Lebanon’s Finest or Final Hour?

by Adnan Nasser

This article was produced in collaboration with More Perspectives, a non-profit that supports emerging writers from underrepresented groups.

Illustration by Gabriela Sibilska. Photo credit: Jessica Wahab

Lebanon—a country that has endured wars of catastrophic violence, periods of reconstruction, resumed fighting, and ceasefires with no prospects of everlasting peace—is now gasping for its final breaths. Decades of harm caused by external and internal actors disinterested in the prosperity and security of average Lebanese citizens have resulted in successive economic and political crises. More than half the country lives below the poverty line, and the value of the lira is at a historic low. The sight of protesters in the streets has analysts and officials worried about the potential for another civil war, a mere thirty years after the end of the previous one.  Lebanon must now find a way to take back control of its future or forever be a nation locked in despair. 

Lebanon’s current crisis can be traced back to its civil war between 1975 and 1990. In 1989, at the height of Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war—originally triggered by the presence of Yassir Arafat’s Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and a political system that favored the minority Maronite Christians—the heads of all the militias involved met in Taif, Saudi Arabia to discuss a final settlement to the bloodshed. The subsequent accord, known as the Taif Agreement, was negotiated with the hope it would bring the fighting in Lebanon to an honorable conclusion. Although peace was the intended result, what the Lebanese received was a ceasefire with no peace, pardoned warlords, and foreign armies planted on their soil. 

Israeli troops in Zibqin, South Lebanon, June 1982

Taif addressed the question of Lebanon’s identity and its relationship with the Arab world. The accord identified Lebanon as an Arab country to end the perception that it was a Western outpost in the Near East. It also established Lebanon’s confessional system of governance, which reduced the powers of the presidency, held by the Maronite Christian community, to ceremonial status and gave way to a more powerful Prime Minister exclusively for Lebanese Sunnis. 

At the same time, the agreement cleansed all participants of their war crimes while also failing to provide any sincere reconciliation for the victims—the Lebanese people. Most watched as the killers of their family members and friends walked free. This was certainly not Lebanon’s finest moment, yet most Lebanese accepted the agreement as an imperfect solution that saved lives and ended the 15-year war.

William Hawi (second from left) and former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel during the siege of the Tel al-Zaatar camp for Palestinian refugees, 1976

Unfortunately, the Taif Agreement’s shortcomings produced a dysfunctional system of factions ripe for regional manipulation. This not only caused a failure in managing the responsibilities of the country, but also opened the door for regional players—namely Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria—to manipulate different factions to suit their geostrategic ambitions. Of course , issues harming the Lebanese people are not only external, as corrupt practices like embezzlement by ex-warlord politicians also became commonplace. 

As Lebanon progressed through the post-civil war era, Beirut found itself being reconstructed and polished for a new wave of investments—mainly from Saudi Arabia. However, in terms of  the political sphere, Lebanon was under the tutelage of Syria. In 1991, both Syria and Lebanon signed an official Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination, effectively legalizing Syria’s hold on Lebanon as a custodian state and granting it international recognition with American backing. Syria, under the tenure of President Hafez al-Assad, would continue to further manipulate elements of international law to justify the occupation of Lebanese territory and population. 

Protests in Lebanon, 2019. Photos by Theodoros Bafitos

Damascus came to be the unchallenged power broker in Lebanon, carrying the gavel of Lebanese governmental powers. Although the Taif Agreement required that Syrian forces withdraw at a future date, the deal did not specify a timetable. Ultimately, Syria exploited this loophole and entrenched itself in Lebanon.

By 2005, the conditions on the ground changed with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was largely credited with the post-war reconstruction of Beirut. He made his wealth in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and had close links to the royal family, which set him up to be the perfect candidate for the Premiership. Yet with all his wealth and powerful connections, he could not ignore Damascus’s ominous sway over his country, including an active occupation by the Syrian military. If there was a policy Rafik Hariri wanted to implement without the blessing of Damascus, it was overruled.

Demonstrations in Lebanon during the 2005 Cedar Revolution. Photo by Elie Ghobeira

Unexpectedly, Hariri’s death mobilized an outpouring of patriotism across Lebanon. Anti-Syrian demonstrators gathered in Beirut to protest the Syrian military occupation after the pro-Syrian government resigned. Lebanese people from all sects were exhausted by military rule and were demanding a chance to govern themselves. In the end, it was solidarity in this moment, known as the Cedar Revolution, and not fear by an occupying power that kept the peace between the different factions in Lebanon. 

Before the withdrawal, Syria controlled nearly all aspects of Lebanese political and social life and often forced its small neighbor to fall in line with its regional and foreign interests. Many Lebanese people sensed the loss of their sovereignty, including the late journalist and parliamentarian Gebran Tueni, who was assassinated in 2005 for his criticism of Damascus. His death was believed to be the work of Syrian intelligence, a well-known entity  that had earned a nefarious reputation across Lebanon. 

Demonstrations in Lebanon on International Women’s Day, March 8, 2021. Photo by Hussein Baydoun

However, many today question the extent of the qualitative changes the 2005 demonstrations brought about concerning Lebanon’s ability to govern itself effectively. To be sure, the vast number of Lebanese from all sects came together as one nation. Still, some supporters of the Cedar Revolution felt Lebanese Shia Muslims were against Syrian troops leaving Lebanon.

Shia protesters joined the rallies to express their dissatisfaction with Syria’s insufferable and domineering security state but were treated with suspicion by other protesters of different sects out of fear they might secretly harbor sentiment with the Syrian occupation. It was widely believed then, and to some extent now, that the Shia community is a blind supporter of the Ba’ath party in Syria. But this is a fantastic misjudgment that has been accepted by default on false evidence. While it is true that most Shia Lebanese were sympathetic to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and expressed support for his regime in the Syrian civil war, this must be considered in the context of Syria’s alliance with Hezbollah and Iran.

Rather than fostering a functional democratic and pluralistic Lebanon, Syria’s withdrawal left a space in Lebanon’s politics that was filled by self-serving actors prepared to embrace sectarian loyalties and corruption. Many protest leaders who criticized Syria and President Bashar Al Assad were themselves war criminals in Lebanon’s 1975 civil war—namely Walid Jumblatt, a leading politician from the Druze community. Samir Geagea, a militia leader from the right-wing Christian Lebanese Forces party, was welcomed as a hero when he was released from prison after the Syrians left Lebanon. 

Occupied by snipers during the civil war due to its location on the line dividing East and West Beirut, the Beit Beirut heritage building is a symbol of Lebanon’s fractured past.” Photo by Mohamad Cheblak

Therefore, not all were enthusiastic about Syria’s departure from Lebanon. Not only were many skeptical of rhetoric from militia leaders from the civil war, but some armed groups still supported Syria’s role in Lebanon. The Iranian-backed Shia political party and militia, Hezbollah (Party of God), organized a demonstration of gratitude for Syria’s late President Hafez Al Assad and his son Bashar. This was another example of the opposing dimensions in Lebanese society, which  only became clearer with time. 

With this in mind , it is important to understand that when a new political movement challenges the old, it needs to prove itself by presenting evidence that it is indeed better than its predecessor. What came after the Syrian withdrawal was an atmosphere of optimism, followed by the politics of cynicism. Syrian soldiers and intelligence agents were replaced by militiamen with Lebanese political party banners. Regrettably, criminals regained control over the country at the expense of the average citizen.

Israeli forces prepare to enter southern Lebanon, July 27, 2006

This shift in power culminated in several instances of suffering for Lebanon. In July of 2006, Hezbollah conducted a military raid on the Lebanon-Israeli border, killing eight Israeli soldiers and capturing two. The attack produced a month-long war between the two sides, resulting in over a thousand Lebanese, most of them civilians, killed by Israel’s U.S.-supplied military. 43 Israeli civilians also died as a consequence of Hezbollah missile fire, provided by Iran.  

After 32 days of ferocious combat, both sides agreed to a ceasefire brokered by the United Nations Resolution 1701. After the fighting ceased, Lebanese soldiers alongside their United Nations Interim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) were sent to the south of Lebanon to monitor the borders and maintain peace. Hezbollah remains in Southern Lebanon and the Israeli army is still heavily present on its side of the border. When—not if—another war breaks out between the two arch-enemies, there will be nothing the UN peacekeepers can do to stop it.

Downtown Beirut, March 2, 2021. Photo by Matthieu Karam

Only a year before, the Lebanese believed the hour of peace was arriving. Although still mourning the death of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, Beirut was stabilizing. The Lebanese diaspora was sending remittances back to their relatives, and the country was free of all foreign armies. Indeed, these were all hopeful changes, and without exception, necessary for Lebanon to get back on its feet. But something was missing—the crucial component for a successful revolution—sincere and patriotic leadership. 

Now, facing the worst crisis in its recent history, the Lebanese must ask themselves how they can ensure the mistakes of the Cedar Revolution are not repeated. Lebanon’s October protest movement awakened a cross-sectarian demand for dignity in life and accountability in government. For the Lebanese protesters to achieve victory, they must never allow discredited politicians to return to power based on divisive sectarian politics. The dark days of a Lebanon ethnically and religiously split must be put to rest. Whether or not the Lebanese people will reject those who have looted their country for decades and unite around a common identity remains to be seen.

Adnan Nasser is an independent analyst of Middle Eastern affairs. He has been published in The Diplomatic Courier and studied International Relations at Florida International University.

Categories: Middle East & Africa