Politics & Policy

New Life For Lebanon

Secular nationalism should be the basis of a new, independent state.

The funeral and mourning for former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, assassinated presumably by Syrian operatives, was a testimony to the fabric and vitality of Lebanese nationalism. The streets of Beirut were filled with tens of thousands of Muslims, Druzes, and Christians, whose anger and grief over the wanton murder of the Sunni billionaire politician welded into a protest demonstration against the Syrian occupiers and their Lebanese collaborators.

The widespread dogmatic assumption is that a sectarian chasm between Christians and Muslims in Lebanon ignited a civil war in 1975 and is the religious and ethnic basis for a fissured society. The political system divides high offices among three leading communities, with a Christian president, a Sunni prime minister, and a Shiite speaker of the legislature, and with the image of embedded rivalry in political competition. The fixed distribution of parliamentary seats–64 each for the respective Christian and Muslim communities–also suggests a perhaps strained equity of representation in this unique confessional democracy.

Making Choices

Yet the Lebanese national narrative resonates with a highly subtle political sensibility. Its origins reach back to the Phoenician legacy in ancient times and the Maronite Church of a millennium and a half ago. Together, Maronites and Druzes emerged some 400 years ago as the founding peoples in Mount Lebanon. In more recent history, the inclusive meanderings of Lebanese peoplehood have taken account of the Sunni Muslims–this was symbolized by the 1943 National Pact–with the incremental integration of the Shiites in the enveloping sense of Lebanese nationalism. Differentiation from the Syrians and rejection of their hegemonic aspirations, no less denial of citizenship to the alien Palestinians since 1948, served as a cornerstone throughout the historical elucidation of the national Lebanese identity. The geography and land of Lebanon helped conceive the Lebanese people.

Lebanon is not just a Christian homeland in the Middle East but a special nation of communities whose particular identities across a pluralistic society do not deny a common nationhood. Probing the alleged Christian-Muslim divide reveals not a religious rivalry but, in fact, a delicate integration of persons and groups in cultural, educational, economic, and political affairs. In the words of the Lebanese patriot-ideologue Etienne Sakr: “The tolling of the church bells merged with the prayers of the muezzins in the mosques during the funeral” of Rafiq Hariri. Christian, Muslim, and Druze ministers traditionally sat amicably at the same cabinet table.

Lebanese nationalism is tested by loyalty to the special national ethos, and pride in the Lebanese heritage is not limited to the Christians alone. Rafiq Hariri, the Sunni Muslim, demonstrated far more dedication to his country in the face of Syrian occupation than the Damascus-appointed Maronite president Emile Lahoud. No one group has a monopoly on patriotism because personal choice rather than religious affiliation is the benchmark for the love of homeland in Lebanon.

The war in Lebanon that erupted in 1975 was not at its core a civil war at all. It was triggered by a sweeping Palestinian armed assault on Lebanese sovereignty, beginning in the late 1960s. PLO factions, spreading through southern Lebanon and coastal cities and into the mountain, were becoming masters of the land. The beginning of the war in Beirut in April 1975 was primarily a Lebanese-Palestinian conflagration, which in 1976 further deteriorated and exacerbated into a Syrian-Lebanese war. Assad’s Baathist regime in Damascus moved to fulfill its vision of “Greater Syria” and swallowed up Lebanon in stages, until a full occupation regime solidified under the Taif Accord of 1989 and the military conquest of Baabda, the presidential palace, and all of Beirut in 1990.

But now the political wheel has turned. The Syrian occupation has become the dialectic rallying Lebanese patriotic sentiment and an enhanced national unity among the diverse communities. The opposition forces, meeting at the Bristol Hotel in Beirut on February 18, declared “an intifada of independence,” and groups of Lebanese attacked Syrian workers’ tents in the north of the country. Furious Lebanese burnt the offices of the Baath party in Beirut, and a mass demonstration against the Syrian occupiers flooded the streets there on February 21.

Although the Maronites undoubtedly shaped the national Lebanese ethos, and the Christians’ overall public standing is indisputable, the country is the home to all its citizens. The Druzes have pushed the campaign of opposition against the Syrians to new levels of daring as their leader, Walid Junblatt–whose father Kamal was assassinated by the Syrians in 1977–has briskly called for “sweeping the garbage out of the country” after Hariri’s assassination. The Christian Qornet Shewan opposition which emerged a few years ago is now buttressed by other patriotic elements. The tearing up of pictures of Bashar Assad in public is testimony to the political dynamic afoot in Lebanon.

It remains to be seen whether the Lebanese can advance from a stance of political opposition, calling for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, to a resistance campaign to oust the Syrians that could include civil disobedience or even a violent struggle. The international environment led by Washington and Paris is supportive, and the Syrians can see the political writing on the wall. If Bashar Assad tries to hold on to Lebanon, he may end up losing both Beirut and Damascus.

Liberating Lebanon

The Bush vision and policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East is paralleled by a native spirit of nationalism. For Lebanon, the themes of democracy, self-determination, and national independence weigh in as a forthright call for justice. There cannot be a true exercise in democracy in the scheduled May parliamentary elections, however, if the country will not be totally free of Syria’s army and extensive secret security services. Indeed, liberation must precede the normal conduct of the democratic process, and the Lebanese opposition has in fact adopted this position.

The question of democracy in Lebanon was resolved generations ago with the establishment of the republic under French guidance in 1926. Democracy is not just a matter of institutions and procedures, but a philosophy of life that is buoyed by a free market of ideas, intellectual enlightenment, an open economy, and political representation. These qualities are native to the ambiance of Lebanese life and the surest guarantee of democracy. America does not have to invest a dollar to assure this political reality.

Individual-state patriotism, like that of Iraq after its liberation, deals a blow to the myth of pan-Arab nationalism. Lebanon’s full and final liberation will symbolize the death of that ideological blather, inasmuch as the powerful media, music, and broader cultural amplification of Lebanon across the Arab world will be closed down for radical Arabism and fundamentalist Islam. The least “Arab” of the Arab countries will confidently exit from the stranglehold of Arabism.

Interestingly, the special texture of Lebanese nationality is somewhat reminiscent of Turkey’s under the guiding hand of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. He articulated and implemented a comprehensive national identity that absorbed what historically were non-Turkish ethnic elements. A shared citizenship and a secular national doctrine provided the glue for a new sense of Turkish peoplehood. The late Michel Chiha, poet savant Said Aql, and freedom fighter Etienne Sakr (Abu Arz) were among Lebanese thinkers promoting a similar inclusive and secular Lebanese nationality in the 20th century.

Nationalism rather than religion is the political principle that will allow the Lebanese phoenix to rise from the ashes of 30 years of war and destruction, subjugation, and humiliation. Hezbollah Shiites will therefore have to shed their extreme Islamic Iranian-imported fervor in reintegrating and absorbing a responsible Lebanese identity, and Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah has in fact given voice to this transformation in the aftermath of the Hariri assassination. A free Lebanon, with its wealth of energy and creativity in commerce and culture, will be the shining beacon of President’s Bush new and greater Middle East: democratic, stable, and peace-loving.

Mordechai Nisan teaches Middle East studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is affiliated with the Ariel Center for Policy Research and the Jerusalem Center for Western Defense. He is the author of The Conscience of Lebanon: A Political Biography of Etienne Sakr (Abu-Arz) andMinorities in the Middle East.


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