Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 14:30 | SYDNEY
Thursday 19 Jul 2018 | 14:30 | SYDNEY

Lebanon: Divided but indivisible

6 April 2011 10:00

Vanessa Newby is a PhD candidate at Griffith University, studying Arabic in the Middle East.

As the mini-bus pulled up at the harbour of Tyre in Southern Lebanon, I was struck by two things. First, the incredible colour of the Mediterranean, something you don't see in Beirut further north. Second, that people had set up camp on a small roundabout with signs demanding freedom. 

The Arab Spring has reached all parts of the Middle East, even in a state like Lebanon which is politically much freer than most in the region. But the enduring issues of sectarianism, Hizbullah and outside interference, prey far more heavily on peoples minds than thoughts of revolution.

In the course of the past year I have visited most of Lebanon, from Tripoli in the far north, to the great Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon in the south, as well as the dramatically beautiful Bekaa valley. As you traverse the country, one thing becomes clear: there can be no natural territorial division along sectarian lines. 

In the northern city of Tripoli, you have large Sunni, Shi'ite and Christian communities. The southern city of Sidon is a Sunni stronghold and the birthplace of Rafic Hariri. Forty kilometres down the road to the south, is Tyre, a predominantly Shi'ite city. In the centre of the country, in northern Beirut, Byblos and surrounds, you find a large Christian community.

History shows how Lebanon became a divided state that is territorially indivisible. The Christian communities that developed on Mount Lebanon in Greater Syria (as it was then), in the 19th century under the Ottomans, were backed by the French and developed their own culture.

After WW1, the French annexed large parts of Syria to create a viable state for the Christian enclave, which included Tripoli, the south of Lebanon and the Bekaa valley. These communities had far more in common with the rest of Syria at the time.

What is very noticeable when you visit the different regions, is the fact that the areas which were formed in Ottoman times have a far more European atmosphere. 

In Byblos on a Sunday afternoon, I walked down a street lined with packed restaurants and people consuming Italian and French food and drinking wine. When you are in Beirut the new developments make it hard to imagine that you are in a state that nearly tore itself apart for several decades. Until you happen to glance up at the Holiday Inn displaying multiple shell holes. 

In the districts of Jemayzeh and Ashrafiye, every building is riddled with bullet holes, but the streets are also lined with bars and expensive restaurants.  As an Arabic student, it can be frustrating as everyone here prefers to speak French.

However, step outside the centre of Lebanon and you feel you are back in the Middle East. People speak Arabic, and the cities of Tripoli, Tyre and Sidon all have bustling local souks interspersed with shops selling the Arabic staples of Shwarma and Falafel while the divinely rich and sticky Arab sweets are carted around by vendors.

These predominantly Muslim communities are divided on the issue of Hizbullah. One fish shop owner I spoke to in Tripoli, complained bitterly about the trouble they brought to the country. He wanted peace for Lebanon and saw Hizbullah as the main obstacle owing to their predilection for antagonising the Israelis. 

In Sidon as in parts of Tripoli, the symbols of support for the Sunni contingent in politics manifests itself in large photos of Rafic and Sa'ad Hariri on buildings everywhere, as well as banners with slogans such as 'We will not allow scum to run our country'. Here Saudi Arabia is the dominant outside influence and it is said that Saudi money keeps the Lebanese economy afloat.

In the far south and in the Bekaa Valley the view is very different. The distinctive Hizbullah flag is flown everywhere. In Tyre and Sidon, the rebuilding from the confrontation with Israel in 2006 is well underway and along the harbours, bomb damage is not immediately obvious. However, in the centre of Tyre several large sites have been excavated, which gives some indication of the previous damage. A sign as you enter the city reads: 'Peaceful Lebanon…We faced the war with Israel well'. 

Tangible evidence of foreign influence in these areas comes in the form of blue and yellow charity donation boxes alongside the road, which are also found in Iran and only ever seen in Shi'ite dominated areas. In south Beirut, Iranian flags remain flying, a reminder of Ahmadinejad's recent visit. As I had visited Iran twice last year, I immediately noticed how similar the flags of Hizbullah are to that of the Basiij. 

Syria remains the most keenly interested external party in Lebanon, but the recent protests there will distract them and may temporarily reduce their ability to make demands of Lebanese politicians. This will benefit those forces seeking to oppose Hizbullah's current domination of the government.

While Lebanon has a knack of appearing like a country permanently on the edge of calamity and collapse, my overriding impression is that the Lebanese people remain determined to build a viable state. 

I asked people from all strata of the population for their views after the collapse of the government in January. Taxi drivers, shop owners, hotel staff and bar hoppers were all in agreement that Lebanon must stay together. Amusingly no-one felt the collapse of the government would be any impediment to this.

People just laughed and told me: 'Who needs our government'  We don't.  We've been managing without one for thirty years! We can manage another thirty or more'.