Lebanon and its capital Beirut, overlooking the Mediterranean, have occupied a special place in Arab minds and hearts. It has been a mirror of Arab political ideologies and thoughts; in particular in the Mashrek and the Levant, from the Nile Valley to the Euphrates and southward to the Gulf and the Arab Peninsula. On the other hand, it has been called the Switzerland of the Arab world, as a kind of a historical bridge between European and Arab civilisations. And amidst the revolutions, the upheavals that the Middle East has seen in the post-World War II period, it had successfully maintained its positive neutrality. The international, regional and Arab powers of the day had had an interest in respecting this neutrality.
On the other hand, it has shone a light on the idea that people of different religious beliefs and sects could live peacefully together. In other words, the near embodiment of what a nation-state could look like within the Arab-Muslim context. Christians of various denominations; Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims coexisting within an agreed-upon political system — that was considered an Arab democracy of sorts. An Arab democracy based on sectarianism and the appropriation of political posts according to a variation of quota systems. Still, and despite its limitations, Arabs respected and admired the ability of the Lebanese political class in maintaining and protecting their limited democracy.
But the Lebanese political experiment in democratic rule and peaceful coexistence among different faiths and creeds had begun to crumble, slowly and gradually, after the June war of 1967. Palestinians had grown in numbers in Lebanon, who happen to be mostly Sunni Muslims, and Lebanese politicians belonging to other faiths and sects began to fear that the political equilibrium that had sustained Lebanese democracy would shift to the advantage of the Sunnis in Lebanon. By occupying Arab territories in the 1967 War, the Israelis became more emboldened and secret alliances were made with some Lebanese factions against the Palestinian presence in Lebanon. I remember visiting Beirut in 1970 and saw the armed militias of the Palestinians roaming the streets of the southern district of the Lebanese capital, while the armed Phalangists of Pierre Gemayel were armed to the teeth. The scene was scary, as if war would break out someday. And that is what happened five years later, in April 1975, the date of the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War that was to last for 15 years. It ended with the Taif Agreement, sponsored by Saudi Arabia, an agreement that preserved the fragile equilibrium that had existed prior to the war.
Not only had Lebanon undergone deep changes during those 15 years, but the Middle East itself became transformed by a confluence of events that have left their indelible marks on Lebanon till today. In fact, the Lebanese people have paid high price for these regional transformations. In 1979, Iran became an Islamic republic after the Khomeini Revolution toppled the former Shah. One month and a half later, Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in March 1979.
These two monumental events in the Middle East changed the strategic landscape in the region, and had a direct impact on Lebanon. The Iranians, on the one hand, bent on exporting their Islamist revolution to the Arab world and claiming to be the arbiter of the fate of Shia Arabs, formed, trained, armed and chaperoned Hizbullah in Lebanon, a force that has grown in power, not only militarily but politically. On the other hand, the Israelis had gone into Lebanon as an invading force.
They occupied southern Lebanon for 13 years, only withdrawing after sustaining heavy losses at the hands of Hizbullah. This was a major symbolic victory for Iran that emboldened the Iranians to continue intervening in Lebanese and Arab affairs. Lebanon, accordingly, became a battleground, between Israel and Iran. The same scenario has repeated itself in Syria after 2011.
In parallel with these regional developments that have destabilised Lebanon, the Lebanese political class, always composed of traditional dynasties and figures, failed disastrously in saving Lebanon from being and dragged into a fierce regional rivalry, and also mismanaged and squandered the economic and financial resources of the country.
The explosion that hit Beirut 4 August, and whatever its true causes, has laid bare the fragility of the Lebanese polity and the fragmentation as well as irrelevance of the political class, dynastic and sectarian in nature, and its inability to save the country from the abyss. The dire economic situation of Lebanon has been worsened by the American “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran in the Middle East, as well as the adoption and the implementation of the Caesar Law to punish the Syrian regime for its violations of human rights, as the Americans claim. Add to that the presence of more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
Last October, the Lebanese took to the streets demanding a complete overhaul of their political system and for a radical change of the political guard. After nine months, nothing had changed to give hope to the Lebanese that their October “revolution” would bear fruit. The August explosion drove the Lebanese almost to despair, which translated itself last Saturday into acts of violence against various ministries.
Lebanon needs a miracle to redeem itself and becomes once again a beacon of hope for the Lebanese and other Arabs, that their countries could someday reshape their national destinies and modernise their political systems according to the principles of good governance (the rule of law, democracy, respect for human rights, fighting corruption, transparency and accountability). The Beirut explosion could be a turning point not only for Lebanon but also for other Arab countries. Also, it could send a much-needed signal to international and regional powers that have wreaked havoc in the Middle East in the last four decades that, maybe, the time has come for rethinking their strategic priorities to secure stability and peace in the region, including Lebanon.
In tribute to the resilience of the Lebanese people, a certain poet, Daria Daniel, dedicated the following verses in honour of Beirut, as quoted in Al-Monitor:
Beirut, your heavy burdens would bury most,
For in your dusk, the air is thick with history seething, groaning, thrashing.
The bell tolls, and many voices bellow —
Your dreary, battered, and martyred, they are badly aching.
But with Grace, you breathe out young life at the break of each dawn,
Storms, stones and thunderbolts do not bring you to your knees.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly