By Heino Matzken, M.Sc. Ph.D.
The economic and political situation in the former “Switzerland of the Middle East” was already bad, but October 14th made it even worse! The shootings between members of the Shiite movements Hezbollah (“Party of God”) and Amal (“Hope”) against Christian militias and the official army, the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), lasted hours on the streets of Beirut.
Seven dead and over 30 injured paid the price of a political bet. The Shiite parties tried to prevent progress in the investigation of the port explosion last year and demanded that the responsible judge Tarek Bitar be replaced. To underline this demand, members of their militias organized a rally in front of the Palace of Justice (within a Christian quarter), which escalated and led to this tragedy. Above all, the clash demonstrated two things that have dominated the country in the past and will continue to rule it in the future: that the warlords and patriarchs of the civil war are still in power and that sectarian tensions between the 18 officially recognized denominations remain existent.
But let’s start at the beginning. In 1920 the French mandate created modern Lebanon by separating the Lebanon Mountain, the coastal strip with the main ports of Saida, Beirut and Tripoli as well as the fertile Beqaa Valley from Syria. The original French idea was to create “a safe haven” for Christians in the Middle East, especially the Maronites. Unfortunately, the foundation was never accepted by Damascus and initially not by a large part of the Lebanese population. Since then, many different religious and ethnic groups have been “doomed” to live and thrive together.
However, a strong, intelligent and diplomatic leadership, represented by the Maronite President Bishara al-Khuri and the Sunni Prime Minister Riad Al Solh, succeeded in reaching an agreement in 1943 with the signing of the so-called “National Pact”. This agreement provided for the sharing of power among the most important religious groups in the young country. The unwritten agreement laid the foundation for Lebanon as a multi-confessional state that has shaped the country to this day. Since then, the president has had to be a Christian Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shiite.
Even the number of seats in parliament was predefined and guaranteed a 6:5 ratio in favor of Christians (including Eastern Orthodox, Melkite Catholics, Armenian Orthodox and Protestants). A compromise was found that allowed the country to prosper but did not change the basic problems. The patriarchal system in connection with confessional frictions prevented the building of a “real nation”. People living in Lebanon first identify with their family / village / area, then with their religion and only last with their “homeland”! There are Shiites from Nabatiya, Druze from the Chouf Mountains or Maronites from Jounieh. But there aren’t many Lebanese.
The 15-year civil war, that began with the Palestinian refugee problem and continued with the invasions of Israel and Syria, has deepened the rifts between the various groups. The reorganization and the new rules of power-sharing in the Saudi city of Taif in 1989 ended the civil war, but did not lead to civil peace. Unfortunately, the peace accord allowed Hezbollah as the only faction to keep its weapons because of its role as “defender of Lebanon against Israel”. All of the old warlords continued to dominate the political scene. They further strengthened their positions through lucrative posts in frequently changing governments. At the same time, they filled their own pockets at the expense of the state.
Money that came in through “foreigners” or loans from friendly countries and the global community was not invested in infrastructure, schools or the health system. It disappeared – slowly and into many different pockets. The “Switzerland of the Middle East” steered into bankruptcy. In October 2019, young and well-educated people, tired of nepotism, took to the streets and overthrew the Saad Hariri government. But nothing has happened since then! The world community is calling for reforms before it financially supports Lebanon, young people are leaving the country by the thousands, and the old warlords continue to block any change in the political system. In order to keep the population calm, the prices for fuel, medicines and basic foodstuffs were lowered through subsidies. The former “Bank of the Gulf States” has slowly used up all its reserves, always hoping that an angel will step in.
The self-created political and economic system failed last year when Lebanon was unable to pay its debts for the first time in March 2020. Since then, a political dead end, the port explosion in August 2020 and the increasing economic crises associated with the pandemic took away the last hope of many Lebanese – especially the young and well-educated. While job opportunities are rare, more and more families are “activating” their private networks around the world. Young people are starting to study abroad and engineers, doctors or nurses are trying to find jobs in the USA, Canada or France.
After 13 months without political leadership, billionaire Miqati formed a new government this September. Although hopes have risen for a few weeks (the unofficial exchange rate temporarily fell from 22,000 Lebanese pounds for one US dollar to 12,000), real and much-needed reforms are not expected. The period is too short until the preparations for the parliamentary elections in spring 2022 will dominate the political agenda again. Although the new ministers, some of them experts in their fields, are motivated to get real results, change is unlikely to be accepted by all parties. The sectarian clashes on October 14th underscored this prediction.
While Judge Tarek Bitar wants to investigate the reasons for the port explosion in August 2020 and demands accountability, Hezbollah and Amal (unofficially the port is dominated by Hezbollah) fear possible revelations about responsibility for the disaster. To put pressure on the Miqati-government to replace the investigating judge Bitar, a protest march by the Iran-backed militia had been announced. What began as a demonstration escalated into a shootout between Hezbollah and Amal fighters, as well as Christians and LAF soldiers. Seven people died and paid the price of a political game. One of the many reasons the clashes had such a resonance was the location. The civil war also began in April 1975 in the Christian suburb of Ain al-Remmaneh on the southeastern edge of Beirut. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah then warned in a speech that he could command 100,000 fighters. The Christian leader of the “Lebanese Armed Forces”, Samir Geagea (also a former civil warlord), replied that his party has no militia and is not looking for a war, but will defend itself if necessary. The consequences are short, medium and long term.
Although the government is still officially in office, Hezbollah and Amal have blackmailed Miqati and normal work among cabinet members is no longer possible. Trust – if it ever existed – between the various members of the government is destroyed. In the medium term, inter-confessional tensions could break out again and many people fear that there will be clashes between Sunnis, Shiites and Christians again in the upcoming weeks and months.
Some even fear another “7th of May”. In 2008, Hezbollah fighters invaded West Beirut to destroy Sunni and Druze opponents that day. A second civil war seems to be looming. But the most important consequence of the “Ain al-Remmaneh shots” is another setback for hopes for a successful and peaceful future. No reconciliation seems achievable, no government is in the position to introduce reforms, and no politician takes the responsibility of laying the basis for a future that could persuade the young population to stay! Lebanese politicians have ruled for decades, some since the early 70s. They survived civil war, assassinations, riots and other unrest. Now they are desperately struggling to hold onto their positions and wealth as the country continues to crumble and suffer from one of the world’s worst economic collapses in decades, a former paradise and a place where diverse ethnic groups and religions meet peaceful coexistence can become a “failed state”.
Let us hope that the various leaders of the “cedar state” rethink their strategies and find an urgently needed solution for the good of all people and for the stability of the region!
For further information: https://heinomatzken.jimdofree.com