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Lebanon: a country on the edge of the abyss

In recent years, shaken by the economic crisis and the 2020 explosions, Lebanon faces a difficult future. The most recent elections show a country that is struggling to change but has lost confidence, and in which the role of Christian communities remains crucial to its destiny.

Gerardo Ferrara·8 de septiembre de 2022·Tiempo de lectura: 6 minutos
líbano beirut

Original Text of the article in Spanish here

Translation: Charles Connolly

The Syrian occupation of Lebanon did not end until 2005, when the SDF (Disbandment Force) had to leave the country following protests, now known as the Cedar Revolution. It all stemmed from a brutal attack on former Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, for which Damascus, whose regime was openly hostile to Hariri, was blamed. Two political coalitions emerged from these protests.

The first, the March 14 Alliance, involved the agreement of mixed and interfaith political forces, including the Lebanese Phalange, a historic Maronite party now chaired by a member of the historic Gemayel family, Sami. He is a grandson of the famous Bashir, son of Amine and brother of Pierre Amine, the first two presidents of the republic, the previous leaders of the March 14 Alliance, both of whom were killed in various attacks. Also part of this coalition are the Lebanese Forces, another Maronite party (chaired by its founder and former militiaman Samir Geagea) and The Future, a Sunni party, dissolved by its founder Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq, when he resigned in 2021 from the presidency of the government and withdrew from the political scene. This alliance is characterized by its anti-Syrian and anti-Iranian positions and by its closeness to Saudi Arabia and the West.

The second, the March 8 Alliance, brought together the Free Patriotic Movement, the party of the current and disputed Maronite president of the Republic, Michel Aoun; Amal (the Shi’ite political movement linked to Hezbollah) and others, known for their hostility to Israel and their openly pro-Syrian—or, better, pro-Iranian—positions.

Since then, despite endemic instability in the region and in the country itself (an example being the Second Lebanon War in 2006, with Israel’s invasion following Hezbollah missile launches into its territory from the south of the country), it seemed that Lebanon, with its post-war reconstruction, was slowly recovering.

The economic crisis and the 2020 explosions

However, a new devastating economic crisis (described by the World Bank as ‘one of the three worst crises the world has known since the mid-19th century’) led to numerous protests in 2019 and alternating pro- or anti-Hezbollah governments and presidents. Then there was the Covid-19 health emergency and, finally, the notorious and tremendous explosion that, on August 4, 2020, destroyed the port of Beirut and devastated the surrounding (predominantly Christian) neighborhoods, killing more than 200 people and leaving 300, 000 homeless.

All this has brought the country to the edge of the abyss.

It is estimated that more than 160,000 people have emigrated from Lebanon (adding to the already large Lebanese diaspora abroad, between 4 and 8 million people, mainly Christians, although some estimates raise the figure to almost 14 million, twice the number of Lebanese living in the country), not to mention the fact that the country is hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Palestinian refugees who, together with the already huge number of Lebanese citizens living below the poverty line, are turning the Land of the Cedars into a powder keg.

Political crises and elections

Between 2018 and 2021, these issues led to the fall and rise of various governments: Saad Hariri, Hassan Diab, Hariri again and, finally, Najib Mikati; and to the emergence of a movement bent on changing the parliamentary see-saw, fighting endemic corruption (also linked to confessionalism and tribalism) and providing concrete solutions to the economic crisis.

However, this movement has not succeeded in coming together under a single political wing and imposing itself at the national level, although the recent legislative elections of May 15, 2022 showed the shadow of a possible change, for the first time in the country’s history.

The election campaign and the political debate, in fact, brought to the forefront four fundamental issues on which the vote revolved: Hezbollah and Iran’s interference; the country’s ‘positive neutrality’, as proposed and understood by the Maronite Patriarch, Bechara Boutros Raï; the banking and financial crisis; and judicial reform and the fight against corruption in order to shed light on the causes of the Beirut port conflagration of August 4, 2020 (Hezbollah has always opposed a formal and independent investigation of these tragic events).

The picture that emerges in light of the final results, however, is that of a country struggling to change and one that has lost confidence in itself. Abstentionism dominated everywhere, even in Hezbollah’s fiefdoms, sending a clear message of distrust towards the ruling class.

In any case, the outgoing president, Michel Aoun, has seen his own elected deputies in parliament reduced by half (his is a predominantly Maronite party, but allied with Amal and Hezbollah), overtaken by the Lebanese Forces of Geagea, his arch-rival, which has become the leading Christian party in Lebanon. Another partial defeat for Amal, and for Hezbollah itself, was the election of a Druze and a Christian (from a different faction) in southern Lebanon, which historically is a Shi’ite bastion.

The role of Christians

The spiritual and cultural heart of Lebanon, as I said, is certainly Christian, especially if we think of the main spiritual center of the country, which is the valley of Qadisha (the ‘Holy Valley’), in the north of the country, the true fulcrum of Syriac Christianity and of the Maronite Church (Syro-Antiochene rite).

The Maronite Church, in communion with Rome, takes its name from its founder, St. Maron, and has its historical seat in the green valley of Qadisha, full of ancient monasteries which are set like pearls in the rock and which, with the passage of time, have become somewhat like the Benedictine monasteries in Europe: centers for the spread of knowledge (the first printing press in Lebanon was set up in one of them), art, culture, various trades (including agriculture, especially terraced farming), spiritual wisdom, as well as closeness to the people.

Proof of this is the great devotion that all Lebanese, both Christians and Muslims, feel for the local saints (e.g. the famous St. Sharbel Makhlouf, St. Naamtallah Hardini, St. Rafqah), whose shrines are the sites of incessant interfaith and interreligious pilgrimages.

The recent elections also confirmed that the role of Christian communities remains crucial to the country’s destiny. In fact, thanks also to the contribution of Christians and President Michel Aoun, the majority that emerged from the 2018 elections pushed the country into the Shi’ite orbit, under the aegis of Iran. Now, with the Christian parties’ preference for the March 14 Alliance, Lebanon could move closer to Saudi Arabia, to Israel and, by extension, to the Western bloc. All this, however, depends on whether or not a government can be formed, given the failure to achieve an overall parliamentary majority. This brings the prospect of further political paralysis and the stagnation, if not a worsening of the current crisis.

Among other things, the Lebanese exceptionalism in the Arab-Islamic world is not only that of having institutionalized the Christian presence at the political level, but also that of seeing, among the Christians themselves, the predominance of Catholics, in particular Maronites. (The other Catholic Churches sui iuris present in the country are the Melkite or Greek-Catholic Church, which represents at least 12% of the population, the Armenian-Catholic Church and the Syrian-Catholic Church; Latin-rite Catholics are also present, of course, although in smaller numbers.)

The writer has been able to experience how fascinating this popular ecumenism is: it is not uncommon to attend a lunch in a large family where mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, brothers-in-law, cousins, represent all the Churches present in Lebanon, whether Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant.

Thus, over the years, the Maronite Patriarch has become a prominent figure, not only as an ideal representative of all Christian communities, but also of the civil society as a whole. His Church, in fact, besides being the expression of an important part of the Lebanese population, is also the most active in providing assistance not only to Christians, but to everyone in need.

Recently, on the occasion of the feast of St. Maron in 2022, the Patriarch reminded the country’s civil authorities that ‘Lebanese Maronites have made freedom their spirituality,’ as well as a ‘social and political project,’ and that this progress translates not only into faith and progress, but also into the promotion of values such as love, dignity and strength, as opposed to ‘rancor, envy, hatred, revenge and the spirit of surrender.’

Cardinal Raï has vigorously defended Lebanon’s cultural and religious plurality, democracy and the separation of religion from the State, promoting a concept especially dear to him, that of the country’s ‘positive neutrality’, which preserves its soul and its identity as a land of encounter between civilizations, but distorted, in fact, by those who have turned it into ‘a theater of conflicts in the region and a launching pad for missiles’ (the reference to Hezbollah is obvious). According to Raï, who has become the real leading light in the country, ‘in order to save the unity of Lebanon and demonstrate its neutrality,’ it is imperative to respect the historical triangle that unites ‘the purpose of the Covenant of Coexistence, the purpose of the role of Christians, and the purpose of loyalty to Lebanon itself.’

El autorGerardo Ferrara

Escritor, historiador y experto en historia, política y cultura de Oriente Medio.

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