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May 8, 2020 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 217

Time For 'Le Petit Liban'

May 8, 2020 | By Alberto M. Fernandez
Lebanon | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 217

We are almost at the century mark of the creation of what was called Le Grand Liban, the Greater Lebanon cobbled together by French authorities at the behest of Lebanese Christian intellectuals and politicians in 1920. This expanded Lebanon added Muslim majority regions (but also the city of Beirut) to what had been an overwhelmingly Christian-Druze statelet in the Ottoman Empire, the Mutasarrifate of Mount Lebanon from 1861 to 1915. Lebanese had just endured a cruel famine during World War I that killed a third of the population and the expanded Lebanon made good economic, if dubious political, sense.

The political risk was that the newly incorporated territories were less committed to an independent Lebanon and more swayed in coming decades by the siren songs of Arabism and Islamism. Certainly both of those ideologies played a role in subsequent events, in the Lebanese Civil War and in the emergence of Hizbullah, a commitment to Iranian Wilayat al-Faqih being a type of Islamism. Today Lebanon's problems are not so much its borders or even its sectarian system but something else.

Lebanon faces one of its greatest crises ever; economic collapse and hunger stalk the land. Decades of living beyond its means, endemic corruption, and government incompetence are taking its deadly toll. Crooked politicians and lousy governance are not unique to Lebanon, but for the past few decades, this deplorable leadership has been joined to first Assad regime hegemony and now Hizbullah regime hegemony. Hard to "throw the bums out" when there is a heavily armed and ruthless outside player ensuring that they stay in.

The damage being done to Lebanon's future, to its historic role as a refuge for religious minorities, including the Christians of the Levant, to the idea of Lebanon as a unique place of convergence and relative openness and tolerance, is nothing new. The decline has been going on for decades, but it is accelerating at warp speed in the coming months with terrifying power. Lebanon will need billions of dollars, which can only come from the West and from international financial institutions, to bail it out. Moreover, it will need that money when other, larger and more strategic countries also need massive help. For many in Washington, Lebanon has little strategic value. Right now the current political-military configuration regnant in Lebanon is "strategic" only for Iran, through its local franchise, Hizbullah.

And this is the irony. The more Lebanon seems to become like the rest of the Arab world, the less diverse it becomes, the more intolerant it becomes, the more bureaucratic it becomes, the less space there is for criticism of the powerful and the elite, the less motivation there will be for Western support. If it continues along the path its rulers are setting for it, Lebanon's future is to become a somewhat larger version of Gaza, but with mountains and a few more token Christians. Better to support Sudan or Tunisia, larger countries that are leaning more towards the West than the Lebanese Republic. Or Iraq – equally infected by Iranian hegemony, but much larger than Lebanon and potentially richer.

Lebanon's real future lies precisely in the opposite direction of where it is going today. A Lebanon that is diverse and tolerant would be sharply different than other countries in the "Arab world," would be something unique and precious, worthy of attention. Such a "Little Lebanon" would eschew Middle Eastern wars and regional conflicts, akin to nearby Cyprus, and hew its own path rather than recklessly serving as Iran's forward rocket base for the next war with Israel. It would not be any smaller in size than it is today, but "small" because it looks exclusively to its own interests in nurturing its own distinctiveness and separateness. It would flee from any hint of the ideologies of Arabism or Islamism for the suffocating dead ends that they are. Such a Lebanon would allow a level of personal freedom and unrestrained level of expression unheard of in other Arabic-speaking countries. That was once the case, but today, increasingly, you see the state use its coercive power to silence its critics. They cannot pick up the garbage, but they are able to muzzle and abuse critics. Rule in Lebanon becomes more like Syria and less like Switzerland every day. What a bitter irony that this happens under the presidency of Michel Aoun, who rose to prominence opposing the Syrian regime!

The likeliest scenario is that the Lebanese will continue to suffer, the best and the brightest will continue to emigrate (Aoun told anti-corruption demonstrators that if they didn't like it, they can leave), repression and poverty will increase hand in hand. Eventually some money from the international community will be forthcoming, secured by promises of reform and transparency that the ruling elite, working hand in glove with Hizbullah, will assiduously work to subvert. More garbage, less rights. More "state" power over individuals too poor or too old to leave.

A far less likely scenario would have the international community (in Lebanon that really means the U.S. and France) play a more aggressive and pointed ground game, playing cat and mouse, against Hizbullah/Iranian hegemony and its willing stooges in government. Such an approach requires a clear vision and a single-minded focus on our desired outcome. Continued funding of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) has pluses and minuses but should probably continue. Aside from the LAF, the institution building in Lebanon that should be done is not in the government but outside of it. Assistance should prioritize a "Little Lebanon" agenda. This means support for civil society strongly opposed to the pro-Hizbullah status quo, for private groups, including churches and mosques, helping the poor and underprivileged, for salvaging key aspects of Lebanese society – private schools and universities, independent media, entrepreneurs, religious freedom, ethnic and religious diversity – that can make it more distinctive and less like just another Arab League kleptocracy.

Such a scenario should include coercive but targeted measures against Hizbullah enablers. Iran and Hizbullah have worked hard for years in places like Lebanon and Iraq to expand their base and proxies beyond those Shia Muslims who are faithful to Iran's Islamic Revolution. In Lebanon, this means sanctioning Christian and Sunni politicians and businessmen who cover for and facilitate the Nasrallah satrapy. It is time for them to pay a higher price for their treachery.

"Le Petit Liban" is probably as likely to emerge as is the restoration of the Habsburgs or the return of the Shah. Hizbullah most likely will fall when its masters in Tehran collapse and until then Lebanon will suffer. Hizbullah will certainly seek to decrease Western, particularly American, influence in the country, as Iran seeks to do the same regionally. But this is not a battle we should give up without a fight. If the status quo is unacceptable to us – and it should be – we must plot towards a different future. In Lebanon, it may be too late to resuscitate a dying patient, but it is not too soon to work towards resurrection.

 

*Alberto M. Fernandez is President of Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN). The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official views of MBN or the U.S. government.

 

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