by Ghasssan Kadi for the Saker Blog

On the 6th of May 2018, Lebanese voters went to their polling booths to vote for members of Parliament. This was the first Parliamentary election since 2009, nearly a decade ago, even though the regular parliamentary term is only four years. And for the first time in Lebanon’s history, the Lebanese diaspora were able to vote in their representative embassies.

So why did it take almost a decade for the Lebanese Government to call for elections? This is a simple and straight forward question to ask, but to answer it, brings another question. Why was Lebanon left without a President from the 25th of May 2014 till the 31st of October 2016?

For nearly two and a half years, Lebanon did not have a head of state. And for the first time since its inception, the highest position in the Lebanese Government was headed by a Muslim, a Sunni Muslim. “Grand Liban” (or Grand Lebanon) as the French named it after they decided how far its borders should be expanded to move it away from those of the former and smaller Mount Lebanon Mutasasarrifate (aka Le Petit Liban), was meant to be a state that has a Christian Catholic Maronite President as decreed by its constitution. The Presidential power vacuum however “left” Lebanon in the hands of the Prime Minister (Tammam Salam), who also as decreed by the Lebanese Constitution, has to be a Sunni Muslim.

For two and a half years therefore, Lebanon, a state that the French decreed should be one with a Christian Maronite President, was left in the hands of a Muslim Sunni Prime Minister.

Did Lebanon turn Muslim Sunni as a result?

One can take one’s pick to decide who to ask this question, and the answer one receives will probably not be any more or less convincing than the expectation and interpretation of the inquisitor.

That said, there is no doubt that Saudi Arabia tried very hard to push its religious agenda onto Lebanon. As a matter of fact, during the beginning of the second decade of the 21st Century, and specifically as the “War on Syria” took form, Lebanon and Lebanese politicians and power brokers, for better or for worse, played a big role in the Syrian tragedy. Part of this power play was the aggressive, extremely highly funded and fundamentalist Saudi push to control Lebanese politics; not only for the sake of controlling Lebanon, but also for the sake of using Lebanon as a springboard to hit Syria in the soft underbelly that is naturally protected by impenetrable valleys, cliffs and caves.

There is no doubt also that Iran was intensifying its presence in Lebanon and influence on its politics and day-to-day affairs with Hezbollah as its ally.

Ideologies aside, the Hezbollah/Iran coalition had well-earned stripes on its shoulders as it managed to successfully defeat the Israeli occupation of Lebanon leading up to a total Israeli defeat on the 25th of May 2000. The Saudi camp and its cohorts did not have similar stripes to grace their shoulders with. They therefore hoped that by toppling the Syrian Government, a government they see as a combination of being secular, Shiite and pro-Iranian, then despite the oxymoronic definition of their nemesis, with limitless funds and beating the sectarian Sunni-Shiite drums, they were sure to get not only stripes on their shoulders, but also stars and the highest of all insignia.

But official Lebanon had to play the balance game, because in Lebanon, there is an unwritten law that in all conflicts and politics, there will be no winners and no losers.

It was according to this unwritten law that the first post-independence civil strife of 1958 in Lebanon was ended. The strife was instigated by a predominantly Muslim pan-Arab passion to join the newly formed United Arab Republic (UAR), which encompassed Egypt and Syria. The then Lebanese President Chamoun and his supporters were against such integration, even cordial relationships, and stood up for independence. The seven-month strife ended as Chamoun’s term as president finished, and the elected president’s former army chief, Chehab, was leaning towards the principles of the “revolution” but was neither willing nor able to take any action either way.

No winners, no losers.

In theory, this principle works and should work well if parties concerned put their differences aside and work together. But in Lebanon, only the slogan is what eventuates, but the hostilities and all the bickering that comes with it, lives on.

Soon after that strife, Lebanon embarked on its golden age. Among other things, in a short period of time, it became the economic, banking, touristic and transport hub of the Middle East. Lebanon was deservedly named the Switzerland of the East. But that golden age did not last long, because conflict was around the corner. This time it was fueled by the difference of how Lebanese people and politics viewed the Palestinian cause and resistance and all the foreign interference that came with it.

But even that much longer and bloodier strife of 1975-1989, known as the Civil War, that saw more than 100 thousand civilians killed, the economy destroyed, and Lebanon’s regional status capitulating to the point of no return, that war has also ended in a “no winners no losers” mode. And even though the right wing Christian militia and its leaders were put in the basket of “losers”, they were only partial losers and the political parties that represented them remained there, bruised, but not defeated.

All the while, unlike all “other democracies”, all post-independence Lebanese cabinets have also been based on the “no winners and no losers” principle. The opposition had to always be represented in any cabinet; albeit in the form of a minority. Yes, a minority within a majority government.

This odd situation stipulates that, should the minority be significant enough to score one third of the cabinet positions, it can constitutionally block the government that it is part of; and this has happened on many occasions, especially in the last decade or so when the Iranian and Saudi influences in Lebanese politics reached their peak at times when both sides had their representatives in the Lebanese cabinet.

When the Lebanese Maronites and Druze fought and pillaged each other’s villages and towns in the mid 19thCentury, a council of nations (namely France, Russia, Britain, Austria, Prussia and the Ottoman Empire) convened and decided that Mount Lebanon should have autonomy and be split into a Maronite and a Druze “cantons”.

When the French redrew the border line and created “Grand Liban”, it was perhaps because they thought that a more religiously diverse Lebanon would be less vulnerable to sectarian strife. If all parties were virtual minorities in their own right, the root of conflict could not exist as it would in a situation where there were two almost equal and opposing powers.

Furthermore, by stipulating the religion, and sects, of government officials, the French must have thought that a Lebanon with a Maronite Christian President, a Sunni Muslim Prime Minister, a Shiite Muslim Leader of the House, as well as other allocations that were meant to be pro-rata population based, would be a stable Lebanon that gives rival groups a sense of fairness and; provide the country with political continuity.

The French were wrong, and Lebanon lived and maintained its presence by the virtue of the unwritten law of “no winners and no losers”.

But the events of the last decade or so went beyond the French-mandated Grand Liban borders. The “War on Syria” has clearly resulted in winners and losers; both of which have staunch supporters in Lebanon and Lebanese politics.

The irony here is that even though the outcome of the “War on Syria” was reflected in the outcome of the recent 6th of May 2018 Lebanese elections, and even though the Saudi cohorts in Lebanon have lost many seats and were considered to be “losers”, Lebanese President Aoun, who is pro-Syria, has appointed current Prime Minister, pro-Saudi, Hariri to form the new government.

This is democracy Lebanese style.

At its best, democracy can stink, especially Western Democracy that turns the whole freedom of choice into a charade of two parties dictating who they choose as leader.

In essence and theory, Lebanese style democracy is more democratic than Western style democracy because it does not exclude minorities. After all, in the so-called great democracies of the world, a one seat majority will totally exclude the loser from government. What is democratic about this? In practical terms in Lebanon however, inclusivity of all turns every cabinet into a lame duck that is unable to make and implement any decisions. The presence of corruption at all tiers of government make the situation even more untenable.

The current Lebanese Government cabinet that Hariri is the Prime Minister of already has a balance of power that makes it dysfunctional, even in the ideal and hypothetical absence of any corruption. The new-to-be Lebanese cabinet will be headed by an even weaker Hariri. It can only be more of a government that he can neither control nor even give recommendations to. It is a government that is predestined to be dysfunctional.

And for Hariri to form this cabinet in the first place, he will not only have to balance his own power and appease all of the political parties, winners and losers, but he will also have to appease regional and major powers.

There is nothing surprising in this for those who are Lebanese politics savvy. For as long as Lebanon continues to run under the century-old French heritage of Grand Liban, it will never change, it will never be able to make decisions that are of local, regional or international significance.

Any move towards local reform will please some and anger others if they are not getting any direct benefits from it. This is just one aspect as to why Lebanon is still incapable of rebuilding its electricity power grid after it was destroyed during the civil war, bombed by the Israelis several times, and not to mention that it became outdated by the huge population growth of the last few decades. This is also why Lebanon is still unable to capitalize on this offshore gas wealth, all the while falling gradually into crippling rising debt.

Nothing is more symbolic of the dysfunctionality of Lebanese politics more than rubbish. The Lebanese Government cannot even deal with the country’s refuse as mountains of it are piling up everywhere in the land that was once describe as “the land of milk and honey”. And this is because Lebanese politicians and their followers, cannot agree what to do with it. They all seem to favour the recycling and/or incinerating options, but they cannot agree where those plants should be constructed. Everyone wants them built on the turf of others because they don’t want to have stench in their own neighbourhoods, but in the meantime, the whole country can suffer. At least this way, there are no winners and no losers.

The fear of rivaling Lebanese political and religious groups of each other, the fear of becoming losers and others winners and working around this from within the mantra of no winners and no losers, has for decades been sending the whole country hurtling down into a quagmire of loss for all.

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