Of all the political projects that had emerged in the Levant in the aftermath of the fall of the Ottomans, the modern state of Lebanon was the most ambitious and the most fraught.

The Maronite Church was the primary force behind the creation of modern Lebanon. The Church’s grandees were encouraged by France, the occupying force that had expelled the Ottomans from modern day Syria and Lebanon, to have a Christian state. The Maronite Church took elements of the idea to heart but rejected the offer. Indeed, in working with France to establish modern Lebanon, the Maronite Church retained for its community the lion’s share in political decision making in the nascent state. And yet, the Church insisted that other sects, especially the Sunnis and the Druze, were not only brought into the state but also given spheres of power in it. Christian in its spirit, modern Lebanon was born to be a secular, national state.

For a period the Lebanese political project seemed to be not only working, but on a path to real success. Throughout the three decades after the Second World War, Lebanon became the centre of Arab press, banking, and most sophisticated trade and services in the region. It was also by far the most important cultural bridge between the Arab world and the West. It helped that the fall of the monarchy in Egypt and the rise of socialist Nasserism had curtailed Egyptian political and cultural openness to the world and gradually strangled Cairo’s and Alexandria’s cosmopolitanism.

But Lebanon’s success in that period stemmed from intrinsic factors. Beirut was a true world city whose constituents comprised Arabs, non-Arab Levantines, Armenians, Jews, and scores of Europeans who had fled war-torn Europe to the eastern Mediterranean.

The rise of Lebanon coincided with the windfalls of petrodollars in the Arabian Peninsula. For many in the Gulf, 1950s’ and 1960s’ Lebanon was a dream come true. Combining Arab, Levantine, Mediterranean, and Western facets, and with at the time one of the best services infrastructure in the region, Lebanon offered anything to anyone with a laissez faire attitude to life, and enough dollars to spend.

And then there was the soul of Beirut. The city and its environs offered its residents and visitors history, culture, beaches, mountains, a vivacious café culture, along with one of the world’s most glamorous nightlifes. Nestled between the Mediterranean and haughty mountains peppered with centuries old Maronite Churches and Druze houses, and comprising vastly different districts, all with their curvy charming streets, Beirut was gorgeous, confident, defiant – at the same time, challenging, daring, and seducing.

Arabs and non-Arabs fell head over heels for Beirut. Petrodollars poured in. Scores of students, journalists, merchants, charlatans, and dissidents from across the Arab world came seeking education, adventure, safety, fun, and inspiration. Europeans and Americans, from top tier bankers to some of the most interesting spies in modern Middle Eastern history, made Beirut their home. Nizar Qabbani, one of the most talented modern Arab poets called Beirut “sett el-dunia”, the lady, perhaps the mistress, of the world.

However, beneath the beauty and glamor lurked serious problems.

Many of the constituents that had come together in the Lebanese project in the period after the First World War, have never agreed on the shape of the project or the trajectory of its growth. By the late 1960s, it was clear that the success of Lebanon was strongly felt in certain quarters, but hardly resonated in others. The Maronite Church had admirably refused to anoint Lebanon a Christian state, but the Maronites retained almost all levers of power. And along with political inequality, economic inequality was eating at the foundations of the Lebanese project.

The arrival of tens of thousands of Palestinian warriors eroded other foundations. After the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan had fought and defeated the Palestinian Liberation Organisation and kicked its fighters out of Jordan, the warriors found refuge in Lebanon. The country’s open political system, and the existence of a powerful sympathetic political Left, allowed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation to establish a state within the state of Lebanon. This began to skew the country’s delicate demographic balance. Fearing for the Lebanese project – and for what they believed was its Christian core - Lebanon’s Christian Right engaged the Palestinians and the country’s political Left in a war, in which all sides came to commit abhorrent sins. The war lasted 15 years, and in which every significant Middle Eastern power participated either directly or through proxies.

Lebanon emerged from the war exhausted, having lost tens of thousands of its best men and women, and with its pre-war political system in ruins.

Saudi money was the convening power that had brought the warring factions together in a peace agreement, and upon which a new political system was founded.

But the civil war had given rise to a new force in the country. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s triggered the creation of a military resistance, largely drawn from the Shii community, and whose most powerful expression has been the Shia group Hizbollah. In the past three decades, Hizbollah grew into a mighty military power, closely integrated within Iran’s political and armed structures. For some, Hizbollah has guaranteed for Lebanon a form of military deterrence with Israel; for others, however, it has become a new state within the state.

As if the fraught politics were not enough, the past few years have been unrelenting for most Lebanese. Along with the explosion of the Beirut Port, the biggest the Middle East has ever experienced, the country witnessed a rapid and shocking descent of large sections of its population into poverty.

The loss runs deeper. A century since its creation, the idea of Lebanon remains unfulfilled, and for many unclear. The Maronites continue to control the presidency, the commanding of the armed forces, and the governorship of the central bank, but with the major changes in Lebanon’s demography, political system, and where real power resides, it is difficult to argue that Lebanon now is a product or expression of political Maronism.

And after brutal violence that had exacted the lives of tens of thousands of Lebanese, and with demands for federalism rising amongst large sections of the society, it is also difficult to argue that Lebanon has managed, as its founding fathers had envisioned, to become a successful example of peaceful coexistence between different sects.

The uprising that had erupted at the end of 2019 and only lost its momentum because of COVID carried with it the hope that a new generation of Lebanese want to transcend the ills of the past decades, and to resuscitate, from the depths of their society’s consciousness, the meaning of Lebanon as a national, open, liberal, and truly democratic secular state. That uprising was quickly extinguished. The question is whether that promise can find a new expression in the foreseeable future. If not, not only all Lebanese, but the entire region, will lose - for at the core of the idea of Lebanon lies one of the most promising post-Ottoman political projects in the region.