When you write articles on international affairs you hope your words will do some good. A lot of people may not like what you say, but you don’t do this sometimes dangerous job unless you want your writing to have a positive effect on people’s lives.
It has been demonstrated many times that the best way to help Lebanon and its people is to ignore it. The more you delve into its labyrinthine politics, history and culture, the more you cause trouble. Leave Lebanese people alone and they do very nicely, thank you. As soon as you start trying to explain things in terms you understand from your own experience, you twist the reality and drive wedges between people to suit yourself, the very behaviour most of us condemn when we see governments doing it.
However Lebanon can’t entirely avoid getting caught up in other people’s games. Whether it likes it or not, it is being affected by the spill-over from the Syrian conflict. It is also under constant threat from Israel, because it is easier to attack anti-Israeli groups in multicultural Lebanon than it is to start more wars with the Muslim countries. So perhaps it is worth reminding people that, contrary to the impression we are given, it is not geography or some defect in the people which makes this involvement in other people’s problems inevitable.
Lebanon is an anomaly. It has to be wrong, so it has to be taught a lesson. There is no justification for doing this directly, so it is done by the back door. All peoples, everywhere, would benefit if Lebanon was given the support it needs to kick its detractors out of the front door, in a glare of publicity.
Too bad to be true
Before it descended into civil war in the mid-1970s Lebanon was known as “the Las Vegas of the Middle East”. Prosperous and successful, it attracted millions of visitors and paid its way without disturbing the international peace. Its benefits could not be ignored, and other nations queued up to see what they could learn from this small chunk of vibrant living history.
In a region inundated with conflict, it took care of itself without antagonising either Muslim Syria, even during its belligerent United Arab Republic phase, or Zionist Israel, the so-called Jewish homeland which had been placed in a neighbourhood where it was to encourage it to see real and perceived threats everywhere. Lebanon was fully Middle Eastern but also pro-Western, whoever the Western powers supported at a given time, and could therefore be all things to all men when no other regional country had that ability.
There was just one problem. Lebanon’s political system was a hangover from the days of the Ottoman Empire. Rather than have the standard left, right and centre democratic spectrum, politics was divided along religious lines – each of the recognised religious communities was treated as a political entity in itself, and elected their own representatives to parliament. Power and influence were then divided between them on the basis of gentleman’s agreements and quotes within a constitution, rather than formal votes which would be won or lost by people betraying their communities.
The problem wasn’t that this antiquated system didn’t work, but that it did. Most of the governments which looked at Lebanon with envious eyes would never be able to introduce that system in their own countries, where religious and ethnic differences were denied political expression because they were considered dangerous. Only by suppression of difference had these countries developed their ideology-based systems, where schools of thought were more important than the fundamentals of who people are and what they do.
This explains both why that suppression is rarely talked about, treated as an historical inevitability like the triumph of Communism used to be in the Eastern Bloc, and why people who regularly vote nevertheless feel that politicians are all crooks who do not care about their interests. It also explains why no one ever wants to discuss the inherent weakness of democracy, which all its great virtues do not disguise: you don’t need to impose a system if you can make things work by gentleman’s agreement between fundamentally different groups. Making rules is a failure, not creating order out of chaos.
None of this would be surprising to anyone who has dealt with Lebanese in the commercial world. There are significant Lebanese business communities in every developed country, whose members come from the full range of religious communities. But you never hear much about a Lebanese political lobby: Arab yes, but specifically Lebanese no, because there is no need for one.
Lebanese routinely prosper without getting involved in their host countries’ politics to build platforms for themselves. Nor do they break up into separate community organisations to fight their internal battles in exile. This is most unusual in this day and age, when refugee community organisations proliferate in every country to give community members jobs, and do so by exploiting these divisions. But it demonstrates that Lebanese know how to get along with each other, and everyone else, by setting appropriate priorities, rather than by obeying artificial rules invented when this isn’t possible.
The hideously destructive Lebanese civil war began because everyone was picking a side in the region and every side had its supporters somewhere in Lebanon. The Israelis objected to Lebanon hosting Muslim terrorist groups, those who didn’t like Israel objected to them not hosting enough Muslim terrorist groups.
This eventually had a knock-on effect in domestic politics, when the traditional leadership role of the Maronite Christian community was questioned because they were being forced to pick sides themselves. So with all conflict in the region treated as inevitably Jewish versus Palestinian, it was left for the Lebanese to sort their own problems out, despite the fact they had always done that, and these were not their problems.
Predictably, the Lebanese Civil War resulted in all the sides fighting for a new Lebanon, with better gentleman’s agreements about sharing power, rather than each group trying to claim all power for itself. Equally predictably, when the Western powers got involved in the ceasefire process they tried to impose the solution most acceptable to themselves: the breakup of the confessional system. This resulted in Hezbollah becoming in effect the opposition, and the Syrian Army guaranteeing security, outcomes no one wanted regardless of what system was used.
Since the Doha Agreement of 2008, the confessional system has effectively been reintroduced. Syria still holds too many levers of power, and terrorists still operate as extensions of the government structure. But once again Lebanon has a chance of doing things in the way which used to work for the country, and works for Lebanese elsewhere.
Still politicians and academics line up to say that the confessional system is unsustainable, without offering anything more attractive to the people who are supposed to be suffering under it. Is this because they realise their own systems aren’t as good? The rise of anti-establishment parties, who want to overthrow the existing system, throughout the democratic world suggests that they do, but are too afraid of this to admit it.
Anti-socialism with a human face
The threat posed by Lebanon being allowed to run its own affairs is illustrated by the story of Mr. Nabouh. He was a Lebanese Shiite Muslim schoolteacher who washed up in Italy in 1989. He had been able to escape to Italy because the Italian Embassy was the only one located in the part of Beirut he was allowed to enter at that time. The Lebanese government wasn’t stopping him going anywhere, and assisted him throughout. But various militia groups were patrolling around, and only by following a particular route was he able to avoid them.
Mr. Nabouh had lived in another part of Beirut, and taught at a general, mixed-religion school without having any problem. Until, that is, Hezbollah began targeting him as a potential recruit. They approached him at home, but he told them he was opposed to violence and would not join them. So the next day another Hezbollah guy came and told him he was an Israeli spy, and that his family would be killed one by one unless he accepted their generous offer of death in combat.
Seeking protection, he approached the education ministry, who sent him to another school in a village called Houmin al-Tahta in the Muslim south. He managed to take his family with him, and was content to settle there until things improved. Then the Amal Movement came, knowing he hadn’t joined Hezbollah. He turned them down too, for the same reason, and was once again told he was an Israeli spy, and had better get out if he didn’t want to watch his family being murdered.
These threatening Muslim militiamen were Lebanese. They didn’t accuse him of supporting another side in the Lebanese civil war, but a foreign power. Other Lebanese, even killers, were more acceptable, in contradiction to the Western rhetoric about a country impossibly divided by factionalism as a result of the confessional system.
Mr. Nabouh hadn’t wanted to go to Italy, just somewhere safe. He soon discovered Italy was the only Western country which wouldn’t accept refugees, due to its chronic housing problems created by even worse housing laws. So he got a train to the Swiss border and tried to claim asylum there. They shouted at him and sent him back, as he was already living in a safe third country. He tried again at a different border crossing and was assaulted by the guards. They then put a stamp in his passport, which meant no country would ever accept him, and sent him back again.
Mr. Nabouh spoke fluent English. He could tell important people what had happened to him, and why. He asked for help in drafting a claim to the Red Cross, asking for its assistance in getting into a country he would be allowed to settle in. He devoted his last lira to this purpose, and was never seen or heard from again. He stopped appearing in Milan, and the Red Cross has never heard of him either.
Hezbollah and Amal have a long reach, but weren’t seen as credible forces in Italy. Neither was anyone scared of the Lebanese civil war being imported onto the streets. But no one would admit that it hadn’t been imported anywhere else because it was a foreign creation, so everyone involved had to be punished, to pretend it was the product of the locals and their system.
Mr. Nabouh’s claim for assistance ticked all the eligibility boxes, but he was Lebanese. It was too complicated to treat everyone from there equally, on humanitarian grounds. Everyone was part of a confessional group, so everyone had to be wrong, and being seen supporting one Lebanese over another from a different group might suggest some were more wrong than others, rather than this wrongness being inherent in the system itself.
Your freedom fighter is our terrorist
Under the modern gentleman’s agreements the various Muslim groups, including the Shiites, have greater influence in Lebanese politics. This has not, in itself, caused the political problems the country has suffered in recent years. The presence of the Syrian army was likewise once tolerated by all sides to protect the country from Israel, which had shown itself happy to devastate Beirut and anywhere else to punish this mostly Christian country for “harbouring” Muslim terrorists.
Now the Lebanese have been protected so much they have more self-confidence, and many want to kick the Syrians out again. This is of course being exploited by the anti-Assad forces, regardless of whether the Lebanese want them as allies or not.
But the issue is not whether you like Assad or Israel, but whether Lebanon will be allowed to regain full independence. Muslims who would never support Hezbollah under other circumstances, and also many other Lebanese, think it the lesser of two evils if Lebanon can be Lebanon again, with all the quirks deemed unacceptable by its alleged protectors.
Whenever you read news about conflict in Lebanon, it is not about the current situation. No matter how many problems the country has, its people still vote for confessional leaders within a system which has reverted to being what it always was. Conflict has prevented voting in the past, but this is not because voting becomes impractical in the circumstances. It is because it gives other powers time and space to try and change the system, so the people will start doing things the way they want afterwards. Ask a Turk, they are used to it, as every military takeover there has had the same effect.
One wrong does make a right
Globalisation means common rules. But despite all the common rules of international trade, most business is still conducted on the basis of gentleman’s agreements in capitalist countries.
Those same countries don’t trust their politicians because they think them unconcerned and immoral. If those politicians represented religious communities, and were judged on how much they met the needs of these communities but still expected to serve the general good above all, how many current political leaders would have a job, or be able to demonise all Muslims and get away with it, or get away with basing politics on abstract reasoning rather than the things which govern people’s lives?
Serbs frequently complain that whenever they try to unite in one state the rest of the world does everything it can to prevent this, without even knowing why. Lebanon also can’t be allowed to succeed, but here the politicians do know why.
There can’t be a rival to the democratic models imposed on countries by the globally-dominant USA. The same US undermines those same models if they don’t deliver the results the US wants. The Lebanese will never accept those models to begin with, and have found this is their greatest weapon, and guarantee of their independence. When you see the words “more conflict in Lebanon”, read “we have to pretend that our supposed superiority is founded on sand”.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.