Lebanon-The Mirror of Middle East

Lebanon located at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian hinterland has a rich history and a special cultural identity of religious and ethnic diversity. By Middle East standards, Lebanon is relatively well-developed. The country has often been described, ‘the Mirror of the Middle East’; because, the emotions of the turbulent Middle East, invariably finds expression amongst the Lebanese people.

Is Lebanese Society Imprisoned by History?

Lebanon located at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian hinterland has a rich history and a special cultural identity of religious and ethnic diversity. By Middle East standards, Lebanon is relatively well-developed. The country has often been described, ‘the Mirror of the Middle East’; because, the emotions of the turbulent Middle East, invariably finds expression amongst the Lebanese people.

At the end of the 1st World War, the Ottoman Empire was divided amongst the victors; Great Britain, France, Russia and Greece. The erstwhile League of Nations awarded the mandate for Lebanon, to France. In 1943, in the midst of the 2nd World War, Lebanon gained independence from France and inherited a Constitution that practices ‘confessionalism’. Confessionalism is defined as a system of government that is a de-jure mix of religion and government. Unlike most other forms of government, which figuratively separate the Church and the State, in Lebanese confessionalism, religion is constitutionally embedded into the government. Amongst other de-jure practices, the Lebanese President shall always be a Christian, the PM a Sunni-Muslim, and the Speaker of the Assembly a Shia-Muslim. All the 128 seats in the Lebanese Parliament are also allocated, on religious lines; fundamentally institutionalizing religion into all matters political. Besides elected representatives, positions in Government and the Lebanese Armed Forces have also been de-jure allotted on religious lines. Other than Lebanon, perhaps only Iraq (after 2003), has a confessional constitution.

Assessment

Historically, Lebanese confessionalism found logic, in seeking a balance of power between religiously diverse people. However, in practice, confessionalism made the Lebanese society extremely sensitive to change; deepening sectarian differences and encouraging allegiance to one’s own group. Thus, unlike the modern secular state, which encourages horizontal integration (economic cooperation, social and cultural development), the Lebanese confessional system consolidated vertical integration, within religious communities. It is also interesting to note that since 1932, there has been no official census in the country. Most Lebanese should admit that fresh census, could alter the status quo, with unpredictable consequences.

The Current Crisis

On 29 Oct 2019 PM Saad Hariri submitted his resignation to President Michael Aoun. The resignation was in response to a fortnight of anti-government protests, that has consumed the country and suspended daily life. Banks, schools and businesses have remained closed, while people have taken to the streets. Particularly in Beirut, the streets have become the forum for debate and defiant demands for change. Emboldened by the unprecedented cross-sectarian movement, protesters have been unusually vocal of long-standing Lebanese leaders; notably Saad Hariri, the Sunni-Muslim leader of the Future Movement and Hasan Nasrallah, Secretary-General of the Shia-based militia Hezbollah.

The immediate causes of the protests were dysfunctional governance and mismanagement. Amongst the many challenges of living in Lebanon are, eight-hour electric power rationing, high levels of pollution within cities, limited access to drinking water, deficient infrastructure for sanitation & sewage and garbage accumulation, amongst others. A common demand amongst the protesters is for the mass-resignation of Lebanon’s political government and its replacement by a ‘technocrat-government’. In the face of such criticism, Lebanese politicians are avoiding both the media and the public. The mass-protest has not thrown up a leader, as yet; and, the movement appears to be spontaneous and evolving.

Analysis

The public apathy, to the current generation of Lebanese politicians, is widespread and even transcends the traditional Lebanese sectarian divide. Many of the politicians are former warlords, notorious for flaunting their wealth and speeding around the town in black-tinted motorcades. In sharp contrast to the current Lebanese poverty, the families of these politicians enjoy Italian sportscars, five-star luxury and multi-country citizenships. Former PM Saad Hariri, himself, is a citizen of Lebanon, France and Saudi Arabia.

Little has been done to address Lebanon’s burgeoning challenges. Lebanon stands at the brink of economic failure, with public debit at 155% of GDP; the third highest in the world. Moody’s Investor Service, recently downgraded Lebanese bonds, deeper into the junk category, for the second time this year. They are currently rated Caa2, the fourth-lowest junk rating. Compounded with high inflation rates, rampant corruption, widespread unemployment and 1.5 million Syrian refugees, the government has failed to even instil a modicum of confidence, with the people. With traditional politicians, reluctant to face the wrath of the public, Lebanon is currently bereft of credible leaders.

Assessment

At this juncture, no one is sure what the ‘technocrat-government’ means if it were to get implemented. However, the people’s aspirations are for a corruption-free and efficient government that the people appear certain, the current political dispensation cannot deliver. For more than 77 years, Lebanon’s confessional Constitution had divided the people on sectarian lines; institutionalizing nepotism and corruption, in the hands of few families. The people now want representative government, selected on the basis of merit and held accountable for their performances. Perhaps, it is time for the confessional constitution to be replaced with a secular one? Time for change in Lebanon; and hopefully, time for a change in the Middle East?

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