When independence is a luxury few can afford
Beirut - Lebanon marked Independence Day on November 22nd but desperately few Lebanese were in a celebratory mood. Even fewer have seen genuine independence in their country.
The suicide bombings by the Islamic State (ISIS) in Beirut’s suburbs on November 12th showed how the Syrian conflict is affecting Lebanon more profoundly than ever. In turn, the country’s 18-month-old presidential vacuum is a consequence of Hezbollah’s and Iran’s priorities.
This reality is hardly new. Since Lebanon became an independent state in 1943, it has faced regular crises and open conflicts. All were ended through outside intervention.
For instance, in 1958, after a short civil war, a settlement was reached after the election of a president, Fouad Chehab, through an agreement between the United States and Egypt. In 1982, during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, the election of Amine Gemayel was facilitated by international intervention. And the 1989 Taif agreement, which helped end Lebanon’s civil war, was, effectively, a Saudi-Syrian deal backed by Washington.
These were all made possible because Lebanese society has always been acutely sensitive to outside powers. Major regional states have always had great influence over their sectarian counterparts in the country, who in turn have frequently resorted to regional powers when confronting other Lebanese groups. Lebanon, to borrow from an image recalled by the British journalist David Hirst, is a “garden without a fence”.
With regional states deeply divided today over the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, Lebanon has naturally come to reflect this state of affairs. A regional consensus over the presidency, which, with one exception, has always required prior approval abroad, now seems virtually impossible.
This highlights a paradox of Lebanon. Though the country seems constitutionally incapable of uniting when it comes to addressing major crises, it also happens to be among the most pluralistic of Arab societies, much more liberal than most other countries in the region.
Lebanon’s weakness is also a strength. Because the sectarian groups are more powerful than the state, communities and individuals have much more latitude to do what they want. The oppressive, overbearing Arab state is not possible in Lebanon, because the natural reflex of communities is to unite against any force, or coalition of forces, that threatens their liberties.
But this also makes for a fragmented system. For it to work, the different communities and their representatives must seek constant consensus and compromise. The problem is that the implicit veto power of the communities has increasingly been used to paralyse the system, not reach accords.
This has been particularly true of Hezbollah and its main Maronite Christian ally, Michel Aoun. He has had his eye on the presidency since the 1980s. For months he has refused to send his bloc to parliament to elect a new president, preventing a quorum that might lead to the election of someone else. His aim is to blackmail the political class into electing him.
Hezbollah, which wants to ensure that the next president will endorse and support its military autonomy, has gone along with Aoun’s obstructionism. This autonomy is a priority for Iran, and both Tehran and Hezbollah apparently do not want a president in place before the outcome in Syria can ensure that a new head of state will defend Hezbollah’s interests.
But the collapse of the politics of consensus has led to a more dysfunctional state. Since summer, for example, the country has been struggling with a garbage crisis after the main trash dump was closed. Since then there have been efforts to find a solution but these have all failed amid political bickering.
This has posed a major problem for the government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam, which has been struggling to address many national issues. Indeed, because of brinkmanship, reinforced by the absence of a president, the government has virtually ceased to function. The perpetuation of this situation only makes Lebanon more vulnerable to regional agendas.
Syria has highlighted the country’s dependence on the outside. Lebanon has paid a heavy price for being almost entirely surrounded by Syria. Economically, the conflict there has cut off Lebanon’s export route to the Arab world, while ending land traffic that brought thousands of Gulf tourists each year.
Lebanon has also had to face a major influx of Syrian refugees since 2011. Some 1.5 million Syrians are now in the country, a majority of them Sunnis. Their presence has been a terrible social, economic and financial burden for the state. The possibility that some are operating on behalf of ISIS could represent an additional security challenge.
Lebanon’s sectarian make-up, political divisions and geography all mean it will indefinitely remain a victim of regional dynamics. Many Lebanese want to be independent, but it’s a luxury they simply seem unable to afford.