Lebanon: a fate beyond its control?

It has increasingly become a question of when - not if - the violence in Syria will lead to sectarian fighting in Lebanon. This reflects a commonly held belief that conflict in Lebanon is shaped from outside its borders; a belief that risks ignoring the ways in which Lebanon can be responsible for its own fate.

Marie-Jöelle Zahar Zahbia Yousuf
14 September 2012

For more than a year, violence in Syria has been dominating international headlines, with discussion of Lebanon increasingly arising in the same breath. In July the country was described as a “sectarian tinderbox” that “could easily be reignited” by events in Syria. Since February 2012, members of Alawite and Sunni communities have been involved in recurring and increasingly lethal clashes in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli. The violence has been linked to the kidnapping of Lebanese Shias in Syria, who Syrian rebels accuse of having links with the Assad regime. In spite of appeals for calm by politicians on all sides, the most recent round of fighting in the city has left 15 dead and over a hundred injured. This has fortified the view that Lebanon is vulnerable to ‘spillover’ from events in Syria, and has strengthened opinion among many Lebanese, as well as political commentators, that in Lebanon conflict is just waiting around the corner.

The Lebanese government has itself linked the violence to the Syrian crisis – its decision to limit aid to Syrian refugees has been justified by state officials as prioritising the need to “keep the country safe”. This reflects a commonly upheld belief that, more often than not, conflict in Lebanon is shaped from outside its borders – conjured up by Iranian and Syrian puppet masters, Israeli military aggression, or this time, by events and dynamics taking place next door.

Searching for reconciliation, reform and resilience

A recently published report looks at the question of how much is, and can, Lebanon be responsible for its own fate? Positive peace for Lebanon turns the common narrative on its head and focuses on Lebanese domestic efforts to build peace and reconciliation, looking at how resilience to the outside environment can be nurtured.

While acknowledging the impact of the regional and international environment on Lebanese politics, the report recognises that Lebanon’s vulnerability is also the result of active choices of Lebanese political groupings, which have often sought external support to ensure internal protection from one another. During the 1975–90 civil war, Lebanese politicians sought out both Syrian and Israeli intervention. It was Lebanon’s Maronite President, Suleiman Frangieh, who first invited Syria to send troops into Lebanon in 1976 to prevent a military defeat of pro-status quo (mostly Christian) forces by domestic (mostly Muslim) political opponents and Palestinian allies. In the late 1970s, Christian politicians then looked to Israel for military assistance and political support.

The trend to seek foreign backing continued after the signing of the Document of National Accord in 1989 (also known as the Taif Peace Agreement) that brought an official end to the civil war. Leaders repeatedly called on Damascus to help them settle their internal disputes. Anti-Syrian Lebanese factions similarly drew the West into Lebanese politics in the 1990s. A recent MERIP report on the situation in Tripoli highlights the extent to which ongoing clashes in the city are as much a manifestation of struggles for leadership within Lebanon’s Sunni community as spillover of the situation in Syria. It also points out that armed confrontations have been occurring in Tripoli for years, most recently in 2008 in the run up to parliamentary elections in 2009.

While political science research hails power sharing as an institutional design intended to manage deeply divided societies, Lebanon’s confessional power sharing formula has resulted in a vicious and ever deepening cycle whereby elites carve autonomous centres of power.

The account of Lebanon’s fragile politics as controlled from without, therefore, masks the reality of a state that is fragile and weak by design from within; the country is unable to ‘resist’ spillover from its neighbours as sectarian groups pursue particular goals to ensure they maintain their own strength and autonomy. As a result, the state has become a source of vulnerability rather than protection and strength.

Working for peace – who and how?

‘Development’ and ‘statebuilding’ have often been hailed as sure solutions to the problem of ‘fragile’ states. Successive donor conferences since 2001 – Paris I, II and III – have focused on this approach in Lebanon. With so much uncertainty in the region, the outcome of this rationale is donor policy that favours political stability and the reinforcing of existing state structures over upsetting the status quo.

‘Statebuilding’ therefore maintains the confessional system. The resulting weak state throws citizens in need of basic services into the hands of the same elites. Much is made of the fractured nature of Lebanese identity but where citizens see the provision of services or security coming from factions, there can be little loyalty conferred to the state. Clientalist networks have become both familiar and predictable for many local communities. The result is that the political elite is ultimately exonerated from its responsibility as a provider to the collective population, making the state less accountable to its citizens.

Recent protests by temporary electricity workers for proper employment contracts reveal the fragility of the social contract, and the extent to which the confessional system undermines social justice. Reluctance to meet the demands of protestors is due to concerns by Christian parties that doing so might disrupt the confessional quotas in the public sector.

The need to rethink the way the state functions is therefore essential. How should ‘outsiders’ and even ‘insiders’ navigate the malfunctioning political system for the sake of peacebuilding? Should international actors actively pressure political parties to change their habits, risking accusations of political engineering? Appetite for this is low – the British line, as communicated to Conciliation Resources, is that incentives and sanctions are not necessarily the right toolkit, and that leverage on Lebanon is hard to apply. Politics in Lebanon is framed in terms of being pro/anti Syrian, with Iran in the back of everyone’s minds. The priority then is to keep Lebanon stable, with support given to the army and to the provision of diplomatic support in the international arena.

Is there value in working below the state level instead, and supporting local actors so that they themselves can hold political parties to account? In the face of inaction by the state and rising political tensions in the country this is an interesting and worthwhile approach.

Civil society organisations and local peace initiatives are not uncommon in Lebanon. There are a number of positive cases of civil mobilisation to draw on; from the Campaign for the Kidnapped and Disappeared during the war, to those advocating for the rights of the disabled, and initiatives to further post-war reconciliation. Protests in February 2011 against the sectarian system and its ruling elite demonstrate the desire of many to move away from confessional and divisive politics. As yet such activism is not resilient enough to buffer the overwhelming political forces at play in Lebanon, and has ultimately fallen prey to the country’s politics. The 2011 marches could not sustain momentum and coherence when faced with questions about how to bring about change (through radical or through accumulative reforms), or whether to support the Syrian revolt. The 2011 ‘Tripoli without Arms’ campaign, which advocated a demilitarisation of the city, stalled amidst arguments over whether the city should be disarmed before the rest of the country.

However, it is clear that Lebanon is not simply a victim to its external environment. The country’s elites have actively contributed to its own misfortune, preferring a political system that embeds rather than overcomes divides. The Lebanese people have also shown that they can challenge the status quo, and that there are opportunities for breaking the vicious cycle of violence and conflict.

At a time when internal political tensions and regional developments converge yet again, there is a danger that the active voices of the Lebanese may once more struggle to make themselves heard. It is then even more important that past attempts are built on and future possibilities recognised and supported – nationally and internationally.

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