From 1624 to 1642, under the influence of Richelieu, the Kingdom of France tried to centralize power in the hands of Louis XIII by “Breaking the Powerful”. The French termed the matter as ‘Cassez les Grands’ meaning to crush the Nobles who were choking the royal power and freely conspiring with Catholic Spain and Protestant England, at the expense of France. But the centralization model of Richelieu was no easy task. It continued under successive absolute monarchs, leading to 1789, which in turn, reinforced a ruling terror-elite. This was followed by a Napoleonic Empire (1804 till 1814), and back again to a restored Bourbon monarchy (1814 to 1830). Since, France has been gripped by interminable constitutional amendments concerning the centralization of executive powers, with flagrant signs of structural weaknesses till the present time.
Struggles of center vs. periphery were not limited to France as the young United States of America lived a similar phenomenon, some years later. Abe Lincoln, now taunted as a national hero, was not viewed as such by all, during the American Civil War (1861-1865). Lincoln wanted to bend the will of those secessionist States to the Federal Government’s, at the cost of 620,000 dead and 4 years of devastating internal strife. This left the country weakened and bitterly divided politically, albeit unified geographically. The center won at the expense of the periphery and, slavery was indeed abolished but replaced with 100 years of vicious racial segregation (1865-1965). That was the South’s political answer to its military defeat by the North. Today, only federalism in the US guarantees the non-repeat of a civil war.
Farther from these shores stood Mount Lebanon, a territory under the central power of the Ottoman Empire. This mountain ridge had peculiarities including, the esoteric Druze community who was entrusted by successive Ayyubids, Mamluks and Ottoman Sultans to secure the coastal areas from marauding crusaders and other infiltrators. At some point, a Druze princeling namely, Fakhreddin II hoped to break away from the Ottoman center, and forged alliances with foreign powers to wit, Tuscany, and Sicily. His army of locals was crushed by Ottoman troops and his head cut off and hung on the gates of Constantinople on the 13 of April 1635. In 1831, another prince namely, Emir Bashir II was intent on seceding from the Ottoman center by forging an alliance with Muhammad Ali Pasha, the viceroy of Egypt. Both the Egyptian army and the ragtag force of Bashir II were rooted out in 1840 by European powers coming to the aid of the ailing Ottoman empire.
In parallel with this historical trend of Mount Lebanon’s rulers attempting to dissociate themselves from a centralized power, there were strong currents within such territory animated by differing sects or ethnic groups, all aspiring to some form of autonomy. Over time, both Druzes and Maronites tax-farmers-cum-overlords, wanted and were granted, more autonomy over their ‘subjects’ and territories by the very same prince who oversaw their affairs. So, the center of princely power held out as long as it was loose enough and delegated sufficient authority to tax farmers over the civilian and criminal matters of their constituents. When taxation became too heavy a burden, peasants revolted and were crushed, with difficulty, by the prince. That was the first popular challenge to the central power in Lebanon under a prince’s rule. First, in Antelias (1820) and second, in Lehfed (1821). Then the nobles themselves, especially the powerful Druze overlords, challenged the central power of the prince. In a same policy as Richelieu of “Cassez les Grands” Bashir II eliminated the Druze feudal lords one after another starting with the Abu Nakad in Dayr Al Qamar, moving to the Imad in the Barouq, and finally the Jumblatts in the Chouf, in 1825.
Recognizing that the country was not one, and that the groups were distinct with each animated by different aspirations, the European powers and the Ottoman empire, created the first unfederated cantons in Lebanon from 1843 to 1860 with the dual Qaymaqam system. Mount Lebanon was divided into two geographical (not sectarian) regions. One was governed by a Maronite and the other by a Druze. Issues in the mixed district (where the governorship was for a Druze, but demographics were at majority Maronite) led to skirmishes in 1845, 1859, and to massacres in 1860. Then, in 1861, further recognizing the impossible centralization of power in Lebanon in the hands of a ‘native’ ruler, the European powers, and the Ottoman empire once more, carved out a much-reduced parcel, put a non-Lebanese at the helm, and an Administrative Council from all sects to assist him in his duties. The demographic balance tilted towards the Christians but the frictions within the mixed districts were reduced to naught. Under the ‘Reglement Organique’ of 1860, no native leader was encouraged, allowed or even aspired to becoming governor (except one who was summarily exiled: Youssef Bey Karam), so once such local ambition was nipped in the bud, all returned to becoming (almost) model citizens.
Henceforth, from 1861 to early 1914, Mount Lebanon became a protected enclave, away from the center but still under its distant jurisdiction. Within this enclave, the political entitlements of the nobles were abolished and thus, each region (mixed or not) prospered, traded with its neighbors, and lived in peace and tranquility. The guarantee of the European allies provided this enclave with the diplomatic immunity and the security cordon it required.
In 1920, under the French mandate, the center was both reinforced and enlarged by including additional districts to Mount Lebanon, under the nominal power of a ‘native’ president. However, things remained firmly under French control. As long as the foreign mandatory power guaranteed local tranquility with guns and boots on the ground, peace was not disturbed.
The tragedy of 1943 was to centralize the government of Lebanon under a ‘native’ ruler and with no foreign guarantees for the internal status quo. Once issues of centralization were laid open, every district and any sectarian leader vied for power by taking a shot at the center. The Sunni Muslims wanted to break away and join the Syrian Republic and the wider Arab hinterland. Edde wanted to remain under French rule while Chamoun et al wanted to join the British sphere of influence. Regions hoped to secede and some formed alliances with foreign powers at the expense of Lebanon. In 1958 the Pan-Arabism of Nasser was countered by the Baghdad Pact, in 1969 and despite the crushing Arab defeat of 1968, Nasser and the PLO kept meddling through, and from 1973 to 1990 the successive intercessions of the PLO, Israel, and Syria led to disastrous scenarios the consequences of which are still reverberating. In the 1990s under the Syrian occupation, and since 2005, under the Iranian hegemony, such scenarios were somewhat subdued but never put to rest, as they are poised to recur -at any point- in their bloodiest forms.
A politically centralized Lebanon under the power of a solo ‘native’ (pre-Taif) or under a Troika of ‘natives’ (post-Taif), has proven to be impossible to manage especially, in the midst of political, social, cultural and aspirational divergences among its constituents, and more so, in the absence of guarantors of internal peace. This is not a ‘colonial-era’ speech or a ‘defeatist’ harangue, this is the harsh reality. Lebanon has proven to be a basket case for centralized power, so why not decentralize?
Form an Administrative Council with a presidency based on a 2-years rotation process, elect regional senates and local assemblies. Keep the sandy beaches, the Cedar flag, and the eternal Fairuz songs and plays. Build three airports, if need be, five casinos if you want and, set up ten free zones if you can. Have a religious holiday every day of the week in one region, and a secular form of rule in another. Legalize cannabis in the Beqaa, alcohol in the predominantly Christian districts and ban it from the rest of the country, for all we care. Keep one army with different battalions that are equally armed, keep one currency (or maybe not?) and by all means, preserve “One Nation under God”, but live in different mansions.
Federalize in a civilized fashion or accept to live in civil unrest, for good.