The Single Greatest Problem Facing Lebanon Today
Lebanon has been a hard country to understand since the outbreak of its fifteen-year conflict in 1975. Was that a civil war or an international one? Who were the protagonists, the Left and Right, the Christians and Muslims, or some other parties? The debate continues today.
To understand the nuances of today’s Lebanon means looking critically at several key issues, including Syria and Hezbollah’s heavy influence over that tiny country, civil society, and the religious communities. From this we can draw conclusions about the future and about U.S. policy.
Syria & Hezbollah’s influence over Lebanon
The Syrians military influence started in Lebanon in 1976 and with time transformed to an intelligence influence that hasn’t yet left as of today.
Nothing goes in Lebanon today without Syria and Hezbollah’s last word. Lebanese political leaders are fully aware of the “rules of the game” . You cross that line and you are literally dead; no matter how big, powerful, rich or connected you are. Period.
Lebanon is indeed today the unique satellite state in the entire world, or (in the lexicon of the cold war), the only remaining captive nation. Like Poland or the Baltic republics a few years back, Lebanon is a small country dominated by a larger totalitarian neighbor. Its subjugation far exceeds the scope of any legitimate interests the larger state may have in the smaller one. Borrowing a term from the related lexicon of Russian geopolitics, it is within Syria’s “near abroad.”
This situation persists despite repeated promises that it would come to an end.
The Syrian influence is only on the rise given the recent surge of Syrian immigrants to the country given the raging civil war in Syria. Add another one million Syrian immigrants to the over one million Syrian workers already engaged in construction jobs, vegetable vending, selling peacock and ostrich feathers to motorists stranded in Beirut traffic, and other menial employments and you have a recipe for disaster. More alarming is the prospect that many Syrians will remain in the country, legally or not, marry Lebanese, settle in, and perhaps invite other members of their families in Syria to cross the porous border to join them. These workers strain Lebanon’s already precarious demographic balance, they introduce a neo-colonial dimension to Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, and will only contribute to Syria’s grip of its neighbor.
Damascus has imposed many bilateral treaties on Beirut since the early 1990s, covering every facet of political, social, and economic life. It has maintained a tight control on the Beirut government and remodeled Lebanese political life to mirror Syrian norms. It has intimidated Lebanon’s traditionally free media and engaged in the widespread violations of human rights. Members of Syria’s (and Lebanon’s) ruling elites have exploited Lebanon’s ailing free enterprise economy to reap windfall profits at the expense of the welfare of ordinary Lebanese citizens.
Syrian-occupied Lebanon, for all the hype and hoopla about economic reconstruction, does not present a pretty picture. The unfolding legacy of Syria’s hegemony over Lebanon consists of political meddling, demographic intrusions, economic impoverishment, and the steady erosion of basic civil rights and freedoms.
Add to that Hezbolla’s influence over Lebanon and you have a total nightmare. It is a fact that 30 years after the massive bombing in 1983 of the US Embassy and US and French barracks in Beirut, Hezbollah’s control of Lebanon is at its peak. Far from being in a continuous process of identity construction, Hezbollah has indeed striven during that time period to overcome its limitations and promote its ultimate goal of transforming Lebanon into an Islamic state modeled after Iran’s wilayat al-faqih (the guardianship of the jurist). As a totalitarian political party, Hezbollah cannot survive without a military component and will not accept anything less than full control of the Lebanese political system. The problem of Hezbollah, which possesses the premier military force in Lebanon, is its inherent incapability to transform itself into a genuine domestic political force in fear that its legitimacy would become equal to ordinary political groups that accept the rules of accommodation. This in turn means that Hezbollah has not abandoned its goal of creating an Islamic state of Lebanon.
Hezbollah dominates the country’s domestic and foreign policy and operates a military machine superior to the national army. It has the final say on making governmental, administrative, and judicial appointments, and its interaction with Lebanese political groups has shown that it has no intention of truly assimilating into Lebanese political practices, not least since its Islamist Shiite orientation precludes its ability for a meaningful dialogue (as opposed to tactical alliances) with the Sunnis. Moreover, the Iranian paradigm of wilayat al-faqih, to which Hezbollah subscribes, baffles many critical-minded Shiites. Not surprisingly, Ahmad al-Asaad, leader of the fledgling Shiite party, the Lebanese New Option Gathering, believes that “we must get rid of Hezbollah in order to build a viable state.”
In Lebanon, as distinct from its Arab neighbors, society has traditionally been stronger and more durable than the state. Lebanon’s civil society features active churches and ecclesiastical organizations, a large network of banks and businesses, excellent schools and colleges, a vigorous tradition of publishing, competent hospitals and other medical facilities, a flourishing entertainment and services sector, and many independent unions, associations, and syndicates of students, labor, legal, medical, engineering, and the like. These civil institutions are under a creeping but relentless onslaught, however: Islamization undermines pluralism, Syrianization perpetuates influence by a totalitarian neighbor, and the continuation of the no-peace/no-war status with Israel allows these two blights to inflict their slow but relentless damage on the country. This may be the single greatest problem facing Lebanon today.
Democratization. Whenever the concept of democracy is packaged and made ready for export to mixed or non-Western cultures, care must be taken to ensure that the emphasis is placed on precisely those components of the democratic equation that are the weakest (or lacking altogether) in the receiving cultures. Alas, this care is seldom taken. The usual option called for in Lebanon—deconfessionalizing political life—is unworkable because it ignores the socio-communal realities on the ground. For better or worse, religion remains a strong, indeed the leading, indicator of identity on the sub-state level in Lebanon and throughout the Middle East. But in Lebanon, as in the Muslim world as a whole, there is great need to stress minority rights for, reputed Islamic tolerance of non-Muslim minorities notwithstanding, Muslim rule has usually resulted in a reduction of the minorities to a subordinate status often bordering on slavery. The continuing persecution of Egypt’s Copts, Sudan’s Christians and animists, and the Baha’is in Iran bespeak an old and sordid tale.
Minority rights are crucial if Lebanon is to regain its freedoms. The only political formula that will work for a reconstituted Lebanon is a federal or confederal one: in either case, solid constitutional guarantees for each religious group, regardless of changes in demography.
Homogenization. If Lebanon today has an official ideology, it consists of an emphasis by the state and its many spokesmen on inter-communal dialogue and communal coexistence at any cost, and on the homogenization of Lebanese society. The goal is clear: to create a unified Lebanese state in which heterogeneous components interact peacefully, (and if they don’t, to reduce them to their least common denominators by ruthlessly suppressing difference and variety). It may be a laudable intention, but can it be attained by ignoring the qualitative imbalance in the apprehensions of these often glaringly dissimilar groups?
Can the forced homogenization of society succeed, for example, in Lebanese education when this means that Arabic must become the universal and mandatory language of instruction, that a single-version high school history textbook prevails, and that similar leveling measures are instituted? Not likely. Rather, these steps compound the inherent disparities by heightening the Christians’ existential forebodings. For Lebanese pluralism to flourish, the onus of continuously reassuring the existentially fearful community (in this case, the Christians) lies on the shoulders of those with fewer existential worries (the Muslims). This is not happening in the shadow of Syria’s ongoing influence over Lebanon.
Peace with Israel. Lebanon’s civil society, however embattled, makes it uniquely qualified to engage in a warm peace with Israel when the appropriate time arrives. In addition to having free market economies and containing large non-Muslim populations, the two neighboring countries share the experience of a free socio-political and personal life. Present discouraging appearances aside, much about Lebanese civil society is eager for speedy normalization with Israel in a wide range of areas, particularly the cultural-intellectual.
U.S. Policy Towards Lebanon
Lebanon raises questions for the United States pertaining more to values and rights than to security and interests. This, the central elusive nuance defining Lebanon, is what sets that country apart from its region. Most approaches and proposed solutions to Lebanon’s problems have, unfortunately, been skewed in the direction of stability for its own sake and too little in the direction of freedoms.
For many in American policy planning circles, the Lebanon story effectively came to an end in 1990 with the end of fighting. As long as the place is stable and quiet (with the exception, of course, of the mini-war raging in the south), they hardly care who controls it. Such pragmatists counsel that Lebanese today ought not to reverse the clock, but rather to “keep the patient alive” until the regional peace momentum picks up again and a vigorously resumed peace process bears fruit. Only then will Lebanese have a realistic chance to reconstitute their country and wiggle out from under the stifling weight of Syria and Hezbollah’s influence. The argument has merit; pragmatists can help by providing Lebanon’s civil society with whatever sustenance, moral and material, they can spare. This will help assure the interim survival of a sick patient.
In turn, Lebanon has some utility to the United States. It is a strategic piece of real estate; other than Turkey, it contains the Middle East’s largest natural fresh water reservoir and the Levant’s highest mountain range. It also has political importance, so that the complete retreat of the West from there could well lead to the entrenching of anti-Western forces of hatred and terrorism. Leading American institutions (educational, medical, commercial) once thrived in Lebanon and could do so again. The country has served as a leader of the Arabic-speaking world in the cultural-intellectual domain and the political one in the past and has the potential to do so again.
At a time when dictatorships are on the retreat, however, we can hope for more than a strict accounting of American interests, which admittedly are limited in Lebanon. It must also count that the irreversible departure of freedom from Lebanon would constitute an indictment of America’s moral standing in the world. Freedom is the ultimate issue at stake in Lebanon. Doing everything possible to bolster Lebanon’s struggling civil society can be a low-cost, incremental strategy for the United States if handled by able, committed, and imaginative diplomacy.
It is high time for the Obama Administration to seriously put together a policy to get rid of both the Syrian regime of Assad and of Hezbollah as well – not for the sake of Lebanon but for US interests in the region as well. The time is NOW.
Ziad K. Abdelnour is Founder & President of the US Committee for a Free Lebanon – America’s Pro- Lebanon lobby – and co-Author of Ending Syria’s Occupation of Lebanon.