Part II of a III Part Series: Post Independence Chaos
When the colonial administrative era of Lebanon came to an end, it came to the entire region not just to Lebanon. This was a post-colonial age that saw the League of Nations give way to The United Nations where every newly established country had a voice and a seat at the world’s table. This was also the age of extreme chaos for the entire region, and Lebanon’s fate has been tied to that of the region since its independence. It felt as if the Western world had abruptly given up its drive to shape the region’s fledgling nations and hand their responsibilities back to local leaders. For the French the choice for their replacement of the rule of law was governance in the form of a republic. The British favored the handing of power to Monarchs who safeguarded their colonial interest while taking care of the needs of their constituents.
The Strongman Cometh
Based on our Functional Democracy model, a Benevolent Monarchy would have been the ideal form of governance that fits for most of the region which would have favored the British model. But the world underestimated the level of bottled-up rage the Arab street had from centuries of repression. No form of governance was going to restrict their individual expression and the right for self-determination. The 1940s and early 1950s witnessed the dawn of a new age unincumbered by five centuries of Ottomans brutality and free from the rule of the West. Arabs were experiencing personal empowerment in its rawest form. This was the ascendence of the Arab Warrior culturewide to the Third stage of development in our model and no Monarchy or Democracy was going come in their way.
This became evident very quickly as military leaders and revolutionaries throughout the region rose and toppled whatever remained of Western form of rule. Mohammed Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser were the first Arab revolutionaries to topple the Alawite Monarchy of Egypt and Sudan followed shortly by the toppling of the Hashemite Monarchy in Iraq and the numerous military coups that defined Syria in that period of time.
There was a deep desire among the people to create a unique and modern Arab state, led by warriors and pioneers who honored the evolutionary stages they were going through. A leader who spoke to the masses regionwide, one who can unite Arab tribes under one identity, but more importantly one who can fight what most Arabs considered a foreign entity on their land, the State of Israel. Into that void stepped Egypt’s new president. Nasser was a charismatic leader who introduced a series of socialist reforms in Egypt. After nationalizing the Suez Canal, and successfully fending off France, Israel and the UK from reclaiming its control back to the West, he was instantly propelled into the regional spotlight as the ideal strongman who can stand up to foreign oppression.
Arab pride was real and it was expressing itself through the strongman archetype regionwide. It was empowering the peasant class as equally the intellectual class and Nassar’s rhetoric made it reach fever pitch. No sooner than the Hashemite monarchy was toppled, Nasser announced that any retributions against the Iraqi revolutionaries will be considered an attack on Arab sovereignty. In 1958 Syrian revolutionaries steered by the socialist ideologies of the Pan-Arabian Ba’ath party, proposed a union with Egypt and Nasser welcomed the Syrians into the newly formed United Arab Republic. The union only lasted for a few short years, but behind the scenes, Nasser continued to influence Arab leaders in the region to unite behind the Arab cause. The power structure was clear; at the top of the new Arab leadership structure was Nasser, the big strong man, and below him were the satellite Arab countries led by smaller strongmen who will make the dream of the new Arab nation a reality. Anyone who didn’t fall in line was considered weak an unpatriotic to the new cause.
No Country for Weak Men
Two years after Lebanon’s independence, major existential crisis began to define this country that by then was a haphazard band of tribes forced to coexist under one flag. These types of crises would have challenged mature democracies due to their existential nature that continue to challenge the notion that a one person one vote democracy can survive in a sea of nothing but strongmen who wish to hold on to power to themselves. First came the Palestinian refugee crisis in 1948, which immediately tested the strength of the national government. There was little to be tested. Instead of the country’s political leaders working together to design a system for the refugees to assimilate into the culture, or engage in a regional or global dialogue on the Palestinian issue, they found themselves at the mercy of the much bigger cultural wave led by Nasser. The ideologies that defined Nasser’s brand of pan-Arabism were called Nasserism and they had taken the world by storm. They formed a foundation for how the nations of the Third World can liberate themselves from their colonial past and institute socialist or communist programs to help them reach freedom. This was how the Middle East fell into the divide of the Cold War, and most of the Arab street fell for Nasserism.
The Lebanese street, however, was divided in its support for Nasser. The Maronites, and by extension all Christians thought of it as an extension of communism while the Muslim factions, including the Druze supported it wholeheartedly. When Lebanese president Camile Chamoun, a Maronite and an advocate of a strong independent Lebanon, resisted Nasser’s invitation to join the greater Arab cause, he began to destabilize the country from behind the scenes. He sent financial and military aid to his supporters in an attempt to weaken Chamoun’s leadership and further divide the country. No room for weak men, and to Nasser, any Arab leader who resisted Nasserism was to be made into a weak pariah. After Lebanon refused to take an active role in the 1967 war against Israel, Nasser looked to punish those who were responsible for the loss in the war and he looked to Lebanon. If Lebanese leaders were too weak to fight Israel, then there needed to be a stronger Arab presence to its north that could. Nasser put pressure on his Lebanese allies and brokered the 1969 Cairo Agreement which prevented Lebanese authorities from intervening in how Palestinian refugee camps were being operated throughout Lebanon. Suddenly a new strongman, Yasser Arafat rose to power and began to create a state within a state. Within a few short years the political calculus in Lebanon shifted to favor those who supported the PLO and the greater Arab struggle against Israel.
For the few short decades that followed, Lebanon’s Maronite leaders walked the tight rope between supporting a strong independent Lebanon, and playing the moderate role in being passive supporters of the greater Arab cause. As long as no one questioned the movement of Palestinians inside Lebanon, all was well. During this period the country experienced the greatest economic growth that came to define modern day Lebanon. Beirut became the Paris of the East, and Lebanon the Switzerland of the Levant. The Lebanese banking system, which in later years became the country’s downfall, was only rivaled by that of Switzerland due to its banking secrecy laws. Every wealthy investor who couldn’t hide his money in Swiss banks, was able to do it in Lebanese banks. With oil revenues flooding the region, Lebanon quickly became the modern financial capital of the Middle East. But eventually the tensions between Christians who fought against the idea of a strong Palestinian presence in Lebanon reached a breaking point with the non-Christians who supported it. This resulted in Lebanon’s civil war that started in 1975 and lasted till 1990.
Before the civil war however, the regional dynamics began to change. After the sudden death of Nasser in 1970, the role of keeping Lebanon weak and divided shifted to a less diplomatic and more brutal Pan Arabist, Hafez Assad in Syria. Assad rose to power as a Ba’athist and by the time he became president in 1971, had appointed himself as the sole defender of Arabs against Israel. Years before ascending to the Syrian presidency, as a commander in the Syrian Army, Assad offered protection to a Lebanese fugitive by the name of Suleiman Frangieh, who was wanted in Lebanon for murdering several people. Frangieh, being a Maronite and a member of a political family who himself had high ambitions, had returned to Lebanon after the country issued a general amnesty. After a decade or so in Parliament Frangieh ran for President, and with pressure from Syria’s Pan Arabists, he won the presidency and presided over the early years of Lebanon’s civil war. It was time to pay back the piper. Frangieh called on Assad to send in a few army units to stop advances by the Palestinians and their allies.
With the blessings of Saudi Arabia, Assad’s army moved into Lebanon as peacemakers, but ended up being occupiers who changed loyalties on the two sides of the conflict for no other purpose than to keep Lebanon divided and under its control. Assad crushed the Palestinians and their allies as well as the Christians whenever he felt that the power of one was becoming a challenge to Syria’s presence in Lebanon. The Syrians became occupiers in every sense of the word. The peacemaker who was invited in became the occupier who never left. Syrian soldiers robbed Lebanon of everything from wholesale supplies and merchandise at their checkpoints to nice cars driven by Lebanese citizens. The Kleptocracy was eye opening. The Syrians pillaged everything in sight and no one could stop them. They ripped out the entire infrastructure of train tracks and stations that were built by the Ottomans and sold them to the Pakistanis. Their generals penetrated the banking system and forced bankers to cash checks from accounts that had no funds, which forced several banks into insolvency. The joke around Syrian families with a large number of children was that half of them were conceived to go into the army. That is the same army that claimed to defend the Arab world without firing a single shot into Israel or the Golan Heights after losing the territory in the 1967 war and failing to reclaim it in the 1973 war. The Syrian army’s sole focus became the constant intimidation and subjugation of its much smaller neighbor through any means possible.
Lebanon became Syria’s cash-cow, and Assad moved to formalized his country’s domination of it by giving it a “special relationship” designation through the 1989 Taif Agreement which brought an end the civil war. It made Lebanon officially into an Arab state with a special orientation towards Syria. It called for the disarming of all militias, except for Hezbollah, the Shia group that appointed itself the “resistance force” against Israel. The accord also expanded the number of parliamentary seats from 99 to 128, and reordered the Christian majority from a 6:5 ratio to a an even 1:1 ratio with majority of the added seats going to the historically underrepresented Shias. The agreement also moved some of the executive responsibilities from the office of the president to the office of the Prime Minister. The Saudi’s appointed Rafik Hariri, A Sunni Lebanese self-made Billionaire who accumulated most of his wealth through Saudi construction projects.
In later years Hariri became Lebanon’s Prime Minister who undertook the project of reconstruction. Hariri quickly became a nationally beloved figure who was admired by Christians, Druze and Sunnis, but was regarded with suspicion by the Shia who were now allied with the Syrians. There were two essential parts of the Taif Agreement that Hariri sought to fulfil during his many terms as Prime Minister.
- The negotiated withdrawal of the Syrian army.
- The implementation of national reconciliations measures among the feuding tribes called “mutual coexistence.”
It was the failure of both of these measures that brought Lebanon closer to where it is today. Hariri walked a tight rope between keeping the Syrians happy and attempting to negotiate their withdrawal. Hafez Assad’s attention during this period shifted from physical occupation of the country, to controlling part of its resources, business activities and its intelligence apparatus. Corrupt business practices are part of doing business anywhere in the Middle East and Assad and his kleptocrats became a permanent part of the tapestry.
However, after the death of Hafez Assad in 2000, things took a turn for the worse for Lebanon, Assad was succeeded by his son Bashar who lacked the political savvy and the long-term vision of his father. The son immediately began to make unreasonable demands on Hariri and the Lebanese government. Any move by Hariri to reclaim Lebanese sovereignty was met by disdain and contempt. Assad the son took the army withdrawal off the table as his henchmen began to intimidate Hariri. All this came to a deadly head when Hariri’s motorcade was blown up in downtown Beirut killing him and many of his aids and a past minister. Years later, a report by a special UN tribunal found Hezbollah responsible for the massacre, but the brutal act immediately brought demands from the majority of Lebanese for the Syrian army to withdrawal. A few months later, the Syrian army ended its 3-decade occupation and began to empower its proxy Hezbollah to extend its reign of terror.
In part III I will examine Lebanon’s fall into the hands of Hezbollah and its proxies, Syria and Iran and the current economic and debt crisis that seems to have no end in sight.