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Independence in Lebanon?

Bilal El-Amine
Date Published: 
August 03, 2005

The merry-go-around of Lebanese politics of changing loyalties and shifting alliances since the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Harriri on February 14, has finally arrived at its natural resting place: religious sectarianism, or “confessionalism,” as it is referred to here. Millions protested in downtown Beirut calling for “freedom, sovereignty, and independence” and the mafia Syrian regime in control of Lebanon for nearly 30 years dramatically withdrew. Many optimistically predicted a new beginning for this divided land – a time of unity and prosperity. No more excuses about external forces meddling in our affairs, the Lebanese will finally control their own fate. But hardly had the dust settled in Martyrs Square where all religious sects united in protest, before the giddy Lebanese public found themselves where they were before their 15-year civil war started – Christians on one side and Muslims on the other…each sect in its own corner, ready to rumble. This should not be much of a surprise given that confessionalism is in the DNA of Lebanese nationhood, a disorder that has plagued it since its birth. Modern-day Lebanon was pieced together by the French in 1920 at the request of their clients in the region, the Maronite Christians. The Maronite Patriarch sent Paris a letter detailing what parts of Syria to append to Mount Lebanon and soon Greater Lebanon was born. When the Lebanese evicted the French mandate in 1943, they came to an oral agreement – called the “National Covenant” – that their political system would be a confessional one parceling the state out among the dozen or so religious groups that now fell within Lebanon’s borders. Today, there are 18 officially recognized religious and ethic groups in a country the size of Rhode Island with a population of no more than 4 million. The result was an artificial state, a patchwork of religious minorities, with no common bonds to unite them as a nation. As if this were not enough, there was the added problem that the Maronites appropriated the lion’s share of political power, taking on the Sunni Muslims of the coastal cities as a junior partner. The rest, and particularly the large Shia Muslim population of the South and Biqa (in the east), were completely marginalized politically and economically. The National Covenant proscribed a French-style parliamentary system with a strong president. But, the ratio of Christians to Muslims in parliament was set at a fixed 6 to 5 ratio, based on a 1932 census that showed Christians to be the majority. No census has been conducted since for fear that it will reveal that Muslims now far outnumber Christians. In addition, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, the speaker of the parliament Shia. Confessional system The confessional system created a country of tribes, each with its own boss – what is known as the zuama political class who, with slight adjustments, today continue to dominate Lebanese politics. The Christians, dominated by the Maronites, developed a Western orientation, some calling themselves Phoenician and speaking only French. The Muslims naturally leaned toward the Arabs and Muslims of the region. This made Lebanon particularly vulnerable to outside intervention as each religious group sought the protection and support of an outside sponsor. In turn, regional and even international disputes inevitably found their way into domestic Lebanese politics. Everything from the Cold War to the regional struggle between Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalists and Saudi-backed conservative forces were all waged on Lebanese soil. In this vein, Lebanon became integrally bound up with the traumatic events taking place on its southern border in Palestine. The large-scale ethnic cleansing of Palestinians at the hands of Israeli colonists drove hundreds of thousands refugees north, making Lebanon part of the Palestinian struggle and victim to endless Israeli aggression. Although many Lebanese continue to blame armed Palestinian groups for their civil war, the presence of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) only upset and intensified long festering communal tensions within Lebanon. The confessional system went through repeated crises as it produced inequality – economic and political – among the various religious sects. No peaceful mechanism existed to make adjustments to the system and many Christians perceived demands for even moderate change as a mortal threat. First crisis The first major crisis struck in 1958 (well before the arrival of the PLO) as Arab nationalism swept across the whole region threatening to topple the kings and emirs of the Gulf states and evict the last vestiges of Western colonialism in the Arab world. The Maronites of Lebanon felt particularly threatened by this new movement as Lebanese of all persuasions flocked to join it. A short-lived civil war broke out before Lebanon’s president resorted to the newly minted Eisenhower Doctrine and invited the US Marines to intervene. The Lebanese Army saved the day by maintaining its neutrality. The crisis was diffused by allowing the head of the army, a Maronite with nationalist sympathies, to become president. But the inevitable showdown between Lebanon’s increasingly disgruntled Muslims and a Christian minority that was becoming more and more exclusionary was not completely averted. It was merely delayed only to erupt with a vengeance a little over a decade later. The great cataclysm finally came in the mid-1970s as the Maronite Christian Phalange movement, which had been growing in response to Lebanon’s polarization over the Palestinian issue, decided that it was time to settle all scores and extinguish those that threatened Maronite power in Lebanon. Playing the role of a besieged minority under threat of extinction by a foreign army (the PLO), they moved to cleanse Lebanon of Palestinians. The real threat to the Maronites though came from Lebanon’s now radicalized Muslims (Sunnis, Shia and Druze), who had become politicized by their long interaction with the Palestinian struggle, prompting them to make demands for equality and even an end to the confessional order altogether. The Christian right was not going to have any of this and fought a dirty war of massacres and counter-massacres, drawing in the armies of Syria along with contingents from several Arab armies, followed by those of Israel, France, the US, Italy, and Britain, not to mention the United Nations. At one point, realizing they were losing the war, the Phalange were willing to go so far as to divide the country and align themselves with the most hated state in the region, Israel. So for 15 years the Lebanese butchered each other relentlessly, with every sect in turn fighting the other and then turning in on themselves, with Shia fighting Shia, Christian against Christian, Palestinians against each other, until (perhaps out of exhaustion) they agreed to a US-Saudi brokered settlement called the “Taif Accord” in 1990. Although Taif made slight adjustments to the confessional system – the Muslim/Christian ratio in parliament would now be 5 to 5 while the Muslim prime minister and head of the parliament would be allotted greater powers – it left the complete dismantling of the confessional system to some future undetermined date. Neither did the Christian right really accept the Taif settlement completely because it did not guarantee the withdrawal of Syrian troops who, in the name of preserving security, controlled most of Lebanon and virtually ran it through their gangster intelligence agencies for the next 15 years. Meanwhile, Israeli troops sat on a large strip of southern Lebanon that they had more or less occupied since 1978, despite a growing and powerful resistance movement led largely by the Shia party Hizbullah, that rose up against them in the 1980s. Ending the occupation After enormous sacrifice and courage by the mainly Shia resistance, Israel was finally driven out of Lebanon in 2000. No one expected the Syrians to follow suit, there were too many reasons for them to stay. Unlike the Israeli occupation, the Syrian presence was sanctioned regionally by the Arab League and internationally by the US. And Syria – which is no match for Israel militarily – was hoping that it could use the Lebanese “card,” as they say here, to get back the Golan Heights, which had been occupied by Israel since 1967. The icing on the cake was that the ruling clique in Syria, the army and intelligence in particular, could make bundles through corruption and outright theft of the Lebanese government while Syria’s business class could use Lebanon as a virtual black market to avoid the strict regulations of the Syrian economy. Not to mention that hardcore Baathists believed that Lebanon really belongs to Syria. In the meantime, there was a similar gang of ideologues taking over in Washington on the coattails of George W. Bush. The profoundly Zionist neocons felt that along with Iraq and Iran, something had to be done about the Syrian regime and one way to Damascus ran through Beirut. The US, with the help of the powerful Lebanese Christian lobby, can force Syria to leave Lebanon, humiliating the Baath regime, and maybe precipitating its collapse. At the very least, Syria would lose its Lebanon card and would be in a weak bargaining position in negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights. The pro-Western Lebanese Christians would rise from under the Syrian boot to serve as a domestic counterweight to Hizbullah, neutralizing the pressure that the armed Lebanese resistance brought to bear on Israel’s northern border and removing one of the last remaining points of resistance to unhindered US control of the region. This was theoretically the plan – events, however, took a different course. The Syrians At first, the neocons got bogged in an Iraqi quagmire and despite much effort they could not leverage enough pressure beyond slapping the Syrians with ineffective US sanctions. But, in a stunning turn of events, the Syrian regime itself delivered the pretext for US intervention by insisting that its puppet Lebanese president should serve 3 more years and that parliament must go so far as to change the constitution to allow him to do so. [I have yet to find an adequate explanation for this supreme act of stupidity, particularly in light of the fact that Syria was bending over backwards to comply fully with US demands on the Iraqi and “war on terror” fronts, denying Washington any excuse to come after them.] Syrian demands for extending president Emile Lahoud’s term turned virtually everyone in Lebanon against them and provoked the French into action alongside the United States. Together they helped pass UN Resolution 1559 calling for Syrian withdrawal in October 2004, shortly after the Lahoud extension. The Syrians tried to hold the line. Losing Lebanon for the many reasons already mentioned was too much, particularly with US troops on its border and Israel heading into negotiations with the Palestinians. On Valentine’s Day, an “earthquake” (as everyone describes it in Lebanon) struck – an explosion, perhaps of as much as 1,000 kilos of TNT, tore through Harriri’s motorcade killing him and his bodyguards instantly. It didn’t really matter to most Lebanese whether in fact this was a Syrian act, the Baath regime had – perhaps less dramatically – murdered a whole slew of their leaders from left, right and center. It was well known in Lebanon that opposing the Syrians, as Harriri began to do before his death, meant putting your life on the line. So the Lebanese began to pour in the hundreds of thousands into the center of Beirut in what they called an “independence intifada.” All of Lebanon seemed united against the Syrians and the Harriri assassination broke the fear barrier of openly calling for Syrian withdrawal. It became clear that the Lebanese had long ago tired of Syrian high-handedness and saw a great opportunity in the new turn of events. The damn broke, and soon the Syrians were packing to go home just before their 30th anniversary in Lebanon. Undoubtedly, the mass protests and the political debate they generated had a powerful impact particularly on the shabab (college-age youth) throughout Lebanon. The scope of the debate that followed was not confined to the Syrian presence but quickly spilled over into a discussion about deeper change, such as getting rid of confessionalism and the zuama political class who live off of it. Many oppositions But Lebanon’s historic divisions were still too entrenched and even the majority of the shabab were unfortunately still confined to their respective, often confessionally based, parties. At first the country became divided around two poles misnamed the “opposition” and the “loyalists” (to Syria, that is). There were, in fact, many oppositions. The Christian opposition was composed of the ousted Christian Maronite right of Phalange fame and the equally fascist Lebanese Forces, who in effect lost the civil war and were subsequently banished from politics. There was also an insurgent current of young, moderate Christians of the Free Patriotic Movement led by the ousted Lebanese General Michel Aoun. Both of these mainly Christian blocs had long opposed the Syrian presence and were beginning to openly protest it on university campuses and by leveraging their lobbying powers among the Christian diaspora in Paris and Washington. But what really made the difference in the scale and scope of the opposition were the two new Muslim arrivals: the Druze, led by the shrewd and generally progressive Walid Jumblatt (whose father was assassinated by the Syrians early on in the war) and, of course, the large Sunni Muslim population who exploded in anger in response to the murder of perhaps their most prominent leader. This largely Muslim bloc wholeheartedly joined what became known collectively as the “opposition” – but, it appeared later, only long enough to get the Syrians and their Lebanese henchmen out. They then peeled off, with Jumblatt openly opposing UN Resolution 1559 and US-Israeli meddling in Lebanese politics, refusing to exchange the Syrian master for an American one. Hizbullah The other pole, the so-called “loyalists,” revolved around the largest political party in Lebanon – Hizbullah. Since the late 1980s, Hizbullah had focused resolutely, almost exclusively, on fighting the Israeli occupation of the South and Western Biqa, forsaking joining any government for fear of becoming embroiled in internal disputes. They did join the parliament starting in 1992 but refused taking cabinet-level posts. They avoided at all costs opening another front either domestically or with Syria, despite repeated deadly provocations on its members by Syria and its local militia allies. Hizbullah’s strategy was stunningly successful, forcing one of the mightiest armies in the world to make a hasty retreat – an unprecedented feat in the region’s history. Hizbullah was never really comfortable with the Syrian presence but it had reached an accommodation with Damascus, leaving the resistance to conduct its struggle unhindered. It was also alarmed that UN Resolution 1559 calling for Syrian withdrawal and celebrated by the opposition in the streets of Beirut also called for the disarming of Hizbullah – in essence dissolving the resistance. The US tried to put Hizbullah in the spotlight by insisting on the “full” implementation of 1559. As it stands now, however, almost all factions agree that disarming the resistance is an internal matter that can only be resolved by the Lebanese themselves without outside interference. So far the US has gone quiet on this matter and it’s unclear how the Lebanese factions will manage to resolve this extremely sensitive matter. Overall, though, we can say with some certainty that the neocon plan, for Lebanon at least, seems to be backfiring. The emerging Christian majority under Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement now seems to be making a bid for an alliance with Hizbullah. If such a partnership actually takes hold, it can provide Lebanon with long-term stability and some semblance of real national unity by bringing together the two most polarized communities, the Christians and Shia, together politically. Although they are very different animals, both parties do share a common agenda of fighting government corruption and ending political confessionalism once and for all in Lebanon. Meanwhile, the Christian right is in tatters, just as isolated and marginalized as when the Syrians ruled. Most Christians appear to have opted for a more moderate path of coexistence – of maybe sharing the country with Lebanon’s Muslims on an equal footing for a change. This may very well have to do with a mathematical reality that Christian rule in Lebanon cannot be sustained in the face of a growing and increasingly mobilized Lebanese Muslim majority. But as Lebanon’s whole history has shown repeatedly, nothing is fixed in Lebanese politics, all the pieces can shift and new alliances can emerge, tipping the balance in the opposite direction. The future is both uncertain and full of opportunity for profound change in a political system that has taken the Lebanese to the edges of hell and back. I pray we find a way out this time. ________________________________ ABOUT THE AUTHOR Bilal El-Amine is an independent writer and journalist. He lives in Beirut, Lebanon and can be contacted at [email protected]