on the Israeli-built road. Furious mediation secured their release, and, by 4 a.m., they began withdrawing.
"We're going to die in our village. We're never going to leave it," said Nadia Assaf, a 22-year-old resident of Niha, surveying the scene of the battle from a Druze shrine for the prophet Job. "It learned the lesson that it'll be defeated on our land."
The words were the same as those uttered by countless Shiite villagers in the 2006 war with Israel, when it invaded Hezbollah's stronghold in southern Lebanon.
Few missed that irony: "Hezbollah may gain a lot in terms of power. It certainly has the upper hand," said Salem, the analyst. "But it has lost a lot in terms of image."Increased Sectarian Strife
In a land of contested martyrs, Mohammed Shamaa is one of the newest.
On Thursday, the 22-year-old resident of a Beirut Sunni neighborhood known as Tariq Jdeideh left his wife, five months pregnant with his son, at his in-laws'. He visited his mother, asking her to bless him. She did, then took two pictures with her cellphone that she downloaded to her computer.
A half-hour later, at midnight, he was dead. A bullet had pierced his left eye. His friends say he was unarmed, caught in crossfire between Sunnis and Shiites that raged from evening into the early morning. A poster of Shamaa now hangs on walls, and a banner across the street of Beirut's most ardent Sunni neighborhood commemorates his death.
He was martyred, they read, "by hatred and betrayal."
"That was the key to opening the door of civil war," said Ahmed Farran, a 23-year-old resident who carried his rifle to the clashes and said he saw Shamaa's death.
In Sunni neighborhoods, even among residents who long dismissed the seeming pettiness of sectarian differences, the words dignity, honor and insult are often repeated these days. They underline a growing sense of Sunni disempowerment that may prove a decisive legacy of Hezbollah's brisk victory.
"In a million years, I won't put my hand in their hand," Emad al-Laham, a 45-year-old resident, said of his Shiite neighbors as he shopped at a fruit stand. "I'd shake hands with an Israeli first."
Here, in Tariq Jdeideh, residents have aimed their frustrations and humiliation inward as well, at Saad Hariri, who inherited the mantle of Sunni leadership from his slain father and has sought to mobilize Sunni support during the crisis. Speculation swirls through Beirut and elsewhere that the perception of his weakness and capitulation to Hezbollah will give weight to more radical, religious elements of the Sunni community, a warning that Hariri has voiced in past days.
"You're on your own, and we're on our own," Ali Mohieddin, a 43-year-old resident, said, rhetorically addressing Hariri. "He's not the man his father was, not even 1 percent. He's not like him in any way whatsoever. He's like a child."
Farran's friends, gathered at a nearby street corner, said they wouldn't wait for Hariri to supply the guns and ammunition they feel that he failed to deliver last week.
"We have to have weapons," said Ali Qubeisi, a 24-year-old resident. "Not to attack anyone, but to defend ourselves. Nothing has finished yet. Maybe there's a truce, maybe not. But what else are we going to do when they enter our streets again."'Is Lebanon Really Viable?'
Assem Salam was a young man when a Sunni Muslim and Maronite Catholic politician forged a compromise that inaugurated modern Lebanon in 1943. Shiites were hardly a factor.
An iconoclast for a man who hails from one of the country's best-known Sunni families, he said he would now welcome a Hezbollah victory, as long as it meant stability. "I really don't care anymore," he said.
But he was disgusted with a country blessed with talent and resources that, he said, could only adapt to change through civil war, occupation and force of arms. He wondered whether the Lebanon that Hezbollah may inherit was really a state after all.
"Is Lebanon viable anymore?" he asked. "Is Lebanon really viable?"
"Frankly, 40 years of my life have been wasted. Fifteen years of civil war, 15 years of Syrian domination and now we've come to something worse," he said, growing angry. "I've lost 40 years of my life in this stupid country. It really is a stupid country. I have nothing good to say about it anymore. I'm disgusted by what's taken place."
He dragged on his cigar, as he sat in his stately villa in Zqaq al-Blatt, enveloped by a scourge of concrete cluttering the neighborhood. Light reflected faintly from stained-glass windows of red and blue, resting under graceful Levantine arches.
"I wish I was born in Syria. Or that I was born in Egypt. Can you imagine living in a country that has gone through 30 years of this? What kind of country is this?"
He shook his head, his anger giving way to dejection.
"There's something wrong here," he said, "something wrong."