12 Days Lebanon for a European Dummy

So here I go! 12 days ahead for me in the Lebanon. I try to get an inside view into Relief & Reconciliation for Syria, a small but fine NGO which provides humanitarian aid to those who are affected by the Syrian crisis in tiny country. It is my first trip to the Middle East. Apart from Anatolia and Cyprus I never felt Asian ground.

Is it a good idea to start with the Lebanon? Since my childhood I remember this small country in bloody conflicts on a black and white TV screen. Just before Europe raised its iron curtain a ceasefire ended a 16 years old civil war. Coincidence? The Lebanese Civil War was certainly also a proxy war. The cold worriers stopped feeding…

Now walking through Beirut gives a mixed picture. Houses destroyed by the Civil War, Disney-like rich architecture and still enclaves of all kinds of communities protected by checkpoints with heavy weapons. The main common glue seems to be an uncontrolled private capitalism without communal administration.

It looks all oddly familiar to me. Over decades I got more media information about Lebanon than about Ukraine. For sure this was due to the brutality of the conflicts, both in numbers as in pictures. 150.000 people got killed in 16 years. 1 Mio people were displaced. Although violence came back in 2000 Lebanon remained remarkably stable in its fragility. Who are dominating the state? Muslims or Christians? The situation is far more complicated: Muslims belong half to Shia half to Sunni Islam. The Christian community is also fragmented into many confessions. However within the Christian group Maronites – united with the Catholic Church – are the clear dominating majority. Furthermore, the small and closed religious community of Druze play a pivotal political role. Since the Taif Agreement, the Lebanese political system might be parliamentarian,  but it is highly based on confessionalism, giving each of the major religious groups a political role. It is the only democracy in the world based on religious groups. Unofficially but constantly, the President has to be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim etc. In comparison with other countries in the region, Lebanon is – within confessional limits – a politically free country. The diverse groups ensure a certain pluralism of media.  Another division line can be drawn since the Cedar revolution, which led to the end of the Syrian occupation of the country. The March 14 Alliance is considered to be pro-Western, the March 8 Alliance pro-Iranian. But parties were changing sides over the years. The patriarchical leadership of most of the parties and affiliation to family clans might lead to the conclusion that Lebanese leadership goes not so much along religious but rather clanic lines.

However, let it be religious, geo-/political, or clan-driven: existing checks-and balances remain fragile, but remain. And even though the Civil War broke the predominance of Christian forces in the only “Christian state” of the Middle East, the War and the Cedar Revolution in the aftermath made also the Muslim communities more Lebanese. Before, pan-Arabic movements wore predominant. The non-state Lebanon became a little bit more state by outside thread, even though the state infrastructure has not yet recovered from the conflicts of the past. Contradictions everywhere! But perhaps they are more coherent than one might think at first sight.

In the meantime, the former occupier Syria became herself a slaughter house. The outbreak of the civil war in Syria forced over 1.5 Mio refugees to flee into Lebanon, which counts alone just 4.4 Mio Lebanese and some 800,000 Palestinian and other refugees. Lebanon has become the world’s country with the highest number of refugees per capita. Isn’t a negative spill-over of the Syrian humanitarian disaster to the fragile Lebanon inevitable?

For a long time, Syria and its unique religious and linguistic mosaic had been dominated by the Assad regime. The regime as well as other criminal extremists, have pushed the peaceful revolution against its iron grip into a sectarian war. Deliberately, as some presume. A double-faced terror let Christians and especially Sunnis flew to Lebanon.

Tomorrow, I will travel to the North of Lebanon together with Friedrich Bokern, to the Peace Centre of R&R. I am sure some answers to the current situation will lead to many more questions. Read my report on Syrian refugees and their impact on Lebanon’s confessional ballance and my report on traveling in Lebanon in German.


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