Lebanon before and after Syria

Roger Scruton
9 March 2005

Some people see the current protests of the Lebanese people against Syrian occupation as the first sign that the middle east is turning in the direction that the Americans intended – towards a widespread democratisation of the political process. If there is any truth in that observation it is this: that the American presence in Iraq has made it impossible for Syria to exercise force, even in Lebanon.

The murder of Rafiq Hariri would have been followed a year ago by widespread repression of popular protest and a phoney investigation designed to pin the crime on some indigenous group. Now it can be openly said that the Syrians did it, that enough is enough, and that Lebanon should be allowed to govern itself – as it did for three decades, far more successfully than any other Arab country.

Also in openDemocracy:

Karim Souaid, “America’s middle east lesson” (November 2004)

Paul Rogers, “Syria, the next target?” (December 2004)

Hazem Saghieh, “Rafiq Hariri’s murder: why do Lebanese blame Syria?” (February 2005)

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Indeed, Lebanon was for a long time the only Arab country in which presidents, prime ministers and ministers succeeded one another without the aid of bullets, and in which ex-presidents and ex-prime ministers lived in peaceful retirement, honoured by successors who did not share their policies. The call for the democratisation of Lebanon is not a call for radical changes of the kind needed elsewhere in the Arab world. It is a call for a return to the status quo ante – to Lebanon before Syria laid hands on it.

The Syrian version

Now that the call for Syrian withdrawal can be heard, however, it is surely right to ask why and how the Syrian troops got there. The Syrian version of events is simple: public order in Lebanon broke down because of rivalry between the sects, leading to civil war, leading to destruction of the institutions of government and destabilisation of the region; Syrian troops were invited in by the Christian president, Suleiman Franjieh, in order to restore order and maintain peace, a noble aim frustrated at first by invasion from Israel, and then gradually achieved, following the Israeli withdrawal, despite obdurate resistance from the Christian militias.

This story appeals to left-wing journalists, since it can be given an anti-western and anti-American spin. Moreover (during the dangerous years of President Hafiz al-Assad) no other story was safe to file, by any journalist who wished to travel in the region. During the 1980s Robert Fisk made his name as a correspondent by repeating the story, scorning all Lebanese and western efforts at a solution to the civil war, and overtly calling on Hafiz al-Assad – that “taciturn, mild man”, as he described him (in the London Times, 5 March 1987) – to assert his authority over his unruly neighbour.

Fisk’s outrageously biased reporting in the Times, syndicated to the Irish Times and avidly read by all western diplomats, did much to influence other journalists who visited the region, and also to persuade the western powers that Lebanon had to be relinquished to the “taciturn, mild man” who had ordered the death of its leading politicans and the massacre of its more inconvenient minorities. There were honourable journalists who drew attention to Syrian crimes and to Assad’s intentions, such as Karl Fefer of Der Stern and Selim Laouzi of Al-Hawadess – but most of them, like those two, are dead, following capture by the Syrians.

Lebanon’s story

The version of events that you are likely to hear from the Lebanese themselves is very different. They might begin from the important observation that Syria has refused since 1919 to recognise Lebanese independence, that even today the charts used to teach geography in Syrian schools show a “Greater Syria” in which there is no part called Lebanon. They will probably also emphasise the role of the Palestinians, who fled their camps in Jordan in 1970, after shelling from the Jordanian army which killed thousands and drove the rest into Syria. Having armed the refugees, Assad then expelled them into Lebanon, which was obliged by the Cairo accords of 1969 to offer them hospitality.

As the only Arab democracy Lebanon (unlike Jordan or Syria) was in the habit of abiding by treaties, including this one, which conferred droits de cité on the Palestinian camps, so putting them outside Lebanese jurisdiction. Armed gangs of Palestinians could thereafter roam freely in the Lebanese countryside, expressing their anger against a country which in fact had treated them far better than their supposed champions in Syria and Jordan.

In 1975, provoked beyond endurance, the Christian militias took bloody revenge by storming the Palestinian camps surrounding Beirut, a crime rightly condemned by the western media, which overlooked, however, the equally serious crimes that had provoked it. In response to the massacre in the camps a unit of the PLO, trained and stationed in Syria, was sent out to the northern town of Damour, where it butchered 500 Christian civilians, women and children included. Following this and similar carefully staged atrocities Lebanon fell apart, with communities that had lived side by side for centuries dividing along confessional lines.

When the Syrian army entered in 1976, Assad was able to claim not only that it was officially invited by President Franjieh, but that its purpose was to safeguard the indigenous population, to unite Christian and Muslim and to suppress the Palestinian brigands. As the Lebanese themselves knew, however, the Palestinians were there at Assad’s instigation, and the fragmentation of the Lebanese communities had been Assad’s purpose from the beginning.

One by one the leaders of the communities who refused to accept Syrian occupation were murdered – first Kamal Jumblatt, inspired leader of the Druze in 1977, then the respected Maronite leader, Bashir Gemayel in 1982. Meanwhile the Shi’a leader, the imam Musa al-Sadr disappeared in 1978 while on a visit to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya – on whose orders is still a matter of dispute.

With the Druze, the Maronites and the Shi’a – the three truly indigenous communities of the Lebanon – all headless, the Syrians, acting through their Sunni proxies, could begin to impose their will. Moreover, the removal of al-Sadr permitted the imposition of a new and radicalised leadership on the Shi’a: thus was born Hezbollah which, armed and led by Iranian fanatics, began the radicalisation and de-Christianisation of the south. Hezbollah has continued to operate as an agent of foreign powers – first of Iran and subsequently (following a rapprochement between Iran and Syria) of Syria.

The story of the slow takeover of Lebanon by the Syrian army is long and complex: for some time Iran (through the Hezbollah militia) disputed possession of the Beka’a valley, while Israel occupied a “security zone” along its own northern border. The Christians, systematically massacred or driven from the countryside by radicalised Islamic groups, congregated around east Beirut, which held out for two decades against the Syrian army, before succumbing when the west finally withdrew its by then more or less nominal support.

As always, the final surrender of the Christian sector led to the murder of any political figure capable of uniting the Lebanese against the occupiers – including the brutal assassination of Danny Chamoun together with his young family. This tactic, characteristic of the “taciturn, mild man” who was now in charge, led quickly to the intimidation of the remaining politicians, who would troop into Parliament to say “yes” to the latest decrees, but who would take no decision to restore the sovereignty of their country or to defy their Syrian minders.

The death of Hafiz al-Assad and the ascent of his son Bashar to the throne did not change the situation in Lebanon. Syria is a one-party state, ruled by the Ba’ath party, which has become an instrument for protecting the privileges of the minority sect – the Alawi – to which the Assad family belongs. Without the support of its former principal ally, the Soviet Union, and its brother-in-torture Ba’athist Iraq, Syria is bound to feel insecure. Nevertheless, like all totalitarian states, it is heir to an agenda that it cannot easily change, and that agenda involves the extinction of Lebanon as a sovereign entity.

The explanation of this hostility to Lebanese independence is twofold. First, there is the general truth that a one-party dictatorship cannot easily tolerate a democracy as its nearest neighbour, especially when that democracy is its only reliable channel to the wider world. Second, Lebanon is the only fragment of the former Ottoman empire that has made power-sharing between the sects into a political reality, so providing an uncomfortable lesson to a neighbour where a minority sect plays a dominant and exclusive political role. In the light of those two general observations, it seems to me, an impartial observer is more likely to endorse the view of recent events that I have attributed to the Lebanese than the one put about by the late Hafiz al-Assad and Robert Fisk.

The confessional state

On the other hand, it doesn’t matter too much which explanation you accept, provided you are prepared to recognise the legitimate aspirations of the Lebanese people and to support them in their attempt to recover their sovereignty and their democratic institutions. Here is where the problems begin, and my only excuse for writing this article is to address a question that is vital, in my view, to the future of the middle east, in the new situation created by the war in Iraq. The question I have in mind is that of the nature and survival of the “confessionalist state”, of which Lebanon was the sole successful example in modern times. Ever since its creation, following the Sykes-Picot accords, Lebanon has been governed by a constitution based on the principle (taken from French law) of laïcité – according to which all confessions are equal before the law and the law makes no religious demands. Article 9 of the 1926 constitution holds that:

“There shall be absolute freedom of conscience. The state in rendering homage to the Most High shall respect all religions and creeds (madhdhahib), and shall guarantee under its protection a free exercise of all religious rites, provided that public order is not disturbed. It shall also guarantee that the personal status and religious interests of the people, to whatever sect (millah) they belong, shall be respected.”

So far as I know no other Arab country is governed by a constitution containing such a clause, and it is one whose import is rejected by Islamists and by the “Islamo-progressist” militias that arose in Lebanon during the civil war. It is a clause that reflects the all-important fact that Lebanon, at the time of its creation, had a Christian majority, with the largest of all the sects being the Maronites of Mount Lebanon who, together with their neighbours the Druze, had already created a quasi-sovereign emirate in Lebanon in the 18th century.

This Christian majority – composed of Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Gregorians, Chaldaeans, Protestants and just about anyone else who has had to flee from Muslim persecution to the shelter of Mount Lebanon – was largely responsible for the rebirth of Arabic literature at the end of the 19th century and for the emergence of modern Lebanon as a fully-fledged nation state, with a free press, free universities and a burgeoning intellectual life fed from the creative ties with France.

It is worth reflecting on the high culture of modern Lebanon and its largely Christian roots, if only to learn that a large number of Arabs are Christians, that the Arabic revival is not a Muslim phenomenon, and that one of the most important political forces in post-war Arab politics – the pan-Arabism of the original Ba’ath (“resurrection”) movement, which degenerated into the Leninist Ba’ath party – was set in motion by a child of the Christian Enlightenment, Michel Aflaq, who converted to Islam only at the end of his life, and only by way of reinforcing a commitment to Arabic language, history and identity that he had acquired as a Levantine Christian in Paris.

It is thanks to its Christian inheritance that Lebanon was able to accept the principle of laïcité. For freedom of conscience is a Christian speciality, enjoined (according to one plausible interpretation of the Gospels) by Jesus himself. However, in the case of Lebanon, freedom of conscience was at first endorsed by all the sects as the price of remaining together, on terms that would protect them from domination by Syria, and which would safeguard their historical proximity to Europe.

Many of the sects had come to Lebanon in search of protection from persecution – the Greek Catholics (Melkites) of the countryside, for example, and the Shi’a of the Beka’a. Only the Sunni and the Greek Orthodox – dominant sects under the Ottoman empire – were unhappy with the new arrangement. But they were prepared to accept it, recognising the value to them, in the new circumstances, of a long-standing link to Europe. As a result Lebanon developed after the second world war in a way that is not to be observed elsewhere in the Arab world, with a secular rule of law, a free press, free universities and a commitment to international standards in the professions.

Syrian domination has more or less extinguished those things, and although the universities (including the famous American University of Beirut) still function, degrees are more easily obtained by threat than by study – something that is deeply distasteful to the Lebanese, who have been rightly proud of their high professional standards.

The confessional state was not established by the 1926 constitution, which simply defines the offices of state and the fundamental law. Confessionalism stems from the “national pact”, made in 1943, when independence was granted by the Free French. This pact affirmed the constitution, with a few amendments, but allocated the offices of the state according to confession. The pact served in fact as an unwritten constitution – a set of conventions that have no legal authority but which are presupposed by the operation of the entire political process, like the British convention that no bill can become law without the Royal Assent.

The pact was struck between the Christian and Sunni leaders of the coastal towns, whose economic dominance and political influence with the French gave them the power (if not the right) to speak for the silent majority in the countryside. The Christians undertook to abandon their exclusive western alliances while the Muslims promised to abandon their pan-Arabist aspirations: both were to turn instead to Lebanon, so as to make it their own. The Lebanese writer and diplomat Georges Naccache summed up the result in a famous comment: deux négations ne font pas une nation (“two negations do not make a nation”).

That comment notwithstanding, in 1943 the idea of a nation-state founded on renunciation seemed both feasible and right. By the convention established by the pact the office of president is reserved for a Maronite, that of prime minister for a Sunni, that of speaker for a Shi’a and that of vice-speaker for a Greek Orthodox. Each community was accorded a certain number of seats in the national assembly, the minorities (both Christian and Muslim) being represented collectively as a single sect, with a deputy for Beirut chosen from among their number.

This strange arrangement was made for a good reason – namely, to allow democratic representation to all the sects, while discouraging them from exerting their power outside parliament. In a region where religion was and remains the most important social fact, it would be folly to allow a sect with a large following to have only a small political influence: for that would provoke the sect into exerting its influence in other ways. This is why the Lebanese experiment is so interesting: it is based on a recognition that religion is an all-powerful force, one that both makes a society and also breaks it. And it derives from the attempt nevertheless to establish a purely secular state, with a universal franchise and offices fairly distributed along confessional lines.

A new Lebanese compromise

Pessimists will say that the civil war is proof that such a system will not work. Optimists will counter that the system worked well enough until malicious outside pressure was brought to bear on it from the PLO, Syria and Iran. One thing is certain: only when those pressures are entirely withdrawn will we know whether the Lebanese system can be properly revived. The withdrawal of the Syrian army will be only the first step: the expulsion of the Iranian clergy and their militias must follow, as well as the integration or resettlement of the Palestinians, who still dominate much of the countryside.

But there is another factor to bear in mind. At the time when the national pact was struck it is likely that the Christians were in a majority in Lebanon, and that the Maronites were the largest of the indigenous sects. That is no longer true. The Shi’a, with an average birthrate of eight per family, have expanded to become the largest of the sects, while the Maronites have declined through the effect of smaller families and large-scale emigration. Pressures exerted by the Syrians, with the intention of breaking the traditional Christian ascendancy, have effectively extinguished the allocation of seats in the assembly by confession. As a result Hezbollah is now the largest party in the assembly, since it can count on the block support of the ever-growing Shi’a community.

This result has brought consternation to the Christians, who fear that Hezbollah – a child of Islamist fanaticism and Iranian intervention – is committed to the creation of an Islamic state, and has no patience with the principle of laïcité, on which the Lebanese compromise rests. Nor is this consternation ill-founded. It is doubtful that the 1926 constitution really permits such a party as Hezbollah (“The Party of Allah”), which reveals in its very name that it is not in the business of compromise with the infidel, and is unable to accept the principle set out in article 9 above. Moreover Hezbollah is led by Iranian and Syrian proxies, has struck a deal with the Syrian army that gives it control over the south, and can be relied upon to advocate a continued Syrian presence in the country. Hence it is now dismissing the call for Syrian withdrawal as merely another act of interference from America.

Lebanon illustrates one of the major causes of instability in the middle east, which is demographic chaos, as rural populations expand beyond the resources that can provide for them, and crowd into cities that can provide for them even less, there to fall under the spell of Islamist clergy and terrorist ideologues. (Such, it seems to me, is the story of both Egypt and Saudi Arabia in modern times, and the reason for the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in the first of those countries, and the Wahhabi clergy in the second.)

Also by Roger Scruton on Lebanon, A Land Held Hostage: Lebanon and the West (Claridge, 1987)

The first step following withdrawal of foreign forces would have to be an attempt to bring the sects together once again, so as to negotiate a new national pact that does justice to the demographic realities, and which imposes on the Shi’a a duty to respect the idea of secular government in which Christians, Druze and Sunni have an equal role. Can this be done? And would the result be a model for other middle eastern countries – Iraq in particular – or merely confirmation of Lebanon’s exceptional status?

It would be heartening to discover a new breed of middle east correspondents able and willing to ask such questions and to guide us towards an answer: writers prepared to set aside their anti-western and anti-American prejudices, prepared to defy the dictators and the apparatchiks, prepared to recognise the legacy of history and the force of religious conviction, and – who knows – even familiar enough with the French and Arabic languages to understand what ordinary people (rather than the western-trained elites, typified by Bashar al-Assad) wish to tell them. Such a one was Michel Seurat, who reported from Tripoli during the early days of the Syrian occupation. Seurat was abducted in 1985, tortured in order to discover his sources, and finally murdered a year later, by way of illustrating the general principles to be followed by western correspondents in Syrian-occupied Lebanon.

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