Lebanon on the Brink

An introductory note from Assaf Khoury

The little country is exposed more than ever to the political storms east of the Mediterranean. In the following article, historian and long-time political commentator Fawwaz Traboulsi explains that the dangers faced by Lebanon today are, in part, the result of its “confessional system”. This system did not always exist and Lebanese were not ordained to live in it. Historically, given that Lebanese and other communities of the Levant existed for hundreds of years before, confessionalism is a relatively recent invention as an institutional form of government. It is a peculiarly factious power-sharing formula based on religious denominations, first introduced in the second half of the 19th Century, partly dictated by the balance in the contest between a declining Ottoman empire and encroaching European colonial powers. It was then adjusted and re-adjusted but never abandoned, after every political upheaval ever since, always at the prodding if not behest of external actors. By tying the fate of the country to external interests, different for different confessional parties, the confessional system belies lofty proclamations by Lebanese politicians about “national independence” and voids the term of its meaning, as pointed out by Traboulsi.

The most recent version of the confessional setup, in place since the Taif Accord of October 1989 that ended the civil war, is a variation of a formula adopted in 1943 when France was forced to grant Lebanon its formal independence: the president of the republic is a Maronite Christian, the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and parliament seats are equally divided between Christians and Muslims, with each of the two blocks proportionally divided among various Christian denominations and Muslim denominations. This effectively excludes all political parties that are organized on platforms other than confessional. Thus, for example, the Communist Party has never been represented in government in any capacity, even though it is the oldest political party in Lebanon (founded in 1924) and has had a strong presence in labor unions throughout its history.

The article below is translated from the Arabic and first appeared in the Lebanese daily as-Safir on Novembe 24,r 2006. Three days earlier, the minister of industry Pierre Amin Gemayel was assassinated in broad daylight in Beirut. The traditional parades on Lebanese Independence Day, which falls on 22 November, were canceled and a state funeral was held for Gemayel on November 23 instead, which turned into a massive anti-Syrian demonstration by several hundreds of thousands in downtown Beirut.

Who killed Gemayel? Walid Jumblat, a leader of the pro-government coalition, accuses the Syrian secret services. Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hizbullah and a main party in the anti-government coalition, points his finger in the opposite direction, observing that the main beneficiaries this time are Israel and the US, not Syria. Political assassinations have been far too common in Lebanon in recent years and usually carried out on orders from the outside. Jumblat and Nasrallah may be short on the whole truth, but both have valid reasons to suspect their external enemies. Jumblat is publicly reported to be on the assassination list of the Syrian government and his own father, Kamal Jumblat, was murdered on Syrian directives. Nasrallah is openly declared to be an assassination target by the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and his predecessor at the head of Hizbullah, Abbas Musawi, was murdered in a raid by Israeli helicopter gunships. In these two cases, as with all other assassinations, the local victim came to represent an obstacle or the “fall guy” for the interests of powerful regional and international state actors. And the Lebanese body politic, instead of rallying to unite and defend itself in times of increased external dangers, is made to expose all its cleavages by the confessional system.

When a majority of the Lebanese unite, as when they overwhelmingly embraced resistance to the Israeli onslaught in July-August 2006, they do so at a spontaneous popular level and across confessional lines, largely ignoring confessional parties and their external sponsors that claim to represent their interests; that is, they do so despite the confessional system and against it. — Assaf Kfoury


by Fawwaz Traboulsi

In 1867, at another time of civil strife in Lebanon, a prominent Lebanese leader regretfully observed about the state of his own society that “tribes that are engaged in killing their own members for sectarian reasons deserve to be subjugated by foreign powers that come to the rescue of one faction against another” (Youssif Bey Karam addressing the Algerian emir Abdel Kader, then in exile in Damascus after his defeat by colonial France).

Today, as we watch confessional leaders in Lebanon holding forth on the meaning of national independence, we cannot but smile with sadness and hope for mercy, for ourselves and for those who believe these leaders and vote for them. They hold forth as if there is no connection between independence, or lack thereof, and the confessional system, the latter remaining the main factor in creating conditions of subservience to external factors in Lebanese political life.

From the time when Youssif Bey Karam took notice of the golden rule connecting internal sectarian divisions and external domination, the Lebanese have yet to come to their senses and desist from this odious practice. Confessional leaders keep looking to the outside, for protection against impending marginalization, for maintaining a dominant position, or for keeping a monopoly of wealth and power against other confessional leaders. Seeking external support usually results in blunting internal dialogues and concessions to domestic opponents, which often exacerbates civil conflicts and in turn facilitates further external interference.

We must recognize that Lebanese parties have sought arms or external help, or both, in order to impose themselves on a rigid and factious political (and socio-economic) system that treats citizens differently, with different rights and privileges. In recent decades, major components of Lebanese society have thus achieved political and socio-economic ascendancy by force of arms and reliance on outside powers. In this way, for example, we can view the bloody events of 1958, pitting the Christian-dominated government of the Lebanese president Camille Shamoun against a coalition of parties mostly representing Sunni (and, to a certain extent, Druze) elites, which resulted in the empowerment of the latter within the confessional power-sharing system. Similarly, we can view the civil war of 1975-1990 as the means by which Shia elites acquired greater participation in the system, leading to a more equitable overall balance between Christians and Muslims in government institutions.

The question of Lebanese independence can never be separated from the three-way interaction of regional and international forces in which Lebanon has been caught since the colonial fragmentation of the Levant in 1920. Time and again in this history, two main regional actors reach an understanding of sorts, usually facilitated by a third international actor, which in turn imposes a settlement on the Lebanese. An accord between two major regional parties, coupled with international sanction, then allows for finalizing a new local arrangement and providing it with guarantees.

Thus, in 1943, Egypt under prime minister Mustafa Nahas Pasha, supported by Britain eager to evict France regionally, reached an understanding with the Syrian national movement which had sought independence from France and union with Lebanon. In this context, an agreement was reached between Lebanon and Syria, and also between Beshara al-Khoury and Riad al-Solh — soon to be the president and the prime minister of Lebanon, respectively, after independence from France — which came to be known as the Lebanese National Pact. And again, in 1958, an understanding between the United States and the United Arab Republic under Gamal Abdel Nasser permitted for an end to the civil war in Lebanon and the selection of general Fuad Shehab as president in succession to Camille Shamoun, together with a renewal of the National Pact and an adjusted confessional setup.

So long as the logic of the confessional system prevails, only when conditions are lacking for an agreement between regional and international actors, as was the case after the October 1973 war, do the Lebanese proxies fail to reach a settlement among themselves and then resort to armed confrontation. Such was the explosion of 1975-1990. They then failed because some of their leaders continued to rely on the outside to extricate their parties from the internal stalemate or because they were under the illusion that the external party to which they were connected would likely prevail in the regional or international balance of forces.

There is no need to dwell long on the different discourses on national independence emanating from different Lebanese parties, all couched in the absolute and expressing inflexible ultimate goals. In an increasingly interdependent world where far larger countries, such as the Russian Federation for example with its enormous natural resources and industrial potential, still struggle to achieve a margin of independence via-a-vis the American empire, there are politicians in tiny Lebanon that will not accept anything short of an absolute notion of independence. They talk about complete independence in a country whose economy is almost entirely dependent on the outside, engaged as it is in exporting most of its labor force and importing virtually all material goods, whose national debt is nearly three times its annual gross domestic product (the highest ratio for any country in the world), and where confessional parties are increasingly made to rely on, and do the bidding for, their respective external allies.

Let us, more concretely, consider the question of Lebanon’s independence in the context of current regional circumstances. The United States, now bogged down in a bloody occupation in Iraq, is scrambling for new options to realign its policies in the region and cut its losses, especially after the setbacks of the Republican Party in the most recent midterm elections. American policies are now less predictable and will continue to shift in coming months. Some in Washington still suggest a more aggressive approach to Iran, including bombing of its nuclear installations, but others counsel engaging Iran and prodding it to play a special regional role that will help extricate US troops from the Iraqi quagmire. Simultaneously, we are witnessing a complex diplomatic dance between Washington and Damascus, at times aiming at distancing Syria from Iran and encouraging it to play a “positive” role in Iraq, but at other times accusing Syria of terrorism and threatening to bring it to accounts in the International Tribunal set up to pursue Rafiq Hariri’s killers.

In such circumstances, which are bound to affect the entire region in ways that are difficult to foresee, should Lebanese parties not call for a truce in their internal show of force and take note of the surrounding storms? Should they not take pause and stop betting on illusory victories against each other? Should the little wounded country that is Lebanon not be navigated cautiously through these regional storms? Is it not utter foolishness on the part of some Lebanese players to presume there are two sides — one American-Israeli and one Iranian-Syrian — and one of the two must be joined? Should they not recognize that, in order to prepare themselves for external dangers, there is only one thing that they can truly control: their own internal affairs?

Till now we have lost the battle for independence twice, or more precisely, we have lost two battles for independence in a little more than a year. On the one hand, the leaders of the 2005 independence movement against Syrian domination have forgotten the continuing Israeli threat and decided to put their trust in what appears to them the juggernaut of the American empire after September 11. On the other hand, the leaders of the May 2000 liberation of the South from Israeli occupation and the July 2006 resistance to Israeli aggression have failed to convince the rest of the Lebanese that they can act independently of Syrian priorities. The negotiations for a government of national unity broke down because each of the two camps sought to block the dictates of the other camp’s external ally. The two camps thus acted as if Lebanese policy and decision are fated to follow external dictates. And both camps demonstrated that their “independence” is a total sham.

I would like to think that the murder of Pierre Amin Gemayel was the result of the failure to recognize this sham independence. “In times of political turmoil, save your head,” the saying goes. This is not just a benevolent wise saying for the little wounded country, but the ultimate wisdom. Lebanon did not succeed in saving the head of Pierre Amin Gemayel. Will his murder contribute to saving Lebanon’s head?