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Lebanon and the Immense Inadequacy in Arab Democratic Political Culture

Lebanon and the Immense Inadequacy in Arab Democratic Political Culture

Sunday, 2 October, 2022 - 09:45

Imagine if Arab intellectuals, during the nationalist era in the fifties and sixties, had behaved as though the Palestinian Nakba did not concern them. Such behavior would have been considered a grave shortcoming in their nationalist qualities, if not collusion with the enemy of nationalism. Nothing like that happened, and Arab nationalist intellectuals were overtaken by an excess of nationalist zealm, with all the enthusiasm trumping its achievements.

Today, Lebanon is undergoing a Nakba. It is also an Arab calamity, and it has implications for freedom and many of the hallmarks of progress. However, the impact of this calamity on Arab political culture, including its democratic segment, is hardly visible. This is happening at a time that had been inaugurated by the Arab revolutions with their demands for freedom.

The matter is not without paradox.

True, many have expressed their genuine regret, shaking their heads in disapproval or demonstrating sorrow for Beirut. However, rarely has it appeared to have been deeply seen as a calamity for freedom, and rarely was the scale or significance of this calamity noted.

Of course, Lebanon is not suffering from the loss of territory or direct foreign occupation.

However, what is facing is more dangerous: the closure of a window into the contemporary world and a bridge for engaging with its values- two things the entire Arab world needs, especially the Arabs living under regimes that don’t tolerate them and their opinions.

Relatively advanced experiences, by Arab standards that is, with freedom of assembly, expression, and the media, as well as advances in education (including in foreign languages) and the status of women. All of that is threatened with being bombarded and dragged across the streets of Beirut, with no possibility of this turning into a massive development in recorded Arab history, especially that recorded by those who defend freedoms and democracy.

This paradox hurts and deserves our attention because it stems from an understanding of calamities that limits them to the loss of territory taken over by a foreign power or the expulsion of residents with the aim of making way for foreigners who replace them. This is the case despite the fact that the suffering of the Syrians, and before them the Iraqis, warranted equipping Arab political culture with a less exclusive definition of the term calamity.

One matter to worry about is that this exclusivity indicates that nationalist, perhaps religious and always communal, matters are far more ingrained in Arab political culture, including its democratic segment, than we think.

When it comes to Lebanon in particular, we see something like timid discomfort in defending it. This is perhaps due to the fact that contact with the West did more than anything else to grant the Lebanese their freedom; or perhaps it is the weighty position the Christians had had in this experience; or perhaps it is because those who are crushing Lebanon are also those who claim to be fighting Israel, that is, retaliating to the exemplary Arab calamity, the Nakba of 1948.

The fact is that this Lebanon, which embarrasses those defending it, is the same country that, through its residents and expatriates, played a pivotal role in what became known as the Arab Renaissance, its ideas, and its rejuvenation of the Arabic language. And this same Lebanon is where large landowners had seen their holdings broken up as early as the late nineteenth century. This was not an undertaking of the authorities as was the case in other Arab countries. Indeed, these lands were broken up from below, from the peasant base, and the process ended with the emergence of the broadest middle class in the region decades later.

Far from the vile drivel of many Lebanese regarding their romanticized and touristic Lebanon, even including the racist aspects that are shared by a sizeable portion of the population, this Lebanon is also the country that the Syrian intellectual Yassin Al-Hafiz described as follows:

‘‘In Lebanon and with it, partly thanks to it, I reached a new, more advanced phase in the evolution of my politico-social-ideological consciousness. Not only did Lebanon shelter me when I had been something of a vagabond after nine and a half months in prison, I also soon began to feel, after a brief period in which I felt estranged, a warmth I had been missing for a long time.

I began sleeping deeply, without the fear of visitors of the night haunting me. From Lebanon and in it alone were my books printed and my writings published. More than that: because of Lebanon, I became intimately connected to modern culture; I learned how to become less and less Eastern in the way I treated my wife and children, and I learned how to organize and regulate my work and how to manage my time. In the West, I had gotten an idea of modernity and had come into contact with it; in Lebanon, I tried- and I do not claim that I succeeded- while living in a high-pressure Eastern society, to practice it and turn it into my way of life.

And so, when Lebanon started to burn, my sense of bereavement was two-fold. I felt that it was not only my country that was on fire, but my home as well, and that the calamity which struck Lebanon had come free. The direct and genuine reasons for which Lebanon went up in flames are many, but I have the impression that it met this fate because it had been a window into democracy, regardless of how spurious or polluted it seemed.’’

With differences in degree and scale, Lebanon is the closest an Arab country has come to the Weimar Republic, which did not find many defending it the way Yassin Al-Hafiz had defended Beirut.

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