What had been advertised as a funeral turned into a political rally: Hundreds of thousands gathered to pay tribute to Pierre Gemayel, the Lebanese minister of industry gunned down by unknown assailants, last week. Speakers came neither to bury Gemayel nor to praise him, but to draw another line in the sand in the political war that started over Lebanon's future when ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was murdered in the heart of Beirut in February 2005.
Two visions of Lebanon are now in open conflict.
One vision sees the country as a frontline bunker in a war of civilizations aimed at "cleansing" the Middle East of the "infidel presence," and paving the way for the emergence of a new bloc of Islamic powers led by Iran. The other vision sees Lebanon as a haven of modernity, business and fun.
It is "the bunker" versus "the beach." Each vision has friends and foes within every one of the 18 communities that form Lebanon; the two visions divide families.
Even before it emerged on the map as a nation, Lebanon's history was checkered with periods of prolonged calm alternating with outbursts of violence. There are signs it may be heading for another round of self-harm, just when it seemed set for a period of peace and reconstruction.
There is no doubt that the country's religious diversity plays a crucial role in Lebanese politics. For one thing, it prevents class-based politics, thus pushing secular ideologies into the sidelines. The Shiite and Druze peasants, for example, would rather side with their respective feudal chiefs than unite against real or imagined class enemies.
Yet history also shows that almost all of Lebanon's internecine feuds have been due to foreign intervention - and so it is again.
It is no secret that some factions have resumed arming themselves - if only in response to the massive arsenal created by Hezbollah with the help of Iran.
In a recent interview, Iranian Defense Minister Muhammad Pour-Najjar described the Lebanese Hezbollah as "the most powerful Arab army today." That may be an exaggeration - but, despite its heavy losses in last summer's mini-war with Israel, Hezbollah has maintained almost all of the weapons it could use against domestic foes.
Until recently, Hezbollah pretended it had no interest in domestic political power. Presenting itself as a selfless force dedicated to liberating Lebanese territory from "occupation by the Zionist enemy," it left politicking on behalf of Lebanon's Shiites to Nabih Berri and his Amal party. But two events have forced a change.
First, the summer war flushed Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon, depriving it of its chief operational base against Israel. To fight Israel now, it would have to use Beirut and the Bekaa Valley bases. To do that, it must control the government so that no one will trouble it with U.N. resolutions and demands that Hezbollah be disarmed.
The second reason lies in the new regional defense doctrine of Hezbollah's ultimate sponsor, the Islamic Republic. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is convinced that an eventual military clash with the United States (and probably Israel too) has become inevitable. His doctrine requires having both Syria and Lebanon firmly under Iran's control - as well as the use of Iraq, and to some extent Afghanistan, as means of exerting political and military pressure on America.
Last summer's war in Lebanon, that is, was a dress rehearsal for a bigger war between the Islamic Republic and the United States.
Lebanon's best interest, of course, is to stay out of a conflict that could bring it nothing but grief. For this war would not be limited to small operations, as the last one was. Indeed, it might instantly expand to include Syria, Israel and, eventually, Iran.
Yet Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah has joined with ex-Gen. Michel Aoun, a Christian leader, to attempt to topple Lebanon's current government under Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. This unnatural alliance between (between Iran's standard-bearer in Lebanon and a former protégé of Saddam Hussein) is unlikely to remain solid enough to offer the country an alternative government. But it could prove reckless enough to plunge Lebanon into a new war and destruction of the kind it did not experience even in its last civil war.
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