For generations, Lebanon has been the site of competing regional ambitions. While a geographically small country, Lebanon is perfectly positioned strategically. Along its southern border lies Israel, the source of, and solution to, many of the region’s recent historical political intrigue. To the north and west, there’s Syria – who has been a regional power since the ascension of the Assad regime over 40 years ago. Then to the east you have the Mediterranean and Europe. In classical antiquity, the inhabitants of the Lebanese coast were known as Phoenicians and were revered sailors and shipbuilders.
At the height of the French colonial era, Lebanon was touted as the Switzerland of the middle east in an attempt to boost its international reputation and encourage tourism. Beirut was a bustling Mediterranean metropolis and a destination du choix for the European bourgeoisie.
In classic Imperial style, the French colonial authorities worked in tandem with one ethnic group while excluding the rest. In the Lebanese context, it was the Maronites, a Christian minority. The Maronites were given preferential positions in the Imperial bureaucracy, which gave them access to Western education. The Maronites also self-identify as White, which certainly helped their position within the French regime. The French resisted internal calls for independence during the 1930s, but the locals’ wishes were granted after the French government fell to the Nazi’s in 1940.
The Lebanese political system is a fascinating social experiment. It’s called confessionalism, and it functions as an agreement between the three largest and most influential groups in Lebanese society: Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and the Maronites. The President was to only ever be a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni and the Speaker of the House a Shia. This was intended to force the factions to work together. And it works – in periods of peacetime when the rest of the world left them alone.
Tragically, Lebanon has been the site of competing Imperial ambitions in the region since independence.
The first real crisis was back in 1958, caused by a variety of geopolitical factors in the region. Pan-Arabism was in vogue, with the charismatic anti-imperialist Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt leading the rhetorical charge. Nasser had annexed the Suez Canal, which prompted an international crisis. The British and French invaded and took back the Canal, as they felt it was rightfully theirs. The UN got involved (no small thanks to Canada’s own Lester B Pearson) and granted Egypt sovereignty over the canal. Nasser tried to capitalise on the momentum and proposed a pan-Arab regional coalition. The Syrian government agreed, and for about four years, there was a United Arab Republic (UAR) joining Syria and Egypt constitutionally. Recall that Lebanon is wedged between Egypt, Syria and Israel.
The Lebanese president at the time, Camille Chamoun, refused to bow to pressure from Nasser to break off relations with the West. This stoked the long-burning embers of resentment from the Muslim majority in Lebanon. The Muslim majority also wanted to join the UAR, but Chamoun refused, which led to an armed insurrection instigated by parts of the military loyal to the Muslim cause. (Gerner and Schwedler, 76) The US intervened and restored order. For now.
As with the 1958 crisis, and true to Lebanon’s role as the regional battleground, the Civil War was heavily influenced by events in the region. The Arab League had been routed by Israel in the six-day war of 1967 and tried to take the initiative back with a surprise attack in 1973. All the while more and more Palestinian refugees poured into Lebanon, which shifted the religious balance of power. Clashes started between factions loyal to the Palestinians and Maronite militias in 1975. The Maronites feared they were losing influence. The conflict quickly spiralled out of control into a full-fledged regional fiasco.
The Israelis invaded multiple times, as did the Syrians. The Iranians, Americans and Russians provided arms to competing factions. The UN sent a peacekeeping force, and then withdrew because the fighting was too bloody. There were countless political assassinations of moderate leaders on both sides: famously Bachir Gemayel. The American embassy was bombed. The conflict was finally mediated in 1989, in a peace deal brokered by the Saudis. Israel withdrew its forces from Southern Lebanon in 2000. (Gerner and Schwedler, 76-77) Syria withdrew its forces from northwestern Lebanon in 2006 – after it’s intelligence agency was implicated in the assassination of Rafic Hariri, who was Vice-President at the time. And now his son, Saad, has been quietly asked to step down by the Saudis. This has set off fears of renewed conflict in Lebanon.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s perhaps the point. Lebanon has almost always been at the whims of the regional powers. Back in the 1950s, it was the Egyptians pushing pan-Arabism, today it’s the Saudis. Which really begs the question: what’s the deal with Saudi Arabia?
Check out part two in a few weeks to find out.
Sources not Cited in Text
Deborah Gerner and Jillian Schwedler, “Understanding the Contemporary Middle East” Lynne Rienner Publishers: Colorado, 2008.
By Rashid Mohiddin
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