Thursday, June 13, 2024

Of Princes, Tax Farmers and Revolts…

Lebanon’s relatively modern history (c.1500s to 1800s) has known ruling princes or Amirs, nominated by the Sublime Porte. They were Ottoman subjects with grand titles, and many degrees removed from the central power of Istanbul. They oversaw Mount Lebanon’s affairs and acted under the direct authority of regional governors seated in either Akko, Saida or Damascus. Their role was made simple: to collect crop taxes called the ‘Miri’ and, to gather troops at the request of the incumbent governor. Each Amir -or principal tax farmer- had several ‘general tax farmers’ operating under his authority. They were called Sheiks or Muqta’jis, and basically assisted the prince in administering specific districts and discharging duties at the local level.

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In present day Lebanon the Amir is Hasan Nasrallah, nominated by Iran’s Ayatollah -the Sultan’s modern equivalent- acting under direct authority of the commander of the Quds Force (formerly Soleimani and presently Ghaani), like the Ottoman governor. The class of general tax farmers include president Aoun, speaker Berri and to complete the tapestry, the Sunni nomenclature and, Jumblatt. Other actors appear on the scene, intermittently, such as Franjieh, Geagea and Arslan. Each general tax farmer in turn, has a set of enemies and allies from its own ilk, but all are obedient to the Amir. Take Berri for instance, albeit being bunder Nasrallah’ s controlhe formed a covert coalition with Geagea and an overt one with Franjieh, to undermine Aoun. Not to be undone, Aoun who owes his presidency to Nasrallah forged -for a short while- an alliance with Hariri to divide the spoils of public money and counter Berri’s expanding appetite for the same loot. Aoun also maintained at some point a close rapport with Franjieh to undermine Geagea and with Arslan to undermine Jumblatt. For his part, Hariri -in a moment of mental detachment – strayed from his close rapport with Berribeing seduced by Aoun’s son-in-law, but later repented and threw himself at Berri’s feet and by proxy at Nasrallah’sJumblatt has always avoided a rift with Berri, exploited the Hariri clan (father & son), and toyed -on-and-off- with all other general tax farmers without distinction or scruples. 

From time to time a commoners’ rebellion -staying in our virtual historical context- brakes out and turmoil ensues like during the 17th of October 2019 demonstrations. At other intervals, opinion leaders launch scathing attacks at the princely regime and its acolytes (Saydet Al JabalKataeb et al). But those actions, despite their brave and commendable nature, are swiftly quashed by the State’s janissaries, or are exploited by general tax farmers for their gains, but never against the Amir

So, what’s the way out of this labyrinth?

A prince of Lebanon has been removed in specific instances: when overstepping his mark with the governor or Sultan like with Fakhreddin II (unlikely in the case of Nasrallah), or when dying without a successor namely, the Maa’ns who were succeeded by the Shihabs (Nasrallah will be succeeded by whomever Iran chooses) or, when the Sultan himself (not the prince) is removed by force as in World War I (today a long shot); or finally, when the commoners organize an armed rebellion to overthrow the prince similarly to 1840 (this last option is often shunned by many as leading to civil war).

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One needs to ask whether the naïve or idealists who are clamoring for elections really think that a democratic process will make a dent in a fundamentally undemocratic nation? One with a rigged electoral law, with political ‘untouchables’ in charge, and illegal weapons concentrated in the hands of one terror militia? Not it’s not Haiti under the Tonton Macoute but it’s eerily similar and, these are no theoretical questions but reality checks that everyone seems oblivious to or amnesic about.

Surely a violent rebellion is an abhorrent sight, but then one should refrain from launching fiery slogans of dislodging Iran’s occupation and overthrowing a whole political class if one is allergic to blood and blows. In the context of destroying a princely regime the wisdom of Niccolo Machiavelli becomes more relevant: “There is no avoiding war, it can only be postponed to the advantage of your enemy.

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