Michael Totten has written great article (available in whole at City Journal) comparing Beirut to Baghdad. It is certainly worth reading and makes some wonderful points about the situation in both cities and countries. The conclusion of the article? That Baghdad should look to Lebanon for some inspiration to move forward and, in other areas, should look far away from Beirut. The similarities, for Totten, are based on the sectarianism of both countries; Beirut is more refined and cultured (at the moment) while the central government of Iraq is stronger. A quick look:
Traveling from Baghdad to Beirut felt like moving hundreds of years into the future. Beirut may not be the Paris of the Middle East, as many have called it, but it’s far more sophisticated than Cairo (the cultural capital of the Arab world) or any other Arabic city. Hundreds of thousands of tourists every year visit Beirut for its fine dining, film festivals, art galleries, and outdoor concerts. Or for its vice: many tourists are wealthy Gulf Arabs who, when they need relief from their fanatically conservative homelands, can hop over to gamble, drink, and chase girls. Bookstores proliferate, many of them well stocked. Most titles are available in English and French; a huge percentage of Beirutis are fluent in both…
High culture is virtually nonexistent. Baghdad has bookstores, but it’s been years since the famous Arabic saying “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads” has rung true. Fine restaurants don’t exist, businesses don’t accept credit cards, and the hotel chains that do business even in many desperately poor countries don’t dare open. And almost everything’s broken. Raw sewage runs in the streets, sometimes at ankle level; electricity doesn’t work half the time. You don’t dare drink the tap water or even touch it—your skin might break out. Some police officers are as likely to rob, beat, or even abduct you as help you.
Two comments that I made on the article concern the poverty in Lebanon and the lasting power of Hezbollah. Totten makes no reference to the extreme poverty that most of the Lebanese have to deal with. While talking about the culture of Beirut, I can see Totten living in Hamra with visits to the fine dining in the reconstructed center of town and spending days on the Corniche smoking narguila at the St. George yacht club (which, I’m sure is not how he spends his time in Beirut). The Beirut presented in the article is a truism. It is there and wonderful. But there is also the other Lebanon which is not as lucky.
Finally, Totten’s article portrays Hezbollah’s power in Lebanon as a direct result of sectarianism and Iran. Obviously playing a large role in the ability of Hezbollah to stay as powerful as it has, sectarianism and Iran are not the only reasons for Hezbollah’s success. Hezbollah is mostly supported by the Shi’ia community in Lebanon, but it also transcends the sectarian politics of the country – something that is nothing less than incredible (Sandra Mackey provides and excellent analysis of the sectarian issues plaguing the country). When I was in Lebanon I spoke with people (mostly in the southern suburbs of Beirut) who might not have necessarily supported Hezbollah, but very strongly supported the group. The reasoning for this is the consistency Hezbollah. For years, Hezbollah has been providing services and an unchanging view of the Middle East to southern Lebanon. Sometimes, it is difficult to bite the hand that feeds you. Hence, while Hezbollah is not overwhelming in the national government (the Lebanese always vote along sectarian lines), it still remains powerful in Lebanese society.
Those points made, I highly suggest reading Totten’s article as it gives a very good look into the two cities and the similarities and differences between them.