Brigadier General Ghazi Kanaan, then head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, uttered the following chilling words of caution and encouragement in 1991 at the end of the Lebanese civil war:
"You Lebanese, you are shrewd, creative and successful merchants … Create light industries. Engage in trade and commerce. Indulge in light media, which does not affect security. Shine all over the world by inventiveness and leave politics to us. Each has his domain in Lebanon: yours is trade; ours, politics and security".
Syria would go on to become the unchallenged power broker in Lebanon, a "reward" from the Bush Sr administration for joining the international coalition that ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in early 1991. Brig Gen Kanaan, who had been in his job since 1982, and in reality was the most powerful man in the country, was laying down the law as Lebanon entered what it hoped would be a new era of peace and prosperity.
Syrian troops eventually left Lebanon after the 2005 Cedar Revolution but with the regime of the Syrian president Bashar Al Assad seemingly living on borrowed time, it is worth asking whether Brig Gen Kanaan's neat assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, although arrogant and patronising, may have nonetheless carried a grain of truth.
For the past six months the embattled Syrian regime has done its best to destabilise Lebanon and we Lebanese have struggled to counter the threat. The upshot has been political chaos and an economy in tailspin.
Tourist figures for the first six months of the year are at least 12 per cent down on the same period a year ago, which in itself was hardly vintage. But even these official figures are skewed, as they do not take into consideration the many Lebanese, like myself, who enter Lebanon on a foreign passport and are chalked up as a foreign arrival.
Our property sector has also hit a trough. You know things aren't as well as they could be when signs saying "Apartments for sale … Call Mr Toufic" suddenly appear on the facades of half-built or newly completed developments. Arabian Gulf money is in a holding pattern as it waits to see how Lebanon will be affected by both the Syrian crisis and how sentiment runs in a country that for the time being has a pro-Syrian, Hizbollah-dominated government. Threats by pro-Syrian gangs to abduct Gulf tourists have not helped.
The advertising market is the first to tighten its belt in times of uncertainty. "No one wants to spend," said the marketing manager of a local business magazine. "It's the worst market I've seen in the last decade. Even after [the] 2006 [war] things picked up quicker."
The comparison is telling. Lebanon can go into total meltdown for a month but if there is a clear beginning and end to any crisis, and if that crisis came about as a result of external factors, as happened in 2006, interruption to the country's business rhythm is always short-lived.
But these days you can almost smell the stench of failure. The country has barely enough infrastructure to get by, while the free-flowing river that is Lebanon's brain drain is now ready to burst its banks. And talking of banks, they are the only genuine institutions performing. Everyone else has downed tools. Except for MPs who on Tuesday wanted to award themselves a salary increase. Quite what for is anyone's guess.
By the way, on October 12, 2005, Brig Gen Kanaan, by then Syria's interior minister, was found slumped dead at his desk in Damascus with a gunshot wound to the head after apparently committing suicide.
The hope in Lebanon is that we avoid a similar fate.
Michael Karam is writer based in Beirut.