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Monday, December 25, 2006

Lebanon's Unanswered Questions

As 2007 approaches, Lebanon faces an identity crisis that its 60 years of formal independence could not resolve. It also obviously faces many other crises, economic and political, and it is part of larger regional conflicts as well. However, all of the latter ones are simply manifestations of the Lebanese people's failure to define what - other than geography and an imposed border- unites them under a common flag.

Question of identity

The question of identity is a natural one for a country with 18 recognized sects, among which are 5 major ones who don't necessarily share the same version of history or the same outlook towards the future. The Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims and the Druze have shared this piece of land for the decades that Lebanon has been a country and the many centuries before that it was not. Over different periods, both before Lebanon was created and after, the various communities clashed and co-existed, allied themselves with various external powers and tried to dominate one another. All of them have failed to establish long lasting hegemony. However, their communal experiences and alliances have shaped their sectarian identities in different manners and in sometimes opposing ways.

Case in Point

The Sunnis have long considered themselves as mainstream Arabs and in fact- at one point- opposed the very creation of Lebanon in favour of unity with Syria and at times a greater Arab nation. On the other hand, the Maronites are a fiercely "nationalistic" bunch, in that many of them believe that they are non-Arab Christians (as opposed to many Orthodox Christians for example) allowing them to legitimize looking to the west for support... Similarly, the Druze have a strong tribal sentiment and share with the Maronites a strong geographic connection with the region (in that both Druze and Maronites are relatively localized in and around Lebanon). Moreover, several times in recent (and not so recent) history, the various sects have committed atrocities against one another in the name of honor, dignity and self preservation.

Strength in diversity? Not really !

The point here - and books can and have been written on the subject -is to highlight and remind that Lebanon is a House of Many Mansions. The founders of modern day Lebanon realized that and understood that there was a need to define what Lebanon was. Their first attempt at that was the unwritten National Pact, which basically identified what Lebanon was not but failed to give clear answers as to what it is, and moreover failed to define - in practice - the ideals that Lebanon would strive to live by. Consequently, less than 2 decades after its establishment, Lebanon faced its first major crisis in 1958 followed by many others in the coming years. Lebanon's troubles culminated in a civil war which started in 1975 and eventually ended with the signing of the Taif accord in 1989, namely calling for such things as secularization- albeit without specifying a time-frame... Post-Taif, Lebanon was dominated by a Syrian regime that stifled dialogue and prevented tackling the very questions that Lebanon to this day needs answered so that it may proceed as one country rather than an unwillingly bound cocktail of sects.

Is the past the future?

1943 came and went and so did 1958, 1975, 1989 and 2005. And now 2006 has come and will soon be gone. Over sixty years old now, Lebanon still faces an identity crisis. Seemingly trivial questions* and others that are not so trivial dealing with both identity and strategy continue to haunt the Lebanese and will do so, with disastrous consequences, until they face them once and for all.

*A very non-exclusive list of questions that 2007 will see the Lebanese fail miserably to answer is:

-Where do we stand on Arab issues (e.g. vis-a-vis various regimes), and to what extent are we willing to get involved (with their struggles against the west and oppression of their people)?

-Where do we stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and to what extent are we willing to get involved (armed struggle, political support, neutrality)?

-Are we a secular country?

-If so, why is civil marriage not allowed and why aren't we proceeding with secularization?

-If not, why aren't we a federation of sects rather than a centrally governed country ?

-Can we agree on answers to these questions and if not, can we agree on how to proceed from there?


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