Daily Archives: 2 September 2021

Foundations of Lebanon’s Exceptionalism

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. viii-x (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

This peculiar identity could undoubtedly be considered as the source of all the conflicts to come, but it also proved to be Lebanon’s defining characteristic for many years: a nation straddling the great cultures of the East and the West, a crossroads, a herald of coexistence, openness, cultural exchange and integration. For the thirty years from 1945 to 1975, despite a few minor jolts, Lebanon also figured as something of an exception among its neighbors. It was the only country in the region not to fall prey to a nationalist military dictatorship, like Egypt under Nasser and Iraq or Syria under the Baath parties. It was the only democracy of the Arab world, and one of very few in what was then called the third world. It also developed a liberal economy which has endured to this day, within a region entirely dominated by so-called socialist models—models which, in Nasser’s Egypt and in Syria and Iraq, led to disastrous nationalizations, to the disappearance of their middle classes and the impoverishment of their populations. Lebanon thus lived for thirty years in unbelievable opulence and enjoyed exceptional cultural and economic vitality.

It now seems clear that it was precisely because of the diversity of its population and the complexity of its human institutions that Lebanon avoided dictatorship and the so-called socialist models that beset the rest of the Arab world between 1950 and 1975. Religious affiliation, which in Lebanon is more cultural than strictly faith-based, underpinned all political relationships and balances. This was made manifest in the strangest political system imaginable, called “confessionalism.” All government posts were allocated approximately equally between religious communities. Every single employment position in the public sector, from the highest level in a ministry to its lowest echelons, was reserved for one or another community, depending on its presumed importance. The president of the republic had to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and so on. This political system prevented any single community or individual from controlling the government, and averted any possibility of hegemony or coups.

All this nevertheless created something like an oligarchic system, where the political leaders were systematically elected from the most important family clans within the large religious groups. They ruled the country collegially, on the basis of elections where the focus was always on the interests of the various religious communities, rather than on political issues. And yet the social classes that divided society were strongly intercultural. A real middle class had arisen from both Muslim and Christian communities, in the face of wealthy upper classes that also recruited from various groups, just as the working classes had members from both sides of the religious divide. However, social identity and affiliation never produced true class consciousness, but were always dominated by a very strong sense of religious, cultural, and community affiliation.

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