Beirut: open city

From liberal capital to regional threat

Even as the journalist Samir Kassir lay dead in his car on the morning of June 2, politicians, journalists and analysts tried to make sense of a wantonly barbaric killing. And the answer many reached went to the heart of what it means to own a free mind in the Middle East, and the deep political dangers this poses for the region’s regimes.

Kassir’s death was initially regarded as an act of retribution for the journalist’s past outspokenness, particularly his denunciation of the former head of the General Security directorate, Gen. Jamil al-Sayyed. Several years ago, Sayyed ordered his men to tail and harass Kassir, after he had written an article criticizing the general. It seemed the journalist had had the last word after the Syrian withdrawal, and therefore had to pay. There were other messages in the killing, observers insisted, including a warning to opposition groups to watch out (Kassir was a leading member of the Democratic Left movement), to Al-Nahar to watch out, and to journalists in general to watch out about defying the security services.

All these explanations may well have been true, however they were all part of a more focused accusation, namely that the Syrian intelligence services had engineered Kassir’s killing to warn other Lebanese journalists, but also opposition members inside Syria, against threatening the stability of the Syrian regime. This appeared different than the subsequent killing of George Haoui, which seemed to be a backhand to the forehand of the large Hariri victory in parliamentary elections.

If respecting the durability of Syria’s regime was indeed the motive in Kassir’s death, it suggests that, since Syria dismantled its security curtain last April, it has concluded two things with respect to freedom of expression: that Lebanon must not again become, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, a center from or through which foes of the Syrian regime might destabilize it; and that though its soldiers are gone, the margin of maneuver Syria has to punish its enemies is now, paradoxically, wider.

If that is indeed the Syrian rationale, it shows a remarkable sensitivity to the power of liberal ideas – no doubt understandable from a regime so single-mindedly fixated on denying them. But what aspect of Kassir’s exhortations so disturbed the Syrians? After all, Al-Nahar is denied entry into Syria, and while many of its articles are passed around in samizdat, those bound to read them do not pose a serious challenge to the Syrian regime, with its control over myriad apparatuses of violence.

According to a close friend of Kassir, and a careful observer of Arab media, Damascus couldn’t stomach his regular appearances on Arab satellite channels, often talking about Syria. While his articles were savage in their dismissal of the Syrian dictatorship, his television appearances reached a far larger audience. As someone who famously remarked, “The Syrian army must withdraw from Lebanon, and from Syria as well”, Kassir hit a sensitive nerve. He also reportedly planned to travel to Damascus soon to make a similar case. There was no ambiguity there: Kassir believed the Syrian regime had to go.

More broadly, this underlines the central role Lebanon is set to play in the future as a liberal command center, if it can eliminate the vestiges of the security edifice set up by Syria. The country played this role in the period before the civil war in 1975. However, idealism aside, this implied not just issuing democratic invocations; it also involved offering shelter to the political opponents of Arab regimes, so that Beirut became much more than a place of intellectual tolerance; it became a fount of prospective coups and revolutions and, therefore, a source of regional instability. In effect, it became a playing field for Arab rivalries.

The situation has changed somewhat, in that most Arab countries are not quite as murderous as they once were in carrying their conflicts elsewhere. Today, the weapons of choice might as easily be satellite channels and public relations firms as car bombs and bullets. However, Syria, among a dwindling group, remains an anachronistic exception. However, even in their modestly pacified political climate, the Lebanese must ask themselves whether they are prepared to defend their country if it resumes playing the dangerous part of liberal outlet.

As Kassir observed in an interview last year: “Yet, Beirut also has something unique – human diversity and, thanks to its history, linguistic and political diversity. Let’s hope it will keep it. If Beirut loses this diversity – and the city did not do so, despite its 15-year conflict between 1975 and 1990 – it means it would have been seen as the contradiction of the Arab city, which would represent a triumph for regression.”

Who can disagree? As Kassir’s murder showed, the only real hope for stability Lebanon will enjoy requires its being surrounded by pluralistic systems, in a region at peace. Some Arab regimes will use money and other means to fight open minds in Beirut. But for once, they are on the defensive, and changes in Lebanon are a reason. What better example of bald fear do we need than a particular regime’s need to liquidate a man who deployed only ideas, a voice and a pen against them?