Lebanon: The 'Lee-Side' of the Arab Spring

Lebanon’s sectarian political system is a well-founded reason to start a revolution, as those from the Arab Spring, but their lack of national collectivity and common identity is an obstacle to unity.
Somdeep Sen
15 November 2011

It was a cold January evening in 2007 when I met a Bosnian-Croat law student in the southern Bosnian city of Mostar. With a view of the 16th century Ottoman bridge, Stari Most, which became emblematic of the destructive nature of the Bosnian War of the 1990s, I asked him about his impression of the so-called ‘others’ in the country, namely, the (Muslim) Bosniaks and Serbs. Unequivocally he said, ‘What do you want me to say about those that tortured and killed my parents?’ At that very moment I was struck by the severity of his answer. He was only eight when the war started. How is it possible that someone can harbour such an entrenched sense of resentment for so long? But, that is indeed an underlying characteristic of war. It is somehow able to resonate the same sense of pain and suffering for decades and generations to come.

Like Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon today finds itself in a similar predicament. Winds of change have swept through the region promising to have ‘revolutionary’ impacts on the sociopolitical core of the Middle East. But Lebanon, under the shadow of decades of sectarian strife, has eluded such ‘unified’ calls for change and has, as Issawi notes, once again proven that its “…main practical ‘function’…remains to be a battlefield for other’s grievances.”[1] But, as we near the first anniversary of the ‘Arab Spring’ and we scamper to localize the motivations and the ‘triggers’ that set the uprisings in motion, we often fail to articulate the ‘corollary’, namely, the so-called ‘de-motivations’. It is here that a country like Lebanon, in view of its history of conflict, finds analytical utility.

German playwright Ernst Toller once said, “And suddenly, like light in darkness, the real truth broke in upon me; the simple fact of Man, which I had forgotten, which had lain deep buried and out of sight; the idea of community, of unity.” This said, the existence of a ‘fractured’ society, epitomized by the ‘darkness’, could be then adjudged to be a critical ‘de-motivator’ in sparking a popular (and unified) uprising.

In Lebanon while the existence of several ethnic and religious denominations have occasionally sparked conflict throughout its history, the institutionalization of the sectarian system could be traced back to the slow demise of the Muqata’ji system that started in the 1840s and the subsequent “…crumbling of...Druze political supremacy over Mount Lebanon…”[2] Nevertheless, it is the civil war between 1975 and 1990 that best informs the fractured post-conflict identity in the country today. The statistics of death and abject suffering are well known and undeniably relevant. Ghosn and Khoury note that the civil war “resulted in more than 144,000 killed; 184,000 injured; 13,000 kidnapped; and at least 17,000 missing. In addition, about 175 towns were partially or completely destroyed, and over 750,000 Lebanese were internally displaced.”[3] While these figures are sure to emboss a lasting impact on the society, ‘peace’, in the way it was achieved has not fared any better.

The Ta’if Accord signed in 1990, established a consociational political system (like in Bosnia-Herzegovina) that attempted to ‘share’ political power among the Muslims and Christians. While its goal was to ‘plug’ the possibility of any future sectarian unrest, what it inadvertently did was ‘compartmentalized’ political authority along sectarian lines and further institutionalize the ‘differences’ that sparked the civil war in the first place. Now, according to Haugbolle “the relatively dynamic public sphere in Lebanon has given room to a more unhindered development of a public dissemination and formation of a collective memory.”[4] But what is the character of this memory? Moreover, is there indeed a ‘collective’ memory?

As protests raged in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, sectarian violence spread to parts of Beirut and Tripoli on January 25. Nevertheless, a protest held a month later in Beirut against the sectarian political system merely received a lukewarm response with a few hundred in attendance. Based on this it is difficult to claim the existence of a ‘collective’. While the political landscape is bifurcated between two blocks (March 8 and March 14 Alliances), the domination of sectarian and religiously based political parties itself indicates the existence of disseminated identities.

Furthermore, memory of the civil war, which would be a precursor to today’s identity, would then draw itself from a sectarian and fractured understanding of the conflict that is rooted in sectarian experiences rather than a collective (Lebanese) national one. Of course, we cannot assume that the national realm is thus rendered irrelevant to such a perspective but its conceptualization would then also be drawn from a sectarian understanding of what it means to be Lebanese today. The results are sub-state realms of sovereignty where ‘all’ within a society are rarely considered relevant. Instead several sub-national spheres of interest are garnered, that are informed by ‘instinctive’ relationships like religion and sect. These ‘bubbles’ individually frame the rationalities behind the articulation of the national realm, its identity and its character.

With such dynamics in place it is hardly a surprise that the winds of the Arab Spring have eluded Lebanon. Its social identity(ies) is informed by ever-widening cleavages and continues to be marred by a memory of suffering and a fear of the ‘other’. As the events in the region have provided for a proverbial ‘How To’ guide, maybe it’s time for Lebanon and its people to be more than a mere anomaly in what seems to be an era of historic transformations in the region. For inspiration we can look, as Traboulsi did, to the work of Abiqarius:

During the fighting, a Druze got hold of a Christian. They battled and resisted each other and went on fighting until they reached the waterfront from which they fell into the water still exchanging punches and blows. A huge wave unfurled and dragged them into the open sea where they were swallowed up by the tide. The next morning, their corpses were recovered on the beach scrunched up in a tight embrace and gripping each other’s hands.[5]

[1]. http://www.opendemocracy.net/fatima-el-issawi/lebanon-and-spring-of-others

[2]. Traboulsi, Fawwaz. A History of Modern Lebanon (London: Pluto Press, 2007): 24

[3]. Ghosn, Faten and Amal Khoury. “Lebanon after the Civil War: Peace or the Illusion of Peace?” Middle East Journal 65.3 (Summer, 2011): 382

[4]. Haugbolle, Sune. “Public and Private Memory of the Lebanese Civil War” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.1 (2005): 191

[5]. Abqarius, Iskandar Ya’qub. Nawadir al-Zaman fi Waqa’I Jabal Lubnan (London: Riad el-Rayyes Books, 1987): 144. Cited in: Traboulsi, 40

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