Lebanon’s inevitable mutation

In its one hundred years of existence as a state, Lebanon has gone through — and survived — a lot. However, future storms cannot be weathered unless a “genetic” mutation happens.
Saturday 22/08/2020
A Lebanese flag on a damaged building in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut. (REUTERS)
A Lebanese flag on a damaged building in the aftermath of a massive explosion in Beirut. (REUTERS)

Lebanon’s population — across the spectrum — is in an utter disarray. In the last few years, most of the paradigms about their country, which the Lebanese thought to be set in stone, have been challenged, if not proven fictive. But the blow, “which they were expecting from the east, came from the west,” as some said.

After the financial and banking collapse and the COVID-19 pandemic, many Lebanese – all pessimistic about the prospects of a quick recovery — thought at least that the time of bad surprises was over. Some of them speculated about a war with Israel or were contemplating the verdict of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, initially scheduled for August 7, 2020.

Depending on who you talk to, some considered it a manifestation of grace while others looked at it as a disgrace. In both camps, sceptical analysts tried to imagine how the pro and anti-Hariri constituencies would react to the verdict. No one, however, knew or saw that the hardest blow in Lebanon’s modern history would come from an uncharted hangar in Beirut’s seaport, in the form of the fifth most powerful non-nuclear explosion in history.

Undoubtedly, the reasons behind the failure of the state building process in Lebanon are numerous.  However, a question stands out as essential to the exercise: How has a country of brilliant individuals, who have achieved so much both in terms of education and professional advancement, failed to produce and agree on a social contract that would have allowed it to build a proper state? Conspiracists blame it on external powers: colonialists, imperialists, Ottomans, Zionists, Syrians, Arabs and others. The negationists claim that Lebanon as a country is an illusion and that its population should belong to a larger pan-Arab entity. Looking at the history of the current “up- and-running” countries, it is easy to refute both theories. Many countries came out of occupation or colonial rule stronger than before. Other countries, which did not exist only decades ago, are now solid nations. What Lebanon actually needs is to avoid invoking history, stop overstating geography and just embrace a dose of “result-oriented realism.”

A solid country can emerge and prosper only when its constituents agree transparently about what they have in common and on how to manage what they disagree about. It is unimaginable to have a country in which everything is consensual.  Therefore, being honest about differences is fundamental. Lebanon’s DNA is mostly about non-inclusive “transactional agreements” (1920, 1943, 1958, 1989, 2005, 2008, 2016…) drafted by the “happy few” aiming to quickly fix the visible issues while keeping the real ones concealed.

The realist approach requires a good understanding of Lebanon’s socio-cultural history, its demographics and how all of this allowed the subnational identity to overshadow the national one. While this situation is not ideal, addressing the paradox should not be done by creating another one in which the different layers of ones’ identity are necessarily antithetical. The emphasis should be put on how all these layers are actually complementary and should be preserved and protected.

Another important “mutation” is relinquishing double standards. Many Lebanese would be furious about something happening to them but excel in finding justification for why the same thing could happen to others. Accountability is the first space in which we need to stop using double standards. Accountability is not only when a minister is put in jail for abuse of power. It is also when an ordinary citizen accepts that s/he or his/her siblings, cousins, leader or whoever from their “clan” should be held accountable for the mistake they have committed, whether they work in the public or private sector. It can be sanctioning a physician for medical malpractice, an engineer for a failed structure built, a judge for a misdeed, an army officer for a violation of the law or a faith leader for unethical behaviour.

“Intellectual” courage and “critical thinking” have been missing for a while. Most Lebanese political and community leaders do not go beyond the “accepted norms.” Even when they assign advisers or collaborators, they don’t dare to go outside the circle of blind supporters. The Lebanese grew up on immutable theories about “horrible sectarianism,” “traitorous federalism,” the “hideous Zionist enemy,” the “vocation of Lebanon as a bridge between the East and West” and the “Lebanese model of co-existence.”

In the few instances when some leaders have dared to question these notions, they either lacked the necessary leverage or did so at the wrong time, using an immature strategy or one that is embedded in violence — or all of the above.

Last but not least is the sense of “collective interest.” This is where most Lebanese, no matter how smart they are, fail to see how stronger collective interest reflects – in the long term – on their own individual interest. It is neither mutually exclusive nor a zero-sum game.

But to grasp this, one needs to get rid of the tunnel vision acquired through Lebanon’s awkward, ugly, poor and uselessly competitive education, which focuses only on what one should achieve, irrespective of how s/he does it. This is the main reason why, while most people blame Lebanon’s current dismay on others, external factors, political or economic ones, the bitter reality is that it is essentially about the lack of purposeful education.

Lebanon’s educational system is not only archaic but designed only to build a body of knowledge with little or no attention to values, attitudes and collective efforts. The ministry of education is one of the least coveted portfolios by political parties. Anything related to education, including the profession of teachers, is underrated and not competed for.

That in its 100 years of existence Lebanon did not come across as a viable model is not a difficult conclusion. What will be arduous, however, is finding a way to agree on and implement an onerous mutation process without which the prospects of a “dignified life” for the Lebanese in their own country will remain tenuous.