The unravelling of the Lebanese dream

Many in Lebanon no longer seem particularly committed to maintaining a unitary state

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Efforts in Lebanon to form a new government are continuing – a process that has been ongoing since last October without success. If this fails yet again and no steps are taken to initiate a reform programme to secure international financial assistance for the collapsing economy, the country's disintegration will accelerate until we may no longer be able to speak of a shared entity called Lebanon.

Increasing fragmentation may emerge instead, as the state loses more power and cohesiveness. Sectarian parties, in their places of geographical concentration, may begin to manage the security of those areas and even perhaps eventually strive to do the same for local economic affairs.

A revealing development took place on May 20. The Lebanese Forces party sought to prevent Syrians in mainly Christian areas from voting in their country’s presidential election, as they planned to cast ballots for the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. The reaction had little to do with the election. Rather, the Lebanese Forces sought to show they controlled the streets in Christian areas, where young men had been deployed to prevent manifestations of support for the Assad regime.

Their actions were aimed at showing that a framework exists for a local protection force if need be, even ultimately a militia. The Lebanese Forces were implying that they still can be the defenders of Christian-majority areas, as they were during the civil war years.

The calculations may not be military at this stage. This is not about preparing for conflict so much as taking preventive measures in case the state can no longer ensure the safety of citizens. Already, security personnel, earning salaries now worth nothing, often fail to respond when called to intervene in disputes.

There is a tendency among many people to associate what is happening with the experience of the civil war. They think if self-defence groups arise outside the realm of the state, civil war and sectarian conflict will follow.

While that cannot be ruled out, it is hardly inevitable. As the activities of sectarian self-defence groups become institutionalised, their interests may indeed clash with those of other groups, creating tensions. However, it is equally, if not more, possible that we may see something different – a form of creeping and informal national unravelling, without military implications, that gradually takes on permanence at the expense of the idea of an interconnected state.

It is alarming that many Lebanese do not seem particularly committed to maintaining a unitary Lebanese state. This varies according to community, but certainly in many Christian areas, the idea of separation is generally seen as something positive for two reasons: Christians are conscious that they are a shrinking minority; and some believe that because Lebanon is under Hezbollah’s and Iran’s thumb, it is preferable to break away from such a condition.

It is alarming that many Lebanese do not seem particularly committed to maintaining a unitary Lebanese state

Hezbollah’s reaction to the economic crisis has highlighted the fractured nature of how political parties have started adapting to the situation. The party is selling subsidised Iranian goods in its areas, as well as offering credit facilities outside the state’s authority. While the effect of such steps on the wider Shiite community remains to be seen, the party’s message is plain: We will take care of our own and don’t really care what happens to the rest of Lebanese society.

However, there are also factors playing against full separation. Hezbollah may have dollars to be able to engage in such activities – whether provided by Iran or other financiers, or from its trafficking activities abroad. But most other sectarian parties have few sustainable sources of foreign currency. In other words, if sectarian-majority enclaves begin taking shape, the development of functioning economies is likely to be much more complicated, if at all possible.

Syrian voters residing in Lebanon carry portraits of President Bashar al-Assad, one of the candidates in the upcoming presidential election in Syria, as they line up the road from the eastern outskirts of Beirut to Baabda to vote at the Syrian embassy on May 20, 2021. A Syrian former minister and a member of the Damascus-tolerated opposition will face President Bashar al-Assad in the May 26 presidential election. The last presidential elections in 2014 were the first such multi-candidate polls in Syria, but only two other candidates were approved and Assad won with an official 88 percent of the vote. / AFP / ANWAR AMRO
Syrian voters in Lebanon, some carrying portraits of President Bashar Al Assad, as they line up on the the outskirts of Beirut to Baabda to vote at the Syrian embassy on May 20. AFP 

This implies that the economic prerequisites for separation are not guaranteed. It is far more likely that amid de facto fragmentation, Hezbollah would become a major national economic driver. If the state’s foreign currency reserves run out – Lebanon is almost there – it is conceivable that Hezbollah could guarantee vital necessities such as fuel imports, for example, and sell to different parts of the country. In effect, the Lebanese would begin financing the party, not Iran.

However, whether Hezbollah would allow Lebanon to break apart is unclear. It may yet favour a state to legitimise its role. But that does not mean it would oppose a more fragmented system if that becomes inevitable. Such an order could force sectarian parties to absorb popular discontent, so that less anger is directed against Hezbollah, and facilitate the party’s divide and conquer strategy.

The real question is whether, if the system fragments and this becomes ingrained, Lebanon can be re-established on the same foundations as it was previously. There is a real risk that a new social contract would have to be found to replace the one that the economic collapse is now helping to undermine.

The current social contract, while labelled a pact between different sects, became a system that apportioned national wealth among sectarian leaders and bankrupted the country. Reviving that arrangement is impossible today. Either the Lebanese must find a new consensus around a vision for the state, or their country’s centrifugal forces will continue to drive society in disparate directions. Even if Lebanon remains as one, those dynamics will not disappear.

Michael Young is a Lebanon columnist for The National