By Marc J. Sirois | Thursday, 05.31.2012, 08:00 AM
More than a year after it began, what we Westerners have taken to calling the Arab Spring has finally come to Lebanon – and like much of the country’s economy and politics, it arrives as an import that can benefit only the very few.
Predictably, understanding what is happening – and what is not happening – in Lebanon requires reference to neighboring Syria. Just six years removed from mass protests and heavy Western pressure that ended its “tutelage” in Lebanon after almost 30 years, Damascus now faces an open revolt at home, one which, involving the use of heavy weapons on both sides and a death toll of approximately 10,000, now qualifies as a civil war.
There are many reasons why the uprising in Syria has followed a path so different from those in places like Egypt and Tunisia, none more telling than the fact that the country is, after all, Syria. For this reason, nothing that happens there can be interpreted without taking account of regional implications.
When Syrian President Bashar Assad said as much in a recent interview with Russian television, some saw it as a threat to retaliate against countries and/or sub-national groups believed to be smuggling guns and insurgents into Syria. Regardless of his intentions, he was surely stating one side of an inescapable fact: no regional actor can reasonably expect to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs without an eventual day of reckoning. The other side, though, is that given Syria’s centrality to the Arab world on so many levels – its ancient civilization, geographical position, strategic weight, etc. – the opportunity (real or imagined) to influence future events in Damascus has been too tempting for some actors to resist.
The concept of plausible deniability is as old as intrigue itself, however, so no one wants his own fingerprints on the weapons being sent to various rebels operating in or near Syria. So who would get left holding the proverbial bag? Why, Lebanon, of course. Just as it was left alone on the front line to face the vaunted might of Israel’s US-equipped military machine, so is it now being used as a staging ground for those determined to tip the balance in Syria’s civil war.
Needless to say, Lebanon did not volunteer for either role. But the Lebanese state has been too weak, the Lebanese population too divided, and outside players too cynical and selfish, for events to have turned out otherwise.
The same factors have served to inoculate Lebanon against the popular protests that have swept much of the Arab world: there is no monolithic, repressive state against which one might rebel; the country’s class and sectarian divisions prevent the emergence of truly national political action; and the one belief that all the outside meddlers share is that if they can’t control Lebanon, no one else (least of all the Lebanese) will either.
The height of these obstacles is only appreciable when one considers just how many and how severe are the problems that plague most Lebanese. The absence of a tyrant is no impediment to the perpetuation of tyranny, and in Lebanon’s case it is precisely the weakness and indecisiveness of the state that prevent not just the implementation but often the very conception of meaningful change. This country has none – repeat, none – of the firewalls that effective political models use (at least theoretically) to keep business interests and religious institutions from exercising undue influence over the various branches of government. On the contrary, these forces have been insinuated into every nook and cranny of the Lebanese state since its inception in 1943. The status quo is their lifeblood, and they will not willingly give it up.
The great majority of the population suffers from this arrangement since it prevents both the emergence of a functional economy and the development of a modern state. In fact, the failings of the Lebanese state are a tremendous source of wealth for those with cash and the right connections. Public utilities provide insufficient amounts of both water and electricity, forcing many households to obtain these on the open market, usually at exorbitant rates. Public hospitals are underfunded, understaffed and underequipped, so no one with any choice in the matter uses them unless their ambulance takes a wrong turn. The middle and upper-middle classes fork over huge amounts of money for care at private facilities, as do employers with the decency to arrange worthwhile insurance for their staff. Even some private hospitals are in dire straits, though, mainly because over the years they have treated thousands of patients on behalf of the state’s National Social Security Fund – which has since become the country’s most conspicuous delinquent debtor.
In fact, there is almost no area of legitimate state activity from which Lebanon’s ruling establishment has not withdrawn in favor of private actors. Its schools are attended only by the children of families too poor to afford private ones, its coastline has been abandoned to illegal construction, and even the country’s borders are defended by a non-state actor, Hezbollah, because the military is neither sufficiently equipped nor appropriately trained (and is in any event overloaded with domestic police work because the Internal Security Forces are widely regarded as a sectarian militia).
That the Lebanese cannot unite against such deprivations and injustices indicates the extent to which sectarianism blinds them, with many people even blaming sundry inadequacies on whoever qualifies as their “other”. It helps, too, that they are confirmed in such prejudices by the myriad divisive narratives sown by much of the Lebanese media – aided, of course, by ample financing from abroad.
Domestic tradition and foreign influence, then, combine for a formidable prophylactic effect against the positive aspects of the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, the same does not apply to the negative consequences thereof. Before, during and since its emergence as an officially independent nation-state, this piece of real estate has been used as an arena in which greater powers engage in all manner of competitions involving culture, diplomacy, trade, intelligence, warfare (both overt and covert), and various combinations thereof.
As was the case in the 1950s and 60s, some of those powers are again using Lebanon as a means to assail Syria, and that, it so happens, is a variation on a nightmare scenario for the latter that has directly affected its expenditures of blood and treasure for half a century. Generations of Syrians – from corner grocers to senior military officers – have grown up with the fear that South Lebanon could provide the Israeli military with an open road to Damascus. If the country’s rulers, already beset by an internal crisis of unprecedented proportions, fear that all of Lebanon is in danger of providing similar access for an existential threat posed by another set of enemies, its reaction is liable to be fierce.
But so is that of certain Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries if Lebanon is not allowed to operate as a staging area for regime change in Damascus. The warnings have already arrived in the form of advisories that GCC citizens should not travel to Lebanon, and the increasing assertiveness (both armed and not) of Lebanese Sunni groups signals that their Gulf backers are determined to get their way.
All this leaves Lebanon’s current government, led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, with precious few options but to consistently articulate neutrality in public and to jealously guard it in private. The policy of “dissociation” accomplishes the first, but the second is infinitely more difficult, not least because some of his critics regard it as something akin to treason.
So yes, the Arab Spring is finally putting down roots in Lebanon. But no, don’t expect any flowers. g
- Marc J. Sirois is a Beirut-based journalist and political analyst. Published first in Al-Akhbar in Lebanon.