Monday, February 26, 2024

Let the Bells Toll

Lebanon is at a crossroads, again. Some cynics say that there are no roads left, and lesser crosses than in the past, to even mention crossroads. Such wordplay is not mere humor but a reality in a country where sectarian divisions have reached new heights and calls for division or secession or federation, or anything else than the failed centralized State, are multiplying. 

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A most puzzling part of this jigsaw remains the political chieftains of the Maronite community whose traditional role has been to engineer the construct of modern-day Lebanon. But why? 

Except for a brief interlude (1943 to 1952) under Riad El Solh, Sunni politicians drew most of their legitimacy from outside Lebanon (Prince Faysal of Arabia, successive Syrian junta leaders, Nasser, the PLO, the Saudis, etc.). So, it is almost natural that in the absence of any Arab or regional project concerning Lebanon, Sunni leaders would adopt a wait and see attitude. 

Conversely, Shias in Lebanon were oppressed by the Ottoman Empire (1516-1916) and despite being mildly included in the State apparatus at independence (1943) their social status, after centuries of suppression, kept them mostly marginalized. Starting in 1982, they have slowly and constantly regained power through the barrel of a gun. With the Iranian Mullahs as their staunch backers, the Shias’ effective leadership (Hezbollah) is acting as a super cast, ruling the country. 

Druzes were Mount Lebanon’s rulers since the early 15th century, till 1861. In 1920 the most powerful Druze clan, the Jumblatts, sided with the occupying French forces. After independence (1943) the Jumblatts tried on every occasion to regain theirs and the Druzes’ former power, embarking on several regional adventures with Nasser, Arafat, the USSR et al. With the vertiginous rise of Iran-backed Hezbollah, the Druzes, still led by the Jumblatts, have taken a defensive stance. They are calling to maintain the status quo at minimum costs, whilst awaiting better days. 

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Now for the Maronites, that community of Lebanon with a most beguiling leadership. This community came into physical security between 1861 and 1914. Then, after WWI it witnessed its first sign of political influence with the declaration of the Greater State of Lebanon. Finally, it experienced a taste of real power in 1943 with independence. From 1943 to 1973, a period that some dub “Les Trentes Glorieuses’ the Maronites -and most other Christians- exerted much influence over State affairs and played major roles in the economy, as well as in the cultural and educational spheres thus, promoting Lebanon as ‘a safe haven’ both politically and financially for the Arab world and beyond. Since the end of the civil war (1990) followed by the constitutional revisions of Taef, the Maronites lost their constitutional prerogatives but kept their economic and cultural relevancy. Through ebbs and flows, treasons and triumphs, murders and assassinations, this period lasted till 2019 when the financial crisis hit, and all hell broke loose. Immigration became rampant, despair ravaging, and the Maronite political leadership sank to the lowest depths of intellectual apathy.

Having begged Europe for the Protocol of 1861, lobbied France for the declaration of Greater Lebanon in 1920, played the Brits vs. the French for independence in 1943, fought the PLO in 1973, engaged in a fierce civil war from 1978 to 1990 against Syria and its allies, negotiated (albeit unfairly) the Taef Accord in 1990, and grudgingly becoming part of the political life ever since, the question at present is: what do the Maronite leadership (excluding Aoun et al)  want? 

We know what Aoun et al wants! Clinging on to any form of power via his self-styled maverick son-in-law, and that at any cost to the country or to his community for that matter. 

But what do the other parties (FL and Kataeb) and the independent Maronite and Christian opinion-makers, and political leaders really want?! What are their views on the economy (liberal or not), on the banking sector (recapitalized or nationalized), on taxes, on federalism, on healthcare coverage and education, on climate change, on privatization, but mostly, what are their views on the state’s function in the post-Taef era? Should one revive it, restructure it, rethink it? 

Do the Maronite leadership want war: if yes, by what means and, against whom? Do they want peace: if yes, what are their opinions on the crucial subjects stated above? 

A State or no State, that is the question. Most likely, they will choose neither and lose everything. 

The role of their church is even more puzzling. This church who accompanied Maronites’ entrenchment in rugged terrains, established monasteries, schools and hospitals, chose Rome in defiance of Eastern Orthodoxy, acquired land and fortune, and stood by this community’s many trials and tribulations since the birth of Lebanon. The church’s leadership is mum on all crucial issues. It is either incapable or overwhelmed by events, and in both cases, it is detrimental to its own raison d’être.  

Let the Bells toll on an era of Maronite leadership that marked Lebanon with good and bad moments, success, and failures, hopes and despairs.  In the past, Maronite and Christian leaders, have taken the plunge into the political arena, fought battles, won a few, lost many, got bruised and invariably died.  May times they were defeated but not once were they defeatists! 

This reminds us when Chamberlain went to negotiate an appeasement accord with Hitler on the 29th of September 1938, Churchill quipped:” “You were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.”

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