The Middle East is a complicated place, no doubt about that. In more ways than one Lebanon seems to be the most complicated place in the Middle East. My interest in the region as a scholar began when I read Pulitzer Prize winner Thomas L. Friedman’s book, “From Beirut to Jerusalem.” The book describes the time he spent as The New York Times bureau chief in both of these cities in the 1980s. The book describes the complex identities of the Middle East, a region where national identity places third and fourth to religious and tribal identities.
Friedman aptly describes Lebanon as a country populated by Muslims, Christians or Druze first, before they are Lebanese. But they are Sunni or Shiia before they are Muslim and Maronite or Greek Orthodox before they are Western Christians. But it goes deeper than that; Before they are Maronite they belong to the Gemayel clan or the Farangia clan, and before they are Druze they are part of the Gunbalat clan or the Arslan clan.
Things Have Not Changed Much in Lebanon Since the Bloody Civil War of the 1980s
Things have not changed much in Lebanon since the 1980s. After the bloody civil war that claimed tens of thousands of lives Lebanon was able to rebuild a functioning state system. But it is merely a thin layer over a volcano of tribal politics ready to erupt and once more throw this country into the horrors of tribal warfare.
There has been a transitional government in Lebanon the past six months. After the explosion of highly explosive fertilizers stored in unsafe conditions in the port of Beirut killed some 200 people and injured many more, the government of then prime minister Hassan Diab resigned. In his resignation speech, Diab said, “We carried the Lebanese people’s demand for change. But a very thick and thorny wall separates us from change; a wall fortified by a class that is resorting to all dirty methods in order to resist and preserve its gains, its positions and its ability to control the State.”
Diab was echoing the feelings of so many in Lebanon who are tired of a country on the brink of collapse, crippled by a stagnant economy and deep corruption that protects strong political and financial dynasties.
Since 2019 there have been mass demonstrations all over Lebanon where young protestors from all religious communities attack the systemic failures of the Lebanese political system. These mass demonstrations began well before the explosion, but have only intensified since.
The Young Generation of Lebanon Wants to Save the Country from Its Failing Tribal Models
These demonstrations, organized via social media and documented on YouTube, show on a weekly basis that the young generation of Lebanon wants to save the country from its failing tribal models. The economic crisis runs so deep it has brought the country to a state of bankruptcy, unemployment is at all-time highs and the local currency is worthless.
The criticisms of the protesters have worried the traditional leadership, Hezbollah most of all. This Shiite political party, which has its own private army, is the strongest political force in Lebanon. It is controlled by Teheran and its leader Hassan Nasrallah, who serves as its political and religious leader.
Nasrallah has involved the Shiites in the civil war in Syria, costing the lives of countless young Shiite fighters whom he sent to save the Assad regime. As the most powerful political player in the intricacies of Lebanese politics, Nasrallah is also seen as responsible in many ways for the continued state of stagnation.
In an article by Ibrahim Al-Amin, editor of the pro-Hezbollah daily Al-Akhbar as translated by Middle Eastern Media Research Institute, he wrote: “With the exception of [prominent Lebanese novelist and intellectual] Elias Khoury, I could not find in the recent decade, among the Lebanese elites that fiercely oppose Hezbollah and the resistance axis, anyone who continues to criticize the regimes in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa, which capitulate [to the West].”
Al-Amin went on to claim that members of those elites, without exception, do not hide that they “directly belong to the camp led by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, the UAE and ‘Israel,’ a camp whose goal is clear and definite,” that is “to subordinate Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia and Palestine to the West, to its protégé Israel and to [the countries] that support them.”
Al-Amin Goes on to Claim that the Issue Is the West versus Islam
This is the usual verbiage of the region and Hezbollah, but here al-Amin also goes on to claim that the issue is the West versus Islam, Western traditional values of liberalism and their clash with the religious values of Islam. Khoury writes in his article that the protestors are representing the West and its value system.
This is no mystery; everybody understands what is at stake here. In a March 2 interview with Springfield, Virginia-based Alhurra TV, the leader of the Maronite Church, Cardinal Bechara Raï, said that while the Maronite Patriarchate supports peace over war, “in Lebanon it is Hezbollah, and not the Lebanese state, that calls the shots.”
The next few months might bring major changes for Lebanon. An agreement between the U.S. and the regime in Teheran might allow a resolution of the civil war in Syria, which might also include some agreements for Lebanon.
With the help of Russia, Hezbollah might find itself with a new reality and Lebanon might finally advance in a new direction. Hezbollah has much to lose if there are major changes in the power-sharing structure in Lebanon. The actions and decisions made in Teheran, Moscow and Damascus in the next few months will have a long-lasting effect on the future of this fragmented country.