Beirut and the sad autumn of the Arabs


In March 2005, Samir Kassir wrote a column titled, “Beirut, the springtime of the Arabs.” Martyrs Square was then awash with people protesting Rafik Hariri’s murder, and Samir felt confident enough to affirm: “Today, Beirut declares that death is not the only path open to the Arabs.” Of the grim outfit ruling in Damascus, he noted, “Beirut’s renaissance is by far more important than maintaining a regime that leaves only desolation in its wake.”

Yet in the space of only two months, since early December last, the Lebanese capital has been transformed into a new Arab autumn. Sunnis and Shiites are increasingly wary of living in the same neighborhoods, while Christians are beginning to look to crossing points between the eastern and western halves of Beirut as barriers against instability from “the other side.” Beirut’s renaissance remains desirable, the impact of sectarian conflict on our city would have calamitous regional consequences, multiplied by its occurring in the Arab world’s laboratory of modernity (another Kassir formulation); but no one has been able to alter the behavior of those purveyors of desolation of whom Kassir wrote, and who, in the end, liquidated him and vandalized his optimism.

There are countless ways to explain the ongoing Lebanese crisis, but the most essential one, it seems to me, is that it is a battle over the destiny of Beirut. Will the city ever return to being that shambling, ill-disciplined showcase of modernity that it has always said it was, a laboratory of bastardized Arab liberalism (but liberalism nonetheless)? Or will it fall back into the lap of a decaying Baath regime in Damascus, in league with an ambitious Iran, whose local allies deploy a language of death and the austere habits of those movements created by a security apparat?

To fully understand these contrasting visions for Beirut, we should also admit to their shortcomings. Take only the most dramatic way the city has been used in the ongoing political confrontation between the parliamentary majority and its adversaries. It would be convenient to interpret the descent of the mainly Shiite opposition to the Downtown since early December solely as the desecration of an island of wealth by angry masses of poor. In some respects, that’s what it is. There has been unwarranted hatred in the standoff, a sense that urban prosperity is something to be ashamed of, to be punished. As if the way to distribute justice and equality were by turning a pot of gold into a lump of coal.

However, though we can reproach opposition sympathizers for their obvious delectation in trashing the Solidere area, it’s also true that Beirut is paying for its past faults. A city that cannot properly integrate its different communities is one bound to suffer. A vast majority of Beirut’s Shiites never had much of a say in Beirut’s sundry identities. Shiites were largely excluded from the mostly Sunni Arab nationalist plotline of the 1950s and ’60s; the so-called “Palestinian revolution” of the 1970s visited nothing but misery on Shiites in the South and Beirut; and the postwar Hariri reconstruction plan, while in theory designed to benefit all, was little focused on creating a social safety net, one that could have helped pry the community away from its reliance on Hizbullah aid.

For many Shiites, the movement to Beirut has been devoid of an underlining narrative that any intellectual would find invigorating. It’s been largely a tale of wretchedness, of escaping the violence of the South or scraping up a better living. In Beirut proper, the Shiite advance into those areas of the capital straddling the old “green line” was the result, principally, of war and displacement. That is why we will continue to see Beirut’s original inhabitants treating Shiites as being in the city but not of it – a sad leitmotif heard last week after the Thursday clashes. In this particular case it is Beirut that is to blame, through its imposition of too selective a prevailing spirit – not those outsiders drawn to it.

A great difficulty, too, is that Hizbullah has turned itself into the sole mediator between Beirut and the Shiite community. The autonomy of the southern suburbs can surely be blamed on the unbalanced way the city has developed; but Hizbullah has also found it convenient to separate the area from the rest of the capital. This isolation has allowed the party to better exercise control, to block the dissemination of subversive ideas that any modern city tosses up, to avoid the sort of integration into Beirut, indeed into Lebanon, that threatens to make Hizbullah redundant. If Beirut is to ever truly become the springtime of the Arabs, Shiites need to break the filter that Hizbullah is placing between them and their own city.

That won’t be easy. After the rioting last week, several disturbing messages were sent to the Shiites: that access to Beirut from Shiite population centers in South Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley could be easily cut off; that Shiites inside Beirut might be trapped between Sunni and Christian quarters; and that in the event of war, Beirut’s southern suburbs would find themselves under the guns of their foes. That is what the city is disintegrating into: a conversation on comparative military positioning.

Even language has been corrupted. For a place that once prided itself on literary output, a glance at news shows or newspapers will show the chronic use of shoddy, loathsome terminology: the opposition is referred to as “the coup-plotting forces” in outlets controlled by the majority; majority parties are refereed to as “the militias of the state” by Hizbullah and the Aounists. The airwaves and broadsheets are filled daily with threats. Media have become instruments of war and mobilization, sources of division – even in terms of who watches which TV channels. So much for the unifying nature of modern communications; so much for Beirut’s ability to inject liberalism even into the most recalcitrant of its sons.

And yet liberalism is precisely where Beirut’s salvation will come from. It will come once Shiites are truly accepted as part of the city, but also when they accept the city in all its anarchic permutations – not as the representation of a mortal adversary to be violated. For Beirut to have any meaning, it must remain free, disobedient, disorderly, able to take in any strange idea and grind it down into food the city can digest. Perhaps most importantly, Beirut should be spared the intrusions of God, because religion, so utterly suffocating in its Lebanese manifestations, can only suffocate what makes Beirut interesting and different.

There are many in the Middle East who would prefer to see Beirut destroyed rather than emancipated. They should be careful. Beirut may be dumb prey, but like any city that also doubles as a powerful idea, it tends to take down those conceited enough to imagine that they can kill it.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR.

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