BEIRUT -- I left Leba-non 23 years ago, after covering the Israeli invasion and the Lebanese civil war. I swore never to return.
The country had become a symbol of hideous inter-religious warfare. Beirut was a mess of shelled buildings, its downtown destroyed by the fighting. But today, Lebanon is a symbol of the Mideast's democratic potential.
The world recalls scenes of the Cedar Revolution -- huge demonstrations of Muslims and Christians demanding the exit of Syrian troops after the February murder of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri. The Syrians had maintained a de facto occupation for decades; Lebanese blamed Hariri's death on Big Brother Damascus. The Syrians left, and Lebanon became the poster child for the Bush administration's democracy campaign in the region.
I came back to see how much had really changed.
On the surface, Lebanon looks like another country. A huge, glistening new airport welcomes visitors, and most damaged Beirut buildings have been repaired, with the startling exception of the high-rise Holiday Inn, which stands like a shattered reminder of the past. Beirut's downtown was rebuilt by Hariri (creating immense national debt) with rows of handsome, restored historic buildings and blocks of glitzy shops and restaurants.
At the heart of downtown, a tent now shelters Hariri's tomb, covered with masses of white flowers. But the new restaurants nearby are nearly empty at lunchtime. Arab and European tourism has sharply fallen off.
The Cedar Revolution goes on, but the high hopes it raised have been tempered. The Syrian presence is still felt, if indirectly.
Despite successful national elections last month, renewed sectarian differences have delayed the naming of a new government. Lebanese who played key roles in the ferment following Hariri's death warn me: The road to full democracy in Lebanon will be long.
I make a pilgrimage up dizzying roads behind Beirut to the mountain village of Mukhtara, seat of the beautiful stone palace of Walid Jumblatt. He is the feudal chief of Lebanon's community of Druse, an esoteric offshoot of Islam.
Jumblatt was a key ally of Hariri, and leader in the opposition coalition that drove out the Syrians and won a majority of seats in the elections. His father, Kamal, was murdered in 1975, reputedly by Syrians. Jumblatt thinks he is probably on a Syrian "hit list."
The mercurial Jumblatt told the Washington Post in February that the process of change in the Arab world was started by the American invasion of Iraq. Today, he is much more cautious. Now, he says, "Iraq shook up the region, but where is the region going? Will Iraq stay united? There was no Taliban in Iraq before the Americans came but now you have in Iraq a Taliban." He is referring to radical Islamists who are streaming into Iraq from the Arab world.
Change from within
Jumblatt says he thinks change will come, but he warns that Arab states, including Syria, must change from within, without undue interference from the United States. "It takes time," he says. "We don't need Bush to tell us we need freedom." He warns against U.S. efforts to pressure Hezbollah, a Shiite Islamist group that the Bush administration labels as terrorist but that also will have posts in the new Lebanese government.
Gibran Tueni, editor of the large Lebanese daily An-Nahar in Beirut, is more open to America's role in helping Arab democratic forces. In his new office building, looking down at Lebanon's rebuilt port, he says U.S. policy should help "preserve the only democratic country in the Arab world (Lebanon) where there is dialogue between (religious) confessions." The son of a Druse mother and Christian father, Tueni keeps both a cross and a Koran near his desk.
Tueni stresses, however, the value of U.S. support for international efforts, such as United Nations Resolution 1559, which called for the exit of the Syrians. "Help countries engineer their own regional change," he says. "Don't import [your] systems. Help us choose for ourselves."
In other words, help Lebanon continue the Cedar Revolution. But listen to what the Lebanese say about the kind of help they need.
X Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune.