Lebanon - the never ending story of internal stalemate and external pressure
After almost 6 months since my previous visit, I returned to Lebanon and found that it had changed but was also still the same. This may sound confusing, but in reality it is not. On the one hand, Lebanon remained the beautiful, energetic country where day and night, as in New York, become almost one. I was glad to have the chance to observe the ups and downs of life lived in a country where you wake up in the drums of new political schemes, gossip and rumors, and fall asleep with the bitter taste of a yet another day spent without a solution to be found by former warlords, today all great political leaders. More than anything else, it is frustrating.
This time I traveled more within the country, especially in the areas known as Hezbollah's strongholds - from Bint Jbeil to the Blue Line and to the Bekaa Valley. The echoes of political tension were to be found within the society. However, in spite of all of the propaganda - and make no mistake, both blocks deserve to be nominated for the biggest prize here - most of the people I met, talked to and spent time with were eager to get on with life.
It is true that I found a hard core in each and every party - individuals and groups whose ideology, beliefs and loyalty cannot be changed. However, even within these groups I noticed the willingness to sit down and find a solution through dialog. This is crucial. If Lebanon is to get through this storm in one piece, then dialog is the only way to do it.
The terrific momentum Lebanon had back in 2005 is now almost completely lost. All parts share the guilt for this. Back then, the Cedar Revolution was in full swing and important leaders in the international community from both the West and the East expressed considerable support for the March 14 block and its struggle to regain sovereignty, strengthen democracy and bring justice. The mistake of the March 14 block was that it was in a defensive mood for far too long. Their political adversaries understood this as a sign of weakness.
As a result, Tehran and Damascus discuss Lebanese internal political matters and decide which course of action or reaction should be taken next. Let us not be fooled. In today's world, states do not stand alone. The most important international and regional players will always influence the internal matters of other countries. The question is, to what extent? And in this respect the national players can use the joker or be the joker themselves.
The problem in Lebanon is that politicians see the interests of the country through their selfish interests. With few exceptions, the present leadership, which in many respects is the same one that led Lebanon since the 1970s has never put the nation before its own private or clan-selfish interests. Religion can and is being used as a cover to preserve or obtain even more power and through that have access to money and influence. Of course, there are some who truly believe in the righteousness of a religious cause, but these are few. When national affiliation is this diluted, it is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible, to uphold the very concept of a unitary state let alone strengthen it.
Worth being taken into consideration is the rather deep division and mistrust between the Sunni and Shias. However, there is also a tacit agreement not to rush things onto a path that leads to conflict.
In spite of Iran's from time to time excessively confrontational discourse, and Hezbollah's sophistication as a militia, Shias are a minority in the region. On the other hand, the Sunnis are also wary of a conflict in Lebanon that is likely to drag them into a larger one, in the region and worldwide. Not to mention the destruction a conflict would have on the cities where the Sunnis have their businesses. Pragmatically, neither side is keen to go beyond a clash of words. However, when the leaders escalate their rhetoric in the media, there is no way to foresee how things will develop on the ground, as they cannot keep every person who is a part of their respective groups on a tight leash.
For the time being, Lebanon is on hold. The first to blame are the leaders who asked for a bolder intervention from outside the country, hoping that this would give them leverage at the local level. This is the perfect example of one not being able to see the forest for the trees.
Each side is looking for guarantees from the other and for outside guarantors to supervise the partnership. Time is not yet lost to go back to the discussion table and find an acceptable solution for all involved. However, a satisfactory solution and not a winner ticket, will not solve the core problems that stand before the society as a whole and its leadership. Will, in time, a compromise lead anyway to an open conflict? This is a distinct possibility.
I remember what Dr Joseph Hitti said not long ago, that in Lebanon, "you cannot have social or economic or any other type of substantive change to improve the country and the lives of its people, because religion and sectarianism stand in the way. If you demand social reforms on one side, the other side is offended. If you demand secularism, both sides rally together against you. If you ask for administrative reform to end corruption and cronyism, the traditionalists who hold power accuse you of being an Israeli-Western agent. If you ask the Patriarchs or the Muftis to stay outside of politics, the traditionalists accuse you of blasphemy and straying from God's will for the country." He went on to say that some "are tired of Lebanon being burned to the ground only to maintain the illusion that Lebanon has to live up to some standard or model of coexistence and tolerance. The price has been too high for the Lebanese over the past four decades that it no longer makes sense. Many would rather see a decentralized, partitioned, segregated, separated Lebanon than the unlivable, non-viable nightmare that it has become."
This is the point where Lebanon is today. It may take a while for Lebanon, to rise up from the ashes of a state in decline and become the nation that it has always prided itself to be. It will only happen when accountability is the rule in Lebanon, and not the exception. For a broader insight into the political interaction at the local and regional levels, I spoke with, among others:
- MP Samir Frangieh, who is one of the leading intellectuals of the March 14 block
- Mr. Alain Aoun, Political Officer of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) party
- Samy Gemayel, a young, talented politician, member of the Kataeb (Phalange) party and son of former President Amine Gemayel
- MP Ali Bazzi of the Amal party. He represents the southern village of Bint Jbeil and also in charge of the foreign affairs department of the party
- Pierre A. Maroun, Secretary General of the American Lebanese Coordination Council
The alliance between the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) of General Michel Aoun, the Shiia Amal party of Speaker Nabih Berri and the Shiia Hezbollah of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah and their allies is known as the March 8 block.
The group has been labeled as being on Iran and Syria's orbit. While the Free Patriotic Movement claims its independence, both Amal and Hezbollah have publicly admitted their ties and relationship to the abovementioned countries.
The alliance between the Sunni Future Movement led by Saad Hariri, the Christian Lebanese Forces party led by Samir Geagea, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party of Walid Jumblatt, the Christian Kataeb (Lebanese Phalanges) party of Amine Gemayel and their allies are known as the March 14 block.
March 14 has been labeled as a pro-West group, close to the United States, Saudi Arabia and the few European countries active in the region.