Unitas Project Advisor Tony Assaf delivering life-saving cancer medicine upon his arrival in Beirut, May 29, 2022
From 1 to 14: A New Generation is Emerging in Lebanon
Overall, the prevailing mood in Beirut these days seems to be one of cautious optimism and hope. This is in part due to the results of the recent national election, held on May 15.
“In the last election, only one independent candidate was elected. In this election, 14 independent candidates were elected,” Aya told us (independent candidates are not affiliated with any of the dominant sectarian political parties, who are seen as largely responsible for the current crisis in Lebanon).
“Things are getting better,” she told us. “I was so happy that I cried.”
Lebanon’s recent national election was an event that had been anticipated for many months. Since the October 17 Revolution in 2019, there has been a series of failed governments in Lebanon, and the country, at one point, went 13 months without any functioning government.
The elections, which saw gains for political parties opposed to Hezbollah as well as the accession to parliament of the 14 candidates from newly-formed independent political parties, have been widely seen as a tentative sign of hope for Lebanon. Initial reports indicated that Hezbollah would likely lose its parliamentary majority, potentially breaking the stranglehold of the Iran-aligned Shia party on decision-making in national affairs.
The Christian Lebanese Forces Party stands to be the biggest beneficiary of the electoral shift. Lebanese Forces is seen as a party in opposition to Hezbollah and with strong ties to Lebanon’s Sunni community and to Saudi Arabia. The party originated as a militia during Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990), and it has called for Hezbollah to give up its military arsenal.
According to reports, Lebanese Forces won at least 20 seats in the election, making it the biggest Christian party in the Lebanese Parliament.
Lebanese Election: New Faces, Old Problems
While the May 25 election offered a glimpse of change, it is still unclear how significant these results will be, and what kind of concrete results they will have. Lebanon is still facing massive economic and social problems, as well as sectarian division. Hezbollah operates in large part as a “state within a state” in southern Lebanon, with a paramilitary wing that is far larger than the Lebanese Army. Many now speak of the “new poor” in Beirut – families who have lost everything in the economic collapse of the past several years, many of whom now seek a way out of the country at all costs.
With this as a background, Patriarch Rai gave a stirring homily last Sunday, May 29, at the consecration of a church in Adma, in northern Lebanon between Junieh and Byblos, not far from Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa. Unitas Project Advisor Tony Assaf described it as “about as strong a call for an end to corruption and ‘business as usual’ as the Patriarch has ever made.”
Here is a preliminary translation of part of the Patriarch’s remarks, (courtesy of Tony Assaf) which were delivered in Arabic:
We blame all the authorities in the country (governing forces and oppositions) for the horrific collapse of the country.
Governors made the wrong decisions and picked the wrong allies. The existing powers betrayed Lebanon, and its constitution, and its people. The opposition powers wasted their time on fighting about elections instead of looking at the suffering of the people.
The Lebanese people are living the results of the collapse on all levels. it is time to find solutions to get out of this disaster. It is time for a rectifying uprising [he used the word “intifada”] of the people, and to work with the United Nations to ensure a free and neutral Lebanon.
It is also a shame that the judicial system itself is unacceptable, as is the living situation. Some judges made themselves instruments in the hands of political and religious powers and it became clear that they are freezing some cases and yet inventing others. It is not possible that we leave the judges disrespecting [or: let the judges disrespect] human dignities and harming people’s freedom.
Furthermore, what it even worse is that the Minister of the Treasury refused to sign a decree to continue to investigate the crime of Beirut port’s explosion, which keeps those arrested without sentences, and some are innocent, and those who committed the crime remain free.
The Patriarchate will continue to work hard to save Lebanon and will lead the people who cannot anymore accept to be a victim.
We want to live here and precisely here, free, proud faithful to the mission of our fathers.
Trust yourself, trust the future, trust the in the victory of the truth. We are the people of the truth and the faith.
The Patriarch’s words give the impression that Lebanon is at a turning point, which is also an opportunity: at this moment, it is both possible and extremely important to “find solutions” to reverse Lebanon’s collapse.
This balance of cautious optimism for the future and clear-eyed assessment of the “horrific” depths of Lebanon’s “manufactured crisis” in the present has been echoed repeatedly by many other Lebanese thinkers, and also by many ordinary Lebanese. One writer who has returned frequently to these themes is Habib C. Malik, the Lebanese intellectual and son of diplomat Charles Malik, whose analyses of Lebanese history and politics have been previously shared in this Report.
Malik offered this summary of Lebanon’s politics in a September 2021 article, written at the time in response to the establishment of yet another “new” government in Lebanon — this one under Najib Mikati:
“‘New’ is a funny word in a Lebanese context: the anomalous permanent tends to reinvent itself in novel ways that ensure its self-perpetuation.”
In the same article, entitled “Lebanon: Meet the ‘New’, Same as the Old,” Malik offered a harsh criticism of the Lebanese political elite:
Reducing followers to bare subsistence has become the modus operandi for how the vicious political class treats the entire population of Lebanon.
After defrauding the people out of their life savings, over the past year the crooks in charge have allowed the country’s deterioration to reach the point where daily-life necessities, taken for granted in normal times, are either in terminal short supply or missing altogether.
These include essential medicines, vital medical and power supplies for hospitals, diesel fuel to run electric power plants and bakeries, gasoline for vehicles, and more.
The consequences of this systematic country-wide deprivation have been the severe rationing of electricity and water supplies, erratic internet and mobile phone services, long lines at gas stations that block roads and cause traffic congestion, and the hoarding of dwindling basics by greedy suppliers seeking to make windfall profits once prices climb further.
Meanwhile, callous politician-criminals can only think of how to divide the spoils accruing from any deals among them to fortify their pervasive cronyism. They have not a single thought about the deepening sufferings of the Lebanese at large.
Malik contrasted these “callous politician-criminals” with the grass-roots movements working to better the country:
Meanwhile, a variety of civil society groups and organizations born out of the bitterness of spontaneous popular protests in fall 2019 — known collectively as the Thawra, or revolution — have started to assemble their forces. They are fielding opposition candidates in electoral districts to boldly defy the hitherto unshakeable ruling elites and dislodge them from power through the ballot box. This coalescing opposition is determined to make sure the new in Lebanon will not be the same as the old.
Despite the renewed hope that these “Thawra” grass-roots organizations represent, Malik, writing in late 2021, was doubtful that the “anomalous present” could actually give way to something truly “new” in Lebanon:
Sadly, rigged elections or no elections, Hezbollah and its politicians will emerge as the big winners so long as Iran’s extended arm continues to reach the Eastern Mediterranean.
If the upcoming elections in Lebanon do not produce a real opening for the true opposition, Plan B should entail a serious attempt at a creative federalism. This new
formula would accommodate sectarian pluralism while safeguarding the rights of minority communities — and in Lebanon all 18 constitutionally recognized sects are numerical minorities within the country’s communal kaleidoscope, meaning there is no single majority sect.
Perhaps, however, the election results do, in fact, represent a “real opening” for the “true opposition” in Lebanon. In that case, there may indeed be hope for a future direction that is not, on the one hand, one-party dominance by Hezbollah or, on the other, a federalism that would entail de facto partition of the country along sectarian lines.
Malik ended his article with an appeal for greater involvement and engagement on the part of the United States, and the West as a whole, in Lebanon:
In the wake of the Afghan debacle, perhaps there is a modest opening to salvage part of the principles that generations of Lebanese and Arab youth learned at the universities established in Beirut by American missionaries over a century-and-a-half ago.
Back then, Americans who were true to their country’s deepest values made up the face that the United States showed to the region and the world. This is precisely the American face we all desperately crave to see once again.
So, nation-building by armed outsiders is not required here; the Lebanese will do that themselves once the monkey of the cartel is lifted off their backs.
The way to achieve this is to go after the mafia component of the cartel, specifically their chief bosses, by holding them accountable for the crimes they perpetrated against the people of Lebanon.
A promising start for this could be ensuring the brave opposition competes on as much of a level playing field as possible in Lebanon’s approaching parliamentary elections.
The wide and nuanced spectrum of possibilities lying between outright nation-building (which is a fool’s errand) and total abandonment (which, to say the least, is shameful) beckons to those both perceptive and inventive enough to take up the challenge.
Here, Malik is making a point that many others have made over the past several years, as the situation in Lebanon deteriorated and chaos predominated in the Middle East.
The point is this: Lebanon, unlike other countries in the region, has the ability to take the initiative in its own “nation-building,” if it is assisted by the international community.
Given the incalculable resources allocated to American and American-supported military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Yemen, and many other countries over the past several decades, it is, and remains, an extreme miscalculation and misjudgment on the part of the United States government (as well as the U.K. and European Union) not to support Lebanon with even a fraction of the engagement and resources that went into these “nation-building” and “peacekeeping” missions.
A (relatively) small investment on the part of the United States, U.K., and E.U. in supporting civil society in Lebanon is almost certain to have a more direct impact on peace and stability in the Middle East than the billions that have been spent elsewhere. Supporting schools, hospitals, universities — many of which are run by Catholic religious orders — and other institutions within civil society will have an impact that goes far beyond those institutions: it will have a positive effect on the country as a whole, and on the entire Middle East.
This kind of support is also in line with the “deepest values” of the United States (and of Europe) spoken of by Malik.
Our Unitas: Friends of Lebanon project is trying to contribute to peace and stability in Lebanon, through support for children attending school in Beirut and for parents trying to provide them with food and clean water.
Our work must continue, with the help of readers like you, but more support is needed. It is hoped that the eventual visit of Pope Francis — now expected to take place in September — will focus international attention on Lebanon and make this kind of broad-based international support a reality.