Selfish politicians send Lebanon to ruin - GulfToday

Selfish politicians send Lebanon to ruin

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Supporters of families, whose relatives were killed in last year’s massive blast at Beirut’s seaport, hold a placard during a protest in support of legal action near the blast scene in Beirut, Lebanon. File/Associated Press

In despair over the failure of entrenched politicians to form a government which would rescue Lebanon from economic collapse and ruin, numerous commentators have warned it is becoming a failed state or is already a failed state. In an article on the Middle East Eye website former Italian ambassador Marco Carnelos writes, “Technically speaking, Lebanon is already a failed state.”

As proof of this contention, he cites “Lebanon’s political movements [refusal] to abandon their power to veto the formation of a new government, after the Beirut port explosion last August.” This brought about the resignation of the weak, compromise government under Prime Minister Hassan Diab who, although, in theory, appointed to rescue the broken economy, did not have the authority to embark on reforms required by the international community to secure $21 billion in funding. Diab has remained in office as caretaker, doing whatever he can to tackle day-to-day administration while he is unable to initiate policy.

Premier-designate Saad Hariri made a nine-month effort to form a cabinet of “experts” which would meet the demands of institutional and state donors but stepped down last Thursday after President Michel Aoun rejected Hariri’s latest line-up of 24 ministers. Aoun, whose party is the largest in parliament and is allied with Hizbollah, demands one-third of the portfolios and a veto on policy.

Carnelos recommends sanctioning Lebanon’s political elite by denying visas and targeting bank accounts and properties in the West. However, the Europeans have threatened sanctions for several months, giving those who would be affected time to move at least their money to safe havens and register their properties under the names of their wives or children or trusted aides.

Lebanese who have thought hard and long about their homeland’s status disagree with the contention it is or is becoming a “failed state.” They argue Lebanon is not a state. The late Munir Shammaa, a highly respected gastroenterologist, said long ago, “Lebanon is not a nation and will never be a nation.” Munir, a close friend and despairing Lebanese patriot, was right.

He was among the prime movers of the campaign to remove religious designation from Lebanese identity cards and worked tirelessly during Lebanon’s multiple conflicts to provide medical treatment for ailing and wounded who could not afford care.

Lebanon cannot be a “failed state” because it never has been a state. A state is defined as a nation with an organised political community under one government which exercises sovereignty over defined territory. Lebanon is an entity only because France, the post-World War I colonial power, carved Lebanon’s land out of Syria and proclaimed the entity a “state.” Syria, which also fell under French rule, strenuously resisted and suffered punishment by colonial forces but emerged as a state and Lebanon’s essential sibling.

While dividing Lebanon from Syria, France did not and could not break the ties all Lebanon’s communities have with Syria — familial, communal, commercial, educational, cultural, economic, financial and political. Lebanon’s prime ministers used to take the road to Damascus to sort out disputes until the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. In 1976, Syrian forces were invited to enter Lebanon to tamp down the civil war and finally put an end to it in 1990. Syrian troops withdrew in 2005.

The ongoing conflict in Syria, which severely reduced trade and commercial cooperation, has contributed considerably to the meltdown of Lebanon’s small, vulnerable economy. Syria is Lebanon’s natural hinterland and connects Lebanon to the other countries in this region. When Syria is closed, Lebanon’s overland routes are severed.

According to Lebanon’s 1932 French-manipulated census, Christians were supposed to be 50 per cent of the population and the Maronites were considered the largest community. Paris assumed this community would dominate the political scene and remain loyal to France, which wanted to have a permanent foothold on the strategic eastern shore of the Mediterranean. This did not happen.

Lebanon has been torn between competing global forces: the West, as ultimately represented by the US rather than France, and the Eastern Arab world, as well as buffeted by regional actors, including Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Emirates, and Egypt.

France also imposed on Lebanon an enduring sectarian power-sharing system of governance.

According to this system, the president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the parliamentary speaker a Shia. While Lebanon was set up as a parliamentary democracy, the Maronites through the presidency enjoyed political primacy until 1989 when a fairer balance was created between Christians and Muslims after decades of contestation and conflict.

France’s aim was divide and rule; France divided but did not rule. France departed in 1943, leaving an entity which has been chronically divided, suffered two civil wars (1958 and 1975-90), instability, assassinations, and since 2019, constant unrest.

France has retained considerable educational and cultural influence but today President Emmanuel Macron does not have enough political clout to compel Lebanon’s current politicians to resolve their differences and form a government which could avoid bankruptcy and potential collapse.

These factors have prevented Lebanon from attaining statehood. This will not be achieved until, on the political front, the sectarian system is abolished and Lebanon transitions to a secular parliamentary democracy. Tens of thousands of Lebanese realise this and have protested for two years against the sectarian system and the politicians who have profited from it, and called for regime change and accountability for all those who have mismanaged Lebanon’s affairs.

Before the second civil war, Lebanon managed reasonably well, despite the sectarian system, although the downward slide had begun. But in the three decades since the conflict ended, warlords and oligarchs have taken power and entrenched their rule through well-heeled networks of patronage which keep them in office despite their failure to serve Lebanon’s citizens, build its economy, and preserve its natural beauty.

Although Lebanon is sinking rapidly into an abyss, politicians from all parties remain determined not to cede control. Once they do, they could be held responsible for their actions, their policies, their exploitation and neglect of Lebanon’s resources, fundamental institutions and services which serve as the foundation stones of statehood. Lebanon — the glorious “Lubnan” — the land where one could ski in the mountains in the -morning and swim in the sea in the afternoon — was a lovely pipe dream but not a state.

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