There are times when the intoxication ends and it’s time to sober up. In the Lebanese case this is particularly urgent because the problems there are structural and extend beyond Lebanon to all countries in the region, which depend on each other for better or — more often than not — for worse. Unravelling what happened in Lebanon starts with the realisation that intoxication is not synonymous with happy. In the Land of Cedars at present everything seems to have been condensed to that genocidal explosion at the Beirut wharf.
Lebanon has a special place in Arab hearts and in others’ hearts as well. To the Arabs, Lebanon has always been an amazing oasis, filled with all the contradictions of its civil wars, times of peace and joy, sweet melodies dipped in sheer awe at the scale of proliferating weapons. Arabic commentaries and analyses brim with wistful tears shaped by the songs of Fairuz, lyrics by the poet Nizar Qabbani, delightful restaurants with strains of music wafting in the air on a summer’s day.
Outside the Arab world, Lebanon has other special features, perhaps due to the belief that the country could embody an Arab future where people of all sorts live side by side in a Middle Eastern Switzerland, with safe banks and plenty of fun to be had by all. Inside Lebanon, the thinking was different, to which testify civil wars far too big for that country’s size and population and the presence of more foreign political movements, both armed and unarmed, and more foreign intelligence agencies than any major power has ever had to deal with. Whenever Lebanese writers ask after their “dear state”, reality answers back that the state is so many missing loved ones.
In the wake of the explosions, voices from around the world registered their commiseration for the stricken nation. Televised footage of the aftermath could have been taken from film sets of a nuclear apocalypse. Officials the world over pledged to furnish aid and relief amidst calls for change. Ironically, world leaders agreed to send aid to Lebanon just as the Lebanese government resigned, leaving no address to send the aid to. Some of that aid required negotiations concerning the mechanisms for delivery and disbursal against the backdrop of outcries over corruption and the renewed surge of a Lebanese movement calling for the downfall of the whole political elite.
Such calls are hardly new in the Arab region. The 2010s opened with cries for the fall of political leaders from Zein Al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak in Tunisia and Egypt, to Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. The only one who has not yet fallen is Bashar Al-Assad. The price of his survival has been huge; not just in the numbers of dead, wounded and displaced but also in terms of how his country became prey to other nations.
On the whole, if there is anything to be learned from the uprisings during the past 10 years it is that no movement should move until it can provide an address for aid to go to, so that reconstruction can begin and a modern nation state can be built. Nevertheless, the Lebanese movement (and the Iraqi one as well) has added something. It tells that that the denominational system of government has failed and that it is no longer right for this day and age, if it was ever right at all for a country with Lebanon’s culture and heritage.
Building a modern nation state is a major undertaking. If we think of the state as a bride to be, it requires an expensive dowry, and not all of it in cash and material goods. It requires a collective bond of honour, fealty and self-sacrifice. This has certainly not occurred with the current sectarian-based political elite in Lebanon, which is mired in sectarian-based corruption that has cut political leaders from their constituencies and abandoned Lebanon to its fate.
The situation was the product not only of fear of assassination by the militant Hizbullah, but also of the power hungriness that led Hizbullah to include a pact with the devil, which lasted from 2006 to the present. Indeed, one could argue that Hizbullah was never Lebanese to begin with. All the ayatollahs are from Qom. When I met Hassan Nasrallah one day in 2001, I saw no other flag in the room but the Hizbullah flag. Hizbullah ideology had no room for the Lebanese flag.
That helps identify the starting point for Lebanon. It is not in a new consensus between the parties or between the faiths. It is whether all Lebanon’s communities, which are all threatened by poverty, want, homelessness, violence from all sides, are ready to start with themselves. Hizbullah and other militias, regardless of their names and leaderships, do not exist in and of themselves. They exist because of a sectarian order that has been able to thrive on a fiction of bottomless resources of money and leadership positions, inherited like palaces and headquartered partly in Beirut and partly in Paris, Geneva or Tehran.
The national state is, above all, a grassroots project. It can happen if the Lebanese political movement proceeds peacefully, and with the popular support of Lebanon’s Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Druze and other communities that have made up their mind to be a national polity as opposed to a collection of armed sects. Once that is their goal, the next step is to realise two of the essential traits of the nation state.
One is that the state must hold the monopoly on the legitimate recourse to armed force. The second is that it is the state that takes decisions on matters of war and peace, not some imam or sheikh, or some foreign capital that appoints itself protector and avenger with the right to make mistakes in its calculations. Such conditions are axiomatic in any nation state. But not Lebanon, an anomaly made possible by Hizbullah and a world that has grown used to dealing with it.
In 1958, the Lebanese army under the command of Fuad Chehab rescued Lebanon from civil war. Today, the army may be the agency that will avert civil war and prepare the country for a modern system of government free from decades of sectarian quota systems. Then Lebanon would definitely have a new address, one that would serve as a beacon to other Arab states built on sectarian formulas, such as Iraq. Iraq had been prescribed the Lebanese quota model at a time when the prescribers thought it the only alternative. In fact, it proved a recipe for disaster. Now Iraq, too, has a grassroots movement that has embarked on the quest for a modern state.
This is an agonising moment for Lebanon. But it may also be a moment of empowerment in which the Lebanese take back their home and build their modern state.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly