Skip to main content

John Andrews is a former editor and foreign correspondent for The Economist, and is the author of The World in Conflict: Understanding the World’s Troublespots.

Haram Lubnan. Poor Lebanon.

As if hosting more than a million refugees from the Syrian war next door, an economy in free fall and COVID-19 weren’t enough, now the catastrophic destruction of the port of Beirut has left more than 150 dead, more than 6,000 injured and some 300,000 people – 5 per cent of the population – homeless. What can end this tale of woe for a country whose capital once saw itself as the Paris of the Middle East?

Sadly, that image is long gone, destroyed by the 1975-1990 civil war, corruption and regional turmoil. The hapless government called for a state of emergency in the wake of the port blast, only to be confronted by demonstrators chanting the slogan that almost a decade ago sparked the Arab Spring: “Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam.” Which, in essence, translates to: “The people want the overthrow of the regime.”

Although the government has now resigned, popular fury is set to increase. On Aug. 18, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon in the Hague will issue its verdict on the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Four members of Hezbollah – the Shia militia and political party backed by Iran and Syria – have been tried in absentia for the bombing of Mr. Hariri’s motorcade.

Whatever the Special Tribunal’s verdict, political tensions will rise. Hezbollah, classified as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, enjoys widespread Shia support. Its militia is more powerful than the Lebanese army and it has a powerful bloc in parliament.

Just as the presence of Palestinian guerrillas and their “state within a state” was a factor in Lebanon’s civil war, so Hezbollah’s “state above the state” will provoke still more calls – by Lebanese and outsiders alike – to end a system in which political and economic power is allocated not by merit, but by religious sect.

But is that what “the people,” with their banners calling for thawra (revolution), really want? Lebanon, carved out of the Middle East a century ago by the Sykes-Picot accord between Britain and France, is a mosaic of Christians, Muslims, Druze, and others (some 18 sects are officially recognized). In 1943, when France ended its League of Nations mandate, independent Lebanon’s political leaders declared an unwritten “National Pact” under which the president would be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.

As the first prime minister Riad al-Solh put it, the aim was to “Lebanonize Lebanese Muslims and to Arabize Lebanon’s Christians.” The Christians were to distance themselves from the West and the Muslims were to abandon the idea of Lebanon as part of a larger Arab nation.

The original premise was that Christians and Muslims were more or less equal in number. But the most recent census in Lebanon was conducted in 1932, and it is clear that Christians now comprise just a third of Lebanon’s citizens.

But why adjust the system to reflect demographic reality if the result would be another bout of sectarian warfare? The Taif agreement that led to the end of 15 years of civil war only tinkered at the edges, giving Muslims parity with Christians in parliament and enhancing the power of the prime minister.

Lebanon’s demonstrators have long demanded an end to confessional power-sharing and an end to meddling by a host of foreign powers, from America and Israel to Syria and Iran. Their one success was that domestic and international revulsion at the murder of Mr. Hariri forced Syria to withdraw its troops in 2005, 29 years after they began “safeguarding” Lebanon.

Lebanon has always been a fragile construction. When I lived in Beirut in the 1970s, the city was indeed the cosmopolitan “Paris of the Middle East,” until the civil war, abetted by outside powers, fragmented it into heavily armed neighbourhoods in which the religion listed on one’s identification card could mean life or death.

Given the sophistication and entrepreneurial energy of the Lebanese, it is conceivable that ending the confessional system would turn fragility into strength. But I doubt it.

The real challenge is to enforce accountability. It is shameful that the warlords of the 1970s and 1980s have become not statesmen but mobs in charge of protection rackets (power cuts, for example, provide easy money for suppliers of diesel generators). It is shameful that selfish bankers and official reluctance to guarantee urgent economic and financial reform have stalled negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.

The Lebanese deserve better. In the wake of the disaster in Beirut, the open question of how they will achieve it has become more difficult than ever to answer.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.