You know, Lebanon – that small Middle East country wracked by a generation of bloody civil wars, the scene of periodic Israeli invasions and massacres, the battle ground for foreign armies. These days, when upheavals are rocking the Arab world in a crescent of unrest from Morocco to the Persian Gulf, you have to search hard for any news about Lebanon.
On our way to Palestine my son and I spent a week in and around Beirut earlier this month, visiting friends and taking stock of the political scene. We observed only faint reflections of “The Arab Spring” breaking out in most other countries of the region.
Unlike most of its neighbors, Lebanon has a constitutional parliamentary regime — even if a uniquely fragmented and dysfunctional one. There are elections, within the country’s own peculiar system of confessional (ethno-religious) party politics, and, at least since the 1990 Taif Agreement, a more or less non-violent (or at least mostly without large-scale fighting) succession of governing coalitions. This does not necessarily produce a situation of political calm, but there is also no overtly dictatorial system or single authoritarian leader to unite the people in opposition and mass revolutionary action, as in other Arab states.
In fact, the country, still deeply divided along sectarian lines, has coalesced into two rival blocks formed around the question of Syrian (and Iranian) involvement in Lebanon: “March 8,” led by Shi’ite Hezbollah and some other Muslim and Christian supporters; “March 14,” centered around Saad Hariri’s (mostly Sunni) Future Movement and the Maronite right wing. When Walid Jumblatt’s Druze-based Socialist Party switched its parliamentary votes from March 14 to March 8 earlier this year, Hariri’s government fell, but the Hezbollah coalition designated Prime Minister Najib Miqati has so far been unable to form a government.
Meanwhile, all political players are awaiting the release of the report by the UN Special Tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (Saad’s father). Leaks have suggested that some Hezbollah members will be named and this prospect has been further polarizing Lebanese politics – and public anxiety.
Into this mix, the Left, some sectors of the secular public and many students have been attempting to catch the wave from Tunisia and Egypt with a campaign to change the ethno-religious system of the Lebanese constitution. Activists have staged a series of marches in Beirut and elsewhere under the rubric of “The Campaign to Abolish the Confessional System.”
On Sunday, March 27, we watched a few hundred protestors in Beirut marching from Nabih Berri’s house in Ain at-Tineh, past Hariri’s headquarters near the new “Downtown” and on to Jumblatt’s residence in Clemenceau. Later that day, a much larger crowd of perhaps 5000 marched from Amchit (the hometown of President Michel Suleiman), on the coast north of Beirut, to the largely Maronite center of Jbail (Byblos) a few miles down the road.
Echoing the mass protests seen on TV from Egypt, the Lebanese marchers chanted local versions of the slogans first heard in Cairo: As-Shab Yureed Asqat in-Nezzam at-Ta’ifi (“The People Demand the End of the Confessional System”) and, occasionally, Thawra, Thawra (“Revolution, Revolution!”)
Our Leftist friends are hopeful, but experienced observers of the Lebanese scene do not see much likelihood of the anti-Confessional movement really sparking fundamental change. The marches are continuing, but the politics of ethnic and religious segmentation – with deep roots of ethnic loyalty as well as consequences for patronage and jobs — seems too entrenched in Lebanese society for dramatic change anytime soon. On the evening before we departed Beirut for Amman, we observed a few lonely activists preparing to bed down in a protest tent of the kind which grew into a revolutionary encampment in Cairo. But this was clearly no Tahrir Square.
Meanwhile, the 300-400,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon continue to inhabit squalid heir refugee camps, shut out from most educational opportunities, decent jobs and housing. After a brief flurry of hope last summer that a Hezbollah-led parliamentary majority might pass legislation to provide the Palestinians with some basic civil and economic rights in Lebanon, the bill that actually passed effected little practical change. It seems the only thing that most sectors of Lebanese society can agree on is that they wish the refugees would leave, or at least stay out of sight. Even the low-paid jobs in construction and other sectors that used to be filled by Palestinian refugees are now held by the omnipresent immigrant Syrian workers. Palestinians who succeed in obtaining work in the professions legally denied to them are paid “under the table” and grossly exploited.
In fact the hope expressed by most Palestinians we met was for emigration to the Gulf, Canada or Latin America. Given that the prospect of returning to their villages in 1948 Israel – which in some cases they can see across the border from the hills of Southern Lebanon – is increasingly remote, for many refugees that may be their only option with a future.
Within Israel and the Occupied Territories the current state of politics among Palestinians gives little ground for optimism or good prospects for mass mobilization any time soon – despite some inspiring and valiant local struggles among the villages resisting the wall and settlement encroachment.
Today’s BBC website features of graphic of “Middle East Protests: Country By Country.” Lebanon and Palestine are absent from the map. As revolutions seethe across the region, who would have imagined that Lebanon – and Palestine – would be considered the quietest places in the Middle East?