I am trying to think how best to write about Lebanon, about the BIGGER picture and the complicated political situation and structure there. It goes beyond the Beirut port bombing or the source of the fertiliser, well beyond the recriminations, and what is actually being reported in the news as well.
This is a topic we have covered earlier in NEO, even before Lebanon was so newsworthy. But as with everything, the first rule of a journalist is to not to believe in coincidences.
Blast from the Past
Let’s just assume readers know all about the current situation, the corruption, the banking mafias and the humanitarian crisis on the horizon. Lebanon is a country collapsing, crashing and burning, and its banking system with it. The country is about to hit rock bottom—at least in the opinion of most pundits.
As mentioned in previous NEO articles, the lack of a government isn’t going to get foreign troops out of Lebanon, or stabilise its currency and persuade its neighbours to respect its position. Nor is it going to keep it out of the shadows of Israel and Syria.
But having a new government which isn’t backed, or at least tolerated, by public consensus won’t bring about immediate change; it won’t be the magic cure. On the contrary, it will for sure raise new issues, create new groups willing to be bought off and create greater instability, simply because it is easier to fight an enemy you know.
Changing the political-sectoral structure of the government, an ongoing issue in Lebanon, isn’t going to prove a panacea for all either – not because no solution would satisfy the Lebanese, but because the very existence of its government system doesn’t satisfy everyone else.
But what comes next?
At the heart of this system lies a social compact which connects individuals to political leaders based on sectarian identity — Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, Druze, to name a few of the country’s 18 different religious sects. Each knows its place, and is closely linked to various networks of political and financial patronage—and these have existed from generation to generation.
In layman’s terms, if a whole new order is put in place in Lebanon – based on liberal, deliberative politics, not doling out privileges to various religious and ethnic groupings, and with well-delineated representative electoral boundaries drawn up following the first census the country will have seen in decades – most of the confessional groups will most likely lose out, or persuade their supporters they will. The sectorial elites are very entrenched, and run their own self-sustaining networks of patronage, so it isn’t hard to predict how they will react.
If something the West recognises as “liberal democracy” is introduced in Lebanon, the elites’ spheres of influence will contract, and their interests will have to come second to those of the locals. At least, that is the theory – as ever, Westerners are unable to understand that “liberal democracy” is itself a sect, run by a particular segment of the population, holding certain approved views, which sustains itself by even more extensive networks of patronage.
The elites and the locals are not two separate groups in Lebanon. All the various groups and elites are in some sense local, the outcomes of waves of past immigration and a system which, though antiquated, was questioned far more by outsiders than it ever was by Lebanese, whose only argument is who should have which slices of the cake, and for what reason.
The Maronites claim to be the “original” Lebanese, descendants of the Phoenicians. But their claim to being the real Lebanese is no more or less valid than those of the Sunni or Shia populations, or the Druze, or even the Armenians who have a clear, century-long presence in the country—ever since the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Ottomans.
This is why nationals outside the country simply call themselves Lebanese – they identify more with Lebanon than with the ethnic groups and associated states everyone else tells them they belong to. In the nineteenth century it was often said that the differences between the dominant political parties lay in which gentleman’s clubs their members belonged to, rather than in their ideologies. The differences between Lebanese lie in which networks of patronage they can access, not their religious or ethnic identity.
Lebanon has never been a nation-state or national state, so all groups have a more or less equal participation in its identity. No one group can claim that it is the true local population, and the rest are minorities. Everyone is a minority, and it is only the much more recent Palestinian and Syrian immigrants and refugees who might remain out of the social and legal framework, even though they largely migrated there to find one.
Trying to upset the delicate balance of interests which holds the country together, when outsiders allow it to, will certainly lead to a great deal of acrimony from almost anyone who has enjoyed any degree of power over the past seventy years and more, who won’t want to give up any privileges and share things with Johnny come lately “newcomers”.
As we have learned from too many other fledgling states or flickering beacons of democracy, be careful for what you wish for. Change for its own sake is not always for the better, especially in complicated parts of the world. This has been a lesson learned in the wake of the so-called Arab Springs.
High Wire Act
Perhaps the best starting point is to assume that the present Lebanese government is a high-wire act. By any measures it should have failed long ago, even before it resigned, as it represents too many competing and diametrically opposed interests, sects and political agendas, pieced together into a government out of sheer desperation amidst almost impossible political realities. Corruption is endemic, as to a cat who likes to climb trees and claw things.
Much of the problem has to do with the fact that Lebanon is deeply rooted in its old colonial past, and its former masters, powers such as France and Turkey, are completing for a place at the table in a bid to retain their historic influence.
When Lebanon was the Las Vegas of the Middle East, wealthy and attractive, these powers tried to exert this influence in a much more covert way, not wanting to interfere with the operation of a gravy train. Now those days have gone, they are setting themselves up as the solution to the problems they themselves created by refusing to accept a Lebanese system they were incapable of emulating.
From 1920 until its independence in 1943, Lebanon was under French colonial rule, while before that the Ottomans ruled for four centuries. This is why it was predictable that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron of “colonial” aims in Lebanon, and called his recent visit to Beirut a “spectacle”, amid growing tensions between Ankara and Paris.
The meddling from outsiders has made Lebanon a modern-day Casablanca, full of cross-sections of intrigues. Not only France and Turkey but the US and Israel see it as the beachhead for influencing regional affairs, as if things are not already complicated enough with Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria engaged in an ongoing proxy war within Lebanon’s internal politics. No one wants them there, but if the state isn’t strong enough to protect particular groups of locals from people sponsored by the other side, they have little choice but to put up with the “protection” of people they do not actually regard as representing their interests.
Macron and Erdogan have enough problems at home, but prefer meddling in an area that is already a tinderbox, so they can blame the other, and therefore by extension all it represents in their respective countries. All this is contributing to a perfect storm which will leave Lebanon a failed state amongst failed states. What will actually have happened is that everyone else has failed because Lebanon is intrinsically sounder than they are, but it is the Lebanese who will be expected to pick up the pieces.
While France and Turkey are making worrying bids for renewed influence, the US is trying to call the game from a distance. US motivations are simpler, and easier to understand – the US answer is always, “I blame Iran for the problems in Lebanon,” with a few soundbites about Hezbollah to boot.
As ever, this line has everything to do with the US, and nothing whatever to do with Lebanon or the reality of life there. IRAN-Hezbollah is a label of convenience for State Department types and the John Boltons and Mike Mike Pompeos of this world, i.e., the proverbial “shallow-minded state”.It is really interesting to listen to State Department briefings and read press releases. What they don’t say is most revealing, like Pompeo’s statement in the aftermath of the only too convenient fertilizer explosion at the Port of Beirut:
“I want to extend our deepest condolences to all those who were affected by the massive explosion at the port of Beirut yesterday. We stand ready to assist the Government of Lebanon – as it grapples with this horrible tragedy. You’ll see the United States announce a number of things we intend to do to assist the people of Lebanon in the coming days.”
Such as what? Everything has strings attached, especially when it concerns providing aid to a country during a humanitarian crisis. We only have to look at the developmental model imposed on any country, the USAID Missions and IFO, IMF and World Bank advisers, designed with no other purpose but to ensure the US takes control “lock, stock and barrel”.
Let’s hope that a new model evolves (not a feeding frenzy), and one not based on externally imposed structural adjustment policies or economic shock treatment, as if the economy hasn’t been shocked enough. It should be more needs driven, and must not identify the locals as the problem, particularly when you are expecting those locals to vote the way you want them to when your new system is in place.
Baking a new cake will require time, and enough time must be afforded for the evolving protest movement and other independent figures to politically organise. Early elections will result in the same sectarian elite getting elected, but then not being allowed to operate, so Lebanon will again be lumbered with the worst of both worlds.
To go back and see where it all began, one only needs to check out the secret 1916 Sykes Picot agreement between England and France about slicing up what would be left of the Ottoman Empire after World War One. It would be naïve to think that anyone can get a grasp of what is going on now without understanding the historic intrigues.
The Bolsheviks found a copy of the Sykes-Picot agreement when they seized power, and had the audacity to publish it.
Lenin called it “the agreement of colonial thieves”. This might also be an appropriate title for what may come in the wake of the resignation of the most recent Lebanese government, and any conditions imposed by the West or the IMF on Lebanon in exchange for a financial lifeline.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.