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Lebanon: A Naksa or A Nakba?

Lebanon: A Naksa or A Nakba?

Wednesday, 21 July, 2021 - 10:30

Twentieth-century Arabs appropriated two terms that describe natural phenomena and adopted them to their political and social narratives: “nakba” (catastrophe), was adopted in their description of Israel’s establishment in 1948, and “naksa” (setback) was used to describe the defeat in Six-Day War of 1967. What the two Arabic terms have in common is precisely that they had been used to describe natural phenomena: they absolve people of responsibility for their actions and hold responsible natural forces that humanity has no control over, like the eruptions of volcanoes and earthquakes.

The difference between the two is that a nakba is less apologetic and more modest. It recognizes that the defeat was a major event that created a massive qualitative shift, while the quantitative naksa (a term coined by Mohamed Hassanein Heikal) indicates that the defeat was fleeting, a mere step backward taken by a project on the rise. It was a slip-up, and every stallion slips, as the famous ‘Jahiliya’ saying goes.

These two terms are being used to describe the state of affairs in Lebanon, and to some degree in the Arab Levant, not as terms that have natural connotations, but as indications of the magnitude of its afflictions. Is what's currently unfolding a qualitative “nakba,” in the sense that its roots are extremely deep, while overcoming it is tremendously difficult, perhaps impossible; or is it a quantitative “naksa” that we will soon recover from, and thus “Lebanon is going to be rebuilt,” as the famous confident folkloric song goes.

For at least five reasons, it is most probably a “nakba.”

First, the Lebanese sectarian political system has been worn out. It is no longer capable of producing political leadership better than that governing the country today. Something worse is always on the horizon. It is our only reality.

For their part, those pinning their hopes on “replacing the elites” seem to overlook the fact that a colander cannot hold water. The various political and social forces that could make limited breakthroughs are constrained by sectarian divisions that leave them with a low political ceiling. The potential for broad national alternatives is purely theoretical and virtual.

Second, Lebanon’s traditional role is withering away, as the ability to reconcile its role as an intermediary- the international and regional need for which is declining- with this regime, and perhaps any other regime, is not easy anymore, to say nothing about the erosion of the tools and skills needed to do so, especially with the exacerbating brain drain. We can see this manifest in various and uneven ways in cities, the banking sector, ports, and airports, as well as hospitals, universities, hotels, and restaurants…

The decline in Arab and international engagement with what is happening in Lebanon speaks to this fact.

Third, unless extraordinary developments unfold, Hezbollah will continue to be the most influential and active player in Lebanese political life for a long time. Here, we are not talking about its weapons per se. Fundamentally, it is about the extremely firm sectarian alignment behind the arsenal, which entrenches existing inter-sectarian schisms and exacerbates them. The establishment of a state, even a state with bare minimum components needed to warrant the name, is hindered by the mere existence of this outrageously powerful party.

Fourth, the Arab Levant, from Iraq to Gaza, is, in some form or another, collapsing. None can save anyone else.

The Lebanese collapse is thus one part of a wider portrait being painted by an Iranian brush. Moreover, the region is losing its weight in the international balance of power. This is true for the economy, research, and development, politics and culture.

Fifth and finally, the West’s preoccupation with the Middle East as a whole has been declining in favor of Asia and the Pacific for two decades. In the United States, this is reflected in both the Democrats’ and the Republicans’ policies; despite their deep divergences, they do not disagree much on this shift in prioritization. Meanwhile, Europe’s efforts to contain the arrival of refugees are not enough to change major international agendas. Furthermore, Israel’s existence is guaranteed, and the need for oil is no longer as pressing as it had been.

These five factors with their mutual impact on one another, are launching a “dark age” whose harshness is difficult to downplay, to say nothing about overcoming it, and taking off after that.

Let’s remind ourselves- while keeping the difference in scale and influence in mind- that the “dark age” was a term originally used to describe the period in European history that began after the northern “barbarians” from modern-day Germany and Scandinavia descended upon Rome and conquered it in the late fifth century. At the time, Rome was destroyed, and hardly any remnants remained of its great civilization. The Middle Ages that followed were considered a “dark age.” This nightmare’s darkness did not begin to subside until six centuries later, with what subsequently came to be known as the “Renaissance.”

Our own “dark age” is descending upon us. This is not hyperbole: in the entire Levant, there is no electricity today.

Yes, it is likely a nakba!

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