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Amid Arab Spring fires, why isn't Lebanon in flames?

While its neighbors are in turmoil, Lebanon has endured with relative calm throughout this Arab Spring. What's Lebanon's secret?

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During the presidency of George H.W. Bush, some of the chief’s staffers referred to Portland, Oregon as “Little Beirut.” The joke was thought to be clever because the highly liberal enclave of Portland saw massive demonstrations when the president came to town, and everyone knew, presumably, how hostile and incendiary a place the capital of Lebanon was.

Israel likes to portray itself as a stable country unfortunately positioned among bellicose neighbors, but Lebanon is truly a country that has served as the military playground of neighboring powers.

Lebanon, with “an amalgam of religious communities and their myriad sub-divisions...is the sectarian state par excellence,” wrote David Hirst in “Beware of Small States,” and “was almost designed to be the everlasting battleground for others.”

In 2011, though, Lebanon looks like a comparatively sturdy system, exhibiting calm highlighted by successful overthrows in Egypt and Tunisia, and forceful challenges to power in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and unrest in typically quiet Oman.

What is Lebanon’s secret? Well, it’s actually the country’s lack of secrets that sustains it. Lebanon is arguably the most open society in the Arab world, in everything from tolerance of homosexuality to the transparency of its banks and its relatively unhindered press system. Lebanon has survived because it is a country that isn’t threatened by dissent as a matter of course.

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“[I]n a region where hereditary monarchies or one-party republics were the norm,” wrote Mr. Hirst, “Lebanon [has] a resilient democratic tradition which, however flawed, sets it apart from everywhere else.” Uncertain though its future may be, Lebanon has a system in which a number of groups check the power of others. “In Lebanon there is no single dictator to confront,” The New York Times reported in April. Pluralistic dysfunction is the best kind. The article was headlined “In Lebanon, a More Patient Protest.”

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Lebanon's relative calm in Arab Spring

Cairo, Tunis, and Manama were once cities to which people would flee when things fell apart in Lebanon. In 2011, though, some people in besieged Arab capitals headed for the relative calm of Lebanon’s cedars. Now in Beirut there is a “sense of calm, even complacency, in the Lebanese political class about the stability of the political scene,” Marc Lynch wrote in his blog for Foreign Policy in March.

Other governments in the region talk about openness and tolerance, but other than Lebanon, few Mideast nations toil for them in earnest. “Transparency and open dialogue are effective, vital elements in the structure of mature and civilized nations,” the United Arab Emirate’s monarch, Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum, has said. Yet in 2011, his minions jailed bloggers and dissidents, and he sent soldiers to Bahrain to crush pro-democracy demonstrations.

Since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in Egypt, where the new dawn of democracy was all about governance in the sunshine, the military, now in control, has jailed a blogger, murdered several demonstrators, and sexually tortured female protesters.

Lebanon has certainly experienced protests, too. Thousands of Lebanese turned out in Beirut on April 10, and again a few days later, protesting Lebanon’s system of religious confessionalism, its national system of power-sharing based on religious affiliation. You probably didn’t hear news of this demonstration, though, because Lebanese forces didn’t kill demonstraters as regimes have recently done in Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Yemen.

A tolerance that survives upheaval and dissent

Lebanon’s comparatively open system has readied it to handle caustic public expression without people tearing one another’s heads off. Recent Lebanese demonstrations weren’t exactly asking politely for change. “Revolution against the regime!” and “People want the fall of the regime!” were among protesters’ chants, according to Agence France-Presse.

Lebanon is not free from unrest. An armed Hezbollah in Lebanon that addresses its grievances militarily constantly threatens the country’s buoyancy, and the group's belligerence contributed to the Lebanese government's collapse in January.

The ongoing militarism of Hezbollah, though, is not the most existential threat Lebanon has faced in its history. This is a country that overcame one of the most gruesome civil wars imaginable – which ended only in 1990 – a conflict that killed more than 150,000 people, or more than five percent of the entire population. (The US Civil War killed two percent of Americans.)

A lasting cliché about Beirut is that it’s like the “Paris of the Mideast,” which is a rather silly comparison. Parisians know downright nothing about what Lebanese have endured over the past half century – uncertainty and upheaval that could only be weathered by the most tolerant household in the neighborhood.

Justin D. Martin teaches journalism at The American University in Cairo and is a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin

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