Understanding Lebanon: A society on the way to collapse
Slightly smaller in area than Tyrol, this small Mediterranean state is not only culturally rich, but is also characterised by a field of domestic tension. Few countries are as heterogeneous in demographic terms and have such a complex state system as Lebanon. The political and demographic complexity is primarily due to history and still leaves its mark on everyday political life today.
While other Arab states are also ethnically diverse and exactly this fact often led to internal conflicts, the situation in Lebanon is even more acute. Because in Lebanon there are 18 recognized religious communities, whereby in 1950 54% of the Lebanese were followers of Christianity and 46% Muslims. According to the current status there was a shift to 50% Muslims, 5% Druze and 45% Christians. In addition, the religious situation is also complicated by the fact that the Muslims and Christians do not form homogeneous groups among themselves, but consist of many small denominations. The Shiites, Sunnis, Christian Maronites, Greeks and Armenians play a particularly formative role. Lebanon, above all the Maronites, who were exposed to different rulers, have thereby a historically strong connection to the French. The former French mandated territory was regarded as a place of refuge for the Christians from the Middle East and was supposed to be first – according to the French initiative – a Christian dominated country in a Muslim shaped region.
Religion and foreign policy: Between co-existence and civil war
After complete independence, a unique system was established in Lebanon. The country, often referred to as the “Switzerland of the Orient” because of its economic stability and strong western orientation, established a system whereby certain government offices were reserved for certain religious groups. The aim was to ensure peaceful coexistence in Lebanon through a more careful occupation of these offices. For example, according to the constitution, the president of the country must be a Christian Maronite, while the prime minister is a Sunni, the president of parliament a Shiite. The democratic and unique system makes Lebanon and Israel the only free countries, the only democracies in the Middle East.
This leads to a strongly influenced sectarianism in which individual cities function as strongholds of individual confessions.
Whether the system of parity has saved Lebanon from large-scale conflicts or whether it has caused them, is disputed. However, one thing can be said: stability in the country can be better guaranteed by a demographic-ethnic balance than by a strong imbalance, namely when one of the two major religious groups is strongly in the minority. This leads to a strongly influenced sectarianism in which individual cities function as strongholds of individual confessions. Thus, for example, the north with Tripoli is considered a stronghold of the Sunnis, the south a bastion of the Shiites, including Hezbollah, while in the east there are mainly Christian groups and the capital Beirut itself is known as a more liberal melting point. First and foremost, Lebanon is a paradox: a paradox in which, on the one hand, people of different confessions can coexist peacefully in some regions, while at the same time there is permanent competition and conditions similar to civil war. Apart from the religious question, there is also another one that divides the country strongly: namely the foreign policy orientation towards Syria, mostly pan-Arab and socialist or anti-Syrian, more civic and pro-Western. This conflict, which is also related to the question of religious denomination and ethnicity, even goes so far that there are two major party alliances in the country: On the one hand, there is the Alliance of March 8, a pro-Syrian movement, and on the other hand the Alliance of March 14, which are pro-Western. The day numbers in the names have their origin in the Lebanese civil war, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
The initially pro-Western Christian confrontation with the more Muslim and anti-Western/pro-Arab forces is still rooted in parts of society today. The civil war also led to a 30-year occupation by the Syrian army, which lasted from 1976 to 2005 and ended with a series of assassinations on anti-Syrian politicians, including the then prime minister.
Political deadlock due to confessionalism and corruption
The once stable and flourishing country in the Levant has not yet found political peace. Today the country is marked by corruption, mismanagement, clan crime, warlords and an oligarchic division of the country. In addition to the ethnic sensitivities in the country, the government has in fact no full control and no monopoly on the use of force throughout the country. Instead, the country is controlled by individual family clans or even groups accused of terrorism, such as Hezbollah. After all, the conflict with Israel and the de facto war of 2006 was not least caused by the presence of the anti-Israeli Hezbollah in the south of the country, which was co-financed by Iran. A fifteen-year civil war, a 30-year military occupation, an even if indirect military conflict with the neighbouring country and the loss of control have made the former light of the oriental paradise fade.
Many Lebanese are of the opinion that, among other things, the – probably well-meant – sectarian occupation of offices has caused political rigidity and corruption. Because of the government’s mismanagement, Lebanon ranks third among the world’s most indebted countries after Japan and Greece. The de facto inclusion of individual ministers associated with Hezbollah in the government complicates relations with individual countries, above all with its Israeli neighbour. And Lebanon – despite having a hard-hitting army – is considered one of the most important targets of the regional powers. Before the civil war, but above all from 1976-2005, Syrians were regarded as Lebanon’s – partly imposed – patron. Even today, France is still held in high esteem by parts of the population – not least because of their shared history. This can be seen especially in the reactions of the heads of state to the explosion in Beirut. The French President Emmanuel Macron not only promised immediate support on several occasions, but also announced that he himself would visit the country because of the tragedy. This is unprecedented. Iran and Israel are engaged in a proxy war in Lebanon, and in doing so they are resorting to individual population groups, given that about 27% of the population are Shiites. Hezbollah is considered an important agent on the ground, especially for Iran, and at the same time makes the country a target for the Israeli side.
It is a disaster on a national level for a highly indebted state with already internal tensions.
Apart from the great scale of the explosions that occurred in Beirut on 4 August 2020, it is not only a tragedy for Lebanon in which many people lost their lives, several thousand people were injured and 250,000 are without housing. It is more. It is a disaster on a national level for a highly indebted state with already internal tensions. The numerous refugees that the country has taken in during the Syrian war are an additional major challenge for the small state. This is an existential question for Lebanon. It is about continuing the revolution that was successfully managed in 2019 (in the course of which the Prime Minister resigned) in order to discharge the conflicts through real reforms, to dismantle corrupt systems and to seek a more consequent approach to Hezbollah. However, the corruption problem and the issue on the elites is not solved and new protest movements will overwhelm the streets. Otherwise, the already charged country is in danger of imploding.
Switzerland of the Orient in the need of international aid and political reforms
The fate of a 75-year-old Lebanese man of Armenian descent reflects very well the fatigue of the shaken country. The man is sitting in front of the ruins of his existence, to be more precise, of his photography shop. For the third time. He had to rebuild the shop already in 1975 and later in 1978 due to the civil war. The formerly independent businessman can no longer manage a third reconstruction. The costs are too high, the tiredness too high. The tiredness in the face of constant social instability. The explosion in Beirut took many to the limits of their possibilities. There is no doubt that Lebanon will not survive the crisis by its own efforts. The country cannot cope with the destruction of a large part of its capital, the total destruction of the port, a major artery of the country. It will need international aid for this. Aid which, above all, however, will require political reforms. It is worth mentioning, however, that Lebanon is of invaluable value, especially to the West. The melting pot of different ethnic groups and the democratic glimmer of hope of the Orient has always been a reliable partner. Let us hope that the “Paris of the Orient”, as Beirut used to be called, will resurrect, just like the whole country.