Who Can Save Lebanon? A Conversation with Antoine Courban
Federica Zoja 15 October 2020

Over two months after the explosion that devastated the port of Beirut, killing nearly 200 people, Lebanon’s political and economic paralysis is worsening day by day. After Prime Minister Mustapha Adib resigned, unable to form a unity government, negotiations between political factions have yet to restart in any constructive way. The country is at a crossroads: a drastic change in the institutional paradigm seems to be the only alternative to implosion. Antoine Courban, a Lebanese intellectual, academic at the Saint Joseph University of Beirut and editor-in-chief of the magazine Travaux et Jours, talks about it from the Lebanese capital with lucid pessimism.

Professor, who can save Lebanon?

The Lebanese can do it, but they have to agree to get rid of this sectarian system. We have a constitution – there is no need for a new one – which manages individual identity and community identity and derives from the Ta’if agreements (On October 22, 1989, the inter-Lebanese agreements that put an end to the civil conflict were signed in Ta’if, Saudia Arabia, and ratified by Parliament on November 5, ed.). The constitutional charter provides for the establishment of a Senate in which ethnic and confessional factions are represented and a House of People’s Representatives in which this mechanism does not define its composition. So we already have mechanisms for that: for example, all armed militias were expected to hand over their weapons to the army. But these agreements were never respected: in 1990, all the militias had returned their weapons, except for Hezbollah and Amal. And since then, everything has been blocked.

Who are the enemies of the Ta’if agreements?

The Iranian axis has an interest in changing the agreements and the constitution resulting from Ta’if. Hezbollah can no longer accept half Christian and half Muslim Parliament: what it wants is a Shiite, Sunni, and Christian tripartite division, as if the first two were different worlds. And above all, as if Christians were a single entity, when instead there are also various distinctions among them. Why must Christians accept that their specificities not be recognized? This system is terribly complicated, it risks poisoning life. The simplest thing would be to dismantle it entirely.

What would the secularization of state and institutions imply?

A massive effort because it would imply the abandonment of our Ottoman heritage, which is practically impossible. During the period of the Ottoman reforms, the Tanzimat (Turkish-Arabic word indicating a period between 1839 and 1876, during which the Ottoman Empire was modernized in administrative, fiscal, legal terms) had granted citizenship to all of the sultan’s subjects, abolishing the custom of the Dhimma (under the Ottoman Empire all non-Muslims residing in a territory governed by the Islamic Shari’a were included in the People of the Dhimma) and the mandatory tax for non-Muslims. Here, these norms had been canceled, not without resistance from the more conservative sectors of society, including Christians, who preferred not to integrate completely. Thus, in 1856 a new imperial edict (the Islahat, also granted by Sultan Abdülmecid), concerning non-Muslims only, rewrote the rules, recognizing to each entity the moral personality of public law. It meant that the sultan recognized legitimacy in each jurisdiction in the context of personal status (as with the Ottoman millets, ed.). At the end of the First World War, with the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire, these laws were not abolished. France, who held the mandate over Lebanon and Syria, did not repeal these Ottoman provisions even though it was the fiercely secular France of the Third Republic. In short, the central power felt it was easier to manage a community that was, so to speak, dissected.

On the contrary, who do you think today would accept a reunited society?  

The religious authorities certainly not, especially the Muslim ones because personal status in Islam is defined by the divine word. The problem is how to make various legal regimes coexist in the same public space.

What forces are interested in causing the Lebanese state to implode?

Those who want to achieve hegemony. Hence those violent revolutionaries connected to the Iranian Islamic Republic or those of the Sunni sphere, within which there are currents that also contradicting each other: there are the Muslim Brotherhood, close to Turkey and Qatar; there are those extreme radicals linked to al-Qaeda and Daesh, that very close to Iranian radicalism as well. And then, there is the current considered intermediate, moderate, represented by the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt. This is considered an ally of the West. My question is: do they have an interest in upsetting the balance in the Lebanese state? I do not think so. While I would say that Israel does.

Yet Lebanon and Israel are negotiating to bring about normalization…

No, it is not a question of normalization, but of negotiations through the UN, for the delimitation of maritime borders in view of the exploitation of oil and gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Despite all its contradictions, Lebanon remains, in its model, the antithesis of the Zionist ideology. It can be said that Israel would have every interest in seeing the Middle East reduced to a series of sectarian political entities, a concept reminiscent of the famous “cujus regio ejus religio” of the European system of religious wars. Thus we would have a Sunni enclave, a Maronite, a Druze, a Shiite, an Orthodox and so on. For the radicals of jihadist political Islam, the consensual formula of coexistence that characterizes Lebanon is unacceptable. This applies to the Sunni jihadists, but also to the Shia followers of the Iranian Islamic revolution’s ideology, and therefore of Hezbollah. Influential opponents of the constitution of the Ta’if agreements are forces enslaved by Iran like the Shiite alliance, Hezbollah-Amal. However, the anti Ta’if role played by their radical Christian allies made up of General Michel Aoun’s sympathizers should also not be overlooked. But caution, they have different goals. The latter would like to return to the situation before the civil war, that is to Christian-Maronite hegemony, while the former would like to make Lebanon a province of the new Persia.

What changed after August 4th?

Many things. Beirut no longer has a port. It is the first time since the Phoenicians that Beirut does not have a useful port. Excavated and set up under the Ottoman Empire during its full modernization, the port was the hub of cosmopolitanism, cultural pluralism, the symbol of Lebanon’s openness and economic development within the Mediterranean setting.

Are Beirut and Lebanon still open to the world?

I believe that today they no longer are, that they have withdrawn into themselves. And I don’t like that, because I wasn’t raised in this kind of Lebanon. Precisely for this reason we welcomed the French political initiative with moderate optimism: of course, France is trying to defend its cultural interests, defending the kind of Lebanese society it helped to create. As for political interests, they should be the same for all of Europe, if there is still a single Europe: the Levant is the border with the East, its port of access. After the Americans, will the Europeans also withdraw, leaving Iran the possibility of making Lebanon its maritime province?

Did the August 4 explosion raise awareness around the gravity of the situation in Lebanese society as a whole, beyond identity affiliation?

Yes, enormously. Now everyone has full awareness and fear for their fate in the short term. I do not have high hopes for a political solution between now and the end of the year, on the contrary I am very pessimistic. I believe that the political field that derailed the French initiative in favor of a process by stages – it was not a solution, but at least it would have allowed us to breath – does not really want things to change. We can’t even talk about the political or executive class, that would be too much. It is a caste made up of criminals, murderers, mobsters: this is demonstrated by the absence of a true independent investigation into the explosion, the fact that it is not even talked about anymore and that it is now cited as an accident.

In the presence of a paralysis like the present one, can we expect a resumption of protests and anti-government demonstrations?

Yes, but I don’t think they can have any further effects. They have already produced results, that is, the emergence of a feeling of belonging, of national commonality. On the other hand, how could they evolve? Or in a violent coup d’état, with the overthrow of the current system, or in any case with a forcing by constitutional means. But anyway, as long as Lebanon remains a card in Iran’s hands, I see no way out.

Yet initially the Lebanese Shiite camp also seemed to have accepted the plan presented by Emmanuel Macron. What happened?

About ten days later, the Americans announced sanctions against two personalities from that camp: a Shiite and a Maronite. And so the yes turned into a no. In short, the Lebanese caste is like a Loya Jirga (Assembly of the Afghan people, ed.), made up of tribal leaders. Or, even worse, a mafia governing commission.


Cover Photo: Anwar Amro / AFP

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