I vividly remember talking to my younger brother Freddy about leaving Lebanon when I was ten years old. I could not explain why I had this gnawing feeling harrowing my heart about leaving the people and country that I loved. Couple of years later when the civil war broke out in 1975, this feeling became subliminally couched in the amplified socio-political and sectarian grievances that I, at one and the same time, rejected and embraced. My first encounter with the horror of the civil war took place when hooded militia members burned the Muslim shoemaker’s shop beneath my grandparents’ home in Hazmieh, a suburb of the capital adjacent to the Green line that divided the city into Christian East and Muslim West Beirut. Scraggly imploration by my grandmother and aunts were snuffed out by spurts of flame stroking the entrance of their house and by bursts of warning gunfire shot in the air for residents to stay home.
Then I knew I had to partake in the war effort to protect my family from the vagaries of civil strife. Additionally, as a member of a Maronite Catholic family we worried about pan-Arabism as advocated by the leftist and pro-Syrian parties fronted by the PLO, which created a state within a state in Lebanon. But I dreaded carrying a gun. I could not fathom how could Christians kill Muslims and vice versa simply on the grounds of their identity card. I chose to volunteer for the Red Cross and Fire Department. I rarely slept home and responded to endless calls for help on the front lines or within bombarded residential areas. I detested war and the havoc it wreaked on society. In a narrow sense, it turned decency and dignity into a sadistic form for survival and common good people into monsters ready to slaughter the real or imagined enemy. Still, I decided to stay.
As the civil war persisted, I came to better understand the dreaded gnawing feeling that never left me. Bashir Gemayel, head of the Christian Lebanese Forces, called the country a farm. He was brutal in his honesty and warfare tactics. He defined what I dreaded for so long. Created as a confessional country whereby power was distributed along religious lines and typified by a weak national identity, Lebanon became a lightning rod to conflicting domestic and regional movements. Significantly, it heralded an environment where nationalism attended sectarianism, sectarianism reinforced feudalism, feudalism graced religion, religion succumbed to confessional warlords, confessional warlords served foreign powers, and foreign powers appeased a ruling class thriving by deepening a system defined by patronage, patrimony, clientelism, self-enrichment and taba’iyya (political and economic dependency on a confessional leader or a regional power). That was a system that epitomized unmatched systemic corruption. This was Bashir’s farm, which he was adamant about changing.
His dream of a sovereign, honorable, meritocratic Lebanon came within grasp when Israel invaded Lebanon and ousted the PLO, and he was elected President in 1982. No sooner, his assassination by a pro-Syrian party member extinguished the dream, and the ruler of Damascus emerged as the new Master in Lebanon. In 1984, I left Lebanon for United States as I aspired since my childhood. Despite my affection for my heritage, my reservations, grievances, and concerns about what made Lebanon a farm could no longer be overlooked or borne. Meanwhile, in the name of an illusory Arab nationalism, Damascus worked to transform Lebanon in the image of Syria, governed by Mukhabarat (Intelligence). Those who opposed Syrian rule were either co-opted, forced into exile or liquidated. Significantly, Syria revitalized the farm by deepening the patronage system, punishing its opposition and rewarding its collaborators and loyalists. Syria also played a key role in ending the civil war, which, in principle, was premised on an equitable redistribution of confessional power in the system. In practice, however, the end of the civil war officiated Syrian occupation of the country until the withdrawal of its troops in 2005. Subsequently, the Shiite Islamist party Hezbollah replaced the Syrian regime as the hegemonic power in Lebanon. This is so because during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, Hezbollah, unlike any other militia or political group, was not only allowed to keep its weapons but also, thanks to Iran and Syria, to enhance its political and military power as a bulwark against anti-Syrian groups and against Israel’s power and occupation of southern Lebanon.
Ominously, since the end of the Civil War in 1990 until the present, Lebanon’s political elite have forged a Faustian deal with Hezbollah grounded in preserving national coexistence; but practically expressed in providing political cover for Hezbollah in return of an extraordinary theft of the state by the political ruling class, which gradually made Lebanon as a nation and a state a shell of its former self. Hezbollah, in a more effective way than the PLO, created a state within a state in Lebanon. Confessional bickering and sloganeering, opposition to Hezbollah’s domestic and regional military role and skirmishes were mere shows for public consumption. Actually, the thirst of the political elite’s corruption was never satiated and Hezbollah’s regional military forays only deepened. Stripped to the bone by corruption and political bankruptcy, Lebanese from across the religious spectrum launched the October 17 rebellion. They have fought for reforms and saving the country from the clutches of kleptocrats and the mafia-like political class. Their slogan “Kullun Ye’ni Kullun,” connoting the ouster of the whole political ruling class without exception, echoed across the streets of Lebanon. The steady collapse of the economy, the steep downfall of Lebanon’s currency as pegged to the dollar and the poaching of the people’s savings have starved society into humiliation, begging and/or scavenging of uncollected garbage piled into mountains of fetid and fusty trash.
It was against this background that the nuclear-like explosion in Beirut’s port on August 4 sank the country to a depth of destruction and misery unseen in its history. Endemic corruption and negligence were the main culprits for storing for years 2750 tons of highly explosive Ammonium Nitrate under loose safety conditions. Dozens were killed, thousands wounded, hundreds of thousands displaced, and devastation enveloped the once spirited streets and neighborhoods of Beirut. This catastrophe could not have happened at a more terrible time. No sooner than they buried their loved ones and attended to the wounded, Lebanese of all stripes rolled up their sleeves and began cleaning up Beirut’s debris filled streets. The government was nowhere to be found, hiding behind the fig leaf of a pitiful regret.
Rage soon replaced the existential shock with which Lebanese experienced the catastrophe. Lebanese took the streets, revitalizing the hiccupped revolution. Theirs today is as much a psychotic mutiny as an uprising, swept by the recognition that all is virtually lost for a nation at its own throat. They seek a rebirth of their country. As expected, the government could not weather the consequences of the catastrophe and resigned. Calls for substantial reforms, early parliamentary elections and formation of a government of national unity have echoed across corridors of power and rebellious streets. But a word of caution is in order here.
Lebanon today is split into two camps. One camp includes rebels, reformers and civil society groups including some officials and independent parliamentarian deputies. The other camp includes the political mafia-like ruling class and Hezbollah. Ominously, the latter camp has a significant number of followers, an indebted or pliant popular base of support, loyalists planted in the various branches of bureaucracy, and a monstrous arsenal of weapons. Unabashedly, even before the dust of the catastrophe was settled, they have showed neither an inclination to retire from politics or resign from parliament, neither a transformative remorse, nor a readiness to surrender their weapons. Instead, they have demonstrated a shameful affront for being, as they believed, unfairly criticized. With regard to building a new Lebanon, Hezbollah has been irredeemably consistent on making Lebanon an appendage to the Islamist Resistance. In much the same vein as other Hezbollah leaders, speaking about a new Lebanon Hezbollah’s deputy Muhammad Ra’d asserted that “the natural face of Lebanon is that of the Resistance…a new Lebanon that is harmonious with the presence of Resistance in Lebanon.” And he added that “no government will be formed without the approval of the Resistance.” Clearly, not only do the pro-Hezbollah camp reject substantial reforms but also aspire to build a new Lebanon reflecting the Islamist party’s cultural vision and political outlook.
Undoubtedly, the rebels and reformers, supported by a large popular base of support, are against a formidable adversary, which will try to fracture them into stoically resigning to the past pattern of operating under the pretext of national unity or to political insignificance. To be sure, neither early elections nor a government of national unity will produce a new reality of Lebanon consistent with the vision of the rebels: A sovereign Lebanon undergirded by the rule of law, transparency, accountability and dissociated from regional issues. This is hardly possible without a radical approach moved by a sweeping, patient, psychotic spirit of confessional regicide. Some leaders, such as Samir Geagea of the Lebanese Forces and Sa’d Hariri of the Future Current, prefer working within the system and in conjunction with the international community to resist Hezbollah’s hegemony over the state and prevent a civil war. Similarly, foreign powers, such as France and Russia, would like to see some serious reforms so long as they don’t trigger civil strife.
Admittedly, rebels and reformers should disabuse themselves from the notion that their vocal and emotional slogans and statements calling for the resignation of the president and dissolution of the parliament will pan out. Nor Hezbollah will surrender its weapons to the state. Conversely, unlike what happened to the PLO, no domestic or foreign power is ready or willing to disarm Hezbollah by force. Consequently, rebels and reformers need to create a bottom-up grassroots cross-sectarian movement in all areas free of Hezbollah’s influence, which will be responsible for the day-to-day life of its communities. They also need to act as a unified civil society group operating as an intermediary between the state and the international community to prevent the legitimization of the state without breaking some of its vital institutions. In the meantime, they should prepare for a new political system and elections. This in-progress revolution should also engage in a societal self-criticism to iconoclastically crush the confessional godfathers of patronage, clientelism, and taba’iyya that punctuated Lebanon’s culture and politics. Needless to say, these cultural and political flaws have been at the heart of turning Lebanon into a farm.
What happened on August 4 in Beirut is a crime years in the making and a catastrophe in outcome unseen in the history of Lebanon; yet what happened is not isolated from the culture and politics of Lebanon that gradually transformed the country into a farm. Paving the path for a new Lebanon, the farm has to be ploughed one furrow and ridge at a time.
*Robert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of highly peer-reviewed books and articles. The views expressed in the article are his own. He can be reached @robertgrabil