Conditions In Post-Taif Lebanon
Habib C. Malik   (Courtesy of USCFL)
September 1997

As a composite society, Lebanon exhibits a range of perceptions, counter perceptions, and misperceptions exchanged among its various religious communities. Whereas other states in the region are increasingly involved in sorting out their relations with one another within a new and gradually emerging regime of regional peace, Lebanon continues to focus on problems not only of reconstitution, but literally of redefinition.

Implicitly, there are many Lebanons, a multiplicity of "Lebanons-in-the-making," and dreams of future Lebanons, which—depending on which community one listens to—range along the continuum between the two improbable extremes of an Islamic republic and a Christian state. A dissection of Lebanon's policy can easily amount to an anatomy of incompatible, if not antagonistic, communal agendas which underscores; basic truth: while Lebanon's sub-national communal entities endure, its supra-national political arrangements are ephemeral.

Nevertheless, Lebanon is not fated to remain in a perpetual state of fragmentation. In fact, it seems to go through cycles in which the heterogeneous sub-national mosaic congeals into a streamlined national structure through a process of consensus and compromise, often encouraged by external forces but resting upon well-defined internal components, only to experience eventual collapse and disintegration at times of acute crises or "moments of truth" and revert back to its original sub-national (i.e., communal) aggregates. Then the entire process commences all over again.

These cycles are a reflection of a uniquely Lebanese political dialectic that manifests itself under a variety of headings: unity/fragmentation, Muslim/Christian, sectarian/secular, Arab/Lebanese, city/mountain, sub-national/supra-communal, center/periphery, compromise/confrontation, and others. The peculiar Lebanese political idiom is therefore inherently dichotomous, and a constant underlying tension—a dialectical interplay between extremes—informs all political discourse and developments in Lebanon. Yet the Lebanese pattern of employing temporary "solutions" in the name of political compromise can be a double-edged sword. On one hand, it bespeaks an admirable Lebanese resilience in the face of prolonged battering and terrific odds. On the other, however, it tends to accelerate the cycle of coalescence and collapse by masking chronic incompatibilities and glossing over residual antagonisms.

Despite the presence in Lebanon of endemic communal cleavages, a genuine desire for peaceful coexistence surfaces regularly; it is often prompted by a combination of external pressure and internal mercantile considerations and imperatives, however, rather than a unified and articulated national ethos. Although there is nothing wrong with the commercial enterprise and entrepreneurial success that so many Lebanese display, this cannot constitute the sole or even overriding basis for lasting communal coexistence. Without at least a modicum of shared values and aspirations to supplement mercantile advantage—and a corresponding set of reliable, institutionally enshrined legal and constitutional safeguards to guarantee these values and minimize the impact of deleterious external meddling—any state or national arrangement that emerges will always remain fundamentally flimsy.

The Lebanon of peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians has been portrayed romantically as "a bird with two wings," with each community representing a wing. The obvious implication is that the bird cannot fly with one wing alone and needs both to function. If any deeper values and assumptions bind the two communities together, however, they remain largely unformulated beyond vague poetic imagery laden with nostalgia. Such coexistence entails creative communal interaction that preserves the integrity of each sub-national group while providing a framework for nation-building on the basis of mutual respect for freedom, pluralism, openness, and basic rights. Moreover, for peaceful coexistence between two groups harboring unequal levels of fear to succeed, the party with lesser anxieties (in this case, the Muslims) needs to constantly reassure the existentially fearful party (the Christians), and their reassurances must be credible—namely, authenticated by actual deeds. The onus of successful coexistence conducive to lasting contentment therefore lies on the shoulders of the least frightened community. The reality of captive Lebanon tells a different story.

Divided societies can be precariously "at peace" with themselves even when their constituent components are merely living side-by-side, hardly interacting beyond the bare economic necessities. But when such divided societies are additionally saddled with foreign occupation, and when the presence of the occupier encourages some members of a particular community to believe that they are at an advantage over the other communities, a potentially lethal process of irreversible transformation detrimental to freedom is set in motion. Lebanon currently finds itself in such a sad state. About 10 percent of its territory is under Israeli control, and the remaining 90 percent is subject to direct Syrian military occupation and indirect Syrian political control. The accepted "wisdom" in international circles appears to be that Lebanon, for whatever reasons, continues to require this open-ended, dual "overlordship" by its two neighbors—certainly the 90 percent of it under Syrian hegemony.

Should this abnormal state of affairs persist indefinitely, however, much that is of value to Lebanon and the region as a whole is in danger of being irretrievably lost. As the twenty-first century approaches, Lebanon displays many odd anachronisms, not least its vestiges of religious and clan feudalism. But the Middle East is itself rife with even less appealing anachronisms: various Islamic fundamentalism, generally closed societies under repressive Arab governments, economic stagnation and squandering of resources, illiteracy and parochialism, the Bedouin mentality and desert culture of Arabia, and the deplorable state of Arab women are but a few prominent examples.

To speak of Lebanon's unique experience of freedom in the middle decades of this century is not to appeal to a contrived mystique or promote some form of mythical self-glorification. A careful scrutiny of Lebanon's pre-1975 history would reveal a set of indicators of freedom—the fruits of a genuinely liberal, pluralist, and open society in the Middle Eastern context—that, despite being couched at times in romantic clichés, rest on a solid kernel of objective, verifiable truth. Examples include the most independent press in the Arab world; prolific publishing without censorship; thriving national sectors such as education, medicine, banking, entertainment, services, and tourism; free trade; a plethora of political parties and fore operating openly; and much more. In spite of the occasional blemishes and imperfections that marred the actual manifestations of these freedoms, Lebanon was fully justified in claiming to be the freest society in the Arab world. Moreover, Lebanon's pre-war economic prosperity was never the exclusive privilege of any single religious group, but had a generalized "trickle down" effect that belied such stereotypical—and erroneous—descriptions of pre-war Lebanon as the land of the "haves" (i.e., rich Christians) and "have nots" (poor Muslims), where the former basked in la "dolce vita" while the latter toiled away in misery.

The prerequisite for understanding Lebanon is an appreciation of its nuances, rather than the oft-peddled stereotypes. For example, Lebanon never fit the late Elie Kedourie's blanket description of Middle Eastern regimes: "Traditional rule in the Middle East may be characterized as Oriental despotism in which . . . the state is stronger than society." In fact, the precise opposite has always been true about Lebanon—society, not the state, is consistently the stronger and more durable of the two. Similarly, it is not necessarily the case, as Kedourie asserts, that constitutional representative government works only in a secular context. This may be true in regard to the Western experience, but Lebanon's idiosyncratic multi-confessional version of constitutional democracy among religious communities, in which distinctive subgroups are preserved within a system of proportional representation, offers an example of representative democracy among a plurality of religious or sectarian units.

The pressing question in post-Taif Lebanon is not so much how Christians and Muslims can live together, nor even how one reconciles the Christian and Muslim conceptions of Lebanon, but rather how to protect basic rights and freedoms for individuals and communities regardless of their religious affiliation from the mounting ravages of prolonged foreign—and specifically Syrian—occupation. The Lebanon war has not really ended. Though the guns are silent and security has improved on some levels, a heavy price is being exacted for these modest normalizing steps in the form of a tighter noose around freedoms and a steady erosion of Lebanon's distinctive characteristics. The war therefore has merely assumed a different form, with subtle new demarcation lines separating the two warring sides. The decisive confrontation for the foreseeable future is between Lebanon's beleaguered civil society in all its aspects (which often traverse religious divides) and the relentless hegemonic onslaught on this civil society by the Damascus regime. Thus, after years of bloody internecine strife fueled by outside interference, the Lebanon war has metamorphosed into a showdown pitting Syria and its local proxies against the vast majority of the Lebanese population.

Assuming that Lebanon is Syria's "near abroad" (to borrow an expression from the Russian geopolitical context), this is apparently sufficient reason in the eyes of Syria's ruling Ba'th party to render the definition of its "vital interests" in Lebanon as elastic and open-ended. Since the November 1989 Taif agreement, Syria has been allowed to get away with a number of steps in Lebanon that have underscored the openhandedness in its influence there. The agreement has been only partially implemented: provisions requiring Syrian redeployment to the Bekaa Valley have been ignored, while wide-ranging measures have been taken to bolster the so-called "privileged relationship" between the two countries. In other words, since its inception, Taif has been methodically Syrianized and augmented by a string of "bilateral agreements" designed to lead toward the gradual merger of Lebanon with Syria at all levels.

In October 1990, the United States and Israel looked the other way while the Syrian army and air force effectively routed the forces of General Michel Aoun, the only remaining pocket of resistance to Syria's takeover of Lebanon. During the 1991 Gulf War, President Assad provided the "fig leaf" of token support from a reputedly radical Arab state to the U.S.-led anti-Iraq coalition. His reward was continued freedom of action in Lebanon. By the time the Madrid peace conference convened later that year and launched the current Middle East peace process, Syria had become firmly entrenched in Lebanon and was vigorously consolidating its visible as well as covert presence there. Since Madrid, there has been a marked reluctance on the part of either the United States or Israel to challenge Syria's stranglehold over Lebanon, for fear of jeopardizing an eventual peace deal between Syria and Israel.

The Taif agreement initiated a steady process of erosion on more than one level in Lebanon. War-weariness resulting in a kind of inertia in the population provided ideal conditions for this erosion, and a convenient facade for the occupation to entrench itself. As the peace process slowly inches forward and the intertwined Syrian and Lebanese tracks stagnate, drift in Lebanon is turning into an imperceptible slide toward a set of irreversible "facts on the ground" intended to promote outright assimilation with Syria; the defacto occupation is gradually becoming de jure annexation. Instead of recognizing and accommodating Lebanon's internal socio-cultural heterogeneity and potentially creative multicultural face, the goal of forced assimilation and homogenization on every level leading to a colorless monoculturalism is being advanced in the name of "national reconciliation" and "national reintegration," and in the ultimate service of Syrian purposes and Ba'th expansionist ideology.

The Taif agreement (also referred to as the National Conciliation Document) inaugurated this homogenizing assimilative trend, and the Syrian-appointed regime in Beirut has been reinforcing and accelerating it ever since. Instead of serving as a basis for national reconciliation (as it was initially trumpeted by its supporters), Taif has aggravated latent Christian fears without really satisfying the other communities. In other words, it completely ignored the existing asymmetry between the existential fears and the socio-political grievances of the two main communal subgroups in the Lebanese polity. The Syrianized Taif in fact went further by undermining what remained of Christian political influence without fulfilling the aspirations of Lebanon's Muslim political establishment. By curtailing the powers of the presidency—a post traditionally reserved for a Maronite Christian—and rendering it largely ceremonial, and seemingly enhancing the standing of the Sunni prime minister and Shi'a speaker of parliament, Taif set the stage for infighting and paralysis among the three key posts referred to euphemistically as the troika Naturally, at times of disagreement and deadlock, the only place to turn for a quick resolution of the impasse is Damascus. The Beirut-Damascus highway has witnessed a brisk two-way traffic by an assortment of Lebanese politicians traveling to Syria seeking favor or attempting to shore up sagging political fortunes. In the "virtual state" of post-Taif Lebanon, where the "government" exists only in the minds of its officials, and all communities are undergoing a regimen of domestication, Syria is the maestro and true beneficiary.