In the beginning there was just an insult, sparked by a trivial squabble in a street of a working-class neighborhood of Beirut. A surly-looking man on a balcony splashes some water on a foreman below who has come to fix a defective pipe; the foreman curses back. Such is the starting point of “The Insult,” a film by Ziad Doueiri, which is up for an Academy Award in the foreign-language category on Sunday.
Matters could have ended there. After all, as Freud supposedly said, “The first human who hurled an insult instead of a stone was the founder of civilization.” But not in the Lebanon of “The Insult” — where the insult turns into a fight, then a court case and finally a state affair. And not in the real Lebanon either: Some weeks back, just a few months before the next general election is expected to be held, another insult set the country ablaze.
In late January a video appeared online showing Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister (and the president’s son-in-law), calling Nabih Berri, the speaker of the National Assembly, a “thug.” Some streets of Beirut broke out into scenes that could have been lifted from the movie: angry youth, blocked roads, burning tires — as ever, the specter of civil strife. Mr. Bassil (like his father-in-law) is a Maronite Christian; Mr. Berri is a Shiite. And the whole of Lebanese politics plays the sectarian chord.
Here, a single insult can rekindle badly healed wounds, and nudged by just a few excesses from the media or the public, push Lebanon to the brink. (Freud might have called this, too, the “return of the repressed.”) Resentment runs deep in this tiny country, this house of many mansions, home to so many communities with so many narratives forged over so many decades of frustration. Fear of a conflagration remains after a long history of deadly fratricidal clashes, for example in 1845, 1860, 1958 and, of course, 1975–90.
Lebanon’s main fault lines have shifted since that civil war. The film mentions the massacre of Christians by radical Palestinian militias in the village of Damour in 1976, which is sometimes overlooked. But the Palestinian question has become a less central issue since the Israeli invasion of 1982, which caused many fighters from Yasir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization to leave the country.
By focusing on this earlier period in a film set in contemporary Lebanon, Mr. Doueiri might appear to be evading what the most sensitive questions of the moment. The movie makes no mention of the Shiite organization Hezbollah, undoubtedly the most important political actor in the country today. No word either of the rift between Sunnis and Shiites, which has deepened both in Lebanon and throughout the region since the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. Or of the proxy wars that Iran and Saudi Arabia have been waging here.
But the film also avoids being Manichaean, and it captures well how Lebanon’s fundamental structural problems have barely changed: minorities’ fear of the other and their existential anxiety, clientelism and corruption, the shameless manipulation of popular resentment by politicians.
In 1991, soon after the war, an amnesty law was passed in the name of national reconciliation. It has only allowed the warlords to evade justice and stay in charge: Since then, they have continued to sabotage the state, though now from within, capturing its resources and handing those out to their minions. The central authorities are weak and powerless as a result, having become indentured to various political and sectarian fiefs. Since amnesty has also bred amnesia, the country still isn’t immune to a return of its old demons.
The insult of Mr. Doueiri’s film is the stuff of tragedy. It illustrates deep disagreements over history and memory between two victims who are from opposite camps yet alike in their shared experience of suffering. Trapped in a great game being played well beyond them, both men, each in his own way, end up embodying what George Orwell called common decency.
In contrast, the rivalries of today oppose members of a well-fed elite. Their confrontations are not about assaults on an individual’s dignity; they are petty quarrels over how to slice the pie. These people have ruled together, and they will likely rule together again, in what they call, improperly, “national unity governments.” At most, the upcoming election in May will only marginally affect a system that is as well-greased as it is perverse.
Indeed, 75 years after independence from France, Lebanon has yet to develop a proper sense of democratic citizenship, a direct relation between the individual and the state. From their cradles to their graves, Lebanese people live under a sort of house arrest, confined by their communal affiliation; they cannot assert their rights without having to resort to the patronage networks of sectarian leaders.
Behind its facade as a liberal parliamentary democracy, Lebanon is the hostage of a half-dozen cynical politicians — themselves often indentured to a foreign power — who divvy up positions and profits among themselves. The country’s system of “consociational democracy,” which was supposed to maintain balance among its various religious communities, has over the years turned it into a quasi-oligarchy.
Karim Emile Bitar is a senior fellow at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, in Paris, and associate professor of international relations at Saint-Joseph University, in Beirut.