Commemorating Lebanon’s War Amid Continued Crisis

At midnight on April 13, ringing church bells and the call to prayer echoed across Beirut. These haunting sounds intermingled over Martyrs’ Square, the unfinished main plaza of old Beirut where thousands of Lebanese have been mixing, day and night, since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in mid-February. The blending of the aural symbols of Christianity and Islam was but one component of a carefully orchestrated series of events designed by the family and supporters of the late prime minister, the architect of downtown Beirut’s reconstruction, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of Lebanon’s long and devastating civil war.

Entitled "a celebration of national unity," the week of commemorative events dovetailed with the themes of the massive demonstrations that took place in Martyrs’ Square in February and March. Those demonstrations saw tens of thousands of Lebanese demanding accountability from the Lebanese government for the killing of Hariri and nearly 20 others, coupled with calls for an end to Syria’s political, military and intelligence presence in Lebanon. The unifying demand of the protests, which have brought Christians, Sunnis and Druze together in an unprecedented alliance, has been "al-haqiqa" -” the truth. Although the main political tribune of Lebanon’s Shiite community, Hizballah, has not joined in these demonstrations, the party’s leaders have been adamant in voicing the need to safeguard national unity and have staged immense demonstrations featuring the Lebanese flag, rather than the yellow Hizballah banner.


Yet even as thousands of Lebanese from nearly every point on the country’s diverse political spectrum fill the city center, the centers of government — no less than the centers of opposition to the government — appear increasingly hollow and insufficient for carrying out the pressing tasks at hand, most notably forming a cabinet, running parliamentary elections, effecting overdue institutional reforms, providing security and grappling with Lebanon’s massive debt. The Lebanese press, on both the left and the right, warns of the dangers of the current "political vacuum" (firagh siyasi) and "national crisis" (azma wataniyya). Meanwhile, the US media and the International Crisis Group have described Lebanon as a country "awash in arms" and on the brink of a perilous political transition. The implicit message of such reports is that conditions are ripe for a reprise of the civil war and that cooler heads will not prevail for long.

As Lebanese went out to see art exhibits, films, concerts and panel discussions about the 1975-1990 war, they were learning that Omar Karami, unable to form a cabinet, had stepped down as prime minister designate for the second time in six weeks. As the cabinet was to have set the rules for upcoming parliamentary elections, the likelihood that the balloting will take place on schedule by late April is now slim. A key sticking point was whether to arrange voting on the level of the governorate (muhafaza) or the smaller level of the district (qada’). The latter approach would ensure greater representation by confessional groups having less demographic weight in the population, and it is the preferred method of balloting among most members of the opposition to the government. In the event that elections cannot be held on time, the current parliament’s term will be extended. The majority in the current parliament are "loyalists" who back President Emile Lahoud and acquiesce in Syria’s interference in Lebanese affairs.

Despite Karami’s resignation, the public mood is surprisingly upbeat. A friend who called from Beirut described bicycle races, Arab-Cuban music concerts and the screening of a 1961 Fairouz film, all of which took place in Martyrs’ Square over the weekend. He laughed into the phone and asked: "What kind of crazy people are we? We are celebrating our war!"

Celebrating the war is not quite as crazy as denying it or ignoring it, though, which is what most Lebanese did for three decades. If addressed at all, the 15 years of carnage were usually described as "the war of others on our soil." This perspective prevented any serious probing of Lebanese accountability, perhaps out of fear that such questions could rekindle angry recriminations and even fighting. No truth commission or war crimes tribunal has ever been convened. In 2001, a writer for Beirut’s al-Safir newspaper explained why not: "It’s simple: the war has not yet ended. We have not yet had any transition. No one dares to raise such issues now, as there is actually less freedom of thought, expression and assembly now than there was during the war."

The fact that Lebanese are now actively debating the war and its causes, on Internet discussion lists, on radio and television, and in Martyrs’ Square, is evidence of fears surmounted and demons faced. It signals that the 1975-1990 war has indeed ended, although the internal Lebanese dilemmas that sparked and sustained it remain.


The Lebanese war, which began on April 13, 1975 in the Beirut suburb of Ain al-Rummaneh, was a multi-dimensional horror show in multiple installments. Several interlinked conflicts were fought out amid a tormented civilian population, destroying thousands of lives while introducing disturbing new terms — car bombs, suicide bombers and hostage takers — into the world’s political vocabulary. The war even spawned a new word: Lebanonization, a term connoting the total breakdown of social order and internecine conflict without bounds. The war was a nightmare from which the Lebanese feared they might never awaken.

Beginning in 1975 as a confrontation between right-wing Lebanese Christians and left-wing and Arab nationalist Lebanese Muslims allied with the Palestinians, by 1990 the war saw Maronites killing Maronites, Shiites killing Shiites, two governments vying for legitimacy, indiscriminate shelling of civilian neighborhoods, mafia-like militias assuming state and municipal administrative functions, and the near destruction of Lebanon’s once vibrant economy. Seemingly interminable, the Lebanese war took place against a larger canvas that featured the rise to power of the Likud in Israel in 1977, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord of 1979, the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, the 1987-1993 Palestinian intifada, the decline and breakup of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of the United States as the world’s sole superpower, announced in 1991 with the US-led war to dislodge Saddam Hussein’s troops from Kuwait. All of these developments reverberated through Lebanon’s war system, each boosting the fortunes of some militias at the expense of others. But it was the last development that effectively quashed active fighting between and among Lebanese militias.

The war did not end organically through popular activism or peace talks, though Lebanon witnessed many such endeavors over the 15 years of conflict. Rather, external pressures halted the fighting. Syria’s price for participating in the US-led coalition to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait was gaining decisive control over Lebanon. With US support and Israeli permission, Syria crushed Gen. Michel Aoun’s rebellion in October 1991 and put all other Lebanese militias and warlords on notice that no further internal skirmishes would be tolerated.

In less than a year, most militia leaders had traded in their fatigues and battle gear for the tailored suits of parliamentarians, ministers and businessmen cooperating with Syria and taking care not to obstruct Damascus in the pursuit of its political and economic interests in Lebanon. The first law passed by the newly reconstituted Lebanese parliament in the spring of 1991 was the General Amnesty Law (al-‘afw al-‘amm), which granted immunity to any and all Lebanese individuals and groups for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 1975 and 1991. Impunity was thus the midwife of the post-war political order, and silence was the price that Lebanese citizens were asked to pay for the privilege of no longer sleeping in bomb shelters, hurrying past unfamiliar parked cars, scanning the urban horizon for snipers or queuing up for water.

As in other venues where past crimes go unpunished, the ultimate cost exacted by impunity was the violation of Lebanon’s collective memory. Damage to the Lebanese people’s ability to remember has engendered perennial doubts about the truth of what has happened, what is happening and what can happen. Impunity and its effects have put political identity and agency in question for over a decade, creating a complex problem that is at once judicial, personal, geographic, social, educational, political and psychological.


Although the Lebanese war had a definite starting date, its ending seemed uncertain until very recently. The war’s conclusion has, in fact, been unfolding gradually for over two decades; disparate events, like puzzle pieces falling into place, have closed the war’s various chapters. In retrospect, it is clear that the regional and international dimensions of the war began to end with the departure of the PLO in 1982, and with Israel’s evacuation of south Lebanon in 2000. The local dimensions of the war have not been not so easily erased. But one index of inter-confessional reconciliation emerged during the April 1996 Israeli assault on Lebanon, codenamed Operation Grapes of Wrath. Maronites, Sunnis, Druze and Armenians joined in solidarity with Lebanese Shia to assist Shiite families fleeing indiscriminate Israeli bombardments of towns and villages in the south. Young people of all confessional backgrounds volunteered with the Red Cross, and in the wake of Israel’s aerial massacre of over 100 civilians sheltering at a UN base in Qana, the outpouring of unified national grief and outrage was genuine and profound.

Another index of reconciliation appeared in the summer of 2001 with the visit of Maronite patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir to the Chouf Mountains, where he met with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt at Mukhtara. Despite a history of mutual bloodletting that goes back to the mid-nineteenth century, the Druze and Maronite communities are the two founding sects of contemporary Lebanon, a country unique in being comprised solely of minority groups. Eighteen officially recognized ethno-confessional sects make up Lebanon, and although some have more demographic weight than others, power sharing and accommodation are constitutionally mandated. The long-standing formula by which Lebanon’s prime minister is Sunni, the president is Maronite and the parliamentary speaker is Shiite was sealed in 1989 by the Taif Accord, signed by the various communal representatives to help end hostilities. This agreement also transferred some executive powers from the president to the cabinet and changed the balance of parliamentary seats to reflect the demographic reality that Christians were no longer the majority community in Lebanon.

The warming of Druze-Maronite relations had significance not only for members of these two sects and for Lebanon as a whole, but also for Lebanon’s relationship to Syria, whose leaders saw the rapprochement between the patriarch and Jumblatt as a potential threat to Syrian control of Lebanon. A Druze-Maronite reconciliation might demonstrate the limitations of Syria’s "divide and rule" approach, and risk weakening patron-client relations linking key players in Lebanon to Damascus at a time when Syria was still reeling from the death of President Hafiz al-Asad.

The dramatic events of 2005 did not arise out of a vacuum, but rather built upon these earlier developments. The last 60 days have demonstrated that Lebanon’s war has finally ended. In refusing to use violence as a primary means of responding to Hariri’s assassination, Lebanese from across the political and confessional spectrum have announced that killings, bombings, rumor and blackmail are no longer acceptable ways of conducting politics. The nighttime bombings that have taken place in East Beirut and Jounieh have been denounced broadly as attempts to destabilize the country. Most Lebanese suspect these explosions are the work of Syrian or Lebanese intelligence agents unhappy to be losing their grip on the population. Sadly, some Lebanese individuals have taken their anger out on innocent Syrian workers, some of whom have been seriously injured and even killed. Yet by calling for "the truth" and insisting on and securing an objective forensic investigation of the assassination, the Lebanese have signaled they are ready to look into the dark shadows of their collective political history and dispense with comforting myths, rumors and stereotypes.

Mai Masri, a Beirut-based, award-winning Palestinian filmmaker, said that "people of all backgrounds and ideologies are really talking to one another and listening to each other for the first time. There is no fear any more; there is a big sense of freedom. Young people want something new and different. They don’t want the leaders of the war years. People are talking to each other, but the leaders, whether loyalists or the opposition, are not." At present, there is little if any institutionalized articulation between the tens of thousands of citizens who are protesting and the leaders of the opposition. Indeed, as Masri remarked, "There are many, many people who define themselves as being neither with the opposition nor with the loyalists. They want something very different from what is being offered by the politicians."

One of the most visible and controversial members of the unwieldy anti-Syrian opposition, Druze leader Jumblatt, demanded in a weekend press conference that his fellow opposition members hammer out a political program. Asking "Ma ba’d?" ("What’s next?") after the elections, he highlighted the opposition’s lack of a comprehensive strategy. Those opposed to the current government, he stressed, must develop a clear set of policies to deal with Lebanon’s pressing domestic and foreign matters. Others in the opposition have been focused primarily on the technicalities of the elections, as well as the fate of jailed Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and the possible return of the exiled Aoun. These latter two issues, in particular, would seem to be to be far from the concerns of young people in Martyrs’ Square.


Lebanon is a country that has never been a nation, yet which managed to cohere without having a working state administrative structure for nearly two decades. Despite giving much blood to pan-Arab and Palestinian causes, despite a key militia’s battle against Israeli occupation forces in south Lebanon, doubts still remain about Lebanon’s Arab identity and role. Of course, Lebanon is also the country where Palestinian refugees live the most hellish lives, where Christian militiamen aided and abetted by the Israeli army slaughtered over 1,000 Palestinian and Lebanese civilians at Sabra and Shatila in 1982. Lebanon is home, moreover, to an ideology asserting that Lebanese are Phoenicians, not Arabs. Yet many Lebanese are perplexed when Syria is hailed as the guardian of Arab nationalist causes, since Syria neither sacrificed thousands of its civilians nor witnessed the destruction of its cities, as did Lebanon, in the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Despite having survived 15 terrifying years of war and 15 years of post-war limbo, Lebanon is still a "precarious republic," in the words of political scientist Michael Hudson, and an "abducted country," in the words of journalist Robert Fisk. Even before the war began, the title of a book by Lebanese political scientist Iliya Harik asked Man yahkum Lubnan? (Who Governs Lebanon?), a question no one would have thought to ask about Hafiz al-Asad’s Syria (though one might ask it today about Bashar al-Asad’s Syria).

For the late Pope John Paul II, Lebanon was "not a nation, but a message" (of Christian-Muslim coexistence, presumably). Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens disparaged Lebanon as "not a nation, but a game." Perhaps the most stinging comment in this vein came from Maronite intellectual Georges Naccache, who dismissed Lebanon’s National Pact of 1943 with some acidity. Of the unwritten agreement between Christians and Muslims, in which the two communities pledged not to rely upon the West or the Arab world, respectively, in the pursuit of communal interests, Naccache said: "Deux negations ne font pas une nation" ("Two negations do not make a nation").


Today, one might offer an updated version of Naccache’s observation: two oppositions do not make a nation. Neither the loyalists nor the anti-Syrian forces have articulated what they are for. They only proclaim what they are against.

The loyalists, led by Lahoud, his term in office having been extended through Syrian arm twisting in blatant violation of the Lebanese constitution in September 2004, have no political program beyond holding on to power and privilege. Comprised of Christians, Shiites and a few Sunnis, the loyalists present themselves as being against US and Israeli interference in Lebanese and wider Arab affairs. The opposition, a fractious and shape-shifting collection of groups and individuals encompassing the Christian Lebanese Forces and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party along with leftist movements and Hariri’s predominantly Sunni Mustaqbal (Future) party, defines itself as upholding Lebanese sovereignty and protesting Syria’s interference in Lebanese affairs. Their program, to the extent that one exists, strikes some in Lebanon, even those sympathetic to their demands, as being too close to US desiderata for Lebanon and the region. Neither loyalists nor the opposition, however, have fresh answers to the perennial institutional problems that have plagued Lebanon since before the war. The leadership of both groups, in fact, represents confessionalized patron-client politics and division of the spoils as usual.

With the exception of some recent comments by Jumblatt, neither group has broached the crucial question of how to transform Lebanon from a system of contending power bases defined by sectarian affiliation into a unified yet pluralistic democratic system characterized by equal representation, power sharing and access to justice. This is a question not merely of constitutional engineering, but rather of the restructuring of Lebanon’s entire political order from the ground up. It touches not merely upon governance, but on identities as well.

Last but not least, neither the loyalists nor the anti-Syrian opposition have decisively captured the hearts and minds of Lebanon’s largest, most unified and best organized group — Hizballah, which is more than a militia or a party, but indeed, an institutional order unto itself. Unrepresented in the National Pact, kept on the margins of the pre-war political system, the large numbers of Lebanon’s Shia who back Hizballah do not see themselves reflected in the ill-defined platform of the opposition. Rather, they view its leaders as the privileged children of those who excluded their parents and grandparents from power in the 1950s and 1960s. Meanwhile, they perceive Syria’s departure as a threat to Hizballah’s survival and fear that authorities will strip Hizballah of its weapons (as required by UN Security Council Resolution 1559), thus ending the group’s role as the vanguard of national resistance and truncating its autonomy in the southern suburbs of Beirut and the south of the country.

To assuage Shiite fears and concerns, many in the opposition, most notably Jumblatt, have urged that the Taif Accord, not Resolution 1559, should be the road map for the coming transitional period. The two documents are similar in their demands, particularly those concerning Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, but the Taif Accord does not require the disarming of Hizballah. It appears that UN representative Terje Roed-Larsen is using a blend of the two documents to chart his way through negotiations with various Lebanese interlocutors among the loyalists and the opposition, indicating that the international community, including the US, will not make Hizballah’s disarmament a priority at this stage.


Ten years ago, the twentieth anniversary of Lebanon’s war came and went without much comment or emotion. No one commemorated the date in public; no one celebrated the war’s cessation. Looking back did not inspire the same urgency as did looking ahead in 1995. Fifteen years of war were bracketed and shoved aside, even though evidence of their destructiveness was all over Beirut. The lunar urban landscapes were something to look beyond, toward the horizons, as suggested by the omnipresent signs announcing Horizons 2000, the ambitious urban renovation project launched by the billionaire Hariri, who promised to restore Beirut, "the ancient city of the future," to its former glory.

On the twentieth anniversary of the war that had destroyed it, Beirut, touted in the local press as "the world’s largest construction site," was criss-crossed daily by huge dump trucks and tractors and dominated by high-rise construction cranes as various groups and individuals protested the project’s plans to transform Beirut into Hong Kong on the Mediterranean, not to mention decrying the project’s troubling quasi-public, quasi-private nature and its expropriation of private lands through legal means of dubious legitimacy.

As for the thousands of wartime handicapped and orphaned, the 150,000 dead, and the 17,000 disappeared and still missing, there was only numbness and averted gazes for them in 1995. Only a very few spoke in terms of investigating war crimes, assigning accountability or reconciling former combatants. To pursue such questions in a country that had recently passed a general amnesty law while rewarding warlords with key ministerial positions and lucrative business deals was ill-advised. Though Beirut’s infrastructural horizons appeared to be expanding, its political horizons had shrunk considerably.

As work on Horizons 2000, the apple of Hariri’s eye, proceeded apace, it seemed odd that Martyrs’ Square remained unreconstructed even after "Centreville" was renovated and buzzing with wealthy restaurant-goers and shoppers. Though the late Hariri, who is buried now at the edge of the square, could never have imagined it, this empty space, now filled with diverse voices calling for change, is where Lebanon’s war has decisively and finally ended. This venue for public display of diverse opinions by Lebanese who do and do not agree with the opposition, representing every sect and a variety of political currents, may prove to be Lebanon’s largest political reconstruction site.

But it cannot be Lebanon’s only site of acknowledgement and accountability. The truth to be sought now in Lebanon, as the freedom to open old war files grows, is not just for Hariri, but also for all the war’s victims, especially those who lack the wealth and connections to stage festivals of unity. The true, lasting and successful opposition in Lebanon, 30 years after the onslaught of the vicious war, will be the group or party that demands "the truth" for all. In other words, the real opposition is opposition to impunity.