Lebanon, Pity the Nation That Never Was

PART I: Bloody tribal history meets Western style democracy

By Said Elias Dawlabani

Disclosure: I was born in Lebanon into a Christian family, but my religious denomination precludes me and tens of thousands like me from holding elected office in the country. This exclusion is not in the country’s constitution. Until such time as when my sect develops its own strong man and proves to be worthy of being called warlords, we will remain on the margins of Lebanon’s political establishment.    

Maronite Cathedral next to Sunni Mosque in Downtown Beirut

Maronite Cathedral next to Sunni Mosque in Downtown Beirut

Today, Lebanon is experiencing a trifecta of events that, in the words of its President are sending the country to hell. It started with the collapse of the banking sector in October 2019, got further exacerbated by the global pandemic, then came the massive explosion at the port of Beirut last summer that destroyed half of the city. With these existential calamities piling on the top of each other, the country with no meaningful help in sight, has downshifted to the worst mode of survival where famine is knocking at the door of most Lebanese families. But not so for its political class and their cronies. The President’s statement would have been more accurate if it were slightly amended to say “me and my gang of criminals are sending the country to hell, unless foreign money keeps our scheme going.”

It’s not the massive explosion at the port or the Coronavirus that are descending Lebanon into the abyss.  It is the world finally waking up and realizing that underneath the façade of what looks like a modern nation, the country is anything but. Lebanon is run mostly by tribes and warlords of different ethnic and religious compositions with loyalties to outside powers that have very little to do with making Lebanon a strong sovereign state. They amount to nothing more than criminal gangs competing for resources. The occasional alliance of feuding political families appears as an act of national unity when in reality it’s merely an ad hoc arrangement among clans to beat out other clans competing for resources and political power.


Lebanon was an remains the place where persecuted minorities from the greater region seek shelter and safety. Be it in the mountains where conquering armies dared not to climb, or the safety by numbers present within the confines of one’s own religious sect. These tribal values are an anthropologist’s dream preserved in the haphazard design of most Lebanese communities.

The old dusty roads that connect this ancient land are a journey through that history that bears witness to the country’s modern identity. As you drive through the lush greens of the Bekaa valley, you see a church steeple on the horizon. That is a Christian village. You pass it in a blink of an eye then you drive a few short miles through another patch of green in slightly different hue before you see a Minaret of a Mosque. You’re approaching a Muslim village. The scene repeats several times before you start looking closer at the names of the churches and the mosques and realize you have counted at least 7 or 8 different Christian and Muslim denominations in less than an hour into your journey.  These villages make for the classic case of how form follows function. The design is a mosaic of modern apartment buildings that house several generations of the same family and old huts bunched together for safety under the spell of a common belief system. These are modern tribes living in constant fear of each other with a safe distance between them and only interact with one another for simple trade or whenever a common threat arises.

The Bloody history of Maronites and Druze. The 1860 slaughter

The Bloody history of Maronites and Druze. The 1860 slaughter

History books on Lebanon are full of bloody stories of how clans within the same religion don’t trust others from different denominations. As recently as a hundred years ago, the Maronites Christians had deep mistrust of the Greek Orthodox Christians. The Sunnis Muslims didn’t trust the Shia Muslims. The Druze who are neither Muslim nor Christian, are known for their quick slaughter of Catholics and Maronites the minute the winds of ignorance blow from the nearby mountains. This is not folklore. These were the realities that defined the feudal history of Lebanon. The Ottoman Turks who ruled the region for five hundred years more often than not condoned tribal slaughter which forced Christians to seek protection from the Vatican and other Western countries. Over the centuries, the French emerged as the protectors of the Maronites, the Russians were the protectors of the Greek Orthodox Christians, and the British were the protectors of the Druze.[i]

The brutality of the Ottomans kept most of the region under repression for five hundred years. The Turks were the masters of the divide and conquer strategy that prevented tribal harmony from taking root. They corroded the culture’s capacity to develop resilience and prevented it from reaching higher levels of development. Those are all prerequisite stages of cultural development that encourage tribes to subordinate their belief systems into higher values that define peaceful co-existence, inclusion and harmony often identified with the ideal of one nation under one flag.

Proclamation of Greater Lebanon 1920 in 1920. Photo by Photo12/Getty

Proclamation of Greater Lebanon in 1920. Photo by Photo12/Getty

After the Ottoman Empire crumbled, France and Britain administered parts of the region hoping to make it look like the West. Lebanon, they thought, with its highly educated populous that openly assimilated Western values will easily welcome a Western style democracy.   After a few short decades the French, taking the advice of their Lebanese allies, carved out parts of Syria and added them to what had historically been Mount Lebanon to form what is known today as the modern-day Republic of Lebanon. In their Western worldview, the French attempted to capture the religious and tribal character of the past in order to design a constitution for this newly formed democracy. The result was the allocation of political power based on the confessional composition of the country.  The French, of course favored their historic protectorates, the Maronites and placed their religious and civic leaders in charge of the final demarcations of borders. What influenced that design were two major factors that have shaped much of the country’s political dysfunction since its independence:

  1. After the Ottomans caused the Great Famine of 1915-1918 in Mount Lebanon which killed half of its population, Maronite leaders wanted to make sure such an existential threat does not surface again. They sought to include land with rich soil where they can grow food for their new country. This would be territory that was historically a part of Syria. The French offered the soil-rich section north of Mount Lebanon called Wadi al Nasara, (the Valley of the Christians) which was mostly populated by the Greek Orthodox sect.[ii] Thinking that their tribal foes will eventually compete with them for power the Maronite bishops argued against that plan. Instead, they picked the areas where the uneducated and underrepresented Shia peasants lived. This territory included much of Southern Lebanon and the Bekaa valley that are part of the country today. These were the simplistic, often uninformed tribalistic views that had no place in the design of a modern nation. The fallacy that any segment of society will remain uninformed and primitive in a modern democracy sealed the country’s fate. It is the rise of Lebanon’s Shia today to claim their share of power that is at the heart of its multiple crisis.
  1. As soon as the country received its independence, it was thrown into a series of existential crisis that would have made modern democracies crumble. While the country has had a few periods of prosperity and peaceful coexistence among its people, its modern history has been defined by the failure of its governing systems that are not congruent with the tribal and feudal values of its leaders and their followers.


To get a better idea of where the country is today, it is important to view its past from a developmental lens of cultural and political evolution that examines the imposition of Western models of governance. The development model that has been at the heart of my work for the last two decades, places Lebanon’s predominant values at the second and third levels of development. Of the various metrics that measure factors that determine what constitutes a modern-day nation, Lebanon resoundingly qualifies as a failed state. It’s a half-baked 20th century French colonial experiment that ignored history, culture, geography and tribal loyalties that have dotted the region for millennia. More importantly, it ignored the sequential developmental stages that a culture must go through to develop the necessary resilience before it can become a thriving democracy.

This chart is a derivation of the Spiral Dynamics Framework and its applications to Large Scale Systems Change. For further details on real case studies in South Africa and the Middle East please read Elza Maalouf's book Emerge! The Rise of Functional Democracy and the Future of the Middle East and Don Beck's book  The Crucible; Forging South Africa's Future. Both available on Amazon and other book sellers.

This chart is a derivation of the Spiral Dynamics Framework and its applications to Large Scale Systems Change. For further details on real case studies in South Africa and the Middle East please read Elza Maalouf’s book Emerge! The Rise of Functional Democracy and the Future of the Middle East and Don Beck’s book The Crucible; Forging South Africa’s Future. Both available on Amazon and other book sellers.

To the West, it was all about modernization that ignores these indigenous challenges that determine the natural evolution of a culture up the ladder of development. When viewed from our Functional Democracy framework, modernization tends to skip or minimize the necessary hard work on the lower levels that have historically been a prerequisite for national cohesion and nation building.  When designing from the stratified approach to cultural emergence, (governance that fits the culture), the general rule of thumb is to design a governing system that is no more than one stage of development above the culture’s dominant value systems and beliefs. More importantly the content of that design needs to be informed by the unique motivations and aspirations of that local culture. This is what the creators of the model, Don Beck and Elza Maalouf of The Center for Human Emergence Middle East call the Indigenous Intelligence. A closer look at the values and levels of development of the French, places their ideas on democracy at the 5th and 6th level of development, which is two to three stages above Lebanon’s value systems center of gravity. Additionally, their design of the country’s constitution only gave surface attention to Lebanon’s Indigenous Intelligence that should have come from all the tribal and religious leaders of the country, not just the Maronites.

In our model, political form must follow the function it’s supposed to serve, which was also overlooked by the French. While many argue that Lebanon with its modern educational institutions and free market economy, should be ranked among liberal democracies, a look at its cultural composition tells us otherwise. Tribal and religious loyalties today still outrank any loyalty to such abstract concepts like democracy or nationalism. Essentially what the French had done is remove ancient boundaries that served historically as physical barriers that separated feuding tribes without focusing first on helping tribal leaders develop institutional capacities necessary to define the core of what it is to be a Lebanese patriot serving one flag in a system of one person one vote. By overlooking this crucial stage of cultural development, the French let loose the warlords who saw the opportunity to plunder the entire country as spoils for their tribes and their henchmen.

Under the Functional Democracy model, the toughest stage of cultural and political evolution is the transition from stage 3 to stage 4 of development. Western democracy begins at stage 4, but when the model is adopted to a culture that is in any lower stages of development, different forms of governance have to be applied. The hope is to help the culture eventually reach stage 4 that is unique to its own people. However, getting to that stage has always been difficult due to the nature of what comes before it. Stage 3 has proven to be the bloodiest stage of development in the history of humanity. For centuries it was thought of as the only way to govern. It was historically represented by charismatic and feared leaders like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. In later manifestations it represented itself as the entry stages into level 4 of development under the guise of religion. The Crusaders and Muhammad’s conquering armies are two good examples. Today, any leader who’s considered a strongman is a representative of that level of development. This third level has defined the exploitive nature of past empires. It’s all about subjugating “the other” through any means possible. To the victor belonged the spoils in human and material toll. Bloodshed and violence define many generations until eventually the collective conscious is fully exhausted and becomes incapable of empowering anything that causes bloodshed. (More on this lost opportunity for Lebanon in Part II). That is when a culture and its bloodied leaders begin to develop the awareness that there has to be a better way. The transition to that better way is the most crucial transition in human history as power moves from being vested in the hands of the charismatic, often male egocentric warrior to being vested in the institutions of the culture. Leaders centered in stage 4 are always aware of the brutal memories and the determination to never again return to the brutality of the third level. It is at this stage that the foundation stones of a modern nation are built. Without having the bloody lessons from stage 3 incorporated into the collective awareness of the culture, that foundation sits on shaky grounds.

In addition to the French ignoring Lebanon’s prerequisite stages of development, and its own internal struggles, they designed a constitution that removed the next stage of development: the strong man image who can stand tall in the region among other Arabs leaders who identified with the modern warrior archetype. Absent that, Lebanese leaders were being viewed as weak. For the exception of religious institutions, no one in the region understood or even respected the abstract idea of institutions that form the cornerstone of democracy. Because of that perceived weakness the country was taken full advantage of as it became a proxy for regional powers who fought their ideological and sectarian battles while politicians either acted in allegiance to regional powers or looked for financial incentives that made them and their cronies into Billionaires while turning a blind eye as their country was being plundered.

In Part II I’ll examine Lebanon’s post-independence days leading up to the current crisis which seems to have no end in sight

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Lebanon#Sectarian_conflict:_European_Powers_begin_to_intervene Retrieved April 20, 2021.

[ii] https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/lebanons-dark-days-of-hunger-the-great-famine-of-1915-18-1.70379 Retrieved April 21, 2021.