Gen. Michel Aoun’s “war of liberation,” and the Syrian army’s obliging response, has left another thousand killed, thousands more injured, a third of the population transformed into refugees and the worst destruction and damage the country has suffered since 1975. Aoun tried to “convince” his Muslim compatriots to liberate themselves from “Syrian occupation” by pounding heavy Iraqi-furnished shells upon their heads. His frank “populist” language, proclaiming loudly what many Lebanese from all confessions think to themselves, at first brought him overwhelming sympathy. In the end, though, it can not compensate for his simplistic view of sovereignty, his reductionism and inexcusably murderous militarism in a situation as complex as the Lebanese one. His reaction to the Ta’if accords was a caricature of a coup d’etat. Isolated on both the Arab and international levels, left hanging by his Iraqi backers, Gen. Aoun has become the principal obstacle to a Lebanese settlement. His irredentism can only play the game of those with a stake in the continuation of an absurdly criminal war about to enter its fifteenth year.

Gen. Aoun’s war nevertheless has posed the question about Syria’s role with unprecedented urgency: What does the Syrian leadership want from Lebanon? After an armed presence of more than 13 years, allegedly in order to “put an end to bloodshed, defend the Palestine Resistance and preserve Lebanon’s unity,” bloodshed continues, the country is even more parceled and the Lebanese more disunited and atomized than ever. As for the defense of the Palestine resistance, after the departure of PLO troops from Israeli-besieged Beirut in August 1982, Lebanese proxies of the Syrian regime waged a series of battles against PLO forces in the Bekaa, the north, Beirut and Tyre. Paradoxically, these attacks, the eruption of the intifada and the declaration of Palestinian independence have robbed the Syrians of their most notable pretext for being in Lebanon.

Syria’s “legitimate security interests” in Lebanon surely do not require the presence of 35,000 troops, the bulk of which are mainly employed in internal police, security and other less honorable duties. This question can be conveniently treated by relevant accords between the Lebanese and Syrian governments, as stipulated by the Ta’if agreement.

One can also speak of “mutual” economic interests. But the Syrian presence in Lebanon is perhaps the only “foreign” intervention in the world whereby the intervening power is gaining economically rather than losing. These gains might constitute a means for widening the political base of the Syrian regime, a reprieve for the grave economic problems facing the Syrian economy, but they have very little to do with real common interests between the Syrian and the Lebanese peoples.

Despite all this, it is politically impossible to call for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon as long as Israel still occupies a good part of south Lebanon. This only means that the US-sponsored Syrian-Israeli condominium over Lebanon is alive and kicking. Vis-a-vis this condominium, the Lebanese seem helpless. The Ta’if agreement expresses this helplessness. Lebanese sovereignty is limited to “small Lebanon.” Ta’if stipulates Syrian withdrawal to the Bekaa plain, but only two years after political reforms are implemented.

The positive aspect of the Ta’if agreement is that it opens real prospects for reconstituting the country’s political institutions and building a unified Lebanese state. Without these, no settlement is possible. Thus it provides not peace but one of the last chances to move toward peace. This chance should be exploited to the full. For nothing in Lebanon can be settled by the recourse to arms. Gen. Aoun’s adventure is the last bloody confirmation of this bitter truth.

True, the Ta’if reforms were drafted by a pre-war parliament whose members are very weakly representative, and they are but a revision of the 1943 confessional pact that many Lebanese feel is one of the fundamental causes of the civil war in 1975. But what are the alternatives? The only “legitimacy” the warlords, militia leaders and assorted mafiosi can claim is one based on terror and intimidation. At best, they can claim to represent no more than the parliamentarians, most of whom have the virtue of not being party to the fighting. So let all pretenders to “representing the people” be subject to the choice of the electorate, even under the old electoral law, based on confessional representation, now modified to provide equal representation to Muslims and Christians alike.

What sort of political regime will result? Strange and cynical are the ways of civil wars. They are extreme mechanisms by which a society rids itself of surplus population, especially the new generation (150,000 killed and up to 600,000 emigrants, in the case of Lebanon). Rather than change a political-economic regime to accommodate new developments, interests and aspirations, civil war performs drastic demographic and psychic surgery in the body of society in order that it finally complies with the old regime. Instead of changing a regime to better represent the people, it changes the people to better accommodate the regime. In that sense, Lebanon has been bombed back into the pre-war state of unbridled economic rivalry and confessional feuding.

The fact is that Lebanon, if it lacks a unified state, does possess a common sociopolitical regime. The militias should not mask their common links to a shared logic and common practices. Each controls its own illegal port, uses financial holdings to speculate in US dollars and invests in real estate and tourist complexes. Each monopolizes, in its own sector, the distribution of vital products such as fuel and flour, and imposes tax collection and arbitrary “protection money” on individuals and enterprises. The militias also cooperate in drugs and arms traffic. Their representatives even sit on the boards of joint ventures such as the lottery and the local air freight company. In a word, the armed confessions are infernal machines for killing their co-religionists in order to enrich a multi-confessional cartel of warlords and profiteers that constitute the new war bourgeoisie.

These practices on the Muslim side may be a reaction to the initial “canton” built up by Bashir Gemayel in Christian east Beirut. The fact remains that they now emulate it, share the same characteristics, and can have no pretense to being a viable alternative to it. The militias’ claims to unify and represent their confessions have aggravated splits inside the same confessions, even leading to mini-civil wars in the case of the Maronite and Shi‘i militias.

All this implies that the only way to peace in Lebanon resides in the disarmament and disbanding of all militias. One must say “Peace first! There should be no precondition for peace in Lebanon but peace itself!”

Any opposition to one aspect or another of the Ta’if agreement — and there are many reasons for opposition — should be peaceful opposition. Lebanon’s crisis initially erupted because of the conjugation of a deep socioeconomic crisis with the problems posed by the presence of the Palestinian resistance on Lebanese soil. For this reason it is striking that the Ta’if agreement provides for a disarmament of the Palestinian organizations, alongside the others, but is silent concerning the rights of the 350,000 Palestinian civilians living in Lebanon. It contents itself, moreover, with acts of faith in the “free-trade” economy, social justice and the promise for equitable regional development, but is mute concerning the real socioeconomic problems of the country, amplified and aggravated by the war and regional economic developments.

This second omission perpetuates a notion that an “economic miracle,” blocked by war, will be operative as soon as political issues are settled. The opposite seems to be true. The grave socioeconomic crises of the late 1960s and early 1970s having destabilized Lebanon politically, demands that any project of reconstruction answer such crucial questions as: What constitutes the economic foundation for Lebanon’s unity? What new role can the Lebanese economy play in the present Arab conjuncture? Where will Lebanon find resources for reconstruction? How can a country which now imports nearly everything and produces next to nothing, where the bulk of the working population works outside the country, remedy huge social inequalities and the distorted economic structure? To such questions, a more equitable division of powers between the president, the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament and equal political and administrative representation between Christians and Muslims provide no answer.

This leads us back to political reform. The modification in the distribution of posts along confessional lines provides little reward for the vast majority of the Lebanese. It could be that many of us did not fully appreciate the pluralism which permeated Lebanon’s political and cultural life before the war. The time had come to defend and strengthen this pluralism by democracy, which in the Lebanese case now means recognizing individuals — versus family, region and confession — and institutionalizing the political and legal equality of Lebanese as citizens by the installation of a secular state.

A whole new generation has grown up in the war. It is deeply suspicious of both the traditional leaders and the warlords. It refuses to be reduced to family, regional or confessional identities. It has been silenced and crushed under the roar of bombs. This generation will speak a new and sincere language. What remains of the left — i.e., the forces which can liberate themselves from the mentality and corruption of the war and from dependence on regional powers — should listen to them attentively and try to articulate their aspirations and vision for a new Lebanon. Or else this left should be purged, along with the militias and the other despicable remnants of a cruel past.

How to cite this article:

Fawwaz Traboulsi "Confessional Lines," Middle East Report 162 (January/February 1990).
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