Lebanon’s new start needs to be locally led

Lebanon's new start needs to be locally led
A Lebanese protester covers his face from tear gas fired by police during protests to denounce the Beirut explosion. (File/AFP)

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The writer Amin Maalouf, one of Beirut’s most celebrated sons, described the city as it was in the 1960s as “the intellectual capital of the Arab East,” and “the ideal place for maximum flowering and pluralism.” In his latest work, “The Shipwreck of Civilizations,” Maalouf charts the decline of that vibrant and resplendent Lebanon after it was razed by the same sectarianism that robbed so many countries in the Middle East of a promising future.

At the beginning of August, much of the Lebanese capital was literally razed by a huge explosion at its port. All indications suggest that the tragedy was the result of repeated negligence directly linked to the country’s political sclerosis. On the eve of the disaster, the Lebanese foreign minister had resigned, warning that narrow party interests threatened to turn Lebanon into a failed state.

The explosion in Beirut is just the tip of the iceberg. Lebanon was already experiencing a deep economic and financial crisis that prompted a wave of protests last October against political deadlock, systemic corruption, and the continued interference of foreign powers. Since then, things have gone from bad to worse.

The UN World Food Program estimates that the price of food in Lebanon rose by 109 percent between October 2019 and June 2020. To this must be added the effects of the coronavirus disease, which have been aggravated by the chaos resulting from the explosion. Moreover, this troubled country has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world: Today, displaced Syrians make up 30 percent of the population.

Lebanon is mired in its most serious crisis since the 1975-90 civil war, although in fact the country has never succeeded in closing the door on that bloody chapter. Its recent trajectory represents a paradigmatic case of what the British academic Mary Kaldor calls “new wars.” In this type of conflict, opposing factions seek to encourage extremist identities and perpetuate hostilities, because doing so gives them free rein to pursue extractive policies.

Lebanon’s situation demands that the West listen with humility and firmly support the demands of the local population.

Javier Solana

Furthermore, factional leaders tend to use peace agreements to consolidate their positions of power and patronage networks, as was the case with the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war. This pact slightly modified the confessional quota system that has prevailed in the country’s public bodies since independence, hindering effective governance and the construction of a national identity. As Kaldor points out, peace agreements often don’t even end the violence. The emergence of Hezbollah during Lebanon’s post-civil war period attests to that.

In short, Lebanon has been adrift for many years and the international community simply cannot look the other way. Let us not forget that the predecessor of the current Lebanese state was conceived precisely a century ago by the victorious powers of the First World War, following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. The League of Nations placed Lebanon under a French mandate that lasted until 1943, and France maintains close relations with the country. French President visited Beirut two days after the explosion and subsequently hosted a UN-backed virtual donor conference.

But the West has a broader historic responsibility that includes encouraging effective governance systems in Lebanon and the rest of the region. All too often, it has not been up to this task, resorting to interventionist excesses and paternalistic attitudes in its desire to assert control. The case of Libya, for example, shows how Western arrogance in backing regime change without viable reconstruction plans can contribute to state failure. Above all, any policy initiative undertaken on humanitarian grounds should respect a basic maxim of medicine: “First, do no harm.”

Lebanon’s situation demands that the West listen with humility and firmly support the demands of the local population, which is displaying a greater degree of cohesion than that sought by their leaders. Popular outrage following the explosion has already brought about the Lebanese government’s resignation, but that is not enough. Protesters are calling for a complete overhaul of the system, even by adopting slogans associated with the Arab Spring, although such an undertaking seems very complicated.

Neither Lebanon’s ruling class nor the country’s more influential neighbors will accept fundamental reform willingly, and the experience of the Arab Spring is far from encouraging. Only the Tunisian revolution led to democracy, and even that success has not been a panacea for the country’s problems. Nevertheless, any hope that Lebanon might have of rising from its ashes will lie, as in Tunisia, in allowing local voices to ring loud and dynamic social movements to develop from the bottom up.

  • Javier Solana, a former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Secretary-General of NATO, and Foreign Minister of Spain, is currently President of the EsadeGeo Center for Global Economy and Geopolitics and Distinguished Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Copyright: Project Syndicate

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