The Lebanese Uprising Won’t Prevail While Sectarian Elites Remain in Control

Photograph Source: Shahen books – CC BY-SA 4.0

Burning tires do not a revolution make. The pictures are good, the television footage dramatic. Brave words sound good, but soundbites don’t bring down governments.

Certainly not the Lebanese government, whose sectarian elites have been running their country in a cesspit of corruption ever since the French mandate decided after the First World War that Lebanon should be a sectarian country run by dividing Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shia in a mutual pact of patriotism, fear, jealousy and distrust. (The British, remember, did the same in Palestine, Cyprus – yes, and Northern Ireland too. The French did it in Syria.)

It’s not just the old cliché about “divide and rule”. We Westerners have always been experts in our ability to be “fair” to minorities and majorities by setting them up opposite each other in exquisite love and suspicion. Look at America’s creation of the Shia state of Iraq – we shall not mention Kurdish minorities at this point – yet for me, the most amazing thing about the latest Lebanese uprising is not the protest at WhatsApp taxes, unemployment and government theft, but that the Lebanese, in their small and wounded country, after all the bloodshed and failures and continued dictatorship of the 2011 revolutions in the Middle East, still believe they can fight and make a difference. There is courage for you.

I have always believed that it was the Lebanese, in their hundreds of thousands, who forced the Syrian army to leave Lebanon in 2005, after the murder of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, which led to the popular revolution in Iran against the crackpot president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (who almost out-Trumped Trump) and ultimately inspired Tunisians and Egyptians and all their fellow Arabs. This was the Lebanese supreme achievement in modern Middle East history – even if they may not know it themselves. They were the first to say “no” to power.

The Lebanese, in comparison to their Arab sisters and brothers, are far better educated. And thanks be to heaven that the Lebanese army is not the Egyptian or Iraqi army, shooting down their protesters and demonstrators in the streets of their cities.

You can take this further, to the Saudis and the Syrians and the Algerians. And, if you move outside the Arab world, to the Iranians: who gave the Iranian security services permission to rape and execute opponents of Ahmadinejad in the country’s prisons?

But then, what is our own “civilised” example? What is the difference between a CIA torture “black site” and an Egyptian interrogation centre?

The Lebanese army and their general security colleagues appear to be among the most unsectarian institutions in Lebanon – let us pray it stays that way – and act according to their state, rather than the statelets which their political leaders have created over decades.

Indeed, one of the most extraordinary events of the past few days has not been the fury of the unemployed or those who found their WhatsApp voice would be taxed (which shows the asinine quality of the government), but when those in southern and eastern Lebanon, for the first time, criticised and condemned Hezbollah.

Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s chair, suddenly found himself facing a Lebanese population of all religions asking why he did not defend the Lebanese people from poverty and distress. Were the Lebanese not as worthy of protection as the Syrians, for whom Hezbollah have fought and died for years now? They did so with great courage, but is not an impoverished Lebanese population (whether they are Shia or Sunni or Christian) not as profoundly deserving of care and love as their neighbours?

The criticism of Nasrallah was unprecedented, incredible, as amazing as anything that has happened these past seven days in Lebanon. Or in the past 30 years. No one can expect any longer to be immune from a people’s anger in Lebanon.

So, now, an important question. Political elites of any religion cling to power. Whether it is the Lebanese prime minister (a Sunni), the president (a Maronite), the speaker of parliament (a Shia). In different forms, this happens across the entire Middle East – including in Israel. Their claws are buried deep in the soft earth of the Levant, the sands of Iraq, the mountains of Algeria. They do not give up power.

They have lived by equating their ownership of property to patriotism; their religious faith to a section of people who share it with them. What so many protesters have said in Lebanon these past seven days – and many of these protesters have experienced life in the west, where we too have political elites but at least we can impeach them – is that political power in this region is maintained by telling their compatriots and party members that they are all protected by the state, but much more so if they vote for their sectarian leaders. That’s how confessionalism works.

Why is the Lebanese foreign minister, Gebran Bassil – the most hated figure of these demonstrations – the son-in-law of the president? Why is prime minister Saad Hariri the son of a previous prime minister, Rafiq Hariri? This goes on and on.

(Why, you might also ask, is Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau the son of that nation’s former prime minister, Pierre Trudeau? But they both won power through elections, not through cliques, and their job is not decided on whether they should have power on the grounds of their religious faith.)

There are honest ministers in Lebanon. The minister of labour, Camille Abu Suleiman, who honourably resigned from the government because of the protests, was independently so rich that he refused a salary. But, as a young man asked me yesterday, having just been dismissed from his job in the Hamra shopping district of Beirut because he attended the demonstrations, why is a politician succeeded by his son, and then by his son’s son? And we all know the answer.

I have long said that if you create a sectarian state, it will stay a sectarian state. No matter how many Crusader castles, Roman ruins and fine food you have in the Arab world, the only way to create a modern state is to deconfessionalise it so that anyone can hold power.

But if you deconfessionalise Lebanon, it will cease to exist. Because sectarianism is the identity of Lebanon.

So we’re back to the old problem. You can enjoy sitting in a Rolls-Royce with green leather seats, but if it has square wheels it won’t move. So watch the new version of the Lebanese revolution. And check on the Rolls-Royce.

Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.