Sunday, October 09, 2005

The Lebanese Phoenix?

Primary Red's posting yesterday inspired me. Lebanon is at the cross roads of Europe and the Arab world. A Mediterranean state of 4, 015 square miles and a population of 3.8 million, it is the only Arab country that upholds a separation of religion and the state. This is a nation of minorities, whose delicate confessional balance facilitated a cosmopolitan ethos, press freedoms, a vibrant social space and the highest rate of literacy in the Middle East. It also resulted in a 15 year civil war from 1975 to 1990.

With the Arab conquests of the Levant in the 7th century, many dissident minority groups withdrew into the less accessible mountain fastness of Lebanon. The Maronites and later the Druze come to mind. Others such as the Greek Orthodox and the Sunni remained in flourishing urban areas to continue a life of cosmopolitan commerce while the hitherto largely rural Shi'ite remain impoverished in the southern districts. The patchwork nation had a 54% Christian population in 1932 although a religious census has not been held since then. The Christian population, itself not homogenous, declined in recent decades due to immigration triggered by the civil war and lower birthrates. This demographic change had political implications. The 1990 Sa'udi sponsored Ta'if accord, which ended the 15 year civil war, witnessed the transfer of much of the executive power from the Christian presidency to the Sunni Prime Ministership.

Lebanon's fractured yet vibrant sectarian dynamic was its strength and weakness. The Syrians, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the Iranians interfered in Lebanese politics undermining that country's political stability. Lebanon was a part of Syria until 1920 when the French colonial authorities carved it out to ensure political space for the region's unique Christian community and more importantly a continued French toehold in the Middle East. Syria never recognized this "partition". Syrian troops intervened at the commencement of the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Likewise, a tacit Syrian Iranian alliance led to the strengthening of Hizbollah amongst the disenfranchised Shi'ite population in Lebanon's south in the 1990s. The assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February, 2005 set in trail international condemnation and domestic opposition that forced the Syrian withdrawal after a gap of 30 years.

Armed Palestinian militant groups, exiled from Jordan in 1971 after Black September, moved to Lebanon and used it as a base to attack Israel. The earlier influx of Palestinian refugees in the late 1940s had upset the delicate religious balance in Lebanon. The radicalization of this refugee population due to the Palestinian Liberation Organization consolidating its presence in Lebanon precipitated the civil war in 1975. The Maronite Phalangist militia attacked Palestinian civilians while the Israelis invaded southern Lebanon in 1978. The Israelis withdrew only to re-invade in 1982 as part of Operation Peace for Galilee. The Israeli intervention led to the eviction of the PLO from Lebanon although the decommissioning of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine linked to Syria remains unfinished. Israel unilaterally pulled out in May, 2000 after a periof of 18 years in the face of unremitting and determined Hizbollah resistance. The parallels with Gaza and Hamas are unmistakable. The Syrian, Palestinian and Israeli dynamic has to that extent been reduced.

UN Security Council Resolution 1559 calls for the disarming of all militant groups in Lebanon. The nature of the Lebanese local polity is unlikely to ensure the decommissioning of the Shi'ite Hizbollah. However, Lebanese pluralism stripped of international involvement will facilitate the need for cross sectarian accommodation that might encourage Hezbollah to rethink its Iranian links.

The as yet fragile and uncertain de-internationalization of Lebanese politics offers the political space for Lebanon to resume its role as the vibrant commercial hub at the cross roads of international cultures. While its per capita income is only US$ 5,000 owing to the long years of conflict, the prospects for the re-emergence of the Levantine phoenix are significant.


Primary Red said...

One quibble here.

To portray Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon as a consequence of Hezbollah terrorism is a mistaken view. Similarly, Hamas has little to do with the Gaza withdrawal.

Israel could've stayed in these parts infinitely, but for larger geo-political reasons, it withdrew on its own terms.

Best regards.

Sukhinder said...

Here's trivia for you, Jaffna. The Druze stand in a puzzling relationship with the Muslims. The Druze do not consider themselves Muslim but for political purposes have aligned themselves with them in Lebanon. Much like the Sikhs and Hindus in pre independence Punjab.


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