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Macron in Beirut: When the past and present converge



Past legacies and memories are arguably a potent political force in Lebanon, as well as in other Middle East countries. Not least among them is the neighbor of Lebanon to the south, Israel. Mentioning past legacies inevitably bring to mind particular dates which are closely associated with them, and in the case of Lebanon , one date stands out as very crucial, a defining moment: This is September 1, 1920, some would say midnight of August 31, the date when France announced the creation of a new state, Le Grand Liban.

So, it is clearly the case, that French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Lebanon on September 1 is not a coincidence.
Macron’s first visit in Lebanon was right after the explosion on August 4, which caused at least 190 deaths, 6,500 injuries, left an estimated 300,000 people homeless and devastated parts of Beirut.

In fact, the explosion caused much more than physical damage. It actually presented the Lebanese with a question so many times asked, “Lebanon: Quo vadis?”

Tens of thousands of Lebanese signed a petition calling for the restoration of the French mandate over the country, giving their answer to this question. Macron himself told the Lebanese that they need to create a “new order’” in their country.

This is a problematic term, reminiscent of the dark days of L’Ordre Nouveau of Vichy France, but still one that makes sense in the Lebanese context. The creation of Greater Lebanon by France was one such attempt to create a “new order.”

For two years, between 1918-1920, the future of the Levant was a matter of controversy between the imperial victors of World War I – Britain and France – Arab nationalists, Jewish nationalists and also a new political force, local Christians, mainly Maronite Catholics led by a charismatic Patriarch, Elias Hawayek (1843-1931), who wanted to use the circumstance of the downfall of the Ottoman Empireto establish a new Christian-dominated state, dependent on France, the traditional protector of “our little brothers of the Orient.” With the help of his French Conservative, Catholic allies, he got the prize he fought for. When French General Henri Gouraud entered Beirut and declared the creation of the new state, he added the ominous, emotive and significant line, that “this is the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.” And so the fix of 1920 turned out to be the beginning of a century of strife, and not the end of previous centuries of similar troubles. Throughout the last century, the entire complicated history of Lebanon can be summed up as an ongoing attempt to look for a “new order,” a fix to the problems that lead to civil wars.

This is a history which is focused on what already happened, and what can still happen. Sami Hermez, a Lebanese scholar based in Qatar, artfully described this grim reality in a book published just a few years back, War is Coming;Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon.

In it, he argued, based on an extensive field research, that the Lebanese themselves are living in the shadow of the grim awareness that ’”something” is imminent, and “something” means bad news. It does not mean political misunderstanding between different factions and communities. It means war, because political differences in Lebanon usually are contested and resolved through bloodshed. Amid the periods of conflict and violence, there were two notable “new orders” which need to be specifically explained.

One was the National Covenant of 1943, a Lebanese arrangement reflecting the interests of the then two prominent religious communities, the Catholic Maronites and the Sunni Muslims. It was based on three principles: Lebanon must be independent, Lebanon must stay an Arab state, and Lebanon’s political system must be based on confessionalism, with a Maronite president and Sunni prime minister.

It was a winning formula at the time, as it reflected internal Lebanese agreement, backed by a conducive regional reality and unchallenged by international pressures. The formula crumbled, however, when all these conditions seemed to have become irrelevant as of the late 1960s, leading to the greatest of all Lebanese civil wars, that of 1975-1990.

Michel Shih’a, one of the architects of modern Lebanon wrote that “living in Lebanon is a bliss which will continue unless the ideologists and reformers become strong enough to put an end to it.” Sadly enough, Shih’a’s fears proved to be in place. These were reformers and ideologues, the rising new power of the Shia community and the impact of the external actors – Palestinians, Israel, Syria and Iran – which provided the background to this atrocious civil war.

What has happened in Lebanon since 1990 gives us a good introduction to the present great crisis. In a way, Lebanon has healed in an impressive way from the horrors of the 15-year-war. The “new order,” known as the Tai’f Accords of October 1990, provided the political umbrella, creating a different intercommunal balance in parliament and government, reducing Christian power and increasing the Muslim one.

Yet rebuilding political institutions, even with differences from the past, is one thing, but rebuilding society, rehabilitating the human aspect, the relationships which were destroyed, the lives shattered , is something else altogether, and this is why Hermez left his readers with the sober realization that “being unable to deal with the war’s causes facilitated war’s anticipation into the future.” One of the main socio-political changes in Lebanon – in fact, a major change in the domestic, communal balance of power – has to do with the rise of the Shi’ite community starting in the 1960s. It was intensified and accelerated by the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 and the fallout from the Israeli invasion of 1982.

Interestingly enough, it was Ariel Sharon, the real architect and instigator of the 1982 war, who referred to the creation of a “new order” in Lebanon. Be it as it may, the fact is that the rise of the Shi’ites led also to a change of orientation among them about the direction of Lebanon.

Until the late 1970s, the Shi’ites were firmly in the camp of those who wanted to maintain a multi-communal, Arab-oriented Lebanese state, though with improvements in their own status.

The rising power of Hezbollah in the 1980s and onward led to something else, the prevalence of Shi’ite communal interests over those of the Lebanese state. In actual terms, it meant choosing Iran over Lebanon, and the most dramatic example of that was and still is Iran’s full participation in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar Assad, Tehran’s ally.

Under Hezbollah, the Shi’ites moved up in the Lebanese socio-political structure from being on the very bottom of the scale to becoming the most potent force, chiefly because of their command of the strongest military force in the country, a force stronger than the official security forces of the state.

This is the so-called “resistance,” supposedly the only force in Lebanon ready to confront the “Israeli occupation,” which in the reality of Lebanon is a manufactured problem. It is not only the view of the Israelis. Much more importantly is the fact that this is the view of most Lebanese outside of the Shia community, and this is where Hezbollah is confronted with a major challenge – how to act as a responsible government and not as a revolutionary “resistance” movement.

The problem is there because in the last few years Lebanon has witnessed the most serious economic crisis in its history coupled with rampant corruption, government ineptitude and a general sense among Lebanese that the mechanism of government ceased to exist.

According to Transparency International, Lebanon was ranked 138 out of 175 countries in the 2018 Corruption Perception Index. The national debt soared to the point where Lebanon’s economy was “between Mount Lebanon to mountains of debt,” unemployment soared, and for the first time since World War II, starvation became a problem.

This is where Hezbollah found itself facing a major problem – whom to blame at a time when the blame was on its own doorstep. Many Lebanese believe that the shadow of an imminent war with Israel instigated by Hezbollah as well as a civil war caused by its ever-growing power deter foreign investment and international economic rescue efforts.

Hezbollah has become the problem, not the solution. It is in this context that we need to understand the shock waves caused by the Beirut explosion. It seems to have confirmed to so many Lebanese the feeling that there may be a need for a “new order” – yet another one – in order to recreate the failing state.

There is a famous Lebanese proverb, “Forget the past, learn the lessons,” but so many Lebanese simply expect the past to repeat itself and are surely divided about its lessons. It is, therefore, very doubtful whether Macron can prove to be the man of destiny.

The Lebanese are the ones who should do it for themselves, and as sad as it is, they have proved time and again, that they cannot do that. So much for the words of the great Lebanese poet/philosopher, Khalil Gibran, “My Lebanon is a serene mountain sitting between the sea and the plains, like a poet between one eternity and another.” What a great, sad country. ■ The writer is a Middle East expert who has taught at Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University, Cornell University, City College of New York and York University (Canada), and is currently at the University of South Carolina, where he was chosen as best professor for 2019 by the student newspaperMacron in Beirut: When the past and present converge By Josef Olmert

Past legacies and memories are arguably a potent political force in Lebanon, as well as in other Middle East countries. Not least among them is the neighbor of Lebanon to the south, Israel. Mentioning past legacies inevitably bring to mind particular dates which are closely associated with them, and in the case of Lebanon , one date stands out as very crucial, a defining moment: This is September 1, 1920, some would say midnight of August 31, the date when France announced the creation of a new state, Le Grand Liban.

So, it is clearly the case, that French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Lebanon on September 1 is not a coincidence.

Macron’s first visit in Lebanon was right after the explosion on August 4, which caused at least 190 deaths, 6,500 injuries, left an estimated 300,000 people homeless and devastated parts of Beirut.

In fact, the explosion caused much more than physical damage. It actually presented the Lebanese with a question so many times asked, “Lebanon: Quo vadis?”

Tens of thousands of Lebanese signed a petition calling for the restoration of the French mandate over the country, giving their answer to this question. Macron himself told the Lebanese that they need to create a “new order’” in their country.

This is a problematic term, reminiscent of the dark days of L’Ordre Nouveau of Vichy France, but still one that makes sense in the Lebanese context. The creation of Greater Lebanon by France was one such attempt to create a “new order.”

For two years, between 1918-1920, the future of the Levant was a matter of controversy between the imperial victors of World War I – Britain and France – Arab nationalists, Jewish nationalists and also a new political force, local Christians, mainly Maronite Catholics led by a charismatic Patriarch, Elias Hawayek (1843-1931), who wanted to use the circumstance of the downfall of the Ottoman Empireto establish a new Christian-dominated state, dependent on France, the traditional protector of “our little brothers of the Orient.” With the help of his French Conservative, Catholic allies, he got the prize he fought for. When French General Henri Gouraud entered Beirut and declared the creation of the new state, he added the ominous, emotive and significant line, that “this is the victory of the Cross over the Crescent.” And so the fix of 1920 turned out to be the beginning of a century of strife, and not the end of previous centuries of similar troubles. Throughout the last century, the entire complicated history of Lebanon can be summed up as an ongoing attempt to look for a “new order,” a fix to the problems that lead to civil wars.

This is a history which is focused on what already happened, and what can still happen. Sami Hermez, a Lebanese scholar based in Qatar, artfully described this grim reality in a book published just a few years back, War is Coming;Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon.

In it, he argued, based on an extensive field research, that the Lebanese themselves are living in the shadow of the grim awareness that ’”something” is imminent, and “something” means bad news. It does not mean political misunderstanding between different factions and communities. It means war, because political differences in Lebanon usually are contested and resolved through bloodshed. Amid the periods of conflict and violence, there were two notable “new orders” which need to be specifically explained.

One was the National Covenant of 1943, a Lebanese arrangement reflecting the interests of the then two prominent religious communities, the Catholic Maronites and the Sunni Muslims. It was based on three principles: Lebanon must be independent, Lebanon must stay an Arab state, and Lebanon’s political system must be based on confessionalism, with a Maronite president and Sunni prime minister.

It was a winning formula at the time, as it reflected internal Lebanese agreement, backed by a conducive regional reality and unchallenged by international pressures. The formula crumbled, however, when all these conditions seemed to have become irrelevant as of the late 1960s, leading to the greatest of all Lebanese civil wars, that of 1975-1990.

Michel Shih’a, one of the architects of modern Lebanon wrote that “living in Lebanon is a bliss which will continue unless the ideologists and reformers become strong enough to put an end to it.” Sadly enough, Shih’a’s fears proved to be in place. These were reformers and ideologues, the rising new power of the Shia community and the impact of the external actors – Palestinians, Israel, Syria and Iran – which provided the background to this atrocious civil war.

What has happened in Lebanon since 1990 gives us a good introduction to the present great crisis. In a way, Lebanon has healed in an impressive way from the horrors of the 15-year-war. The “new order,” known as the Tai’f Accords of October 1990, provided the political umbrella, creating a different intercommunal balance in parliament and government, reducing Christian power and increasing the Muslim one.

Yet rebuilding political institutions, even with differences from the past, is one thing, but rebuilding society, rehabilitating the human aspect, the relationships which were destroyed, the lives shattered , is something else altogether, and this is why Hermez left his readers with the sober realization that “being unable to deal with the war’s causes facilitated war’s anticipation into the future.” One of the main socio-political changes in Lebanon – in fact, a major change in the domestic, communal balance of power – has to do with the rise of the Shi’ite community starting in the 1960s. It was intensified and accelerated by the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979 and the fallout from the Israeli invasion of 1982.

Interestingly enough, it was Ariel Sharon, the real architect and instigator of the 1982 war, who referred to the creation of a “new order” in Lebanon. Be it as it may, the fact is that the rise of the Shi’ites led also to a change of orientation among them about the direction of Lebanon.

Until the late 1970s, the Shi’ites were firmly in the camp of those who wanted to maintain a multi-communal, Arab-oriented Lebanese state, though with improvements in their own status.

The rising power of Hezbollah in the 1980s and onward led to something else, the prevalence of Shi’ite communal interests over those of the Lebanese state. In actual terms, it meant choosing Iran over Lebanon, and the most dramatic example of that was and still is Iran’s full participation in the Syrian civil war on the side of Bashar Assad, Tehran’s ally.

Under Hezbollah, the Shi’ites moved up in the Lebanese socio-political structure from being on the very bottom of the scale to becoming the most potent force, chiefly because of their command of the strongest military force in the country, a force stronger than the official security forces of the state.

This is the so-called “resistance,” supposedly the only force in Lebanon ready to confront the “Israeli occupation,” which in the reality of Lebanon is a manufactured problem. It is not only the view of the Israelis. Much more importantly is the fact that this is the view of most Lebanese outside of the Shia community, and this is where Hezbollah is confronted with a major challenge – how to act as a responsible government and not as a revolutionary “resistance” movement.

The problem is there because in the last few years Lebanon has witnessed the most serious economic crisis in its history coupled with rampant corruption, government ineptitude and a general sense among Lebanese that the mechanism of government ceased to exist.

According to Transparency International, Lebanon was ranked 138 out of 175 countries in the 2018 Corruption Perception Index. The national debt soared to the point where Lebanon’s economy was “between Mount Lebanon to mountains of debt,” unemployment soared, and for the first time since World War II, starvation became a problem.

This is where Hezbollah found itself facing a major problem – whom to blame at a time when the blame was on its own doorstep. Many Lebanese believe that the shadow of an imminent war with Israel instigated by Hezbollah as well as a civil war caused by its ever-growing power deter foreign investment and international economic rescue efforts.

Hezbollah has become the problem, not the solution. It is in this context that we need to understand the shock waves caused by the Beirut explosion. It seems to have confirmed to so many Lebanese the feeling that there may be a need for a “new order” – yet another one – in order to recreate the failing state.

There is a famous Lebanese proverb, “Forget the past, learn the lessons,” but so many Lebanese simply expect the past to repeat itself and are surely divided about its lessons. It is, therefore, very doubtful whether Macron can prove to be the man of destiny.

The Lebanese are the ones who should do it for themselves, and as sad as it is, they have proved time and again, that they cannot do that. So much for the words of the great Lebanese poet/philosopher, Khalil Gibran, “My Lebanon is a serene mountain sitting between the sea and the plains, like a poet between one eternity and another.” What a great, sad country. The writer is a Middle East expert who has taught at Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Bar-Ilan University, Cornell University, City College of New York and York University (Canada), and is currently at the University of South Carolina, where he was chosen as best professor for 2019 by the student newspaper 





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