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IDENTITY CRISIS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

If Lebanon were a Shakespearean play, it would be one of his tragedies.

Certainly almost any country in that troubled part of the globe would qualify for that status, but it is particularly appropriate for this swath of land along the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

Those who have visited Beirut in times of peace and prosperity can wax eloquent about its Paris of the Middle East status, its heritage of French colonialism and a stunning physical beauty mixing with vigorous commerce and a polyglot culture to produce a city of unquestionable appeal.

Now, it is once again the scene of war and mayhem, an established peace and a nascent domestic democracy derailed by the tensions that pull on the country from within and without.

Waleed Hazbun, a political scientist at the Johns Hopkins University, says that the very elements that make Lebanon so appealing carry with them the potential seeds of destruction.

"There is no centralized authoritarian state that imposed a certain national order," he says. "This allows pluralism to flourish. But within that pluralism, voices and movements from all around the region are able to be there.

"You don't have a centralized power to prevent militant groups, like the PLO and other things, from establishing themselves," Hazbun says. "So there is this contradiction in Lebanon."

The current problem illustrates that. In the same country where academic institutions and a free press flourish, the southern region is controlled by Hezbollah, which keeps its own militias armed and organized even as it participates in the most recent version of Lebanese democracy. The contradiction is clear: Hezbollah and its militia are part of a pluralistic government whose army is supposed to disarm Hezbollah.

"There is no unified national army that protects a single national interest," Hazbun says. "To the degree there has been an army, it has been dominated by various factions, so there is the fear that using it could spark sectarian tensions."

He notes that the Hezbollah militia is in some ways Lebanon's most professional force, hardened by its frequent fights with Israel.

It was Hezbollah that went across the border into Israel on July 12, killing and capturing Israeli soldiers, and that now is launching missiles into the Jewish state. And it is Israel that has responded by bombing not only much of the Hezbollah-controlled region, but also much of Beirut.

As with most aspects of the Middle East, these dynamics at once reflect recent contemporary realities and deep-seated historical tensions.

What we now know as Lebanon was a product of the colonial era. The French cobbled it together from the mandate over Syria they were given after World War I. But there had been long-standing ties between the French and the region, dating back to the Crusades when Frankish invaders took up residence in the region, welcomed by the large Christian community there.

In the 19th century, the area was the site of a proxy war with the French backing their allies the Maronite Christians while the British supported the Druze.

During these years, Beirut developed into a prosperous port, its historical contacts with Europe making it a gateway of sorts to what was still a mysterious part of the world to most Westerners.

"When Lebanon falls to the French, they patch it together in ways that are distinctive and distortive," says Madeline Zilfi, a historian at the University of Maryland, College Park. "They do the same thing that the British did in Iraq, support the people who seem most likely to support you.

"First they did that through trade, and then it becomes a legal reality under the mandate system," she says. Those people were France's long-standing allies, the Maronite Christians.

"The French mandate period aggravated or hardened a lot of the confessionally based religious lines," Zilfi says. "In part, the French were interested in making sure that the real majority of the population - the Muslims - did not come to rule. It's not that they were anti-Muslim, they were anti anybody who was opposed to French rule."

When the French left Lebanon during World War II, a dubious census left the Maronites with more power than they democratically deserved. Essentially, power was divided between the two relatively prosperous urban groups - the Maronite Christians and the Sunni Muslims.

Left out with barely a nod were the numerous Shiite Muslims, mostly rural and poor. Thus it is no surprise that is the population providing support for Hezbollah, which is also aided from the outside by the Shiite-dominated government in Iran, yet another example of regional struggles visited on Lebanese politics.

What Zilfi describes as Lebanon's "imposed creative tension" - France's artificial division of political powers - led to inevitable problems. The United States landed Marines there in 1958 during one of the periods of adjustment. Still, the country prospered in the 1960s. But eventually the tensions of the region overwhelmed its relative openness.

Palestinians who began arriving in large numbers after the 1967 war against Israel (which Lebanon pretty much sat out) essentially took over the southern part of Lebanon after they were kicked out of Jordan in 1981.

Palestinian groups used southern Lebanon to stage attacks into Israel, which understandably retaliated. That conflict helped to polarize the already tense Lebanese politics leading to a full-scale civil war in 1975 that lasted in various forms until 1991, leaving tens of thousands dead and the country's once-vaunted infrastructure in ruins.

Israel sought to impose order on its northern border in a series of invasions that eventually took the Israeli army all the way to Beirut. Though the PLO was forced to leave Lebanon, these lengthy incursions are generally regarded as black marks in Israeli military history, bogging its soldiers down in a no-win war of attrition. Israel has had few worse episodes than when its Lebanese military allies massacred Palestinian refugees in areas under Israeli control.

The United States participated in peacekeeping efforts during this period, but withdrew after a 1983 bombing killed over 200 Marines in a Beirut barracks. That came six months after 50 died in a bombing of the U.S. embassy. Those were probably the early work of what is now Hezbollah, another example of fights that had little to do with Lebanon visiting violence on this country.

It was the intervention of Syria - or rather the acceptance by the various Lebanese factions of Syrian hegemony - that brought Lebanon's civil war to an end. Fifteen years of relative peace, and the return of relative prosperity, eventually gave rise to resentment of Syrian rule.

Last year's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri - who once backed the Syrians but was speaking out against them - incited the so-called Cedar Revolution which reduced Syrian influence and brought about new Lebanese elections a few months later. Fouad Siniora became prime minister, a move toward democracy considered by many to be one the Bush administration's few clear victories in the region.

Lebanon finally seemed to be back on track. But in the civil war era, each group had its own militia and Hezbollah - despite participating in the 2005 election, and despite U.N. resolutions calling for disbanding these armed groups - retained its military wing.

That's who went into Israel bringing the retaliation that shut the airport that was once again bringing tourists to Beirut, that destroyed so much of the infrastructure that had been rebuilt in the years since the civil war.

"When people identify more primarily with their group than their state - when they are [Shiite] or Sunni or Christian before they are Lebanese - it is very hard for a country to work," says Stephen David, a political scientist at Hopkins. "There was hope that was changing once the civil war ended, but changing people's identity is very hard.

"Lebanon has a chance to survive if it can be held immune from some of the conflict that rages around it," David says. "Thus far it is not able to do that."

Hazbun says the hopes of the last few years have been suddenly dashed. "After the so-called Cedar Revolution, you could read all the Lebanese blogs, other documents and networks, how they saw the United States supportive of their interest in creating a free Lebanon that would have its own identity," he says.

"Now those same people feel completely betrayed. They always thought Hezbollah was a problem, but now the whole effort to forge this new Lebanon has been destroyed," Hazbun says. "They are all trying to leave. I find that very sad in that the one element that had given the Bush administration what even I thought was one of its few victories in the region - Syria leaving, a more friendly government taking over in Lebanon, more pro-Western - now that movement and those people, are victims of this destruction of the country.

"The stuff they worked really hard to rebuild - the economy, the tourism sector, the infrastructure projects, the airport, all paid through debt - is being destroyed," he says.

But even in the chaos there are signs of what makes Lebanon so appealing, and so tragic. The American University in Beirut, which was founded in 1866 as the Syrian Protestant College by American missionaries in what was then part of Syria, continues to function. Indeed, it was closed only a few days during the 15 years of Lebanon's revolution, surviving the assassination of its president and the bombing of its administration building.

It was thriving in the wake of the Cedar Revolution. Hazbun is scheduled to go teach there for a year in the fall.

"The last I read, operations will continue," Hazbun says.

He notes that the e-mails sent to its campus capture its odd position - one will call for blood donors for victims of the war, the next will report shortened library hours.

"The fact that there are library hours shows that people are showing up and says something about the place," Hazbun says.

"If I can do, I will," he says of going there to teach in the fall. "I might have to delay it, but I would not like to abandon them. The university is a product of the American missionary idea of spreading education throughout the world, and I want to take part in that."

michael.hill@baltsun.com

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