A Divided Society: An Investigative Look at Life in Lebanon

Culture Trip

Tam Hussain looks at Lebanese society, and how the city of Beirut manages to function around the surreal splits between class, sectarian and ethnic lines.

The country of Lebanon does not always receive the best press, it is known by some as a country where basketball teams are financially supported by political parties, where opening a bank account requires you to declare your sectarian affiliations, and where your ID cards state whether you are Druze, Alawite, Armenian Orthodox, Maronite, Sunnite, or Shi’ite.

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And yet Beirut is undergoing frantic cosmetic surgery. Everywhere the noise of its large scale building projects pervade. Super sleek cars whizz past as you walk through its streets, testifying to Lebanon’s economic success. There is a sense that Lebanon has moved on from the civil war days that ended properly in 1991. But step into a taxi and the driver might make a salutation on Ayesha, one of the wives of the prophet, revered by Sunnis and hated by Shi’as in order to ascertain what sect you are from. Yet that same mustached taxi driver will insist on his honour that faith is a personal matter. True, it is not strange to hear a Druze quote a verse from the Quran or a Christian send blessings on the Prophet Muhammad when an argument ensues but underneath the veneer of religious individualism and tolerance, religion still dictates where your politics lie. A case in point is when the Danish cartoon row occurred: the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad revealed the tensions that still remained in Lebanese society. Following the burning of several Churches by religious extremists, Christian communities up in the mountains surrounding Beirut took up arms, and local demonstrations escalated alarmingly. Lebanese Christians began randomly stopping and assaulting any driver with a Muslim name. It was, as a friend told me, a dark reminder of the civil war.
During my stay at a hotel in the centre of the city I met Samir, a twenty-one year old from Beirut, who described himself as a ‘whoring hard drinking young man’. Although forward about his hedonism he was much more reluctant to reveal he was a Druze, and a bad one at that, because Druzes shouldn’t live such a debauched life. His initial hesitation in revealing his sectarian leanings prompted me to ask him about inter-sectarian relations in Lebanese society. Whilst slowly lighting a cigarette Samir said that he felt that his community was suspected for their strictness and secrecy.

Samir’s politics followed the general line of an affinity towards the late prime minister, Rafiki Hariri; he had after all helped over thirty thousand Lebanese get a university education both home and abroad. He respected the leader of Hezbollah, Nasrallah, because he resists the Israeli occupation. But his allegiance laid with Walid Jumblatt, inheritor of his father Kamal Jumblatt’s PSP socialist party, the effective political vehicle of the Jumblatt family and the Druze community. Samir’s reasons for supporting Jumblatt, apparently, was his staunch socialist and secularist agenda and his defiance of Syrian political intervention in Lebanon. Despite the availability of other candidates who proposed an equally robust political agenda one could not help feeling that despite his sophistication, Samir, still returned to his family and clan like his forefathers had; and like them he showed undying loyalty to their traditional leading families even if, as is the case with Walid Jumblatt, they were technically no longer part of the Druze community. For according to Druze lore, Walid Jumblatt apostatised when he married outside the Druze community. In Samir then, I got a flavour of how the traditional ‘Zu’ama’ or the Patronage system worked.
This is a system based on networks between distinguished families or ‘Za’ims’ who by merit of their wealth, connections, education and historical tradition rule their communities’ affairs in a similar fashion to the Medici and Corleone families. The protection that they provide their clientele or community is reciprocated by unblinking loyalty to these families.
Unfortunately this makes Lebanese politics extremely Machiavellian, where parties vie with each other to secure the best deal for their community. Sometimes these groups will use Mafioso style tactics to extract loyalty from their clients. It can make Lebanese politics go from stagnation to periods of extreme volatility. Gains for winners can be very high resulting in great resentment from the losing party which in a community split along sectarian divisions at best lead to tension and suspicion, and at worst to terrible bloodshed and killing, as witnessed during the civil war.

Hezbollah, Baalbek, Lebanon

I couldn’t help asking myself how such a divided nation survives? What was the glue that gelled these disparate communities together? One thing was certain: it wasn’t community spirit. Beirut’s old buildings stand peppered with bullet holes to remind you that the civil war could easily happen again. But if it is not shared community feeling what was it?
The answer, ironically, comes from this split between the Zu’ama. After Prime minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination the first few days witnessed a run on the Dollar in Lebanon. It appeared that the demonstrations that ensued might lead Lebanon down the road of anarchy. But in truth there was never a question of that. The leading banks immediately reassured the Lebanese and the world that the economy was still booming and this was a good place to do business. It was as if they were reminding everyone that a civil disturbance let alone civil war would be extremely harmful to profits. Lebanon would lose the investments from the Gulf countries that now prefer them over the US and Europe. Billions would be lost in revenue from the tourist coming from all over the Arab world. The leading families together with foreign companies who owned the seventy or so banks in Lebanon realised that they were making far too much money to allow sectarian strife to destroy their profits. So the Zu’ama system actually saves the country from falling into chaos, at the same time as causing divides. For these leading families and the nouveaux rich were now so firmly entrenched in the reconstruction of the economy that it would be a disaster for them.

A Ministry of the Interior soldier guarding the site of the attack that killed former Prime Minister Hariri

Just how the Zu’ama system unites is illustrated by the collapse of the Madina bank in 2003 due to the grossly fraudulent activities of their Druze owners. Despite the uproar and criminal allegations against the owners of the bank, the problems were all settled out of court with very little fuss raised by the central authorities. Revelations by leading national papers indicated how many people benefited from the scandal. Everyone seemed to have a stake in the money laundering from Iraqi Ba’athists, Islamic banks, Syrian officials and business families of various denominations. The extent of how many pockets the money laundering of the Madina bank was lining was indicated by the silence of senior banking figures and political allies of former President Emile Lahoud; and the harassment of the media companies that were pressing for greater transparency.The cover up seemed to go beyond sectarian lines all in order to protect profits and the family network. It was testimony of how effective family connections can be to protect their interests and how they could be used to keep sectarian strife at bay.
By Tam Hussain

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