A century after the Ottomans — (III) Lebanon

Tarek Osman
Tuesday 20 Feb 2024

Of all the political projects that emerged in the Levant after the fall of the Ottomans, the modern state of Lebanon was the most ambitious and most fraught, writes Tarek Osman


The Maronite Church was the primary force behind the creation of modern Lebanon, and the church’s grandees were encouraged by France, the occupying force that expelled the Ottomans from modern-day Syria and Lebanon after World War I, to form a Christian state. 

The Maronite Church took elements of the idea to heart but rejected the offer. In working with France to establish modern Lebanon, it retained the lion’s share of political decision-making in the nascent state for its community. But it also insisted that other sects, especially the Sunnis and the Druze, should not only be brought into the new state but also given spheres of power within it. 

Christian in spirit, modern Lebanon was born as a national and secular state.

For a period, the Lebanese political project seemed to be not only working, but also on a path to real success. Throughout the three decades after World War II, Lebanon became the centre of the press, banking, and trade and services in the region. 

It was by far the most important cultural bridge between the Arab world and the West. It was helped by the fact that the fall of the monarchy in Egypt and the rise of a socialist regime had curtailed Egypt’s political and cultural openness to the world and had gradually strangled Cairo’s and Alexandria’s former cosmopolitanism. 

But Lebanon’s success in this period stemmed from intrinsic factors as well as changes in the region. Beirut was a global city comprising Arabs, non-Arab Levantines, Armenians, Jews, and scores of Europeans who had fled war-torn Europe to the Eastern Mediterranean.  

The rise of Lebanon coincided with the windfall of petrodollars flowing into the Arabian Peninsula. For many in the Gulf, the Lebanon of the 1950s and 1960s was like a dream come true. Combining Arab, Levantine, Mediterranean, and Western facets, and with one of the best service sectors and infrastructures in the region, Lebanon offered anything to those with a laissez-faire attitude to life and dollars to spend. 

Beirut and its environs offered history, culture, beaches, mountains, a vivacious café culture, and one of the world’s most glamorous night lives to its residents and visitors. Nestled between the Mediterranean and high mountains peppered with centuries-old Maronite churches and Druze houses and comprising vastly different districts with their curved and charming streets, Beirut was gorgeous, confident, and defiant as well as challenging, daring, and seductive. 

Arabs and non-Arabs fell head over heels for the city. Petrodollars poured in. Scores of students, journalists, businessmen, charlatans, and dissidents from across the Arab world came seeking education, adventure, safety, fun, and inspiration. Europeans and Americans from top-tier bankers to some of the most interesting spies in modern Middle Eastern history made Beirut their home. Nizar Qabbani, one of the most talented modern Arab poets, called Beirut “sett al-dunia,” the lady, perhaps the mistress, of the world.  

However, beneath the beauty and the glamour lurked serious problems.

Many of the constituents that had come together in the Lebanese project in the period after World War I had never agreed on its shape or the trajectory of its growth. By the late 1960s, it was clear that while the success of Lebanon was strongly felt in certain quarters, it hardly resonated in others. The Maronite Church had refused to make Lebanon an exclusively Christian state, but the Maronites still retained almost all the levers of power. Along with political inequality, economic inequality was eating at the foundations of the Lebanese project.

The arrival of tens of thousands of Palestinians eroded its foundations. After the Hashemite Monarchy in Jordan had fought and defeated the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and kicked its fighters out of the country in the early 1970s, they found refuge in Lebanon. The country’s open political system, and the existence of a powerful and sympathetic political left-wing, allowed the PLO to establish a state within the state of Lebanon. 

This began to skew the country’s delicate demographic balance. Fearing for the Lebanese project and for what they believed was its Christian core, Lebanon’s Christian right-wing engaged the Palestinians and the country’s political left-wing in a war in which all sides came to commit abhorrent sins. The war lasted 15 years from the mid-1970s onwards, and every significant Middle Eastern power participated either directly or through proxies in it.

Lebanon emerged from the war exhausted, having lost tens of thousands of its best men and women and with its pre-war political system in ruins. Saudi money eventually brought the warring factions together in a peace agreement in the late 1980s, upon which a new political system was founded. 

But the Civil War had given rise to a new force in the country. Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in the early 1980s had triggered the creation of a military resistance movement largely drawn from the Lebanese Shia community whose most powerful expression is the Shia group Hizbullah. 

Over the past three decades, Hizbullah has grown into a major military power, closely integrated within Iran’s political and military structures. For some, Hizbullah has guaranteed a form of military deterrence against Israel; for others, however, it has become a new state within the state. 

As if such fraught political conditions were not enough, the past few years have been unrelenting for most Lebanese. Along with the explosions in the Beirut Port in 2020, the largest the Middle East has ever seen, the country has witnessed the rapid and shocking descent of large sections of its population into poverty. 

Moreover, a century after its creation, the idea of Lebanon remains unfulfilled and unclear to many. The Maronites continue to control the country’s presidency, the command of the Armed Forces, and the governorship of the Central Bank, but as a result of major changes in Lebanon’s demography, political system, and power structure, it would be difficult to argue that today’s Lebanon is an expression of political Maronism. 

After the brutal violence that exacted the lives of tens of thousands of Lebanese, and with demands for federalism rising amongst large sections of society in the country today, it is also difficult to argue that Lebanon has managed, as its founding fathers had envisioned, to become a successful example of peaceful coexistence between different sects.

The uprising that erupted in the country at the end of 2019 and only lost its momentum because of the Covid-19 pandemic carried with it the hope that a new generation of Lebanese would be able to transcend the ills of past decades and resuscitate the meaning of Lebanon as a national, open, liberal, and democratic secular state. 

That uprising was quickly extinguished, however. The question now is whether such a promise can find a new expression in the foreseeable future. If not, then not only the Lebanese, but also the entire region, will be the loser, for at the core of the idea of Lebanon lies one of the most promising post-Ottoman political projects in the region. 

* The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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