“You Stink” protests are not just about the fight against political corruption, but the struggle to define Lebanon as a nation and an idea. Tarek Osman looks at how the country’s long history of sectarian strife, and secular aspirations, weigh on today’s crisis.

The “You Stink” demonstrations in Beirut have evolved from an expression of exasperation with the government’s inability to maintain a garbage collection service into a campaign denouncing Lebanon’s entire political system. The country has entered its second year without a president or an elections law, and with a parliament that has extended its own term. It’s no wonder that thousands of young Lebanese feel frustrated with their country’s politicians—and politics. For some, Lebanon is on the brink of becoming a failed state.

Dream of the Founding Fathers

It was not always like that. In the early twentieth century, France—and to some extent Britain—was inclined to carve up the eastern Mediterranean between its different sects. Centuries of Ottoman authoritarianism and various episodes of bloody confrontations between these sects, often exacerbated by colonial interference, left community relations strained. In that view, the solution was to allow each of the region’s major sects to establish a state in the area of its demographic majority. The region surrounding Mount Lebanon was to become a Levantine Christian state, in which the traditionally most influential group among them, the Catholic Maronites, were to play the decisive role.

But the idea of sectarian states had no currency at the time. Secular, national states (whether constitutional monarchies or republics) were beginning to appear across the region. Emerging from the Ottoman cloak, Arabs were inspired by exposure to Western modernity, and by the vibrancy and optimism of their own Arab liberal age in the early decades of the twentieth century. The most prominent political leaders in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean wanted their communities to evolve beyond a religion-based political legitimacy and social identity. A meeting of minds between a small group of political visionaries in the area of Mount Lebanon and the valleys around Beirut, the most prominent of whom were the Christian Bishara Al-Khuri and the Sunni Riad Al-Solh, laid the foundations of an independent multi-confessional state: Lebanon.

It was not all smooth sailing. A significant percentage of the region’s Sunnis wanted to be united with the new state of Syria, whose land was for centuries the political and cultural centre of the Levant, and the heartland of the region’s Sunni Islamism. There was a heritage of acute distrust and wars between the Druze and the Maronites. And there were the traditionally less-affluent Shiite Muslims in the region’s valleys, who have always had a unique political identity and social traditions.

But the founding fathers of the new state managed to circumvent these challenges. In addition to negotiating independence from the Western powers, they formulated a political structure which, though reserving for the Maronites the status of first among equals, was perceived as one of power-sharing among different sects.

The new state had special promise. It was the first time ever that a multi-confessional secular state was established in the eastern Mediterranean. The vision was that this new state would bring together over fifteen different sects, many of which shared long histories of feuds and suspicions, into a single society. A new form of nationalism (being Lebanese) would transcend sectarianism.

The prominent role given to the Levant’s Christians, traditionally the Arab world’s most globally-connected and entrepreneurial community, imbued the new state with a sense of openness, a relaxed social code, and vibrant commercialism. Not surprisingly, 1950s and 1960s Lebanon emerged as the region’s most successful financial, trading, and entertainment hub.

But economic success was not sufficient for the Lebanese state to realize its potential. Except for a few quarters in Beirut, the different communities continued to co-exist in neighboring, but distinct, areas. Lebanon was increasingly cosmopolitan, but it was not genuinely mixed. The founders’ aspiration of transcending sectarianism remained just that—an aspiration.

Perhaps it was a very tall order. The Maronites, Druze, and Shia have always been minorities in the region. Discarding their sectarian identity ran against centuries of trepidation, cautiousness, and coalescing around their religious authorities. It was not a coincidence that almost all Maronite and Druze villages have always been nestled in forbidding mountains, far from the Sunni-dominated towns and cities and from the Shia in the region’s southern valleys. Even the Lebanese Sunnis, who belonged to the Arab world’s comfortable majority, felt that in multi-confessional Lebanon they had to assert their sectarian identity. Beneath the glamorous façade of the “Switzerland of the East”, as the country was called in the 1950s and 1960s, laid enormous tensions.

Legacy of the Civil War

The eruption came when tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees were forced to make Lebanon their home in the aftermath of the confrontation in the early 1970s between the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Jordanian monarchy. The rapid infusion of tens of thousands of mostly Sunni Palestinians disrupted Lebanon’s delicate religious-demographic balance, creating a cascading set of problems: it challenged the economic interests of several influential families in different sects; was seen by many Lebanese as a threat to their country’s sense of joie de vivre; and crucially made some Palestinian leaders, key among them Yasser Arafat, harbor ambitions to turn Lebanon (or at least parts of it) into a temporary alternative Palestinian state.

Many Lebanese observers designate the civil war that ravaged the country from 1975 to 1990, “the others’ war in Lebanon”. True, the war turned Lebanon into an open battlefront where different countries bought influence, pursued geo-political opportunities, exacted costs on enemies, and experimented with intelligence operations. Throughout the 1980s, almost all of the fighting factions in Lebanon were militarily supported and financially sponsored by various regional powers. Syria’s Hafez Al-Assad exploited the fall of the Lebanese central state and turned his army and the elaborate security apparatus he had established in Lebanon into the real decisive power in the country.

But the war was, first and foremost, Lebanese. It pitted the country’s various sects against each other. There were episodes of horrifying violence between different sects as well as between communities of the same faith. Thousands of Christians were killed amidst accusations that they were “infidels”. At the same time, images of Christian militias rampaging through Muslim camps while carrying pictures of the Virgin Mary were imprinted on the minds of millions of Muslims. “Killing by identity” (one of the most horrendous phases of the Lebanese civil war) traumatized many Christian and Muslim families and severed relationships between communities that had neighbored each other for centuries.

That a country with Lebanon’s reservoir of culture, refinement, exposure to the world, and intellectual richness could descend into such shocking barbarity revealed the acute distrust felt by different sects and communities towards each other. Crucially, it demonstrated that old tensions, and in several cases heritages of hatred, were far from being diluted by any new “Lebanese identity”.

The Second Republic

By the end of the 1980s, the majority of the warring factions were tired or broke—or both. It took the creativity of an ultra-successful Lebanese businessman, Rafik Hariri—and over a billion dollars of his wealth—to incentivize the leaders of the key warring factions to lay down their arms. The 1991 U.S.-led war to eject Saddam Hussein from Kuwait marked the arrival of George H. Bush’s “New World Order” to the Middle East. That entailed blessing the Hariri-led and Saudi-sponsored settlement in Lebanon, and acquiescing to Hafez Al-Assad’s effective control of the country, primarily in return for his participation in the 1991 coalition.

The second Lebanese republic was born in the Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia. Taif diluted the Maronite role in the Lebanese executive structure; it greatly enhanced the power of the Sunni Prime Minister’s office (which Rafik Hariri predictably occupied); and it left Hezbollah (the Shiite organization and militia that had emerged in the 1980s as the key “resistance movement” against Israel’s 1982 invasion) as the sole armed non-state actor in the country. All of that left a sour taste in the Christian view of the agreement. But for the Christians, and for the vast majority of the Lebanese, there was no alternative to Taif. After fifteen years of destruction and devastation, anything was better than the quagmire of war.

Taif survived. Hariri used his billions and connections in the Gulf to rebuild Beirut. Peace gave the legendary Lebanese entrepreneurialism the space to prosper. By the mid-1990s, Lebanese entertainment and media had come to dominate almost the whole of the Arab world. Assad’s Syria continued to exert immense influence over Lebanese politics, but the sense of revival, of effervescence that had appeared after the end of the war, gave rise to an inspiration to emerge from the Syrian cloak.

Cedar Revolution

The assassination of Rafik Hariri on Valentine’s Day 2005 unleashed that inspiration and allowed it to coalesce into a tangible movement: waves of mass demonstrations denouncing the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Bashar Al-Assad, who had inherited the Syrian presidency after his father’s death in 2000, withdrew his army. The promise of the 2005 demonstrations, however, was not in ejecting Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria from Lebanon: it was in imbuing the Lebanese identity with new momentum, in the possibility of transcending sectarianism.

In March 2005, the journalist and politician Jibran Tueni took to a podium in Beirut’s Martyrs Square and movingly stated: “In the name of God, we, Muslims and Christians, pledge that united we shall remain to the end of time to better defend our Lebanon”. Tueni seemed to be speaking on behalf of a new force that was determined to save Lebanon from the religious-identity politics that ruined it. Soon, however, his call and the movement that had coalesced behind it, were diluted by the fall of Lebanese politics into two major camps—those for and against Assad’s Syria, a special Saudi role in Lebanon, Iran’s influence in the country, and for and against Hezbollah’s unique status. Tueni—and some of the most distinguished Lebanese intellectuals—were assassinated. Sectarianism remained robustly healthy. The promise of the 2005 “Cedar revolution” was lost.

There is a possibility that the promise of the current demonstrations could also be lost. As happened in 2005, the desire of the protest movement for a complete overhaul of Lebanese politics could get channeled into intricate details and processes. And also like in 2005, the current momentum could succumb to factionalism: those for and against Assad’s Syria, those for and against Hezbollah, and the myriad of issues that camouflage the interests of the leaders of Lebanon’ different political groups.

This will be another major loss, for Lebanon acutely needs the momentum of these demonstrators to confront the real causes of its sickness. Twenty-five years after the end of the war, Lebanese state institutions remain weak. Some are hardly functioning. All large political parties are familial fiefdoms passed from one generation to another. And almost all of the leading Lebanese politicians are the same militia-chiefs who fought against each other in the 1970s and 1980s. Their influence and ability to control their constituencies rest on the continuing weakness of the central state.

Lebanon on the Brink

The new youth movement should learn from the experience of the years since 2005. It needs to rise above the details of the existing and crippled political system, and realize that the functioning of the Lebanese state—and its survival—hinge upon reconstructing Lebanon’s political architecture. The youth groups should insist on graduating Lebanon from being a mere front for the different cold and hot wars unfolding in the region into a country whose national politics are determined by the wants and desires of the majority of the Lebanese. They should insist that Lebanon resist being a pawn at the mercy of foreign patron countries that sponsor the leaders of different factions.

The “You Stink” movement has already made it clear that it rejects the existing leaders and the way Lebanese governments have been operating in the last few years. This is not enough. The movement should insist that the foundations of the new political system should be shaped by independent and neutral professionals—for example reputable judges with solid track records. Otherwise, any attempt at creating a new system would be paralyzed by the same machinations that have battered the country. And crucially the movement should confront the crucial and perennial question in Lebanese politics: can the state exist on a national, rather than sectarian, basis?

If the experience of the last four decades is any guide, then the answer is no. This means that Lebanon is either destined for fragmentation or federalism. Both entail acute dangers. Fragmentation means small, sectarian-based statelets crammed in the area between Israel, Jordan, what remains of Syria, and the swaths of land dominated by militant Islamist groups. These statelets—even a Christian one rich in human capital and with connections to different international markets and industries—will have unstable economies and limited attraction for foreign investors. A few sectarian statelets next to each other will do nothing to resolve religious tensions. It may instead lead to more long and bloody wars like those that plagued the Levant in the nineteenth century.

Some observers think federalism is the answer. It is not. The gap in economic development, available infrastructure, and key socio-economic metrics between the different regions of the country would restrain and constrain any federal government. Plus, federalism will entrench sectarianism, and so each community will, as is the case now, have its independent foreign policy, which would render the federal government powerless in international relations, defense and intelligence matters.

Federalism also negates the idea of Lebanon. It is the polite way of confirming that the Lebanese identity cannot transcend sectarianism. In essence, a federal Lebanon would mark the end of the project that Bishara Al-Khuri and Riad Al-Solh launched close to a century ago.

The fall of that idea of Lebanon will be a monumental loss—for the entire Arab world. After Iraq and Syria, it will be the third proof that national identities in the Arab countries created in the last hundred years are fragile. It will doom the Arab state system in the whole of the eastern Mediterranean. It will also mean that even the parts of the Arab world with arguably the most sophisticated cultural reservoir (of which Lebanon is the prime example) cannot evolve strong national, secular identities that rise above primal belongings such as sectarianism.

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