Emerging optimism for Lebanon’s political deadlock
Will the Lebanese living abroad visit their homeland in large numbers this summer?
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
A disastrous civil war that lasted fifteen years (1975-1990) nearly obliterated Lebanon’s image as the “Switzerland of the Middle East.”
Since the end of the civil war Lebanon has been reconstructed, physically, but not rehabilitated, politically.
The civil war in Syria could have caused neighboring Lebanon to unravel but it did not. It is still unclear how Hezbollah’s active role in Syria’s war and the presence of over a million Syrian refugees will affect Lebanon’s future. Over the past few months there has been some political progress which has improved the security situation.
Three factors come to mind to explain Lebanon’s improved security for the near future. First, the explosive civil war in neighboring Syria has somewhat abated as a result of directive mediation led by Russia, with the cooperation of Iran and Turkey.
Second, it is speculated that Israel is no longer as predisposed as before to attack Hezbollah’s resistance forces on the militia’s own turf in Lebanon.
The third factor is domestic: after a grueling period of debate on the question of reform of electoral law (to allow better representation of minorities) Lebanon’s leaders are now nearly set for the next round of parliamentary elections. These three factors are interactive and reversible.
There is no simple explanation for the progress in Syria, albeit in form not substance. Exhaustion of all sides of the conflict is an underlying factor. The significant weakening of the opposition is another. Furthermore, the initiative of Turkey to join Russia and Iran has made pacification of Syria more enforceable since Turkey is close to the opposition groups, whereas Iran and Russia are close to the Syrian regime.
The peace negotiations in the Kazakhstan capital city of Astana have set up four safety zones, labeled as “de-escalation” areas. These zones are outside the capital Damascus and other major cities, including the western coastal area, where the regime has maintained its hold on power. If this de-escalation succeeds over a million Syrian refugees might voluntarily wish to leave Lebanon to return home when reconstruction starts.
The return of Syrian refugees will require several years assuming that political negotiations continue to progress. The start of repatriation of refugees will boost Lebanese morale. Two sobering points: reconfiguring a united Syria will be hard and Lebanon has always been a strong magnet for migrants and refugees.
Like Syria’s, Israel’s foreign policy is crucial to Lebanon’s security. If Israel had attacked Hezbollah while the latter was deeply involved in Syria’s civil war Lebanon would have been dragged into a regional war whose consequences would have been far reaching. As the chances of confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel subside Lebanon’s confidence in the future increases. The Lebanese are growing accustomed to relying on militias to compliment their national army’s defense of their land from external threats.
The upheavals of the Arab Spring over the last six years have shown how fragile state sovereignty is in the Middle East. In a region where national borders are easily trampled, rulers are in constant search for legitimacy, regimes are seeking superpowers’ support for survival, militias such as Hezbollah may no longer be categorically judged as threats to state sovereignty, or as “terror” groups.
The mood in Lebanon has slightly changed for the better since the country elected a new president. Parliamentary elections will probably take place this autumn. Reform in electoral law reveals a positive sign, but not a fundamental shift in democracy.
President Michel Aoun commands an acceptable level of respect from society; his critics accuse him of being too impulsive and patriarchal. Prime Minister Saad Hariri is moderate and financially resourceful; his opponents consider him a light-weight politician. Speaker of the House Nabih Berry manages to broker relations among the country’s three largest religious communities; many consider him a master of manipulation.
There is a fascinating balance of indulgence, unspoken agreements on assigned privileges, among the three religious communities: the Christians are overrepresented in the parliament and are well connected to the western world; the Shiites enjoy extra political muscle through Hezbollah and Iran; and the Sunnites are comforted with support of Arab Gulf States. Despite their sectarian political system, the Lebanese are behaviorally secular.
There is no other Middle Eastern country where there is no power dominance of a specific religious group. No Christian, Sunni, Shiite or Druze can claim superiority or marginalization in Lebanon. After a long civil war Christians and Muslims still enjoy going to the same school, living in mixed neighborhoods, working in the same work place. And the Lebanese do manage to intermarry across religious affiliations, without fear of the law or tradition.
The relative openness and stability of Lebanon today is not guaranteed tomorrow. As long as Lebanon is structurally sectarian, shares borders with two states of unsettled borders (Syria and Israel) and does not have mature political parties the stability of Lebanon remains tenuously short-term and highly conditional on regional stability.
For this summer at least it is reasonable to assume that the Lebanese abroad will visit their homeland with relative security.
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