Opinion: Op-Eds

Can Beirut be Paris, again?

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Op-Eds,Foreign Aid,Analysis,Middle East

Before it became the poster child for urban disaster areas in the mid-1970s, Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East.

With its French Mandate architecture, its world-class cuisine, its fashionable and liberated women, its multitude of churches on the Christian side of town, and its thousand-year-old ties to France, it fit the part.

Then civil war broke out in 1975 and tore city and country to pieces. More than 100,000 people were killed during a period when Lebanon's population was less than 4 million.

The war sucked in powers from the Middle East and beyond -- the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, Iran, France, the Soviet Union, the United States -- but no country inflicted more damage than Syria, ruled by the Assad family's Arab Socialist Baath Party.

Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Syria, not Lebanon, is suffering the horrors of civil war. With Syria's Bashar al-Assad possibly on his way out -- or at least too busy to export mayhem to his neighbors -- will Beirut have the chance to regain its lost glory?

Sunni Muslims here support the Syrian opposition, by and large, while most of the Shiite community backs Assad. Hezbollah is now openly involved in the Syrian war -- without anything resembling an exit plan -- and is taking heavy casualties.

Meanwhile, Lebanese Sunnis in the Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border, are giving shelter to their brethren in the Free Syrian Army, and some are even volunteering as soldiers.

Lebanese Sunnis and Lebanese Shiites are therefore killing each other right now in Syria. It may be only a matter of time before they stop bothering to cross the border and start killing each other at home. The two sides may have restrained themselves up to now because they know that neither can win a war inside Lebanon.

If Assad loses the Syrian war and doesn't take Lebanon with him, Beirut will finally have relief from the cascade of disasters that have befallen it for the last 38 years.

Lebanon would still have Hezbollah to deal with, of course, but the so-called Party of God would have lost one of its only two allies in the region. "Hezbollah will be cut down to a more realistic size," predicts Mosbah Ahdab, a former member of parliament from the predominantly Sunni city of Tripoli.

"They will still have their weapons, but they can't continue provoking the tens of millions of people who live around here that they've been aggressive to all these years," Ahdab said.

Beirut's economy is in worse shape than I've ever seen it. Tourism is one of the city's primary industries, but tumbleweeds blow through the hotel lobbies. Governments all over the world are issuing terrifying travel warnings about the city.

The last two summer tourism seasons were busts; this summer will make three in a row. Restaurants and nightclubs are closing because they don't have enough foreign customers and the locals don't have enough money.

Still, the city looks wonderful. The amount of reconstruction is simply astounding. Some of it looks like Miami, true, but it's all superior to anything built in Beirut between the end of World War II and the end of the civil war.

The city made this progress despite Syria's military occupation, despite Hezbollah's war against Israel, despite the invasion of Beirut in 2008, despite the global economic downturn that has dragged on for years, and despite the civil war burning next door in Syria.

A city that could come so far while enduring all those trials should do even better with the Syrian boot off its neck. Whenever Assad's regime is overthrown or reformed, Beirut -- whether it's the Paris of the Middle East or not--might once again become a great city.

Michael J. Totten is a contributing editor of City Journal, published by the Manhattan Institute. This article is adapted from City Journal's summer 2013 issue.

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