Sam Menassa

Lebanon Is Its Own Enemy

The threat of the fires in Gaza engulfing Lebanon is growing, and there is now a real possibility of the mini war Hezbollah launched in support of Hamas turning into a border conflict that encompasses the entire country as the escalation continues and the target zone spreads from the south to the western and northern Bekaa.
The danger of this fire spreading poses the same old-new problem as every other episode that has shaken Lebanon’s security. Here again, the question revolves around keeping Lebanon isolated from the region's political and military conflicts, as well as its capacity to govern itself. At this stage, the problem has become pressing, as Lebanon is in the eye of the storm of the war that has pitted Israel and the West against Hamas, the Iran axis, and its allies.
The repercussions of this war on Lebanon could be different from those of previous conflicts. There are several reasons, the most significant of them being that it is a regional-international conflict in one way or another. Lebanon is a core member of Iran's Resistance Axis due to the hegemony of Hezbollah and the actions it has taken. The party and its patron, Iran, have adopted the unity of fronts doctrine, turning the country from a battlefield for regional conflicts into a main player in them. The second reason is Lebanon’s domestic polarization, especially regarding Hezbollah's fully-fledged involvement in the conflict despite the fact that had happened in Lebanon that justifies the high cost that a total war could entail if it were to erupt.
Since Lebanon was founded in the early twentieth century, the affairs and concerns of the region have consistently left an impact on the Lebanese interior. Just a few years after its independence, this small country had to deal with an influx of Palestinian refugees who fled to the country following the 1948 war and the establishment of the State of Israel. Later on, this would implicate Lebanon, against the will of the majority of Lebanese at the time, especially its Christians and the majority of traditional Shiite leaders, in a conflict with Israel.
The second episode that has scared the collective memory of the Lebanese was the so-called 1958 revolution precipitated by the Arab nationalist wave led by Nasser across the region. Lebanon became involved in the politics of axes, exposing underlying disagreements among the Lebanese and resulting in an armed conflict that ended with "No victor, no vanquished," as the mantra went. A US-Egyptian settlement granted Nasser's Egypt a privileged role in the country for years, at the expense of the president at the time, Camille Chamoun, and his supporters.
The third episode was the 1969 Cairo Agreement between Lebanon and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which granted Palestinian armed groups the freedom to carry out guerrilla operations from areas in southern Lebanon, which became known as “Fatah land.” The Palestinians were politically and militarily dominant in parts of Beirut as well. These Beirut neighborhoods governed by Yasser Arafat came to be known as the Fakahani state. This state of affairs sparked new domestic disputes, with the majority of Muslims siding with the Palestinians.
The fourth episode was the outbreak of the 1975 civil war, due to Palestinian military expansion and their clashes with armed Christian militias and, at times, the Lebanese Army. The civil war, which went on for 15 extremely violent years, was also partially the result of intra-Arab and Arab-Israeli disputes being settled on Lebanese soil. After the Camp David Accords of 1979, Syria sought to tighten its grip over Lebanon, and it managed to do so after its forces remained in the country even after the other countries of the Arab Deterrent Forces gradually withdrew. The Syrian regime continued to play a dominant role in the governance of Lebanon and to ensure that Lebanese policy aligned with its interests until 2005, when its forces withdrew from the country following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This is when the Iranian era began in Lebanon, and Hezbollah, through a series of coups, has managed to tighten its grip on key state institutions since then.
All of these crises were marked by blatant foreign interventions that exploited communal conflicts. They all reflect the fact that Lebanon is not immune to the ramifications of regional developments and that it lacks the capacity to govern itself to this day. Can the withering of the state be blamed solely on external factors and Lebanon being located in a region prone to crises and wars that seep into it? External factors have been consequential, but we cannot overlook domestic factors either, starting from the constitutional foundations upon which the country was established, such as coexistence and sectarian power-sharing, as well as the cultural-social patterns that have entrenched the image of the Lebanese as a people who adapt to all sorts of deviations from the basic norms governance, so much so that they have gone along with corruption, the evasion of accountability, and stopgap solutions for all their crises.
The country’s major problem remains what Lebanon has considered, and continues to consider, its enriching quality and the hallmark that distinguishes it from its surroundings, namely its religious and cultural diversity. That has left the Lebanese convinced of the notion that Lebanon is a bridge between the East and the West, and it has turned Beirut into a cosmopolitan city. This very diversity, because it is not underpinned institutionally, has been a major reason for the non-emergence of citizenship.
This bridge that is Lebanon has remained suspended in the air, anchored neither by the West, the East nor even to its own territory. The weak sense of citizenship is the reason for the nation’s frailty, and when the nation is weak, governance and the state vanish. Thus, even during the phases of the greatest stability and prosperity, exceptions in this country's history, the Lebanese state never managed to govern and manage the diversity and plurality that the Lebanese pride themselves on.
These reasons and factors all drew external encroachments which, in turn, have not granted us enough time to test what is called the Lebanese experiment and its crown jewel, Beirut. External and domestic factors have converged to ruin Beirut, breaking it for its uniqueness and openness, and that has had repercussions for the nation as a whole.
Today, the situation is particularly difficult and dangerous. The pretext of foreign forces - whether Palestinian, Syrian, or Israeli - has been absent since 2005. The claim that the exit of foreign forces would end Lebanon's crises has collapsed, despite Iran’s flagrant presence through Hezbollah.
Solutions for the crisis have become more complex and intertwined, and a major regional settlement, no matter how balanced, will not reflect on positively on the country and precipitate a domestic settlement, due to the magnitude of the domestic shifts, the realities on the ground, the fragmentation of the country’s social fabric, and the disintegration of the country on all levels. What's more dangerous is that faith in a unified Lebanon has collapsed among broad segments of the Lebanese population from all sects, especially among the Maronite community, which considers itself to have been behind the establishment of modern Lebanon.
The convergence of Israeli-Iranian interests may save Lebanon from a devastating war, but the country needs a miracle to get its domestic affairs in order.