Lebanon breathed a collective sigh of relief amid news that negotiations between Russia, Assad and the US had led to the Syrian regime agreeing to hand over its arsenal of chemical weapons. The country has been holding its breath in the weeks of uncertainty during the will-they-won’t-they US strike debate, watching its own reality play out on a detached television screen as unalterable as if it were a finished film. We had become quite blue in the face by the time the postponement came about, with reports of large numbers having fled the country in anticipation of a violent backlash.
A US strike is still on the cards, and the temporary reversal to normality, whatever that state implies in Lebanon, may well only prove to be the calm before the storm. But this period allows for some reflection on the placement of Lebanon in the region and how its own identity is being shaped during this period of unknowns.
When Ernest Gellner visited Beirut during the height of the civil war in 1980, he spotted one reason for the system continuing to function. It was the fact that, “men who run their business well do it by keeping their lines open to as many sides as possible”. This plurality is both a blessing and a curse, but as long as individual diplomacy and economic output continue, it floats, sometimes unconvincingly, on a semblance of stability. Similar to a Heath Robinson machine, a widely complex contraption of jigsaw-piece mechanics, unconventional materials and quick fix repairs, the country achieves its simple objective of running along through highly improbable means.
The nuts and bolts of this Lebanese system rest on the myriad cases of individual diplomacy which Gellner referenced, and without which the finely balanced collection of jigsaw pieces would collapse. The individual is therefore an important point of analysis from which to understand how the country is currently ‘running’. Indeed it is arguably only because the individual continues to go about his or her everyday life that the country cannot be considered run aground.
What is the view from the ground in Lebanon today? On the one hand the individual is at the mercy of the international community, namely the US and Russia, whose actions in Syria would almost certainly have ramifications in Beirut. On the other hand he or she is confronted by multiple domestic insecurities wrought by unknown and unseen forces – private groups, working off their own agendas to wreak instability through car bombs, and by provoking sectarian unrest.
For some individuals living in the southern suburbs, daily life is being increasingly affected by the securitization of Hezbollah, who have set up extensive checkpoint and security alerts within their territory. The stringency of this operation is pushing already fraught relations to breaking point. Last weekend one Palestinian was killed and five injured after objecting to being stopped by a Hezbollah checkpoint at the entrance to Bourj el Barajneh camp. Gunfights have erupted between private family militias and the party, provoked by questions of the legitimacy of the extent of Hezbollah’s security measures.
Their lives have also been altered increasingly by the growing Syrian refugee population, whether directly or indirectly, creating a competition for housing, jobs, resources. This issue permeates all levels of society, not simply the poorer reaches within which bracket refugees are typically assumed to reside. This is further exacerbated by the economic stagnation currently afflicting the country, and the region.
This mix of security fears, economic instability and increased securitization of life is not particularly new for a Lebanese populace scarred by fifteen years of civil war. However, in contrast to all previous turmoil, this outlook taps into other, broader issues. Reported whispers that some in the Christian community may be packing up to leave Lebanon poses questions of Lebanese national identity within the shifting sands of the Middle East regional system. Crucially today a large proportion of individuals within Lebanon (mainly the Christian community) feel that the instabilities playing out are neither their responsibility nor fight, in contrast to the civil war. There is no incentive to stay.
The very hint of a rupture caused by the exodus of a certain group would be a significant development. Throughout the protracted civil war which formed the base for Gellner’s earlier analysis of business as usual, the one similarity which bound all the multiple disparities of the country together was precisely the fact that all sects, political parties, non-state actors were embroiled in the mess (the Christian agenda back then was to oppose the growing power of the PLO).
The lack of common ground over the Syrian conflict in Lebanon therefore represents a significant break with the past. Questions of national versus sectarian identity, which have existed in a perpetual and delicate balance since the Sykes-Picot agreement imposed the current state-system, are being asked across the region, influenced by both the multiple sectarian and national agendas at stake in Syria, and the migration of vast swathes of people across its borders. But in Lebanon in particular such questions of identity strike at the heart of the nation. It is the cultural and religious plurality which is the pride of the Lebanese national identity, to which most in the country are loyal, alongside their loyalty to their own religious identity. And it is this pluralism which has created the platform for economic diversities and investment which can be credited with providing the glue for Lebanon's (relative) political stability.
Multiple factors inform decisions to pack up and go, not all of them rational. But the forbidding, and self-perpetuating, combination of economic depression with increasing insecurity does not provide a healthy incentive to stay. Like a Heath Robinson contraption, the continued running of Lebanon will probably be guaranteed by sticky-plaster remedies and improbable mechanical fixes which will maintain some semblance of an operational, albeit dysfunctional, structure. But with many of the nuts and bolts, or individuals, facing an insecure future, crucially not of their choosing, there is no guarantee that enough of them will stay in place, at least without leading to even more unpredictable ‘fix’ solutions, with unknown repercussions for the country.