Lebanese political system cannot fix itself, responsible external assistance is badly needed
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
The Lebanese civil war has ended, but could it start again? If civil war reignites, Lebanon will easily pass from a “failing” to a “failed” state. Abandoned by the international community, this Mediterranean country, once called the Switzerland of the Middle East, could become unrecognizable.
After a painful delay of 13 months, the long awaited cabinet was formed last month. There was hope: the new government to start the process of tackling emergency needs.
But last week’s street fighting in Beirut brought back dark images of the 15-year civil war, which ended three decades ago. Few expected the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian Party would confront the powerful and increasingly agitated (Shiite) Hezbollah Resistance.
Washington classified Hezbollah as a “terrorist group” in 1997. Many in Lebanon realize that tightening economic sanctions on the Mokawama (Resistance Forces) in recent years has been a significant factor in the economic collapse of Lebanon.
What exactly shocked the nation in recent days? On October 14, the protestors affiliated with Hezbollah and its ally, the Amal Party, were ambushed by roof-top snipers, who were allegedly embedded in the LF community.
The street demonstrators demanded the removal of a judge investigating the massive Beirut August 2020 explosion.
This investigation has become an extremely sensitive affair, with its own explosive implications for all Lebanon’s major political actors.
Events soon escalated into a battle with large weapons killing seven and injuring dozens, largely from the demonstrators.
The LF denies association with the snipers. Some analysts believe that both, accuser and accused, are mobilizing their electoral base (for this spring’s parliamentary elections) with threats and brinkmanship.
Alarmed by the attack on his people, Hezbollah’s leader, Sayed Hassan Nasrallah, gave a lengthy speech on October 18. He addressed “the fears of the Christians of Lebanon” regarding a possible retaliation from his Shiite community.
He said he was not seeking revenge and then accused Samir Geagea, the leader of the LF, of being the “real enemy” of the Christians of Lebanon, not really their savior. If Nasrallah had intended to calm the nation, he did not greatly succeed.
But his caution that he commands a hundred thousand militia fighters drew the attention of local and international observers. And in exhorting the government and the army to take action against the “trouble makers” of October 14, he clearly posed a veiled threat to the status quo.
Lebanon’s civil war has not been forgotten. Sentiments are still raw. Only a process of truth telling and unraveling of accountability could adequately deal with the deep wounds of a civil war.
How was the civil war settled? In 1989, the Arab League, which convened in the Saudi resort city of Taef, offered the rival Lebanese factions a half-baked peace agreement. At the time, the peace formula was considered a breakthrough.
The Taef Accord provided a mix of short-term and long-term reforms, including the immediate disarming of militias. All armed groups complied in self – disarming except Hezbollah. The Shiite – backed militia kept its weapons “to end the Israeli occupation” of south Lebanon, an occupation which had started in 1978. Hezbollah has never believed that Lebanon’s army was strong enough to respond to Israel’s intervention and its future “designs for the region”.
In 2000, Hezbollah’s fighters managed to expel Israel’s forces from south Lebanon, with the exception of two border villages. It must be recognized that the Shiite community, the largest in the country, had suffered the most from a 22-year Israeli occupation.
With this impressive liberation of the land, Hezbollah gained immense popularity at home and throughout the Arab Middle East. Now, three decades later, Hezbollah remains feared by all, respected by some, rejected by others, and admired by its own Shiite community.
The Taef Accord and Israel’s expulsion from Lebanon put an end to recurring militia battles for nearly three decades. During this time, Lebanon remobilized its national armed forces, sent children back to integrated schools and engaged business tycoons in mega reconstruction projects in the war- torn villages and cities.
In what sense was the Taef Accord half-baked? The answer is in the strategy. Since its birth as a nation in 1920, Lebanon has lacked state sovereignty and political vision, due to the way it was launched by France, the governing colonial power: the national borders were arbitrarily drawn and the sectarian power-sharing was divisive and inequitable. Then, the post – war reconstruction focused on the material aspects and largely ignored the human factor. So Taef did not deal with the root- causes of the civil war.
Lebanon faced additional challenges. Its frail sovereignty made it convenient for the world community to treat it as a warehouse for the displaced and the oppressed. During the past century, Armenians, then Palestinians, and most recently Syrian refugees fled to Lebanon. They came initially as “guests”. But regrettably there were never plans for repatriation. The Armenians acquired citizenship but most of the Palestinians and Syrians remain refugees with an uncertain future. Currently, a native population of 4 millions hosts 1.5 million expatriates.
Hosting the displaced is not simply a humanitarian responsibility. Lebanon is impacted directly by the highly unpredictable politics of Syria and Israel.
Israel fights with Hezbollah every few years; through periodic air assaults and land incursions Israel sends its counterproductive “disciplinary” messaging to the Lebanese. In response, the Mokawama (Resistance) has built its own sophisticated rocket and missile arsenal, which gives confidence for one section of Lebanon and anxiety to others.
Syria’s future is closely tied to Lebanon’s. The Islamic State fighters (ISIL) attacked Lebanon from their secret hideouts in Syria in 2017. They were defeated by the army and Hezbollah, but they are still active elsewhere.
The standard question is why can’t the Lebanese save themselves? It took a century for the Lebanese to organize across religious lines against domestic injustice. In October 2019, a national-unity uprising sent its large crowds of protestors to the streets for several months. The demonstrators decried the highly sectarian form of government and expressed disgust with rampant corruption. Regrettably, this two-year old uprising lost momentum as a result of poor leadership, ambiguous goals and hostile reactions from many political parties.
A financial meltdown, followed by a pandemic and then a devastating port explosion precipitated an economic collapse: central bank defaults on foreign national debt, local banks restrict withdrawal of deposits, value of local currency drops sharply, inflation surges, unemployment rises and tourism ends.
The prospects are grim for the near future. The embers of the civil war may be rekindled as the warlords of the 1970s are the leaders of today. The militias persist because the Lebanese state was not built on solid ground. The region’s impact on Lebanon has been positive economically, but negative politically. Lebanon may remain fractured as long as the Syrian and Palestinian crises are unsettled. The region is divided, with one coalition seeking security in Washington and Tel Aviv, and another finding support in Tehran and Moscow.
Lebanon’s stability and prosperity may come through a regional approach to peace making and state building. Currently, there are active diplomatic negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and between Saudi Arabia and the US. A breakthrough in these negotiations would open up possibilities for creative measures of conflict resolution in every corner of the region.
In the short term, Lebanon could be helped by the international community by lifting all sanctions impacting its flattened economy. International and Arab Gulf funding must be reactivated. Cooperation with Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and the rest of the Arab world could play a major role in reviving the economies.
External help is required to repatriate refugees, reorganize the banking system and ensure the execution of the scheduled March 2022 elections. Finally, Washington must facilitate access to the immense oil and gas resources by settling Lebanon’s maritime border issues with Israel. Admittedly, this is a tall order.
Lebanon deserves a better chance for survival. The prospects of spontaneous recovery are not realistic. Urgent intervention from the region and the international community could save this country. Will Lebanon become a case study of the perils of sectarian politics in state building, or will it one day become a model of different faiths and cultures thriving in a political climate of coexistence?
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