BEIRUT — There are many ways to define "democracy," but they all share one critical dimension -- the notion that the people themselves grant their consent to a government that reflects their cultural mores and values. But how to classify a state whose authority is little more than the leftover scraps that the real powers don't want to deal with? I'd suggest a one-word definition: Lebanon.
This tiny Mediterranean country seems to be coming apart at the seams. So far this week, a minor dispute over the launching of fireworks sparked a running gun battle between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli that has so far left dozens injured and seven dead. In the predominantly Shiite southern suburbs of Beirut, residents have taken to the streets in abject fury over reports that suspected Hezbollah members captured by Syrian rebels in May had died in a regime air strike. And in the same neighborhood, a small but powerful Shiite clan went on a kidnapping spree -- targeting Syrians, Turks, and Gulf Arabs -- as leverage to gain the release of one of their compatriots captured in Damascus.
Even by Lebanon's famously liberal standards of civil unrest, it has been a nasty week. And the fate of Hezbollah, the heavily armed Shiite group and staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is the central question in this drama. The cabal of anonymous, serious-minded men who run the party have clearly realized that the Syrian regime is doomed, and have begun preparing the battlefield in Lebanon for whatever comes next.
On Aug. 15, families of the men kidnapped in Syria -- openly assisted by Hezbollah's military and security wing, though the party would later tepidly deny providing help -- tore around southern Beirut and other parts of Lebanon in dark sport utility vehicles sans license plates with masked gunmen shooting into the air to clear traffic as they delivered unlucky Syrians to their captivity.
"Hezbollah is not responsible for this," said one of the group's unit commanders, jumping in my car for a quick chat amid the overt military operations being conducted around us. "We cannot control all the [Shiite] tribes in Lebanon. This is the fault of the Gulf states who want to bring Lebanon to its knees next to Syria. We will not get involved in these fights between the family and the government. It is the responsibility of the government to protect Lebanon and its people, not the Resistance."
Even as he unabashedly lied to my face, his best friend, sitting next to me, broke into a huge grin.
"Look around at how everyone seems relieved," said this longtime Beirut resident, who was sympathetic to the party. "Finally Hezbollah is letting the Shiite respond to these insults from the Sunnis and the Syrian rebels. They can't admit that they're involved, but they had to let this happen to ease the frustration. Finally the Shiite feel like they have some power again."
In that scene, at that moment, it seemed like a perfectly reasonable analysis. But wait a second: Hezbollah isn't just the most powerful political and military element of Lebanese society, but in terms of its ability to actually get things done, it might represent the only functioning authority in the entire country. So why is Lebanon's only politically cohesive sect -- backed by a military organization that puts the nation's military to shame -- so insecure?