Lebanon: a fate beyond its control?
Zahbia Yousuf is Peacebuilding Editor and Analyst at Conciliation Resources. She recently visited Beirut to participate in launch events for issue 24 in our Accord series Reconciliation, reform and resilience: Positive peace for Lebanon
With Syria dominating the headlines, concern for Lebanon has been framed in terms of regional instability and the ever-looming threat of Iran; a recent article about the region labelled Lebanon a “sectarian tinderbox’”, which “could easily be reignited” by events in Syria.
I recently spent a few days in Beirut and was struck that a place so vibrant should so often be portrayed as a regional pawn. And many times during that trip I came back to the question of, how much is, and can, Lebanon be responsible for its own fate?
Searching for reconciliation, reform and resilience
I was in Beirut for the launch of the latest issue in Conciliation Resources’ Accord series, Positive peace for Lebanon, which analyses exactly this conundrum. It focuses on Lebanese domestic efforts to build peace and reconciliation, and ways to nurture resilience to the outside environment.
Given the regional challenges Lebanon faces, whether this is a somewhat idealistic point of view or one that requires just a bit more commitment seems to be a question still very much debated.
Travelling with the issue editors and some contributing authors, I attended two days of meetings with a broad spectrum of ‘peacebuilding’ actors – representatives from Lebanese civil society and NGOs, international NGOs, and international policy actors including the UN and EU (the latter having funded the People’s Peacemaking Perspectives project which features this publication).
Working for peace – who and how?
It was interesting how in one form or another this question of agency kept cropping up. Many of the organisations we talked to echoed a common concern.
The confessional system seems to lie at the heart of Lebanese political, economic and social life and is identified by many inside and out as the core of Lebanon’s problems. The system seems to embed the ability of elites to manipulate and carve different centres of power for their own interests.
How should ‘outsiders’ and even ‘insiders’ navigate such a system for the sake of peacebuilding? Should international actors actively pressure political parties to change their habits but risk being accused of political engineering?
This is made muddier when some western actors view certain political elements, such as Hezbollah, as unsavoury and are reluctant to work with them consistently. Once more the outside seeps in – a focus on external support from Iran and Syria detracts from the role Hezbollah and others play in representing marginalised groups.
Is there value in working below the state level instead, and supporting local actors so that they themselves can hold political parties to account? This is an interesting and worthwhile approach given the blockages at the national level.
However, as many people we talked to pointed out, there might not be as much uptake for this as is needed; whilst there are occasional sparks challenging the status quo, the clientalist networks are both familiar and predictable for many local communities.
People, power, politics
But my short stay also suggested that this is not a country that brushes these issues under the carpet, speaking about them in hushed tones behind closed doors – in fact a major bookstore featured numerous Hezbollah books, including The Statements of Nasrallah, in its essential reading section.
There was a definite active voice in Beirut. I stumbled across a fascinating photo exhibition exploring ‘othering’, exclusion and racism within Lebanese society towards those of mixed Lebanese heritage. However, digging a little deeper, it also seemed that such social awareness often blurs with political lines.
The front of the St George’s Hotel features a huge ‘Stop Solidere’ poster to protest the development company that has a near monopoly on reconstruction in Beirut, and which the hotel accuses of destroying the heritage of the city. It is also owned by the Hariri family, two members of which were recent prime ministers. Increasing protests by temporary electricity workers for proper employment contracts reveal that reluctance to meet their demands may be due to concerns that doing so might disrupt the confessional quotas in the public sector (though this is part speculation and, as one Beirut resident told me, the Lebanese love a good conspiracy theory).
This all begs the question, where does ownership lie – the people? the state? In a country where these lines are blurred is it possible to disentangle the two? And how do peacebuilders engage meaningfully with the idea of ownership in such a context?
These are also some of the hard questions that the ‘New Deal’ for fragile states has to grapple with. Having seen the dilemmas in Lebanon, my gut feeling is that it would be easy to fudge the answer and opt for the mode of least resistance – which in Lebanon means continuing the status quo of appeasing political elites. But for the New Deal to live up to its ambitions it needs to be based on a 'new deal' between authorities and local populations living in conflict-affected and fragile situations.
And so after a few days I left Beirut feeling a bit frustrated.
Not for the usual complaints of the heaving traffic, the sweltering heat and humidity, compounded by the unpredictable electricity (note to self: the rule of ironing your clothes the night before rings especially true here, particularly when you have a dress sat crumpled at the bottom of your suitcase). But rather because I felt like I hadn’t even scratched the surface of this fascinating city and country, and the more I dug the more questions and paradoxes it raised.