Lebanon - the search for a nation

''You are my brother and I love you. I love you worshipping in your church, kneeling in your temple, or praying in your mosque. You and I and all our children are of one religion, for the varied paths of religion are but the fingers of the loving hand of the supreme being, extended to all, offering completeness of spirit to all, anxious to receive it.''

The words of conciliation and coexistence are those of Khalil Gibran, the famed Lebanese poet-philosopher, author of ''The Prophet,'' whose centennial is being celebrated in Lebanon this year. President Amin Gemayel once quoted the country's leading literary figure at a gathering of diplomats, to emphasize his commitment to finding means for all of Lebanon's religious communities to live in peace together again.

The resilient cedar tree is Lebanon's symbol, adorning its flag. Appropriately, the trees are among the oldest of their type in the world - as is civilization in this Mediterranean state - some of the patriarchs of the forest dating back 1,500 years.

Gibran was born in the gentle northern mountain area. According to one biographer, he ''walked, slept, and meditated in the shadow of the cedars,'' no doubt aware of their symbolic grace and strength. The trees have withstood centuries, longer than any single political system.

So coveted are the cedars that there are only an estimated 300 left. The forests were decimated by traders who profited from the hard and seeming imperishable wood.

So too has Lebanon been coveted. It has been coveted by internal political merchants, who have profited from its rich and strategically placed land. In the process, the angry rhetoric of political competitors has replaced the peaceful poetry of Gibran. The gun has become a more prevalent national symbol than the cedar.

If or when Lebanon's 12 warlords finally sit down around the negotiating table, searching for specific ways of fulfilling Gibran's sentiments, it is not just eight years of war they must sort through.

Artificially created by the French in 1946, Lebanon was carved out of Syria after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Lebanon has had the symbols of nationhood - the poets and the cedars, the proud Mount Lebanon peaks, and the historic ruins of an honorable past - but there is little semblance of a system to back it up. The country's laissez faire attitude made it more of a playground - social and financial originally, military of late - than a nation.

In effect, the warlords must finally give Lebanon an identity, sifting through the myriad of conflicting inclinations that allowed the country to reach its current anarchic state. These tendencies include:

* Lebanon was admired as the link between the exotic East and the pragmatic West, but that mixing of traditions and cultures has now torn the country itself causing cultural and religious divisions.

The differences are symbolized by the two extremists who will sit at that table: Pierre Gemayel, who founded his Christian Phalange Party under the influence of the European fascism of Spain's Franco and Italy's Mussolini; and Walid Jumblatt, whose socialism emerged during the golden age of Arab nationalism, guided by the fiery former Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The Christians, particularly the dominant Maronite sect, generally view Lebanon as being on the edge of the Western world. The Muslims see it as the gateway to the East.

* Once the model for religious coexistence, Lebanon is torn because of its commitment to all 17 recognized sects. The very concept of confessionalism in politics (representation based on religious affiliation), formalized in the unwritten 1943 National Covenant, also served to institutionalize ancient cleavages. It made ethnic groups out of religious communities. Ironically, there has never been a problem of freedom of worship.

The current issues are not too different from those that were at the core of the United States Civil War: the extent of liberty and the debate over the issue of minorities vs. the concept of privilege for the elite.

* Once the envy of the business world for its free-flowing economy and the modern image of clever Phoenician traders, Lebanon has also been torn by profit rivalries and the politicization of financial empires. It is no coincidence that the most savage monuments to the 1975-76 civil war are in Beirut's business district, nor that the biggest bank heist listed in the ''Guinness Book of World Records'' happened in Beirut.

Most of the men sitting down to undertake reconciliation efforts will be the same men - or their sons - who sat down on the eve of independence from the French mandate to devise a system of government for Lebanon. Determining who was originally responsible for the breakdown of that system is argued differently by each side. But there is little question that each bore some responsibility, exploiting a formula of government that did not work.

''Much of your pain is self-chosen, you delight in laying down laws, yet you delight more in breaking them,'' wrote Gibran on the subject of freedom in his book ''The Prophet.''

The Lebanese system has ensured a freedom unmatched in the Arab world. But there have been few checks on those freedoms, which eventually ran wild. Even before the first strife, many major politicians maintained their own well-armed militias for use as bodyguards or enforcement services, unstopped by the government as long as they did not stray too far into official terrain.

In a country smaller than Connecticut there are now 17 major militias as well as dozens of smaller groups, which range from the so-called ''Pink Panthers'' and ''Green Musketeers'' to the intensely fundamentalist ''Islamic Unity'' gunmen.

There is little doubt that if the talks break down, the politicians will revert to guns again. Some Lebanese are already predicting the conflict. They say it will be ''the real war,'' more bitter than any of the many clashes that have already killed an estimated 90,000 people in eight years.

The general pessimism in Lebanon on the eve of the conference, and the fear of the stark alternatives, was reflected in Ash Sharq daily newspaper: ''We do not share the optimism of those who expect an early resolution of the Lebanese crisis. This is not because we have bad intentions, but because the conditions on the ground do not show the matter is anything more than theatrics and maneuvers to gain time by more parties than one.''

Unfortunately, Lebanon has never displayed an ability to sort out its own problems. In 1958, 10,000 US marines were dispatched after the first Muslim uprising. In 1976, the Syrians came in to keep the peace after the civil war. In 1978, it was the United Nations. In 1982 in came the multinational force. This month, a new observer force from Italy and Greece is scheduled to be added to patrol the volatile Shouf.

Seventeen foreign armies have come to the rescue over the past seven years, and a flotilla of 28 foreign warships now lie off the coast. ''Firepower for freedom'' boasts the USS New Jersey motto about its 56,000-ton battle hulk and its 16-inch guns that could blow away an entire village with a single round.

Yet Lebanon has continued to make war with itself, underlining the fact that no external force, however potent or numerous, has been able to deal with Lebanese turmoil or with this strange anomalous state.

Lebanese officialdom launched a campaign during the most recent civil strife to try to prove it was all due, once again, to foreign intervention. Government intelligence briefings, unprecedented for the foreign press, outlined detailed plots and ploys by Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians, and Libyans to stir things up, with the Druze militia playing only a minor role.

As Western diplomats do not hesitate to point out, the government led by minority Christians does not like to face up to the fact that there is genuine discontent among the majority Muslims, although it first surfaced some 30 years ago. Instead they look for excuses to explain away the increasingly violent forms of protest.

During the scuffle over venue for the national dialogue, a Shiite Muslim leader suggested, somewhat forlornly, that it should be held not in the majestic Baabda presidential palace but in the pathetically poor Muslim southern suburbs so that ''the government will finally understand what this is all about.''

''Surely you would not honor one guest above the other: for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both,'' admonished Gibran in a warning 55 years ago that summarizes Muslim concerns today about the government's pro-Christian leanings.

Yet, surprisingly, there are still grounds for compromise.

Under the formula of 1943, the Maronite Christians hold many of the top jobs, with Christians generally having a 6 to 5 edge in all government positions over Muslims. Sunni Muslims were No. 2 and were delegated the premiership. Shiites were No. 3 and were given the post of speaker of parliament.

It is a system based on the population strengths of Lebanon's religious communities in 1932, when the last census was taken. The lack of a subsequent census update is partly because Christians feared that a new national tally would legitimize Muslim demands for reform. Diplomatic estimates now reverse the order of the top three religious communities.

Although the various Muslim leaders convincingly argue the case for removing confessionalism from politics - letting the best men win - it still appears they are willing to accept a format that provides the built-in guarantees the Christians hunger for. They feel such guarantees are necessary to ensure they do not lose the last meaningful Christian presence in the Middle East. The widely discussed formula includes:

* A Maronite president. But instead of being chosen by the Christian-weighted parliament, he would be elected by the nation. This would force the national leader to care about the majority Muslim constituency.

* A new senate added to the unicameral National Assembly, which would have a Muslim chief and provide a Muslim check on Christian power.

* A change of the ratio from 6 to 5, to 5 to 5, evening the split but not overwhelming the Christians.

Many other major questions will also need to be answered, particularly the role of the Shiites, who are now estimated to account for half of Lebanon's 3.5 million people. Nor is there any guarantee that a revised formula will permanently end the call for reforms. Indeed, it serves to set a precedent for the reallocation of power whenever the demographic balance changes. This is another reason for previous Christians balking.

But the sense of pessimism is not centred on the ability to compromise, but the will to compromise.

''Peace will be expensive for this country,'' said a United Nations official.

That is true in part because so much of the economic infrastructure of Lebanon is geared to conflict and its by-products: gun-running and sales, the chaos that prevented taxes from being collected, and the lack of government controls that permitted massive smuggling. The smuggling business ranged from women's fashions sold in Hamra Street boutiques, to electronic equipment, to the hashish being cultivated this month in the eastern Bekaa Valley.

But it will also be expensive to communities whose very identities are at stake, and to cultures where the oriental concept of ''face'' is more important than any law. These are things that date back centuries, in some cases almost a millennium, compared with Lebanon's brief 40 years of nationhood.

The question is whether the Shiites, Druzes, Sunnis, Maronites, and others will be able to humble themselves to bury their differences, end their blood-feuds, and, for the first time, display a sense of nationalism.

The past eight years have accentuated the differences between communities, further entrenching hatreds and fears. Gibran asked, ''Who can separate his faith from his actions, or his belief from his occupation?''

A prominent child psychologist looked at it a different way. ''It doesn't matter what the politicians do. There's a whole generation out there ingrained with violence and killing. You may be able to make peace at the table now, but it will all come out again later.''

The 1,100 case histories of war victims at Beirut's ''Islamic Orphanage'' reflect that concern. In 1976, little Marwan watched in horror as two militiamen axed his parents and six brothers and sisters to death. It was ''punishment'' for being of a different faith in an otherwise closed neighborhood.

Later, when he was barely in his teens, Marwan escaped from the orphanage and joined a rival militia to seek revenge. Orphanage authorities said he has not been seen since.

''The real hope for the future of this country is the children, the next generation who have to carry on with whatever the politicians come up with. And for many of those kids, it's already too late,'' said a Lebanese psychologist.

On the subject of ''reason,'' Gibran wrote a passage more than 50 years ago that is appropriate to the eve of what may be Lebanon's last hope:

''Your soul is oftentimes a battlefield, upon which your reason and your judgment wage war against your passion and your appetite.

''Would that I could be the peacemaker in your soul, that I might turn the discord and the rivalry of your elements into oneness and melody. But how shall I, unless you yourselves be also the peacemakers, nay, the lovers of all your elements.''

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