BEIRUT—As dusk settled over the capital of Lebanon, Carlos Ghosn took a seat in the back corner of a dimly lit restaurant a short walk from his house. A waiter approached. In Arabic, Mr. Ghosn ordered an espresso.

A bodyguard, after looking the place over, disappeared. Several groups of Lebanese businessman talked quietly nearby, paying little mind to the former auto titan who had made world-wide headlines weeks earlier by escaping house arrest in Tokyo and fleeing Japan after sneaking onto a private plane in a large black box.

Mr. Ghosn’s new life in Lebanon, he said between sips of espresso, is one of restrictions. He can’t leave the country where he was born without risking arrest, and Lebanon’s banking crisis has crimped his access to cash. At times, street protests have made even moving around the city a challenge.

And always, he is on the lookout for Nissan or Japanese authorities who might be shadowing him.

“I’ve been told I need to protect myself," he said. “Even the building in front of my house, Japanese people came to rent it. I don’t know what their intentions are. People tell me that a lot of Japanese people are coming, taking photos and observing."

His life of hopscotching around the world on a private jet, he knows, is over. His primary focus these days is mounting his counterattack against charges that as head of the auto-making alliance between Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co., he misappropriated company money and hid compensation. “We’re talking about fighting for my reputation, fighting for my legacy and fighting for my rights," he said. “I’ve never been as motivated as I am today."

Asked whether he has anything to apologize for in the wake of his escape, his eyes narrowed. “Apology for what…?" he said. “For who? Nissan? Renault?"

Mr. Ghosn’s return to the homeland he left as a teenager is a strange twist of fate for an executive that has long considered himself a citizen of the world, accumulating homes and passports on multiple continents. All four of his children grew up between Paris and Tokyo before studying at Stanford University. None of them speak Arabic.

“Since I started to work, this is the longest period I spent in Lebanon," Mr. Ghosn said.

Today, the country that once put his face on a postage stamp is buffeted by violent protests demanding the overthrow of the Lebanese establishment. “Carlos Ghosn is one of them," said Ahmad Jammoul, a 21-year-old student who marched in a recent protest.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Ghosn responded that he “is not part of the Lebanese establishment, has no political role in the country and does not plan to have any."

The timing of his return hasn’t helped. Mr. Ghosn mounted a costly escape operation—chartering a private jet to smuggle himself out of Japan in an audio-equipment box, and forfeiting close to $15 million in bail money—while Lebanon was in the middle of a financial crisis.

Lebanon’s borrowing costs soared as investors fled its sovereign-debt market. Banks, the main holders of Lebanese bonds, have responded to a cash crunch by restricting customers’ access to their money, including the amounts that can be transferred abroad. Mr. Ghosn is consulting Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz about selling his story for film and TV, and has told friends it could help finance his legal battle.

The latest protests started in October, after the government proposed a tax on WhatsApp, the popular messaging app. They turned violent as anger grew at the country’s political class, whom people blame for the collapsing economy.

“This thinking that there is no solution for the problems in Lebanon, I don’t buy it," Mr. Ghosn said. “There is a solution. But the solution on paper is maybe 5%, but then it’s 95% execution. Same as companies."

Walid Jumblatt, a lawmaker at the center of Lebanese politics, has called for Mr. Ghosn to be named the country’s energy minister. Mr. Ghosn said he has no interest and that he steers clear of Lebanon’s sectarian politics.

For the first time in decades, Mr. Ghosn has time on his hands. He and his wife have been hosting dinners for friends inside their Beirut mansion. He has been reconnecting with childhood classmates, visiting old haunts, skiing and walking in the mountains. On Tuesday, he and his wife heard the Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

“I need to recover," he said. “Physically, the 14 months in Japan have been a challenge."

One afternoon last month, he took his 25-year-old son, Anthony, for the first time to visit the apartment where he grew up. It is in a working-class neighborhood encircling the ruins of a fifth-century church. A stronghold of the Maronite Christian community, the neighborhood has changed little since he left.

A 64-year-old cafe owner tried to approach Mr. Ghosn but was stopped by his bodyguard. He identified himself as a distant cousin. The bodyguards backed off.

“Welcome to Lebanon," the man said, explaining to Mr. Ghosn that they were connected by marriage through a distant relative.

Where was that relative now? Mr. Ghosn asked. The man pointed to an apartment building across the street from Mr. Ghosn’s childhood home.

Mr. Ghosn was born in Porto Velho, Brazil, in the Amazon jungle, to Lebanese parents.

His father, Georges Ghosn took the family back to Lebanon when Mr. Ghosn was 6 years old. Around that time, Georges Ghosn was arrested for his involvement in the murder of a priest who was shot twice, once in the head.

Police said Georges and the priest had been smuggling diamonds and foreign currency, Lebanon’s main French language daily newspaper reported at the time. Mr. Ghosn’s father admitted to the trafficking but maintained he didn’t pull the trigger in the shooting, the paper said. His sentence was commuted to 15 years of hard labor after a court ruled the killing wasn’t premeditated.

Georges got an early release from jail, when Mr. Ghosn was 16 years old. Four months later he was caught with about $35,000 in counterfeit cash, the Lebanon paper reported. He was sentenced to another three years in prison.

Mr. Ghosn declined to comment on his father. His father’s imprisonment was a painful episode for him, said one person who has spoken to him about it. “It’s a credit to him that he overcame it," this person said.

In a 2003 autobiography, Mr. Ghosn described his father as a devout Maronite who shuttled between Brazil and Lebanon for work. The book didn’t mention his imprisonment.

Mr. Ghosn wrote that Lebanon in those days was “the Switzerland of the Middle East," a sun-kissed financial center that drew tourists from around the world.

His mother sent him to a private Jesuit school, Notre Dame de Jamhour, where he was a stellar pupil with a rebellious streak.

Elie Gharios, a childhood friend, said he and young Carlos once were suspended for writing “down with old people" in red paint on the side of the 170-year-old school. The future auto executive was often surrounded by other boys who followed his every order, Mr. Gharios recalled.

In 1971, Mr. Ghosn graduated from high school and moved to Paris to continue his education. It was in France that peers started using a Western pronunciation of his name, with a hard “g" and a silent “s" in a way that rhymes with “cone." In Arabic, the name sounds more like “Ho-ssun."

As Mr. Ghosn’s auto-industry career took off, he seldom visited Lebanon. His first major assignment as a young manager at the tire maker Michelin was in Brazil. People who know him from that period say he didn’t look back.

In 2008, he bought a large stake in a vineyard in Lebanon. A few years later, after a 2012 divorce, he married his second wife, Carole. She came from the same Maronite neighborhood in Beirut.

In 2012, Nissan purchased for Mr. Ghosn’s use a villa in the city’s Ashrafieh quarter, a neighborhood of stately mansions and apartments buildings that had given the city its former moniker, the Paris of the Middle East. Nissan paid about $9.4 million, then sunk another $7.6 million into renovating it. Carole Ghosn supervised the job, which included painting the exterior pink and excavating two ancient sarcophagi now visible beneath a glass floor leading to the wine cellar.

Mr. Ghosn’s arrest in Nov. 2018 marked the start of a yearlong tug of war with the Japanese justice system. After spending months in prison, often in solitary confinement, he was assigned to live in a Tokyo apartment with camera surveillance and a court order barring contact with his wife, then shuttling between Lebanon and New York City.

Jumping bail and fleeing to Lebanon reunited Mr. Ghosn with his wife and gave him a measure of freedom. Interpol issued a “red notice," indicating he was wanted by Japan for extradition. But Lebanon doesn’t extradite its citizens, which means that Mr. Ghosn is unlikely to return to face trial in Japan.

Tokyo’s deputy chief prosecutor, Takahiro Saito, said in a written statement that Mr. Ghosn “didn’t want to submit to the judgment of our nation’s courts and sought to avoid the punishment for his own crimes."

Nissan had changed the locks at the Beirut villa after his arrest, but a Lebanese court ordered the company to hand the new keys over to Carole Ghosn while the court reviews the matter. Nissan is trying to evict the Ghosns, and the Ghosns are trying to buy the house from the company.

After he stepped off a chartered jet in Beirut on Dec. 30, Mr. Ghosn began laying the groundwork for his new life. He immediately visited Lebanon’s president, who hadn’t been warned of Mr. Ghosn’s escape plans, according to people familiar with the matter. His Lebanese lawyer, who has extensive political contacts in Beirut, dialed politicians and newspaper editors to gauge their support for Mr. Ghosn’s decision to take refuge in Lebanon.

Mr. Ghosn has been mounting his legal and public-relations campaign against Nissan and the Japanese government with the zeal he once brought to running Nissan-Renault. Several times a week, he takes a car to his Lebanese lawyer’s office in central Beirut.

The firm has provided him with a small, corner office overlooking a school and a church. He uses a videoconferencing room next door to talk to his other lawyers and public-relations advisers in Tokyo, Paris and New York.

“I have to take care of myself," he said. “I don’t have to take care of all these companies. I work with a more restricted group of people. They’ve been through a lot of battles, but people I can really count on."

He has filed a lawsuit against Renault alleging the French car maker owes him a €250,000 pension payment after he stepped down as chairman and chief executive while inside a Tokyo jail. His lawyers have filed a lawsuit in an Amsterdam court alleging that Nissan and Mitsubishi unfairly dismissed him as a director at the companies’ Dutch joint-venture. Lawyers representing the joint venture have said Mr. Ghosn’s dismissal was justified.

“It’s an unbalanced fight," he said. “The companies have deep pockets."

Lebanese officials have asked Mr. Ghosn to not say anything that might create tension between Beirut and Tokyo. That meant toning down his first public appearance since his escape—a Jan. 8 news conference in which he berated Nissan and the Japanese justice system.

Mr. Ghosn had considered criticizing the Japanese government and accusing officials of conspiring with Nissan in his downfall, according to people familiar with the matter. Nissan and Japanese prosecutors have denied that they conspired to bring down Mr. Ghosn. Prosecutors said they conducted their own investigation.

On the eve of the news conference, Lebanese officials asked him to refrain from attacking Japanese officials, these people said. A spokesperson for the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that before the news conference, Japan’s ambassador to Lebanon had told Lebanon’s president that Mr. Ghosn’s “illegal departure from Japan and arrival in Lebanon is deeply regrettable and can never be overlooked by the government of Japan."

Lebanese government officials didn’t respond to requests for comment.

In Lebanon, it is a crime for a private citizen to harm Lebanon’s relations with another country.

“I would do nothing beyond reasonable to jeopardize the relationship between the countries," Mr. Ghosn later said.

Mr. Ghosn also used the news conference to try to quell a separate controversy. A group of lawyers had petitioned a Lebanese court to arrest Mr. Ghosn for a trip he made to Israel in 2008 when he was CEO of Renault. Lebanese citizens are barred from visiting that country because the two states are still technically at war.

Mr. Ghosn’s legal team countered the petition in court by saying he made the visit as the head of a French company and shouldn’t face prosecution.

Addressing the TV cameras in Arabic, Mr. Ghosn sounded a note of contrition. “Of course I apologize for the visit, and I was very moved that the Lebanese people were affected by it," he said. “The last thing I wanted to do was hurt the Lebanese people."

—Nazih Osseiran contributed to this article.

My Reads Logout