The centenary of Lebanon


September 1st, 2020. Hundreds of Beirut people shudder at the sound of a roar and see clouds of pink smoke in the sky. Fortunately, this is not a new explosion or an Israeli bombing - the first thought of many of the city's inhabitants, some of whom suffered panic attacks - but an event commemorating the centenary of the creation of Lebanon as a political entity. The smoke and sound are due to the passage of French exhibition fighters flying at low altitude performing acrobatic manoeuvres, an unnecessary, unfortunate and insensitive gesture, especially considering that the city is still traumatised less than a month after the tremendous explosion that devastated the port and many of the nearby neighbourhoods.  The anecdote reveals the extent to which the French authorities are disconnected from popular feeling in Lebanon.

The former ruling power still has modest economic interests in the country and its influence is more than palpable - the French Embassy in Beirut is a huge complex and offers many courses and cultural activities for the inhabitants of the city - but it does not enjoy the support suggested by some French newspapers. Macron's visit, the second since the devastating explosion, has been met with a relatively cool reception. The French president planted a cedar tree, met with the political authorities - who just before his arrival appointed the diplomat Mustapha Adib as the new prime minister - and visited the singer Fairuz, an institution in Lebanon. Although the singer is 85 years old, Macron did not wear a mask during his visit, another example of French insensitivity to some Lebanese users of social networks, especially at a time when the pandemic is beginning to get out of control in a country lacking medical supplies and whose hospitals and health resources have been lost in the explosion.

However, Macron is the least of the problems for the Lebanese. Although the French president has been demanding reforms in the Lebanese political system for weeks, his influence is limited compared to that of other players such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and the US. Macron has threatened with sanctions if there are no significant reforms in three months, but as some Lebanese Internet users point out, the fact that the tear gas used to break up the protests organised after the explosion was manufactured in France reveals the limits of such claims. This demand for reforms is all the more ironic given that Lebanon's current system of sectarian quotas and client parties is a direct legacy of the period of French domination between 1920 and 1943.  

Lebanon was created after World War I in the French-occupied Ottoman territories from the union of Mount Lebanon with some of its surrounding districts. The aim was to create a state with a Christian majority different from the rest of Syria - historical Syria occupied a larger area than it does today - and at the same time to establish a sectarian system that would exacerbate the enmity between the different religious communities in order to facilitate their government, something that is paradoxical coming from France, a country that boasts a secular state. The current Lebanese constitution and the distribution of power between the various groups, renegotiated after the civil war, are the direct legacy of this system which, among other things, prevents civil marriage between members of different religious communities. 

In any case, the Lebanese political system is unlikely to change in the coming months. For a year now, the country has been going through a deep crisis that is unlikely to be resolved. The crisis is economic-with the lira plunging and the dollar's prices on the black market skyrocketing-institutional-protests that have continued since October 2019 despite the resignation of two prime ministers; environmental-forestry fires, uncontrolled dumping, a controversial dam project in the Bisri valley; humanitarian-a million Syrian refugees in the country with scarcely any assistance, tens of thousands of Beirut people homeless as a result of the explosion; and health.  

The explosion in the port of Beirut, caused by the negligence of the political and judicial authorities, has only added further tension to a country that is at its most delicate moment since the attack that killed Saad Hariri in 2006 and possibly since the end of the civil war in 1990. To add to the problems, sporadic armed clashes between several militias have taken place in recent weeks, though the information on this is unclear. Everything seems to indicate that some militias are taking advantage of the situation to use violence against demonstrators opposed to the regime, though at the same time there are indications that several exchanges of fire are sectarian in nature.

Despite being small - it occupies slightly less land than Asturias (region in Spain) - Lebanon is an enormously diverse and densely populated country. Its six million inhabitants - the number is approximate as there is no official census - include not only Arabs of different religious denominations -Druze, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Maronite Christians, Orthodox and Melchites- but also minorities such as Armenians, Circassians and Palestinians who are descendants of the refugees from the 19th and 20th century wars. In addition, there is a large community of immigrants of very diverse origins, from Ethiopian workers to Nigerian and Filipino housemaids-whose situation has become very difficult in recent months-and Western "expats" and wealthy investors from the Gulf countries, in addition to over a million Syrian refugees who are living in camps and informal settlements. This diversity is also reflected at the political level. There are a thousand different opinions on Lebanon's problems, ranging from those of the demonstrators who protest against a regime they consider corrupt and inefficient to those who support their respective sectarian parties and suspect foreign machinations, whether Iranian, American, Israeli or Saudi.  

The Lebanese I had the opportunity to meet during my visit a year ago - how much the country has changed since then! - belong to a certain sector of the population. They are young people of my age with a college education, most of them belonging to the middle class, who reject the sectarian system and who do not discriminate among their friends on the basis of religious community. Many of them, those who have not emigrated, have actively participated in the protests against the political class that have taken place since October. It is clear that my own perception of Lebanon is very much influenced by what they told me, by their diagnosis and analysis of the problems affecting their country. I am aware that this informed, open, tolerant youth - in the same group of friends there are veiled women and secular Muslims who drink alcohol, as well as Druze, Christians, Sunnis and Shiites - and criticism of the political and sectarian system does not represent the whole of their generation's feelings. And yet I cannot help but feel a great deal of sympathy for them, a sympathy that may prevent my analyses from being entirely objective.

Beyond the clichés about sectarianism and the division of the country, there are many people in Lebanon who, over and above their sect, consider themselves Lebanese and aspire to a just and democratic country. People who fight against the prejudices of their own communities and who strive for a strong civil society. Young people who, despite the precariousness in which they live, work with all kinds of associations and NGOs, from organisations that help Syrian refugees to illegal unions of migrant domestic workers. Idealists who are trying to change their country in a non-violent way and who are harassed by the hired thugs of the traditional political groups - Amal, Hezbollah, the Falange, the Free Patriotic Movement and the other former civil war militias turned into parties. On this centenary of the creation of Lebanon, my personal tribute is to remind all these people that, although they are not usually considered to be relevant political actors in cold geostrategic analyses, they do exist. Maybe they are the only hope for a better Lebanon.