By Arab News
By Linda S. Heard
When I first visited Beirut in the early part of 1974 before the civil war kicked-off, I was bowled over. There are no words to describe that glittering, glamorous capital then or its level of sophistication that was absent from many European cities.
It was prosperous, its people fun-loving, working to live rather than the other way around, and yet it exuded an air of mystique. This is the place for me I told myself before returning home to make my plans, which were cut short by a conflict pitting the Lebanese against their brothers.
That Lebanon existed only in my mind obliterated by visions of pockmarked buildings, bloody gunfights and scenes of the tragic fallout of Israel’s military onslaught aired by the media. When Israel’s bombs stopped falling in 2000 I sought to fulfil my dream with the hope of settling there for the rest of my life.
It was not the Lebanon I remembered from my youth. It was scarred. But the Lebanese were as hospitable, exuberant and infused with just as much love of life as they ever were. There was hope in the air for better days to come. Downtown had almost been rebuilt anew and people were snapping-up glossy apartments and shops. Restaurants were full to overflowing.
The glorious Phoenicia Hotel had been rebuilt and resorts on the slopes of Mount Lebanon were beginning to be energized with tourists from the Gulf countries.
Yet although the presence of Syrian security forces and their ally Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah was disturbing to many of my Lebanese friends below their carefree facades, hope still flourished and grew when Syria’s military finally withdrew under international pressure. But optimism turned to dismay with Hezbollah’s capture and killing of Israeli soldiers in 2006 triggered a full-scale war with Israel, during which over 1,000 Lebanese, many of them women and children, were killed.
Once again, like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, the Lebanese picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and set about rebuilding their devastated infrastructure and homes. Hezbollah restricted itself to certain areas of the capital and the country while its leader Hassan Nasrallah constantly assured them he would always place Lebanon’s interests first, would never upset Lebanon’s sectarian balance and was not out to turn the country into Iran’s mini-me.
He also swore he would never turn his guns on the Lebanese people. But in 2008, he did just that dealing a severe blow to Sunni-Shiite unity. In reality, all of Nasrallah’s promises were broken. Hezbollah’s entrée into Syria to bolster the regime was done at the behest of Tehran notwithstanding the dangers of sucking Lebanon into yet another conflict or of alienating the country’s Arab allies and patrons aligning themselves with those fighting to reclaim their country from a regime prepared to kill hundreds of thousands of its own and force almost half the population from their homes merely to preserve its longevity.
Beirut today is a shadow of its former self. The March 14th bloc led by former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has all but given up the ghost; it tried hard to put Hezbollah in its place, but failed because the ones with the guns are masters — and now many March 14 leading lights feel they have no choice but to make painful comprises variously blessing Hezbollah ally Michel Aoun or Suleiman Franjieh, a man known to a personal friend of both Assad and Nasrallah.
We can no longer kid ourselves that Lebanon is an independent state when Hezbollah and its allies have sent it into political stagnation to the extent it’s been without a president for almost two years and, worse, its government has declined to support the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia within the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (IOC) fearing Hezbollah’s retaliation.
It’s not hard to understand why Saudi Arabia has halted its military and security aid packages to Lebanon, together worth $4 billion. It is no secret that Hezbollah (and by extension Iran) has taken de facto control over the Lebanese political establishment and military apparatus.
Even before this news was public knowledge the country’s Prime Minister Tammam Salam announced his country welcomes military and security aid from Iran and any other country. Tehran is currently well-positioned to heed his request given its massive windfall thanks to President Obama’s determined efforts to get nuclear-sanctions lifted.
Speaking on the anniversary of his father’s assassination, Saad Hariri who lives in self-imposed exile, vowed that Lebanon would never become “an Iranian province” hostile to Saudi Arabia. I’m sure that many other prominent people from all walks of life are similarly resolved. But, sadly, many other have thrown up their hands in despair. As someone who would love to see Lebanon bathed in freedom’s light once again, I can only pray that he’s right.