‘They left Lebanon physically crippled, its economy ruined, its society corrupted, and its very own soul wasted. All that was left to destroy was the fragile illusion of the State itself’ – Sandra Mackey
Between 1975 and 1982, an estimated ten per cent of Lebanese population were killed or wounded due to the civil war and its aggressive aftermath. The Lebanese state by 1989 had disintegrated and the prospect of stability in the country seemed distant. The civil war of 1975 was both an outcome and a catalyst to disintegration politically, socially and economically. Most importantly, it highlighted three weaknesses of the Lebanese state; its ability to create a sense of community, its role as the representative of the peoples and its position as a sovereign nation protecting both its territory and its integrity.
Lebanese society is a multi-faith and a multi-cultural society, even more so with the influx of Palestinian and Syrian refugees. The Lebanese constitution officially acknowledges 18 religious sects, one of the highest numbers of groups found in one of the smallest nations in the Middle East (4,034 square miles, population over 4 million). In addition to the diverse demographics, (political, social, religious, ethnic) Lebanon hosts the highest number of Syrian refugees since the Syrian uprising and civil war (over 830,000 – registered with UN and over 2 million unofficially) more than Turkey, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. As a state in its early years, until the civil war, it had relied on the clientelist system as a basis for its function. The state’s inability to equally include all communities into Lebanese society was a major weakness which contributed to Lebanon’s problems pre-1989 and which continues to this day.
One can argue that confessionalism in Lebanon is to blame for the many crises it has overseen, yet in an ever drastic, baffling, transforming and at times incomprehensible Middle East there is much more to consider. Regional foreign actors like that of Palestine, Israel, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt and Jordan have without end participated in some way or another in the destabilising of Lebanon through their agenda on the political, social and economic setting.
External factors have contributed clearly in producing conflict in Lebanon. As we recapitulate, the French authorities refused to grant Lebanon independence in 1943 after the Chamber of Deputies amended the Lebanese constitution. Instead, the mandatory authorities detained both the Lebanese President; Bechara El Khoury, Prime Minister; Riad Al-Solh and other cabinet members halting the newly elected and formed government. Through this event, the Lebanese underwent their first struggle in unity, as one nation, fighting for autonomy. In addition, the influx of Palestinian refugees (both in the aftermath of the 1948 & 1967 Arab-Israeli War and 1970-71 Jordanian Civil War) to Lebanon gave rise to militias, and commando organisations resulting in many conflicts of which Lebanon was pulled into reluctantly. This left Lebanon with huge economic turmoil (the collapse of Intra Bank in 1966; Lebanon’s largest bank and financial backbone), and total damage of its infrastructure. Moreover, Lebanon was seen as ‘hosting’ the Palestinian militia groups, this was thought to be the defence for Israel to invade and assault the people of southern Lebanon since 1968. All together demolish the country.
Foreign influences that occur in Lebanon has caused sectarian divides in civil society and created the confessionalist doctrine which has plagued Lebanon for decades. The French created ‘Greater Lebanon’ in 1920 based on the national pact- a sectarian regime which has been out of date for over 70 years; a Christian Maronite can only become President of Lebanon, a Muslim Sunni can only become Prime Minister and a Muslim Shi’ite can only become the Parliamentary speaker - this confessionalist model is also evident in local and municipal elections (all subject to agreement internally and most noteworthy, pleasing external agendas from Syria and Iran).
The Syrian regime under the Assad family has played an important role in both creating and exploiting the conditions of civil war, causing strife and destabilisation of the Lebanese civil community. So much so, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Lebanon; a party advocating the subsuming of Lebanon into a Greater Syrian nation is in pact with Hezbollah’s March 8 Alliance (Iranian ally) and Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement. How is it possible to promote good governance in civil society and ensure the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon if the very political parties in government and opposition entice and benefit foreign agendas before Lebanon itself?
High unemployment rates, regular electricity cuts, lack of water supply, robbery, prostitution, drug trafficking, racism, prejudice and discrimination has plagued the country for several years and particularly in rural areas; at best described as a ‘jungle’. With the increasing lack of authority, resources and provisions, tensions are increasingly rising among Lebanese communities and displaced Syrians as hundreds of refugees are forced to leave informal campsites after clashes with local Lebanese villagers. In a recent report by UNHCR ‘The Future of Syria’, it has been noted that children are showing disturbing signs of isolation and psychological behaviourial problems and are forced to work in Jordan and Lebanon where child labour is illegal. Such cases and tensions with the local people are evident in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt.
Sectarian divisions, toppling of governments, resignations, assassinations, corruption, exiled cabinet ministers and bloodshed have led to the breakdown of society and a cycle of violence since the early 1950s until today – all but part of Lebanese life and political and social culture. Lebanon has endured, compelled and manifested itself to a history full of strife, struggle, atrocities, collapse and reconstruction. Speaking with Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle East Editor, I asked whether he saw Lebanon as a microcosm of the Middle East and possible solution to peace, his reply was ‘more of a barometer for trouble than key to future peace’. Well, that barometer reading has been accumulating tense and anxious pressure for many decades and on the verge of reaching a tipping point for the destruction of society in Lebanon. Never have truer words been said about Lebanon and its relevance echoes forever;
‘This society is not a society in the real sense of the word, because there is no such thing as a Lebanese community. There is no Lebanese social unit. Lebanon is a collection of sects and socio-religious communities. This....is not a society, not a community, not a nation.’ - Kamal Jumblatt
*Omar Salha is a Nohoudh Scholar and PhD Researcher at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) University of London.