Lebanon at 104 years old: Struggling toward adulthood or stuck in adolescence?

Lebanon at 104 years old: Struggling toward adulthood or stuck in adolescence?

(Credit: João Sousa)

Just over 30 years ago, as the Lebanese 1975-90 Civil War drew to an end, a Sunni journalist colleague told me: “In retrospect, this war may have served a purpose.”

“When you Lebanese Christians fled the country for Europe, you were told that you were Arab, a word that made your ears hurt,” he said. “And we Muslims, when we went to the Arab countries of the Gulf, thinking we were going to find our brothers, were considered as Lebanese.”

In the grand scheme, the atrocities and paradoxes of the conflict coupled with external influences have propelled Lebanese people toward a closer unity and fostered the nascent seeds of national identity.

Indeed, a sense of communal destiny was emerging. This evolution became apparent in subsequent years, notably during the uprisings of March 14, 2005, the summer of 2015 (marked by the garbage crisis) and Oct. 17, 2019.

During these pivotal moments, it became evident that many Lebanese people transcended their historical divisions and were genuinely drawn to the prospect of fostering connections, unburdened by hidden agendas.

They saw the potential for building a national ethos grounded in principles of civic engagement and the ideals of a modern state.

Based on this observation, can we assert that Greater Lebanon (established in 1920) has overcome its childhood ailments and adolescent upheavals? Has it fully matured into adulthood a century later?

In some ways, it has. However, the country still has a ways to go. There are indications of a burgeoning national consciousness stemming from numerous setbacks and collective tribulations. This progression however resembles the dual negations of 1943, perceived by some Lebanese as the crucible for their nation’s formation.

Georges Naccache was imprisoned for espousing a contrary view and is a poignant reminder of the complexity inherent in Lebanon’s journey toward self-realization.

Lebanese people strive to transcend the lingering effects of historical shortcomings and the recurring internal and external crises that have hindered their state from becoming “normal.”

However, they have yet to fully grasp the intricacies of achieving this normalization. The current conduct of Hezbollah exemplifies this challenge.

As a prominent party-militia, Hezbollah stands as a significant impediment to establishing the rule of law and fostering a peaceful democracy in Lebanon.

The party’s cautious recent actions indicate an unprecedented consideration for its constituents, who like other Lebanese parties are weary of prolonged conflicts.

On the flip side, the geopolitical constraints stemming from its close ties with Iran compel Hezbollah to make decisions akin to those of a sorcerer’s apprentice, inadvertently entangling both itself and the entire country in a precarious and untenable predicament.

The Lebanese state, as perennially witnessed, remains relegated to the role of a scapegoat — a position accepted by a good half of the population. The other half acquiesced to this dynamic.

This acquiescence and resignation warrants our attention, as it largely elucidates Lebanon’s persistent struggle to break free from its infancy.

Hezbollah, as it currently stands, serves as an anomaly obstructing the progress of the nation.

This assertion is beyond doubt. However, delving deeper, it becomes imperative to identify the underlying factors within Lebanon that facilitate and perpetuate this anomaly.

These factors impede the nation’s transition to adulthood.

The uprisings of 2005, 2015 and 2019 ultimately failed.

The first failed due to its excessive focus on geopolitical factors rather than addressing structural issues. The other two were too concerned with structural and ideological matters, rather than focused on political solutions.

However, the crux of the matter lies beyond these specific failures.

What’s more concerning is that each time the movement falters, it regresses the country to its initial state, reinstating Lebanon with its inherent manufacturing defects and its age-old shortcomings.

Sectarian retreat and clientelism

Sectarian identities pose significant challenges in Lebanon, where this phenomenon negates the concept of positive citizenship and is a corrosive force hindering the Lebanese state from attaining true independence.

This is due to the conflicting allegiances of demographic groups, which often lead to the involvement of external powers in internal political dynamics.

The repercussions of the failure of the Oct. 17 Thawra (revolution) are evident today.

As this setback crystallized, the trend of retreating into one’s community (perceived as the ultimate refuge) resurged among many Lebanese people across religious affiliations.

Therefore, some people advocate for traditional ineffective prescriptions that inadvertently exacerbate the phenomenon. Ideologues do not differentiate between sectarian retreat and, for example, confessional quotas in legislative elections.

They fail to differentiate between the ailment and the proposed remedy, which seeks to mitigate if not cure its effects. Consequently, they inadvertently perpetuate the ailment. What’s more, their actions often worsen the situation.

Another hallmark of Lebanon’s enduring adolescence is clientelism, a phenomenon intrinsically linked to sectarian retreat, as its development hinges upon it.

While the hydra of clientelism is not exclusive to Lebanon, it is a prevalent feature in societies where governance and political culture are rooted in “clanism” or close ties between political elites and the electorate.

In some instances, particularly where the state’s efficacy is lacking, clientelism can serve as a makeshift solution to address deficiencies on a small scale. However, the progressive disintegration of its political system since the Civil War era sets Lebanon apart.

As governance structures erode, the relationship between the governing and the governed becomes purely clientelist.

Since the 2008 Doha agreement, consensus politics — often called the “king’s consensus”— has become pervasive.

This has led to the formation of inclusive governments, accommodating all factions that choose to be included. Consequently, politics in Lebanon now revolve around the intricate division among parliamentary groups, solely focused on distributing patronage and favors to their respective clientele.

While such divisions existed before the agreement, they were often accompanied by competition intertwined with political ideologies, programmatic outlines and reform initiatives, depending on the circumstances.

For many, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and his Amal movement are the main profiteers of this trend. However, while their involvement is significant, Hezbollah bears the greatest responsibility and is often incorrectly absolved.

Since 2008, Hezbollah has effectively monopolized the political system, holding the country hostage — an arrangement accepted or resigned to by all parties involved.

This is driven by Hezbollah’s vested interest in maintaining its status and its military arsenal.

The situation presents a simple yet alarming equation: Without Hezbollah, political life in Lebanon may be mediocre; with it, it is virtually nonexistent.


In addition to the challenges posed by religious sectarianism and clientelism, a third historical flaw in Lebanon lies in clan violence entrenched within rural society.

“We don’t kill foreigners, we kill our cousins,” said a character in Jabbour Douaihy’s novelistic masterpiece, “Pluie de juin” (June Rain), which delves into various facets of this phenomenon, tracing back to the 1957 massacre in Mizyara.

The demographic, sociological and political upheavals wrought by the civil war have reshaped the manifestations of this affliction. Yet it persists, resilient to eradication. It continues to cast a shadow over every political transaction in the country.

Even the war with Israel is seen with a Sicilian or Corsican vendetta mentality in Lebanon. We can nevertheless console ourselves by saying that at least other types of violence, like what we see in Western countries, aren’t as common here, even with the ongoing crisis.

At nearly 104 years old, the Lebanese state is stagnating, if not moving backward.

Lebanon nurtures immense talent that has been dispersed around the world. It’s bewildering to witness a country capable of producing countless individual successes among its people but remain on the brink of disaster.

In 2024, Lebanon seems farther than ever from reaching its prime.

This article was originally published in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translated by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Just over 30 years ago, as the Lebanese 1975-90 Civil War drew to an end, a Sunni journalist colleague told me: “In retrospect, this war may have served a purpose.”“When you Lebanese Christians fled the country for Europe, you were told that you were Arab, a word that made your ears hurt,” he said. “And we Muslims, when we went to the Arab countries of the Gulf, thinking we were going...