Lebanon is every now and then a victim of its past and of its geography, like many other states in the region, created as a result of a combination of colonial and religious factors.
Last time I visited Lebanon in 2017 I saw some reasons for hope because, in spite of its long standing economic problems due in part to profligate policies and the well known corruption of its rulers and government institutions, the country was drawing some solace from the wealth of its expatriate business class, which has always kept one foot at home and invested in various sectors. However, the last two years have been ominous for that sliver of a nation, hemmed in by the sea and the mountains in a turbulent neighbourhood. The investment embargo enforced by Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, the US sanctions and the economic blockade of Iran have deprived Lebanon of its main foreign sources of support. The burden created by the many Syrian refugees has put added pressure on the limited resources of a nation dependent mostly on trade, the fabled specialty of the Phoenician ancestors, and on tourism. The magical formula worked out by the late billionaire Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri between France and Saudi Arabia, his two supporters brought reconstruction, prosperity and a fragile peace back to the country. He, however, attracted the enmity of certain powerful surrounding states which brought his life to an abrupt and tragic end.
Lebanon is every now and then a victim of its past and of its geography, like many other states in the region, created as a result of a combination of colonial and religious factors. The French, who acted for centuries as protectors of the Christians of the Levant in the erstwhile Ottoman Empire, set it up as a protectorate to give a state of their own to their Maronite allies, free from Syrian control. A constitutional compromise was worked out to share power between the three main communities. Christians had the presidency, Sunnis were awarded the prime ministership while the Shias, mostly dwelling in the rural south could nominate the speaker of the Parliament. Smaller groups like the Druzes in the mountains and the Armenians, mostly refugees from Eastern Turkey were entitled to fewer perks. The system took inspiration from the Ottoman Millet-based administration, which granted the various religious and ethnic components of the Empire a degree of self-government.
The Lebanese compromise gradually deteriorated as the demographic balance changed. Muslims became the majority and gained influence with the support of surrounding countries, while many Christians, settled in the Middle East, Europe, the Americas and Africa, were absentee landlords. The local feudal clans, Christian, Druze and Muslim had been locked in petty wars since centuries and retained the same patterns of behaviour under the new dispensation, with their private armies and endless vendettas. Israel, the new kid on the block, turned out to be a greedy and difficult neighbour, with scant respect for international law and Lebanon gave refuge to tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees who are still living in camps in the country.
Inevitably, the various factions posing as political parties that make up Lebanon’s colourful mosaic found allies in the wider region and beyond. Against the traditional pact between the Christian Maronite and the West (mostly the French and the Americans), the Sunnis could rely on support from Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing states where many of them had found employment. Christian Phalangists, who drew inspiration from Italian and Spanish Fascist Catholic models, got the backing of Israel in their fights against certain Muslim and other Christian clans, whereas leftist movements had the ear of the USSR. Meanwhile, in the poorer South and East the hitherto neglected Shias, more exposed to Israeli incursions, were fired up by the Iranian revolution of 1979, and began to organise as they grew in number. While their supremo had been for decades the veteran politician Nabih Berri, at the helm of the Amal Party the social-welfare oriented Hezbollah organization, supported by Iran, empowered the lower class village dwelling Shias and gradually made them a pivotal force in the government. Their relative victory against the Israeli invaders in 2006 gave the Hezbollah a heroic status even in the Sunni Street.
Hezbollah must be given credit for acting in a generally conciliatory manner with its partners in government and with the other communities, despite its radical religious image. Sheykh Nasrallah, a charismatic and eloquent leader has often evinced moderation and maturity in his decisions and reactions. However, the weakness of the Lebanese State reflected the chronic paralysis generated by the division of power within successive unstable coalitions that could only agree on trying to maintain the status quo amongst partners which in essence ran their own separate bailiwicks, with Hezbollah probably as the most efficient. The creation of an effective axis between Tehran, Bagdad, Damascus and Beirut was unacceptable to Israel, to its American patrons and to France. IDF jets routinely violated Lebanese air space, dropped bombs on sundry targets and made their presence noisily felt so that everybody expected a Tsahal strike at any time. After many years of an unsuccessful proxy war to overthrow the Baathist regime in Syria, an exhausted Lebanon, mined by sanctions, economic depression and insolvency, was a ready target for the coalition aimed at cutting off “Iran’s tentacle”. The last straw was “the largest explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki” at the Beirut port, which unleashed a street revolution. The country is now collapsing as western powers come together to regain ascendency. They will probably require as a condition for their support the “defanging” of Hezbollah and of its allies and the formation of a technocratic government under the control of the usual Troika (IMF, European Central Bank and Federal Reserve), according to a formula applied to recalcitrant nations after they are brought to heel. However, the political vacuum is likely to prolong chaos and any elections may bring back many of the members of the entrenched political class for lack of viable alternatives, as was the case in several MENA countries. However, the Egyptian and Algerian outcomes still remain preferable to the Libyan one and it is to be hoped that Lebanon can at least soon recover minimal stability. Its gifted, cosmopolitan and generous population can then do wonders once again.