In recent weeks, the Maronite patriarch, Bechara Al Rai, has taken centre stage in Lebanon's political life. This comes as those in power remain unable to come to an agreement over a new government, even though Lebanon is in the throes of a financial and economic meltdown that has led to widespread poverty.
Patriarch Al Rai has been pursuing a campaign in recent months to begin a process of securing Lebanon's neutrality. More recently, he expanded his demands, asking that a UN conference be held to help break the country's deadlock. At this conference, participants would announce Lebanese neutrality "so that [the country] does not return to being a victim of conflicts and wars and divisions", as the patriarch recently stated at a rally in favour of his proposal.
Not surprisingly, Hezbollah has seen the patriarch’s initiative as being primarily directed against the party and its alliance with Iran. In a speech in February, its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, rejected internationalisation of the Lebanese situation, while the party’s ally President Michel Aoun has also taken his distance from Patriarch Al Rai. However, the patriarch’s ideas appeal to many Lebanese, who believe that the international community would be far better in helping Lebanon than the corrupt and failed cartel in power.
Several things appear to be motivating the patriarch in taking so bold a public position. The first is that the crisis in Lebanon is leading to a mass exodus of Lebanese, many of them Christians. The system seems so incapable of reforming itself that those leaving are unlikely to return. For a Maronite Church that saw a sharp decline in Christian numbers during the 1975-1990 civil war, averting such a trend is of existential importance.
This is what has led many observers to suggest that Patriarch Al Rai would not have begun his campaign without encouragement from the Vatican. Whether that is true or not, Pope Francis's trip to Iraq last week certainly showed how important the continued presence of Christians in the Middle East is for the Catholic Church.
There is one overriding reason, beyond the Vatican’s possible involvement, that explains Patriarch Al Rai’s efforts. The Maronite Church was vital in pushing for the establishment of Greater Lebanon after the First World War. Its clergy has long considered that it not only has an ecclesiastical role to play, but is an essential guardian of the Lebanese nation and its existence as a sovereign entity.
During the years of the Syrian military presence, Patriarch Al Rai's predecessor, Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, was a stalwart, if measured, critic of Syrian hegemony over the country. While Patriarch Al Rai came to office sympathetic to Mr Aoun, more recently he has taken a more antagonistic position towards the country's direction, mainly because of Hezbollah's choices. In that way, he has hinted at his implicit misgivings about the President's alliance with the party.
Patriarch Al Rai's initiative underlined that there is still room in Lebanon for politics outside Hezbollah's stranglehold. The party has struggled to retain control over the system since October 2019, when large numbers of Lebanese rose up against the country's political and economic order, denouncing the political class. Hezbollah tried to forestall those protests, as they threatened a political order that had protected the party. However, today it finds itself fighting a losing battle.
Hezbollah is trapped between fulfilling its contract with Iran in remaining ready to fight Israel, ties with Mr Aoun, who is trying to impose his conditions on a new government, effectively blocking it, and the anger of a Lebanese population on the verge of a social explosion as the national currency tumbles. Within Hezbollah areas, the party has failed to guarantee security, as crime is on the rise and rival, heavily armed, tribes frequently fight against one another.
While Hezbollah certainly remains Lebanon’s dominant party, its ability to control a sectarian system laden with rising contradictions is limited. The party was able to use state institutions, such as the army, to maintain order, but the state is in such disarray that those levers are no longer readily available. That is why the patriarch saw an opening to present his alternative narrative.
Can his proposal succeed? Its value at this stage is not that it will be implemented, but that it does two other important things.
First, it shows that a central institution in Lebanese society, the Maronite Church, recognises that the present leadership can neither reform nor present a viable state project that does not involve submission to the interests of an outside regional power. Second, it underlines that Maronite parties that fail to put Lebanon's sovereignty and welfare ahead of all other issues will represent fewer and fewer Christians as the situation deteriorates. This is a shot across the bow of Mr Aoun and his son-in-law Gebran Bassil, who have sided with Hezbollah to advance their own interests, regardless of the damage this has done to Lebanon.
Hezbollah has sought a dialogue with Patriarch Al Rai, while he has avoided making his initiative look as if it were directed against the party. Still, Hezbollah appears to take the patriarch’s proposal seriously enough that it has sought to nip it in the bud. The cleric is unlikely to backtrack, as Lebanon’s situation is too critical.
Michael Young is a senior editor at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut and a Lebanon columnist for The National