Hazem Saghieh

Beyond the Breakdown of the ‘Mar Mikhael Understanding’

We do not need to be too patriotic, or well-intentioned, to realize that all the Lebanese have something to gain whenever two sectarian communities come closer to each other. However, that is not what happened when Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) signed the Mar Mikhael Understanding in 2006.

It "united" two sides against a third, the Sunnis, and then granted one of these sides - in the name of an "alliance of minorities" - "national" cover for its invasion and its "liberation" of Syria from its people. On top of that, the "understanding" they reached was to exclude the elements without which a state and nation cannot emerge.

The understanding essentially sanctified the continued armament of a certain militia, its construction of a state stronger than the state, and its development of a society that parallels society, as well as sanctioning the consolidation of influence that is wielded by local actors but infiltrates the state and the society to achieve foreign expansionist ends. This instigates and ends external battles at whim, undermines Lebanon's relationships with its neighbors, and roots out every initiative for reform - in all of this, it could count on a bulwark afforded to it by the presidency and its Christian base, which was traditionally seen as the state’s base.

Meanwhile, the "understanding" put a dagger in the heart of the broad front that emerged in 2005, following the assassination of Rafik Hariri, and led to the expulsion of Bashar al-Assad's army from Lebanon.

Throughout this period, Michel Aoun and Gebran Bassil used to show a kind of juvenile assuredness in the face of every crisis that beset the relationship. They not only trusted Hezbollah to commit to its "guarantees" but were also confident that it prioritized the FPM over its sectarian partner, the Amal Movement, assuming that the "cover" provided by Christians was more important to Hezbollah than the "cover" of intra-Shiite unity.

All of that is crumbling today. Hezbollah, which has gone the distance in its war, is not concerned with any "cover" at this point. In turn, the FPM has lost the presidency and its capacity to "cover", to say nothing about the fact that this task now leaves the "coverer" far too exposed within its sectarian community to allow it to provide cover. As for the prospect of conjuring up something like "ISIS" that attacks us from the east and demands Christian-Shiite cooperation against it, it has become less likely and less capable of insulting our intelligence.

If it's true that reaching a ceasefire in Gaza could calm the Lebanese-Israeli front, making the finalization of this divorce between the two parties to the "understanding" less pressing. It is also true that Yoav Gallant does not seem to be in the loop, as he has warned that calm in Gaza would not mean an end attacks on Lebanon.

In any case, the Lebanese may be on the eve of a split; the announcement may be delayed, but it has all practically already come to pass. With such a development, the party will become more Shiite (if that is even possible), while the FPM will become more Christian, as both sides would have shed their last, albeit formal, commitments towards their nominal ally. However, this split will be a reiteration of the tens of precedents of attempts to circumvent foreign policy differences through deceit becoming untenable in the face of reality.

In the Nasserite and Palestinian eras, the Christian-Sunni relationship imploded several times, and in the Iranian era, both Sunni-Shiite and Christian-Shiite relationships have imploded. Every time this mendacity goes too far, it blows back in the faces of the communities and the country, aggravating acrimony and making clashes more violent, and it is always coupled with the collapse of the entire political and constitutional order.

The reason for this is not that one side is patriotic while the other is treacherous or a foreign puppet, as the Axis of Resistance, which claims a monopoly on meaning and interpretation might suggest. Indeed, Lebanon is made up of different communities, each with its own subculture and specific historical formation that is distinct from the subcultures and historical formations of the other communities.

Lebanon’s diverse makeup hinders the emergence of a shared conception of notions like nationalism, enmity, and destiny, and others that societies build their view of themselves and the world upon. While relentless ideologization poses the greatest threat to these communities’ ability to coexist, de-ideologization to the greatest extent possible is doubtlessly a key requisite for ensuring successful coexistence.

In the final analysis, it would be extremely regrettable, and dangerous, to apply the standards of "nations" and "nationalism," which presupposes broad consensus where none actually exists, to communities that are content with their views of themselves and the world. That is why an increasing number of Lebanese citizens are convinced that Lebanon’s neutrality is a minimal and necessary, albeit insufficient, condition for avoiding strife among the country’s "brothers" and their "venerable sects."

As for the Aounists, sooner or later, they will inevitably be asked to engage in self-criticism and examine the significant role they have played in leading us to where we now find ourselves, but that is another matter.