The crisis plaguing Lebanon is in large part the result of a political system that appears to have run out steam and is unable to reinvent itself.
Governance has been paralyzed for years, while the country’s main stakeholders continue to shun addressing the most important topics, fearing that the tables could turn on them.
The origin of this political paralysis can be traced to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, which rendered the Taif Agreement obsolete, without introducing a functional alternative.
Throughout its history, the land of the cedars has faced similar events and situations that have prompted it to reconsider its founding political “pact.”
One can say that the country has experienced four political chapters in the span of more than 75 years. The first began in 1943 at the time of independence and the National Pact between then President Bechara El Khoury and then Prime Minister Riad al-Solh.
This chapter witnessed an alliance between traditional political groups, on the one hand, and businessmen and influential figures in the economic sphere, such as bank owners and large companies, on the other.
Both sides needed each other to ensure stability and prosperity for the country. It was the golden age of Lebanon’s political Maronitism. This status-quo, however, was soon threatened by the imbalances it implicated and the upheavals that shook the region.
In 1952, Druze leader Kamal Joumblatt joined forces with Camille Chamoun to overthrow President Khoury. Chamoun eventually ascended to the presidency, but his alliance misfired.
Abdel Gamal Nasser’s rise to power in Egypt turned Lebanon into a battlefield for regional confrontations, which soon led to division at home.
Chamoun supported a pro-Western approach that was embodied by the Baghdad Pact — which he would ultimately refuse to join — and then accepted the Eisenhower doctrine, under which the United States pledged to help Arab countries against antagonists controlled by “international communism.” Meanwhile Joumblatt and his Sunni allies rallied to Nasser’s pan-Arab calls.
Tensions were running so high in the country that a civil war broke out between Chamoun’s supporters and allies and local forces loyal to Nasser.
On July 15, 1958, US marines landed at Beirut’s Khaldeh beach at Chamoun’s request, marking the first American intervention in the Middle East.
A crisis also arose with Nasser’s Egypt, and it was only the succession to the presidency of then Lebanese army commander Fouad Chehab, who took office as part of a compromise between the two sides, that preserved the balance of power in the country.
This was the start of the second chapter — a chapter characterized by a disassociation policy vis-à-vis regional axes that was facilitated by a less conflicting context at home.
Chehab’s mandate witnessed major administrative reforms and strengthening of state institutions. It ushered in a new element to the Lebanese political structure: the middle class, which included civil servants, university and school teachers, who began to form unions and gain political influence.
The Chehabist era continued until 1969-70, when the Cairo Agreement was signed, permitting Palestinians in Lebanon to carry out armed actions against Israel from Lebanese territory.
The era of political Shiism
This was when the third chapter began, marked by a period of major instability and conflict.
The divisions that appeared in the 1958 crises had resurfaced, but this time it was around the issue of the Palestinian armed presence in Lebanon.
The three main Christian leaders, Pierre Gemayel, Camille Chamoun and Raymond Edde, who created the Helf or Tripartite Alliance in the 1960s against Chehab, allowed Sleiman Frangieh to become president in 1970.
But at the time, it was no longer about a conflict between the Helf and the Nahj or Chehab’s supporters.
Palestinian guerillas were launching military operations against Israel from South Lebanon. Israeli reprisals tore the Lebanese apart, and created sectarian divisions, which eventually led to the war that broke out in 1975.
Lebanon would be marred by a civil war that would drag on for the next 15 years — a period of massacres; foreign, Syrian and Israeli interventions; mass immigration; and sectarian infighting. The conflict took a heavy toll on the country and marked it for life.
Yet, no winning party emerged from the war, which ended with a regional and international settlement that culminated in the 1989 Taif Accord.
This was the beginning of the fourth chapter, marking Lebanon’s Maronites’ loss of their preeminent prerogatives and powers to the benefit of the Sunnis, and the control of warlords over the state.
The Taif Agreement was a sort of compromise between the traditional leaders and the new warlords, under Syrian tutelage and with Saudi American cover.
With Michel Aoun in exile and Samir Geagea in prison, Christians would play second fiddle to the Sunnis on the political arena for several years. It was the golden age of political Sunnism led by late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
When Hariri was assassinated, Lebanon entered a new transitional period, which paved the way for the schism between the March 8 and March 14 camps.
All the developments that would later unfold were the result of this split, allowing Hezbollah to strengthen its political position, especially after the events of May 7, 2008, during which the Shiite party and its allies invaded several neighborhoods in Beirut and the Chouf area.
The Lebanese negotiated a deal in Doha, which granted Hezbollah a blocking third, or effective veto power, in government. This allowed the party of God to work on upsetting the existing balance of power in such a way as to undercut the March 14 camp.
The pro-Iranian group consolidated its political supremacy with the election of Michel Aoun as president in 2016, forcing then Prime Minister Saad Hariri into a modus vivendi with it.
Hezbollah, which held a parliamentary majority thanks to its alliances, could boast about having the president, the head of Parliament and the prime minister as its allies.
It was the beginning of the era of political Shiism, which quickly came to an end with the Oct. 17, 2019 uprising and the ensuing economic crisis in the country.
Now, we are back to the starting point. Lebanon is stuck in an existential crisis with no end in sight.
Several question marks hover around the Lebanese status quo.
What new formula or compromise could the country come up with now? What kind of a balance of power could be put forward to resume proper governance? Will this happen through an international conference or institutional recognition of Hezbollah’s power in the state?
All the answers to these questions remain vague, but are already the subject of much speculation at home and abroad.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.