image of jerusalem 2013

Lebanon: Association or Dissociation?
I suppose the first jangling alarm bell - and a surprising one at that if the truth be told - was from my Lebanese travel agent! I had gone to buy my ticket for Lebanon and her first statement was a rather flummoxed “you must be joking!”

24 June   |   2013   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Not a confidence-inspiring exclamation, mind you! Certainly not when all I had been hearing in Europe were stories of doom and gloom about Syria and Lebanon - let alone about much of a volatile MENA space. But I had to travel to the region as part of my consultancy work and so I overruled the travel agent’s reservations and bought my ticket anyway.

Lebanon is truly a beautiful country, painfully and patiently in some ways, so much so that I often smile when our British ambassador Tom Fletcher tweets scenic sunset photos from different parts of the country. Yet, exiting the airport was another experience that soon came to a juddering halt with a second jangling alarm bell! This was my driver whose first statement upon picking me up from the terminal was, “you must be very brave coming to our country at this time!”

Indeed, Lebanon finds itself in a tough place today. Mind you, this small country has been facing one problem or another since its independence in 1943. But its resourceful and hospitable men and women are so accustomed to their ups and downs that they are almost programmed to deal with every setback and then move on. A jaded sense of veteran fatigue is nourished by an entrepreneurial spirit and a touch of steel that invariably sees them through adversity.

Where do I begin today? The failure to choose an electoral law for the parliamentary elections that were due to take place this month was one reason for this malaise. After all, every political party - Christian, Muslim or Druze - wanted a law that would benefit their own interests. No national interest here, only party politics! Another failure of democracy was the subsequent extension of parliament for 17 months when three key judges of the Constitutional Council absented themselves from hearing the petition against this extension since it did not suit the interests of their political masters and therefore no quorum was constituted for the purposes of the case. No independence of the judiciary here either!

But there is no denying that the vicious war across the porous borders in Syria has cast a most chilling shadow over many Lebanese citizens. Lebanon is almost evenly divided between those who support President Bashar Al-Assad and those who support the opposition. The tensions are raw, with both sides providing physical and financial support to their allies, and there have been dangerous skirmishes in Tripoli, Sidon and across the Bekaa Valley or Hermel Mountains.

However, the most ominous development by far was the decision made by - or possibly made by Iran for - Hezbollah when it openly joined forces with the beleaguered army of the Syrian regime as well as with Iranian and Iraqi fighters to defend the country against the rebels - labelled as terrorists. Such an ill-thought and minatory decision - that was tactically helpful in overtaking Al-Qusair - might well prove to be a longer-term strategic blunder. Not only has it roused a recalcitrant West from its political slumber, it has also instigated Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to go all out against the Assad dynasty and will encourage bilious jihadis, salafists and takfiris of all backgrounds to pitch in. But much more dangerously even, it has pitted - whether willingly or otherwise - Sunni Islam against Shi’i Islam and awakened the ideological differences that go back to the succession of the Prophet Mohammed. In a country such as Lebanon that is a veritable hotbed of confessional pockets and fragile alignments, this move is anathema in that it weakens further the National Pact of coexistence, rattles the Taëf Accord which set out levers of equilibrium between Muslims and Christians and makes a mockery of the fragile dissociation policies that President Michel Suleiman - a man whose viewpoints have been both lucid and courageous of late - let alone other seasoned politicians have been advocating for months.

The next few weeks and months will be critical for Syria but equally so for Lebanon. Alas, a Sunni-Shi’i livid scar has imprudently been exposed which is implicating many political camps and it behoves upon Hezbollah to draw back from the brink if only to protect Lebanon from another conflagration and help to heal - or at least mask - this ugly scar.

Where are we now given those palpable tensions? Despite the ministrations of my travel agent or those of my driver let alone the absence of a new government, I still return home with a sense of pessoptimism that Lebanon will not plunge into the abyss - at least not for now. This is partly because the devastating memories of the 15-year civil war still prey upon the minds of politicians, religious institutions and grassroots and will forefend any foolhardy misadventures. But more crucially - as my driver, with ample street cred, reminded me - it is because there is no money at the present time to wage another war in Lebanon. However, Lebanese politicians - from both ends of the March 8 / March 14 political standoff - should seek stability and avoid falling into the trap of upping the ante in a conflict they are ill-prepared to rush into now.

Let me quote again British Ambassador Tom Fletcher who (yes, you guessed it!) tweeted recently, “Lebanon makes no sense unless you see frustration, inherent tension, stasis. But nor does it if they blind you to talent, beauty, dynamism.” Much as we in Europe can at times be remarkably naïve or gullible in our assessments or analyses of the MENA region and the quest of its peoples for bread and dignity, I could not but wholeheartedly agree with his hopeful tweet.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2013   |   24 June


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