Is Lebanon ahead of the ‘identity game’?

It seems that Lebanon has (again) ended a political gridlock. This time it was a gridlock to end its two and a half year search for a consensus President. On Oct. 20, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of former assassinated Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and leader of the Tayyar al-Mustaqbal (Future Movement) bloc, officially supported the leader of the Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr (Free Patriotic Movement) bloc, Michel Aoun, for President. According to its constitution, the Lebanese parliament votes on it, which is set to take place at the end of this month. Due to the government’s consistent stalemates, many might consider that the country is a failed state or any other adjective that would describe the institutions not working for its citizens. While it is true that the state’s institutions have failed to provide for the population, to suggest it’s a failed state, given what is going on in the region, is a claim that might be misguided.

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Michel Aoun speaking during a news conference on Oct. 20. If Aoun is elected as the next President of Lebanon by the Lebanese Parliament on Oct. 31, it will end a 29 month vacuum. Photo: REUTERS

The Levantine state came to fruition following World War I when the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian Peninsula were divided into areas of future British and French control or influence under the Sykes-Picot Agreement (a secret agreement signed in 1916 between the governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Russia, defining their proposed spheres of influence and control in the Middle East should the Triple Entente succeed in defeating the Ottoman Empire during World War I). France was awarded southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, the Syrian coast, and Lebanon. More specifically, they were awarded the area of the Mutasarrifate, plus some surrounding areas, which were predominantly Shi‘i and Sunni. This small land that now had a mosaic of confessions gave birth to le Grand Liban (Greater Lebanon) under the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon.

The French Mandate, as it later became to be known, began in September of 1920. France established Greater Lebanon removing several regions belonging to the Principality of Lebanon and gave them to Syria. On September 1, 1926, France formed the Lebanese Republic and subsequently a constitution was adopted on May 25, 1926 – founding the democratic republic with a parliamentary system of government.  In 1932, the French conducted a census – Lebanon’s last – that revealed that the Christians were the majority. What the French understood that the British didn’t was that the Middle East was an assortment of confessions. The French created Lebanon on the antithesis of Arab nationalism and built it on a confederacy of minorities. The Lebanese population was growing tired of the French Mandate and, under political pressure from both inside and outside of Lebanon, Charles de Gaulle recognized the independence of Lebanon. After 23 years under French occupation, on November 22, 1943, Lebanon was officially independent from the French Mandate.

Using some concepts that were already introduced during the Mandate years, Lebanese President Bishara al-Khuri (a Maronite Christian) and Prime Minister Riad al-Solh (a Sunni Muslim) orally agreed to a power sharing agreement known as al-mithaq al-watani (the National Pact). This set the stage for how an independent Lebanon would be governed.  Amongst other understandings, it was agreed that the President of the Republic always be Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister shall always be Sunni, and the Speaker of the Legislative Parliament be Shi‘i.  It also ensured that the Parliament be assembled along a 6:5 ratio in favour of Christians to Muslims.  The power-sharing agreement was based on Lebanon’s 1932 census – widely considered to be flawed and manipulated in the Christians’ favour and one of the main grievances of the other Lebanese sects (namely the Shi‘i, the Sunni, and the Druze). While the agreement has been readjusted over the years, this is probably Lebanon’s supreme Achilles heel because the demography has significantly altered since 1932 and the out-dated census does not reflect today’s demographic reality.

Since its independence from the French Mandate, alternating periods of political stability and turmoil have marked Lebanon’s history.  The years of uncertainty reached its climax in 1958 as well as between 1975 and 1991, the years of Lebanon’s two civil wars in its modern history.  The political instabilities were mainly based on the question of its identity.  In 1958, in the last months of President Camille Shamun’s term, a revolt broke out, instigated by Lebanese Muslims who wanted to make Lebanon a member of the United Arab Republic while Shamun showed favouritism to the West when he showed eagerness to joining the Baghdad Pact. Following Iraq’s July 14 Revolution, Shamun requested assistance from the United States, and 5,000 United States Marines were briefly dispatched to Beirut on July 15. When the crisis ended in September, a new government was formed, led by the popular former general, Fuad Shihab.

The civil war began in 1975 and lasted for approximately fifteen years.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s, tensions increased between the Muslim communities and the Christians.  With Palestinian refugees fleeing to Lebanon – including the Palestinian Liberation Organization – as a result of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and “Black September,” this intensified the tensions between the sects.  Amongst other reasons, Lebanon’s second civil war stemmed from grievances on identity.  The second civil war ended when all sides eventually signed the National Reconciliation Accord – also known as the Ta’if Agreement (because of the signing location in Ta’if, Saudi Arabia).

While Lebanon has been dealing with questions of identity since its inception, the other countries in the region are only now dealing with these same issues, which are being dubbed the “Arab Spring.”  It is certainly true that the populations in the region are firm on their demands for equal representation, which should not be confused with democracy that is often prescribed.  The countries that were created as a result of the Sykes-Picot Agreement are now having the same problems that Lebanon has had for decades.

Surely, the one country that has not had any turmoil as a result of the “Arab Spring” regarding identity is Lebanon. While the rest of the region is having this struggle, Lebanon has thus far managed to survive.  It is true that it gets dragged into conflicts such as the Syrian civil war and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and external players like Iran, Syria, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia (just to name a few) interfere on a regular basis.  However, amongst all the countries in the region, Lebanon is the most vulnerable and until now there has not been any violent internal strife.  It certainly is not the country it was at its inception and it certainly has its trials and tribulations to truly be a sovereign state with adequate provisions to provide its citizens.  Nevertheless, Lebanon still manages to survive the tempting “Arab Spring” that is changing countries around it.

Since gaining independence from the French in 1943, the modern history of Lebanon has been one of failure to join the 20th century. Lebanon spent the 20th century arguing about identity and, as a result, failed to join it. The main crises in the country have been about that.  However, having thus skipped the 20th century, is Lebanon now ahead of the ‘identity game’? The rest of the region, which had joined it successfully, is now disassembling that state. There is the price of removing the state, then the price of familiarizing to live without it, then the price of having to live together. While this presidential election demonstrates Lebanon’s many failures, it might have a head start on the other countries in the region.

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