52B/52W, Week 6: A History of Modern Lebanon

Post by Maxime Rousseau


A History of Modern Lebanon - Fawwaz Traboulsi

This is a book on historical facts about Lebanon, hence very hard to review since I am far from being an expert on Lebanon. As such, this post will not be a review, but rather a discussion on a contradiction that the history of this still nascent and politically unconsolidated country highlighted for me: the delicate balance of freedom and political power in it's weberian sense.

Lebanon's history, at least in what this book covers, starting from the early 16th century, is a story of colonialism. External powers have had a heavy hand with Lebanese internal affairs, from the Ottoman empire to European nations, to part of the Nasser-era Arab world and the Israelis, lots of nations have instrumentalized this strategic country. Mid millennia, technology didn't allow  political power to consolidate and centralize, so saying that Mount Lebanon was subject to meddling from external parties would be a bit of an anachronism; feudalism and/or tribalism and/or sectarianism was the norm. The problem is that where other countries politically matured and organized their power, Lebanon remained stuck between what was becoming numerous increasingly hard places (no need for the proverbial rock). Even when an arbitrary decision by European nations gave it fixed borders, it was never really able to assume them fully and get a firm grip on it's internal affairs; the number of unrequested military interventions on it's territory alone is a testament to the state's fragility. This power-vacuum made Lebanon a wild west of the middle east, fertile ground for armed militias to flourish, which they did and still do today to a lesser extent.

Which brings me to my dilemma. What defines a strong state is it's capacity to firmly control it's sovereignty, in matters of territory (non-violation of it's accepted borders) and policy (law and it's application).  In this sense, Lebanon was a weak state. Instinctively throughout my read, I kept thinking to myself that all the uncomfortable situations in which Lebanon put itself could have been avoided with one thing: a strong government. Had any faction truly dominated the country, these incidents would probably never had happened; political dominance of one sect, say, Maronites, would most likely have prevented the repeated Syrian incursions in the country, and further degradation of inter-sectarian relations from the  cycle of swings in the balance of power. The separation of power amongst sects is surely a source of the country's problems, and I don't believe that a strong uni-sectarian executive would have solved that, at least not pacifically. Nation-building in an environment where social domination or homogeneity is unclear leads to bloodshed: in that sense, I don't think that Lebanon could have come about without a minimum of violence. Closing the ethno-religious pressure-cooker with firm control over it's territory could probably have been a catalyst to national unity though, at the  almost assured cost of violence from minority sects.

Between a strong yet oppressive state  and the incapable patchwork of political power that was (still is?) Lebanon, what is to be preferred? The rickety institutions of Lebanon at least get some credit for trying to fix sectarian tensions, but trying visibly wasn't enough. Anarchic freedom resulted in years of bloody conflicts; could the constriction of this freedom in the hands of authoritative power have minimized suffering? The current state of affairs in Egypt seems to argue against this: authoritative rule has been unable to build a truly strong nation. How are we to reconcile freedom and power? Definitely not the topic for this blog post.

I'll sleep on it.