How did Lebanon get into this state?

The Prime Minister of Lebanon has offered his resignation stating: “I said that corruption is rooted in every part of the state, but I found out that corruption is greater than the state.” This situation has come about because of the history of the state and the meddling of so many external players.

It may be helpful for me to reproduce a book review that I wrote just after my visit to Lebanon in 2011:

“Beware Of Small States” by David Hirst

The title comes from an 1870 quote by the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin who was writing of 19th century Europe. In fact, the state that is the subject of this book is Lebanon which is indeed small: no biggest than Wales in the UK or Connecticut in the USA. The author was a long-time former Middle East correspondent for the “Guardian” newspaper and he has lived in Beirut for some 50 years. 

In 460 pages, David Hirst provides a history of Lebanon from 1860 to 2009 but, in doing so, effectively offers a history of the Middle East itself because Lebanon has so often been the subject of intervention by other states, whether the rule of the Ottoman Empire until the end of the First World War, France in the mandate period from 1918-1943, the presence since 1948 of Palestinian refugees and until 1982 the PLO, the support for different militias by various states during the horrendously bitter civil war of 1975-1990, the presence of UNIFIL peacekeeping troops since 1978, the invasions by Israel in 1982-1985 and again in 2006, the support of Iran for the militia Hezbollah since 1985, and the constant interference, sometime occupation, and repeated political assassinations by neighbouring Syria. 

Towards the end of this complicated, twisting and blood-soaked narrative, Hirst summarizes the current (2009) balance of forces in Lebanese politics. 

The 8 March bloc takes its name from a huge demonstration called by Hezbollah on that date in 2005. Membership of the bloc includes most of the Shia Muslim community dominated by Hezbollah led by Hasan Nasrallah plus Amal and the Maronite Christians led by Michel Aoun and (now 2011) the Druze led by Walid Jumblatt.  The group is supported by Syria and Iran. 

The 14 March bloc takes its name from probably an even bigger demonstration which was held on 14 March 2005, exactly one month after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Membership of the bloc includes the Sunni Muslims led by Rafiq’s son Saad and groups of the Maronite Christians led by Amine Gemayel and Samir Geagea. The group is supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States. 

In short, Lebanon has never been master of its own fate. Hirst quotes the Iranian scholar R.K. Ramazani – “It is a truism that all things in the Middle East are interconnected” – and notes that “Nowhere did this truism manifest itself like it did in Lebanon”.

The reason for all this intervention and interconnectedness is partly Lebanon’s location in the cockpit of the Middle East and partly its complex religious and sectarian composition. From the beginning in 1943, this nation, which then had a mere one million citizens, reached an unwritten National Pact that specifically recognised and allocated political representation to no less than 17 groups. Today the population is some four million and a version of the National Pact remains in force with 18 groupings now recognised.

Hirst is incredibly well-informed and immensely informative but his history is not impartial. In particular he makes clear his opposition to Zionism and Israel, comparing the creation of the Jewish state with Lebanon itself and calling it “a vastly more arbitrary example of late-imperial arrogance, geopolitical caprice and perniciously misguided philanthropy”. But he is critical of the Arab states too, noting that “While Arabs may be abstractly passionate for Palestine the cause, they often display little such passion for Palestinians as persons”. He seems rather impressed by the Shiite Hezbollah though, describing it as “both the most influential political player in Lebanon and probably the most proficient guerilla organization in the world”.

I read “Beware Of Small States” while travelling in Syria and Lebanon in the immediate aftermath of the successful February 2011 revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and it certainly aided my understanding of the region’s complex history and fractious present.


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