Sicily’s onetime mafia order reached its highest state of perfection in Lebanon.
All too often, criminality is seen as operating on the margins of society. However, in many places that’s untrue. Lebanon and Sicily are two such examples, where lessons can be learned about the sustained interplay between crime and society, and where criminal actions have endured by becoming integrated into the state’s activities.
The parallels between Lebanon and Sicily are many, and may hold clues for why the judiciary has struggled to impose the law on societies that, in many regards, were built on foundations opposing the state. Both are places that have been conquered over the centuries by multiple powers, so that they have absorbed contradictory, even clashing, political legacies. In Sicily and Lebanon, traditional social ties have tended to displace mediation by the institutions of the modern state, while religion has been an instrument of debilitating illiberalism as well as an occasional driver of reform. And in both, the preferred traditional response to the abuses present all around has generally been silence, albeit with notable exceptions.
The great Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia, in one of his last novels, The Knight and Death, put the following phrase in the mouth of one of his characters, “In our childhood we experienced, rather than really knew, a power we can today define as completely criminal, but a power we can also , and paradoxically, say was in good health, always in the sense of crime, of course, in relationship to the schizophrenic power of today … Needless to say, I prefer schizophrenia to good health.”
Sciascia’s character was, of course, referring to the mafia as the completely criminal power, but it’s his reference to the “schizophrenic power of today” that was more revealing. The mafia and the political class that so thoroughly dominated Lebanon at the end of the country’s civil war in 1990 had a very similar trajectory. Both exploited major transitional periods in their country’s history to, schizophrenically, anchor their criminal networks in the mechanisms of legitimate governance.
For Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian mafia, the key moment came when those seeking Italy’s unification expelled the Bourbons from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in southern Italy in 1860. The mafia reached implicit agreements with the political and police authorities by maintaining order and later helping to secure votes in elections. In effect, it became an active participant in establishing the authority of the new Italian state in Sicily, as government policy “swung unpredictably between repressing the mafia and cultivating it,” to quote John Dickie in his book Blood Brotherhoods: The Rise of the Italian Mafias.
In Lebanon, the transition out of war in 1990 only perpetuated what had existed during the conflict. The main sponsor of the postwar order was not the Lebanese state, as it had been the state in Italy, but the Syrian regime. This allowed most of the sectarian militia leaders to shape the peacetime republic around their political and financial interests and patronage networks, which the Syrians were more than happy to endorse, as they too extracted tremendous rent from the corruption of Lebanon’s reconstruction period. Rather than resting on an understanding between the state and a criminal element, postwar Lebanon was entirely dominated by a sectarian political leadership that had sustained itself financially during the war years through criminal economic behavior.
In Sicily, a major blow against the mafia came between 1986 and 1992, when the Italian judiciary, led by Sicilian magistrates, organized a maxi trial in Palermo of some 475 mafia members. The success of the trial was due largely to the testimony of mafia turncoats, among them Tommaso Buscetta, who described the mafia as a unified entity with a specific hierarchy and leadership structure. This was revolutionary at a time when there were still many people who, for reasons honest or dishonest, were casting doubt on the notion of a single overarching criminal organization. Buscetta confirmed what anti-mafia magistrates Cesare Terranova and Rocco Chinnici had believed, which would be used by their successors Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, among others, to carry the maxi trial to a successful conclusion. The dangers the four men faced were great: all were killed by the mafia.
The maxi trial did not end the mafia’s influence, but the outpouring of public anger following the assassinations of Falcone and Borsellino forced the Italian government to send the army to Sicily and push hard to find and arrest the senior mafia leader, Salvatore “Toto” Riina, and later his successor Bernardo Provenzano. This significantly damaged the organization. The Italian political class would soon go the same way. Its most prominent representative, Giulio Andreotti, would be caught up in accusations that he too had associated with the mafia, and major parties collapsed after the so-called Tangentopoli scandal of the early 1990s, which uncovered the illicit financing methods of Italy’s major political parties.
Lebanon faced a potentially similar situation in August 2020, when half of Beirut was destroyed by the explosion at Beirut port, which killed over 200 people. Many of the country’s parties were implicated in the actions that allowed the tragedy to occur. However, the political leaders neutralized popular outrage by manipulating sectarian sensitivities, so that the investigating magistrate, Tareq Bitar, became a target of the political forces whose officials he later sought to question. Sicily was ahead of Lebanon in having a judiciary that was willing to go all the way, despite the tremendous risks, and politicians with residues of self-respect.
What Sicily showed, and Lebanon would replicate and perfect, is that at the heart of successful criminal commonwealths is a pact between those who govern and those who commit crimes, so that the criminals take on certain responsibilities of the state, and the state relies on assistance from the criminals for what is legally prohibited. In Sicily, the mafia coordinated with representatives of those in power in Rome, securing votes in exchange for political favors. The Salvo cousins and Salvatore Lima were prominent beneficiaries of this perverted system.
In Lebanon, however, we approximate a more perfect criminal republic. Here, the ones committing the crimes are those actually in senior positions of authority. They have infiltrated all state bodies, the security and national defense institutions, the judiciary, educational establishments, even sporting federations. So perfect are their crimes, in fact, that many of their actions are not regarded as criminal by most people in society. The Lebanese will blandly mention the politicians’ “patronage networks,” but under any lawful political system plundering the state to bolster one’s own political fortunes would be considered illegal.
Even if Sicilians have an uneasy relationship with the Italian state, in the end when the state decided to act against the mafia, it was able to accomplish something. This capacity had already been proven beforehand under Benito Mussolini, when he named Cesare Mori as prefect of Palermo, who significantly weakened the mafia through the harsh methods he implemented. Such an outcome appears to be impossible in Lebanon, where the state has become a vast canopy protecting the powerful. For a brief moment our own Cosa Nostra trembled in October 2019, before the politicians regained their balance and before a large number of the middle-class revolutionaries howling for change left the country.
Most Sicilians have not heard of Lebanon, and most Lebanese know little about Sicily. But in a strange way an invisible hand stretches across the Mediterranean to hold these two remarkable places together. If you’re alert enough you just might be able to feel it emptying your pockets.