The Lebanese have more in common than you think

Despite all the pressures around their borders, the people of Lebanon have a stronger sense of national unity than many foreigners recognise.

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With neighbouring Syria imploding, tensions with Iran mounting, and Israel ever threatening, Lebanon appears to be on the brink of conflict.

But then that has been the story of Lebanon for decades now. This remarkably beautiful country, filled with extraordinary people, has long been a victim of its history, its own leaders and the machinations of outsiders. This may be Lebanon's past and present, but if we listen to the Lebanese people, it need not be the country's future.

It was the French who created Lebanon and its sect-driven patchwork-quilt system of governance, designed to serve France's imperial interests.

During the past 80 years, operating within this imposed framework, Lebanon's sectarian elites have jockeyed for advantage, seeking the support of external "partners" to buttress their positions. Only too obliging, these foreign "partners" often had their own interests to promote or scores to settle. As a result, Lebanon was time and again transformed into a battlefield where sects clashed and regional power struggles were fought. And so it is today.

Two generations ago, Lebanon was an East-West Cold War battleground. Today it is an arena in which the conflict between the West and its allies versus Iran and its surrogates plays out - with fragile Lebanon hanging in the balance, with its security, stability and prosperity constantly at risk.

Some may shrug dismissively and say "this is Lebanon", or point to the country's warlords and armed gangs and say "they bring it on themselves".

But this precarious state of affairs need not be Lebanon's fate. If we listen to Lebanon's people, it is possible to imagine a very different country, based on a common identity and sense of purpose.

If polling has taught me anything, it is that people almost always know more than the politicians who lead them. In this regard, Lebanon's people have a great deal to say - and deserve to be heard.

There are, to be sure, issues that divide the Lebanese. For example, two recent polls found discordant views with regard to Syria and Iran: Lebanese Shi'a appear to be supportive of the Ba'ath government of Bashar Al Assad in Syria, and also favour close ties with Iran, while the country's Sunni community holds the opposite view. Christians are divided in their opinions.

But these attitudes while reflecting the positions of the leaders of the various groups, tell only part of the story of what Lebanese really think. On most issues there is a strong domestic consensus - and it would be wise for leaders in Lebanon - and the rest of us - to focus on the issues and policies that could bring most of the Lebanese people together, not those that divide them.

There are many places where the Lebanese find common ground. They agree on the country's sorry state of affairs, political priorities that must be addressed, the importance of national identity and unity, and on fundamental political reforms they think are needed.

When, for example, we ask Lebanese whether they are better or worse off than they were five years ago, all agree they are worse off. Similarly, when we ask them if the country is currently on the right or the wrong track, all groups say "wrong".

And when we ask Lebanese to identify their top political concerns, once again there is a remarkable convergence in attitudes.

All Lebanese, across the board, rank "expanding employment opportunities" as their number one concern, followed by "ending corruption and nepotism", "political reform", and then "protecting personal freedoms and civil rights".

Foreign policy issues are not considered priorities, and at the very bottom of the scale is "promoting political debate" - something most Lebanese have wearied of.

What is also striking is that when we ask Lebanese for their principal source of identity, they do not name their religion or sect, nor do they cite family, or "being Arab". Instead, all groups say it is "being Lebanese" that is the focus of identity. Arabs in other countries usually offer responses nearly evenly divided among "Arab", religion, and their country of origin.

When we ask Lebanese whether they prefer to maintain the sect-based power-sharing system or replace it with a "one man, one vote" political structure, there is broad agreement that it is time to implement the latter. They all agree that national unity is a must. And they reject the notion that any one group should dominate.

Almost a century ago, Lebanon's internationally renowned poet Khalil Gibran wrote a marvellous piece, You have your Lebanon, I have my Lebanon, in which he contrasted the country's self-centered, plundering, bickering elites with the common folk who are Lebanon's heart and soul.

Gibran was right then, and his observations hold true today. Lebanon's leaders and those who care about the future of the country ought to take note, listen to the people, and help pull the country back from the brink.

James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa