Everything in Lebanon is different and in a way the same. After a few days spent in the country witnessing the strange contrast of continuity amid the national collapse, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard” came to mind.
Throughout the story, the Sicilian prince and protagonist Don Fabrizio Corbera ponders the aphorism of his progressive nephew: “For things to stay the same, everything has to change. For Don Fabrizio, the Italian unification wars marked the end of traditional rural life in Sicily and on the mainland. The Leopard will have to support with humility the democratic spirit of modernity by seeking to preserve tradition through the upheavals that surround it. He longs for permanence in the midst of change.
In today’s Lebanon, creeping change is taking the form of shadow government, military and economic. It is a rejection of modernity and the spirit of the Renaissance which was a model of pluralism and prosperity. The change means blackouts, unemployment, inflation, brain drain and the perpetual threat of war in the south. Rather than unification, there are whispers, less and less stifled, of collapse and partition. The permanence of Christian churches, statues and icons contrasts with the change in the litter-cluttered streets.
At the shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, Muslims and Christians flock to watch the crimson sun disappear beneath the Mediterranean. Nowhere else in the Middle East can we see Muslims and Christians congregating in a Marian shrine. The ancestors of these devotees peacefully mingled in Harissa fought and killed each other. Memories of those unhappy days are recounted in every Lebanese home, but there seems to be no interest in the sectarian violence that tore this small country apart.
Almost everyone despises the ruling elites who have ruined Lebanon. And restoring confidence in Lebanon’s governing institutions could attract capital, revitalize the economy and stop the exodus. But too many corrupt elites profit from the misery of others. Iran and Hezbollah too. Few are profiting from Switzerland’s transformation from the Middle East to Gaza, but these few are powerful.
Glimpses of permanent Lebanon can be seen in the home of an avuncular friend, where portraits of Greco-Roman architecture give way to Caravaggio paintings and marble busts of Dante and Petrarch – ancient, medieval, and modern. He speaks with a French accent, and although a faithful Christian, it is the echo of Stoicism that resonates. “I won’t be leaving,” he told me calmly. “No, I will die in Lebanon.” When I visited him four years earlier, he explained to me that the Christians of Lebanon had lost the civil war and the war of demography, but they had won the war of education and culture, which was the Christian contribution. But now he believes they are losing this war too.
In the office of a former MP who resigned in protest after the 2020 port explosion, another leopard is busy at work. He describes what happened in Lebanon as a “masterpiece of the deconstruction of a country”. In the evening, he walks the streets of the village where he has lived since his childhood. When we go our separate ways, my taxi driver recognizes him. When I say he is really a good man, the driver replies: “He is the only good man in Lebanon. Not the only one, but one of the few.
The country’s most prominent leopards are the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Boutros al-Rai and the Christian bishops who are becoming increasingly bold in their criticism of Iran and Hezbollah. The Patriarch called for strict Lebanese neutrality earlier this year, a clear message that Hezbollah’s illegal missile buildup risks a ruinous war with Israel. Hezbollah recently appeared to threaten Cardinal Rai after urging the Lebanese Armed Forces to prevent the group from forcibly firing rockets at its southern neighbor. Meanwhile, Druze villagers chased Hezbollah fighters about to shoot Israel from their villages.
As Hezbollah’s political clout has grown, more communities agree that the group is largely responsible for the current unrest. As this fragility becomes more apparent, Hezbollah will do what terrorists do: terrorize. It remains to be seen whether he does so by starting a war or simply assassinating critics. But Hezbollah knows the price to pay for making martyrs and will likely try to do so subtly – perhaps an indication that it is not as powerful as some believe.
Lebanon must find a way to preserve the country’s tradition of liberalism and pluralism amid its descent into chaos and darkness. Perhaps Christian, Sunni, Druze and even some Shiite communities will decide that they have had enough of Iran, Hezbollah and their corrupt elites, and seek to establish some kind of decentralized political community to save what ‘they can from the original idea of Lebanon — that is, somehow change everything so that it can remain the same.
Mr. Doran, Principal Investigator at Project Philos, served on the State Department’s policy planning staff (2018-21).
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