Opinion | ‘Old Lebanon’ must be saved | II


Photo courtesy of Ali Khamenei/Wikimedia Commons

Hezbollah fighters at a ceremony on Jan. 14, 2018. Columnist Eddie Ryan believes that Lebanon’s future in having a booming democracy has not been fully recognized.

By Eddie Ryan, Columnist

Public anger peaked in the weeks after the Beirut explosion of August 2020, but swift reform predictably failed to materialize. Prime minister Hassan Diab officially resigned and remained in a caretaker capacity while a new government was arranged. Both Mustapha Adib and Saad Hariri – son of Rafik – tried and failed, and what became a 13-month political stalemate only just ended. The new leader, Najib Mikati, still isn’t expected to break the mold. 

These uninspiring political squabbles have hummed along in the background while the Lebanese people dealt with the newest dimension of their misfortune: a “blacked out” Beirut. 

Energy shortages have become common in Lebanon, partially because of inflation. Since Lebanon is a majority importing country, higher prices have prevented it from buying sufficient resources, leaving those without private generators – which are prohibitively costly – to struggle alone.

When the state’s electricity grid – Electricité de Liban – collapsed, 6.8 million were left in darkness. Hospitals have been particularly stricken, and the severity of the outage is only heightened by the high level of need already sweeping the populace. 

Violence often accompanies such quotients of suffering, and Lebanon – home to Hezbollah, after all – has been no exception. In mid-October, six were killed in a once volatile Beirut neighborhood after Hezbollah protestors were fired upon, possibly by right-wing Christian opponents. Adding to the fever pitch, this was the worst violence in Beirut since 2008.

Hezbollah, the militant Shiite Islamist group, sees this moment as a chance to fortify its holdings in parliament and boost its image.

Hezbollah’s recent maneuvers are worrying precisely because they are effective. Amid the national energy shortage, the group has made a display of importing fuel from Iran through Syria in violation of American sanctions. 

This follows a well-grooved pattern: From Colombian drug lords to Hamas, nefarious groups have long sought popularity through social service provisions. It seems to have worked here, and quite understandably. Though the government secured oil from Iraq days later, it was Hezbollah that acted first to meet the people’s needs. 

This doesn’t negate the violence Hezbollah contributed to in Beirut, of course. Indeed, though Hezbollah was fired upon first, its members were protesting the blast investigation’s alleged targeting of Hezbollah affiliates. It’s unclear how judicious the investigation will be or whether it will bestow much-deserved blame on the political elite. But Hezbollah’s cynical objections to it certainly won’t nudge it in a just direction, given their preoccupation with amassing power. 

Hezbollah is not a new force in Lebanon nor is it even its biggest current problem. Even so, the militants represent the opposite of the secular solution which seems to be the country’s best long-term option. 

Lebanon has such a rich basis for pluralism, but confessionalism has turned this diversity into a disadvantage. The evolution of a nominally secular state into a true republic, where religious considerations are completely divorced from politics, is the democratic pluralist’s dream. Rooting out institutionalized corruption depends on it. In the unlikely scenario that Hezbollah seizes control in some imminent power vacuum, bigotry and dogmatism would instead reign.

Not enough has been written here of external causes, for the Lebanese are by no means solely to blame. After all, their country was occupied by Syria for roughly 30 years and by Israel, with whom it endured wars that also involved an aggressive United States. 

International relations of the exact opposite character will be Lebanon’s lifeline in the short run. A secular evolution won’t happen overnight, and the government is now financially incapable of fixing things.

This means wealthy nations must provide more aid and relieve sanctions that impede energy imports. The U.S. should at least add provisos to its Iranian and Egyptian sanctions so that Lebanon can import through Syria legally. France, Lebanon’s former colonial overlord, also owes it a debt.

Lebanon has long gleamed with vitality and beauty, even under the oppressive yoke of its neighbors. In Beirut, its pearl beside the Mediterranean, and all throughout, aesthetics and culture have found rich expression. This is why anyone who values culture, let alone human dignity, should wish to see the old Lebanon survive without hardly a single political consideration raised.

On that score too, however, there’s ample incentive. Along with India and the U.S. itself, Lebanon’s full potential as a flourishing multicultural democracy hasn’t been realized. Without reviving the old Lebanon, such a secular evolution couldn’t take place. 

Eddie is a junior in LAS.

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