The Cedars of Lebanon have long been a national symbol; these days they are especially symbolic – but of what is wrong with the country.
Round two of a particularly depressing episode involving the Cedars unfolded this week. Round one took place this summer, when a former MP from Bsharri decided that his son had to have the most spectacular and unique wedding ever. This could only be achieved by building a concrete amphitheater next to the forest of the Cedars, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The former MP relied on the argument that the theater would be on his private property, showing little to no concern for any possible adverse consequences on one of Lebanon’s national treasures. The politician, who can count on support from the March 8 coalition, went through with the wedding plans and the venue was completed, despite loud local objections, in round one of this sordid affair.
When an official committee decided that the structure had to go, the public saw round two: a violent confrontation between police and local residents, whipped into a fury over this violation of the sacred Lebanese right to do anything one wants, irrespective of the consequences – as long as it’s with political backing.
The Cedars affair should leave a particularly bad taste in the mouth because it comes in stark contrast to other areas of the country where construction violations are removed without fanfare because the people involved aren’t “connected.” Political parties might intervene with the authorities to prevent a confrontation and seek a mutually satisfactory compromise. In this case, the politician and his friends are openly defying the authority of the state, and had no shame in constructing their structure next to an ancient forest, promoted as a treasure for both Lebanon and the world.
Similar crimes against Lebanon’s heritage have taken place regularly in the capital, where greedy developers seek to do everything in their power, legally and illegally, to ensure that construction takes place. It could be in Downtown Beirut, where unscrupulous firms deny that their projects will be located on the site of antiquities. A little bit of working one’s connections and destroying the evidence on the ground is usually enough to get the project moving along. Average citizens who try to so flagrantly bypass the law would probably find themselves in jail.
The same applies to the drug trade. Individuals with tiny amounts of prescribed substances are hauled off to police stations, while the drug barons who handle the supply appear on television to say the authorities won’t dare come after them, because they have already reached agreements to that effect with state officials.
“Respect the law unless you’re powerful enough to violate it” is the resounding message that was sent this week from the Cedars.