Pandora’s Cedar Chest
In 1833 William McClure Thomson, a Protestant missionary from America, went toOttoman Syria, which then included Lebanon, and after spending more than 25 years in the area, he wrote a book titled The Land and the Book. His insights into the Lebanese political, social and religious culture were similar in their depth to that of Alex de Tocqueville’s study of the United States in his classic book Democracy in America.
The following quote is a summary of the message and thesis of his masterpiece about Lebanon, which, after 160 years, is eerily identical to the present state of affairs.
“The various religions and sects live together, and practice their conflicting superstitions in close proximity, but the people do not coalesce into one homogeneous community, nor do they regard each other with fraternal feelings. The Sunnites excommunicate the Shiites—both hate the Druze, and all three detest the Nusairiyeh. The Maronites have no particular love for anybody and, in turn, are disliked by all. The Greek Orthodox cannot endure the Greek Catholics; all despise the Jews.... They can never form one united people, never combine for any important religious or political purpose; and will therefore remain weak, incapable of self-government, and exposed to the invasions and oppressions by foreigners.”
Fast forward to 2018, and an almost identical narrative could be written by a similar insightful scholar or analyst. A brief historical survey of the modern state of the Lebanese state reveals all. Since it gained its independence in 1943, Lebanon has been a project in progress. Divided it started; divided it remains. The Muslim population has always looked to the wider Arab/Muslim world to define its identity, while the Christians looked to France and the West to find belonging and identity. (A vivid example of the clash of cultures.)
The golden age of Lebanon as a country united and developing was between 1950 and 1967. With the influx of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees into the country in the 1960s, the crisis of the modern Lebanese state had started. The delicate balance of power in a fragile country like Lebanon began to unravel under the pressure of domestic demographic changes, regional and international power politics.
The Cairo Agreement or accord that was hatched in Egypt under Gamal Abdul Nasser’s patronage on November 2, 1969, between Yassir Arafat (PLO chief) and the Lebanese army commander General Emile Bustani, after many clashes, signaled the beginning of the end of the sovereignty of the Lebanese army on its territory and the disintegration of the National Pact that held the country together. Thereafter, the Christians began losing their hold on power, while the Muslims started to challenge the established political order openly.
Between 1975 and 1990 a civil war erupted in Lebanon, killing about 150,000 people in a country of almost 3 million at that time. The Syrian army entered Lebanon in 1976 till 2006 under the tacit agreement of the United States, Israel, and most Arab countries. Since the departure of the Syrian forces from Lebanon, the Lebanese state and institutions have been struggling to find its balance, stability, and coherence.
Facts first: Lebanon had been without a government for most of 2018.(A caretaker government is now in charge.) On November 22, 2018, Lebanon marked 75 years of independence; while its citizens are witnessing a worsening economic and political crisis. “Lebanon has the world’s third-largest public debt as a proportion of its economy and low growth, although the central bank says the Lebanese pound’s peg to the dollar is stable. The country is also hosting more than a million refugees from the war in neighbouring Syria.”1
Another fact: Lebanon has long been a country without genuine citizens. The inhabitants of this tortured land have allegiances first to their religion/sect, tribal roots, family, and then to the state as a convenience. The concept of citizenship has shallow roots in that part of the Arab Middle East. Witness how Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and almost Egypt disintegrated as fast as the regimes evaporated. The loyalties of citizens were to tribal, sectarian, and regional entities rather than to their country or political system. (I wrote a book on this subject titled: Hostage to History: The Cultural Collapse of the 21st Arab World.2)
No matter how you slice it, Plato said it perfectly more than 2,000 years ago. “This city is what it is because our citizens are what they are.” You are not a citizen of Lebanon if your allegiance is to foreign powers and outside interests. If you use and abuse regional and international connections to fight your neighbor and exact revenge domestically. That means you are a hostage and a tool to be used by outsiders, and your treason to your country is unconscionable. The current stalemate over the formation of a government a is case in point. Saudi Arabia and Iran are the power brokers and the leaders from behind who are controlling the levers of power in a country of no functioning institutions except the armed forces and the central bank.
You are not a responsible citizen of Lebanon if you keep electing and paying respect and deference to the political, religious, and business elites and leadership who have brought since 1975 till today the calamities and disasters that have befallen Lebanon. The Lebanese poet, philosopher, artist, and author of the masterpiece The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) appears to have been the inspiration for the words of President John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
The international community at large through the United Nations and world institutions is trying to help Lebanon at this critical stage. The $64,000 question is: Can Lebanon help itself enough to survive and flourish as an independent and sovereign polity in one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the world?
Historically speaking, Lebanon was a bridge between the West and the East. Its history and geography were both a blessing and a curse. After World War II Lebanon was a symbol of religious coexistence and cultural cooperation between Islam and Christianity, Western values and Eastern traditions. That very role gave it relevance and significant power as a moral and political force. Arab countries were very happy to see a Christian president in Lebanon as a sign of religious tolerance and moral lesson to the world. The long Lebanese civil war, and the 2011 Arab revolts, or “Arab awakening,” that started in Tunisia and spread like bushfire to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan changed all that paradigm.
Lebanon has lost its core raison d’être and is now a marginal player in the region. Its internal divisions are retarding it, its power politics among its elites are robbing it of its role; the sectarian culture of its citizens (as mentioned before) and its failed institutions are all making it ungovernable. With the Syrian state under stress, with Iraq under Iranian hegemony, with Egypt as an absent power from Arab politics, and with the Saudi-Iranian rivalry reaching a dangerous stage, Lebanon is left adrift in a regional storm.
The divisions, moreover, within the Christian communities inside Lebanon have dealt a big blow to their ability to withstand the population imbalance and the changing power structure. The Maronites, as during the days of William M. Thomson in the 1850-60s are divided. Different clans and leaders are constantly fighting over ministries and political seats and financial gains. The Orthodox Christians are powerless, along with the Catholics and the Protestants and the Armenians.
The division between the Sunni and the Shia is no different. They are hostages to Iran and Saudi Arabia, and thus is Lebanon. “Foreign states have often regarded tiny Lebanon as a theater for their rivalry, exploiting the fissures between Muslim and Christian sects who have also courted outside interventions to help them in their struggles with each other.”3
And if that is not enough, you could add the troubles and tragedies in neighboring Syria. Since 2013 or about, Syria has descended into a nightmare of historic proportions. Internal divisions, regional and international powers, all played a role in inflating the situation. For tiny Lebanon, that is never a good sign. Ironically, a strong Syria next door is a problem; a weak Syria is also a problem. The first brings hegemony and power of control over a small and divided country; the second is a feeding ground for extremism, sectarian passions, and religious fanaticism.
We all saw that in the rise and fall of the so-called the Islamic State (ISIS). The links between the fates of Lebanon and Syria have historically been proven and are constantly present. Politics has always been about history and geography. Wise statespersons have often realized the importance of the study of history in statecraft. That was lacking in many American administrations when dealing with the Arab Middle East from the Palestinian-Israeli problem to Iraq and Syria and Lebanon. Donald Trump is no exception in this regard.
Lebanon, truth be told, was exceptionally lucky to escape the Syrian inferno. Many reasons are behind this lucky strike, chief among them are:
Memories of the Lebanese war were and are still fresh in the minds of its elites and the general population.
There was a regional and international consensus among the masters of the Syrian war not to let the flames engulf Lebanon one more time. Their interests intersected in this regard.
The Lebanese armed forces were relatively effective and diligent in protecting the border territories with Syria.
Lebanon was viewed as the last refuge and safe heaven by all antagonists, thus making it convenient to spare it, just in case they needed to escape to it!
The Iranian-Saudi relationship wasn’t as dire and dangerous at first as it is now.
In my book Hostage to History I ask these questions: What is wrong, really wrong, with the Arab world? Why is the Arab region of the Middle East, including tiny Lebanon, one of the sickest regions of the globe? What is behind its constant upheaval, ethnic cleansing, persecution of minorities, religious strife, subjugation of women, and above all, its fight with modernity?
The answer to these and many other questions is multifaceted. But I emphasized the role of political culture as the main driving force behind Arab decline. In fact, I show that the lack of freedom, illiteracy, political tyranny, outdated educational system, the mixing of religion and politics in everything, women’s oppression, all led to the present-day catastrophic upheaval and the Arab state-system disintegration, destruction, and decay in most Arab lands.
Lebanon’s troubles in a region from hell are not over. The culture of corruption among its elites, and the intoxication of its populace by sectarian tendencies and indifference to the concept of citizenship—all are ominous signs for the future.
Make no mistake about it: Lebanon’s fate is intrinsically linked to that of its neighbors, and as we learned from William M. Thomson’s book, the more things change the more they stay the same. And as Khalil Gibran wrote long ago: “Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion. Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave and eats a bread it does not harvest.”
That is Lebanon!
William M. Thomson’s contribution to that part of the world was historic and incalculable. In 1862 he proposed the establishment of a college with Daniel Bliss. The Syrian Protestant College was established in 1866 with 16 students. That college evolved to become the American University of Beirut in 1920. The AUB was for generations the educational oases and foundation for the entire Arab World. Till today, it is considered one of the top universities in the world.
1 Reuters, “‘No State, No Government’: Weary Lebanese Mark 75 Years of Independence,” November 22, 2018.
2 Victoria, B.C.: Friesen Press, 2016
Article Author: Elie Mikhael Nasrallah
Elie Mikhael Nasrallah, born in Lebanon, graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa, with an honours degree in political science. He has written three books: “My Arab Spring, My Canada,” 2012, “None of the Above,” 2014, “Hostage to History,” 2016. He writes from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.