The Lebanese enigma: strength in weakness

Jihad N Fakhreddine
15 August 2006

The Lebanese political system and society have received countless blows in its modern history, of which the comprehensive assault by Israeli rockets in the month-long war of 12 July-14 August 2006 is only the latest. These have often led observers to portray Lebanon as an immature, weak and fragile state, living on the good or bad will of other regional or international powers. This judgment, however, obscures a more complex reality. For Lebanon's same political system also makes it the most enigmatic of all Arab states. It can be considered weak, but the summer war has confirmed that it has an inherent strength that defies all political logic.

An awareness of this paradox is one of the political legacies of the late Pierre Gemayel, the founder of (Christian) Phalange Party, who coined the controversial slogan: "Lebanon's strength is in its weakness".

Gemayel's notion acknowledges that Lebanon is unable to employ a viable, unified force to protect itself; and that this makes it inevitable that foreign powers (near and far) will always vie to exert control over it. But since there are several such powers, there will always be a sort of external power-check preventing domination by a single power, hence sparing Lebanon from exclusive foreign dominance or destructive impact.

That is the theory. But history offers evidence to rebuke as well as justify it. Sixteen years of civil war and strife (1975-90) involving many Lebanese factions and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, direct Syrian military intervention, the Israeli invasions of 1978 and 1982 - all seemed to have falsified the Phalangist slogan.

Moreover, two critical turning-points in Lebanon's post-civil-war history offer only qualified support to Gemayel's notion. These two coincident epics were the emergence of Hizbollah as a significant player on the Lebanese scene, and the rise of the late prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Jihad N Fakhreddine is the research manager for media and public opinion polls at the Pan Arab Research Center (Parc). He is based in the United Arab Emirates and writes on Arab media and United States public diplomacy

Also by Jihad Fakhreddine in openDemocracy:

"Before the flood "
(17 June 2005)

Hizbollah and Hariri

Both powers came from outside Lebanon's traditional sectarian or feudal pillars. Neither had been major players in Lebanon's civil war, which eventually swallowed its own perpetrators. Their acceptance by the Lebanese was the result of the public's longing for national pride or economic revival.

Hizbollah demonstrated its ability to mobilise an efficient military machine capable of forcing the evacuation of Israel's military might from Lebanon in May 2000, and in resisting its bombardments in the conflict of 2006. This phenomenon is an outstanding illustration of how one politicised sect in Lebanon could out-perform the entire Lebanese state (and certainly its puny military forces). It is true that many Lebanese have been elated and unified by Hizbollah's performance, yet its cause has not been fully transformed into a national one.

In the years after its foundation in 1982, Hizbollah managed to mobilise its Shi'a support-base to create a "state within a state" (including welfare as well as military systems); its chairman Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah has established a prestige greater than that of the Lebanese president and his colleagues in many other Arab states.

The formidable economic and political clout of Rafiq Hariri, whose operations in and links to Saudi Arabia made him a wealthy man, is a further illustration of the power of non-state actors in Lebanon. In his prime, the billionaire businessman – who became prime minister and was ousted as a result of Syrian pressure before being murdered in February 2005 – wielded power that (again) dwarfed that of the head of state. If Hizbollah was a state within a state, the regional power-broker Hariri was in his way an empire greater than the Lebanese state.

Why has it proved so difficult to amass the strength needed to unify Lebanon on a national rather than sectarian or personalised basis, as epitomised by the Shi'a Hizbollah and the Sunni Hariri? For only weak states would give birth to such sub-national, or transnational, political powers. Moreover, each can without exaggeration also be regarded as extensions or proxies of two rival regional powers: respectively Iran and Saudi Arabia. They are, were, not simply Lebanese actors.

A country of paradox

It is easier to eliminate one person than a movement. Rafiq Hariri acted in his life as a political and economic safety-valve for Lebanon, and his death swelled his legacy to mythical levels. In comparable fashion, Hizbollah's status has reached mythical proportions in the wake of its successful military resistance to Israel (to the extent that even Syria needs to bask in its glory).

The very myths reveal the paradox once more – for both powers simultaneously exhibit a strength that belongs to Lebanon and finds its opportunity on Lebanese soil, yet also expose the weakness of the larger national polity.

It was only after Hariri's tragic death that many Lebanese came to realise that he had a national socio-political agenda as well as personal ambition. Perhaps this was the price of being part of a state (al-hikim) that the Lebanese public has traditionally mistrusted. In any case, Hariri conveyed the sense that Lebanon's al-hikim is not in permanent leave of absence; it can be activated. Hizbollah only moved closer to the state after Hariri's death; but it too communicates a feeling of dynamic agency and not just a passive balancing of forces.

These two epic trajectories present a formidable potential resource to the realisation of national ambitions. At the same time, if the post-war domestic political crisis now looming over Lebanon is mismanaged, the consequences could be deadly. Saad Hariri, the son of Rafiq, may have a vital role here as (in the spirit of his father) an equaliser, someone who searches for common ground.

The enigma remains, and the key to Lebanon's future may be the extent of the internal space to negotiate around it. The war with Israel has left much of what Hariri and Hizbollah were instrumental in building (urban infrastructure, business premises, settlements, fortifications) in ruins. Lebanon as a whole has suffered. Yet Lebanon's distinct brand of weakness proved its strength, in 2006 as so often before; Lebanon the weak managed to force a miscarriage of the "new middle east" of which Condoleezza Rice aimed to be the midwife.

Can such power be put to renewed, national, use? For if Hariri and Hizbollah could achieve so much in isolation from one another – leaving aside a judgment of the content of their projects – what could the Lebanese of all confessional groups and parties, as a unified socio-economic and political force, achieve?

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