Whither Lebanon?

Whither Lebanon?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  I should probably write about the “big success” we have in Northeastern Syria thanks to Vladimir Putin talking the Turkish president, Erdogan, into holding back some from his nation’s invasion of Kurdish territory.  But, heck, it is still hard to know what is going on there.  So instead I am going to look at events happening in Lebanon mostly under the radar, but that are both connected to the broader war in Syria as Lebanon has been challenged by receiving over a million refugees from that war, but also is experiencing something that resembles events happening in several other nations and that may lead to deep changes in that complicated and  long-suffering nation, things that may actually be hopeful for an improved future, more likely than what is happening to the Kurds in Northeastern Syria.  Lebanon is experiencing massive street demonstration involving hundreds of thousands of people.

Lebanon became independent from French rule in 1943, having been carved out of the Ottoman province of Syria by them following the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement with the British in order to favor the elite Christian Maronite group, who follow eastern rites but are under the Catholic Church, with the wealthy Maronites having had close relations with the French dating back to the Crusades.  With 18 recognized ethnic/religious communities, the French set up a system based on these groups, but favoring the Maronites, then the largest group.  The president, as well as the Chief of Staff of the military and the Head of the central bank, were to be Maronites.  The premier would be from the then-second largest group, a Sunni Muslin, and the Speaker of the parliament would be from the poorest group, the Shi’a, who were predominant in the South next to Israel.  The Sunnis would increase in population as waves of Palestinian refugees entered, fist in 1948, and then in 1970 after the failure of the Black September uprising in Jordan, with the PLO taking power in various parts of Lebanon then.  However, the poor Shi’a would become the largest group in population.



In 1975 civil war broke out initially between the Maronites and the PLO, but various groups sided up with each other, with some ethnic groups split among themselves, including the Maronites.  The war lasted until 1990, when entry by Syrian forces largely brought it to an end following the 1989 Taif Agreement, which promised that a Senate would be formed that would be led by someone from the nation’s fourth largest group, the Druze, but this never happened.  An important group coming out of the civil war was Hezbollah, the Shi’a group backed by Iran and founded in 1982 to oppose both Israel and the PLO.  Over time it would become the strongest militia and political group in Lebanon, long led by Hassan Nasrallah, and now the most important group in the government, operating through an alliance with current Maronite president, Michel Aoun.  The premier is Saad Hariri, son of a premier assassinated in 2005 by the Syrians, which led to the Cedar Revolution, a massive uprising that led to the Syrians largely leaving, although now the population has surged due to the arrival of many mostly Sunni Syrian refugees from the war.  The current premier also was briefly detained by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, nominally his ally.

Out of the war and its aftermath, the barely-ruled nation came to be dominated by a corrupt elite from a small group of families from each of the main ethnic groups.  The economy long ago fell into a kind of permanent stagnation, with many public services barely functioning and one of the largest foreign debts/GDP in the world, with these elites siphoning off massive via their corruption.  Anger over this erupted over a week ago fallowing a proposal to raise taxes on phone calls on Whats App.  The demonstrations have crossed party and ethnic lines, with hundreds of thousands in the streets and now calling for a complete replacement of the current regime and all its main leaders and groups, including Aoun, Nasrallah, and Hariri.  This is profoundly potentially hopeful, although where all this will lead remains unknown and unclear.

Curiously this parallels similar demonstrations going on in quite a few nations, nearly all of them initiated by a proposed or actual tax increase, with the Gilets Jaunes (“yellow vests”) in France arguably an earlier inspiration.  Such demonstrations, most of them also massive and ongoing, are going on in Ecuador, Chile, Haiti, with also the somewhat related but also somewhat distinct ones in Hong Kong as well.  In short, this is a globally widespread movement that looks to shake up governments and systems in many nations.  However, the one in Lebanon next to Syria that is still experiencing war that directly impacts it may have the largest demonstrations with those making maybe the most serious demands of any of them.  The long-troubled nation of Lebanon now stands at the epicenter of a global upheaval of potentially enormous significance.

Barkley Rosser