Lebanon enters its eight day of protests in a story overshadowed by political intrigue in the US, Brexit talks, Hong Kong protests, the Turkish invasion of Syria, and other headlines. What started as protest against an attempt by the government to tax WhatsApp calls has erupted into a nonsectarian protest that threatens the government. Given Lebanon’s long history of violence between Christians, Sunni and Shia, it is surprising to see how government incompetence and corruption has unified the Lebanese in a common cause. Though the government quickly reversed the tax, it lit the smoldering embers of anger against a government paralyzed by the very constitutional makeup of the government, and the compromises made after a fifteen-year civil war.
To fully understand just how Lebanon got to this point, their history must be considered. The echoes of French and British intervention in the Middle East reverberate 100 years later, but no more so than in Lebanon. The very system of power sharing they put in place to mitigate sectarian tensions between Christians, Sunni and Shia, limits the ability of current governments to adapt to new realities in modern Lebanon. The constitution assigns governing leadership to each of the three religions, not by qualification, but by religious affiliation. The first cracks in their system opened in 1975 with a civil war that lasted for 15 years, turning Beirut, and indeed all of Lebanon, from the “Paris of the Middle East” into a failed state run by sectarian militias. Some of those militias we run by foreign actors, including the Iranian backed Hezbollah.
Though the civil war ended in 1991, and all the militias disbanded, one militia remained, Hezbollah. Since that time, they have run a shadow government with their own social services, school and army. They have grown in power and influence, particularly after the 2006 war with Israel that brought destruction upon Lebanon, but boosted the image of Hezbollah. Today, Hezbollah is the de facto king maker for any government.
Snap forward to 2019, the current president is Michael Aoun, who must be a Christian, is backed by Hezbollah. Nabih Berri, also backed by Iran and Hezbollah, is the Speaker of the House which is a Shia mandated position. Together, they must select a Sunni for prime minister, who is currently Saad Hariri. The Hariri family has a long and tragic history, as they have stood against Syrian and now Iranian interference. Collectively, this structure is dysfunctional and rife with corruption, and worse, heavily influenced by Iran via its Hezbollah proxy. The corruption has led to a failing economy with high unemployment, particularly among the youth.
Unlike the civil war of 1975, this time the Lebanese people seem united by a common yearning for freedom and prosperity and not by religious affiliation. Unless the government can find solutions quickly, they face popular uprising that could see the end of the political system that led them to this point. What remains to be seen is how a new Lebanon would look. They are a highly literate society, particularly relative to other Middle East states, so they may find a new way forward based on individual liberty. On the other hand, Iran and Hezbollah have much to lose. Will they step in and complete the takeover they started post-civil war, post Second Lebanon War? Will the West step up to defend Lebanon should Iran intervene? Given the conflict in northern Syria, it seems that Hezbollah could be on its own. The next few days may finally end the post-colonial era for Lebanon, but will the world notice.
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