Several months ago, I found myself in a group discussion on Facebook about the Arab revolutions. Egypt and Tunisia had recently toppled their dictators, and the freedom train seemed poised to roll into Yemen, Libya, Syria, and beyond.
It escaped no one during this season of political transformation in the Middle East that Lebanon was a strange study in stability. Usually a magnet for civil unrest and ideological fervor, the country felt oddly insulated from the waves of popular dissent that threatened to fashion a new Arab political order in the space of a single year.
True, Beirut had witnessed the odd ragtag anti-sectarianism march, but no sign of the enormous public demonstrations seen in Benghazi or Cairo. This was evidence, so my Facebook interlocutors suggested, of Lebanon’s political immaturity, its parochialism and fractiousness, and perhaps even the artificiality of its claim to nationhood. While the people of Egypt and Tunisia had demonstrated remarkable unity and bravery by standing as one to break their shackles, the Lebanese remained hopelessly mired in a rut of sectarianism and petty divisiveness.
Something about this reading struck me as simple-minded. This is not to say that I subscribed to the chauvinist ‘been-there-done-that’ argument that one regularly encountered among many Lebanese (who gestured gallantly toward the events of March 2005 by way of explaining why Lebanon had no need to partake in any revolutionary activities in 2011).
Rather, what I found problematic about the discussion on Facebook was its assumption that Egypt and Tunisia had reached the finish line in their struggle for democracy and self-determination, when it seemed fairly straightforward that these two countries (like the rest of their regional compatriots, the Lebanese included) were still very much at the starting line.
There’s certainly no question that Lebanon’s politics are crippled by sectarian institutions and the false idol of consensual governance. However, sectarianism is surely not the only flavor of social divisiveness that can undermine democratic processes and institution building. Economic inequalities, ethnic and tribal divisions, religious fundamentalism, etc. represent other major challenges. As inspiring as the events of the last year have been, they hardly represent a litmus test for the viability of a national identity, much less a certificate of sovereignty and self-determination.
I was reminded of this discussion recently by an excellent article in The New York Review of Books, by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley. They argue that the Arab revolutions have been effectively overtaken by the Arab counterrevolution, the primary agents of which include entrenched economic elites, military leaders, former regime operatives, and foreign powers, all of whom are now seeking to shape events in their favor (and are largely succeeding).
The essay is worth a close read, but I thought I’d draw your attention to an excerpt that struck me as relevant to the question of Lebanon’s membership in the Arab Spring club.
“Revolutions devour their children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are pursuing and how to achieve it. Revolutions almost invariably are short-lived affairs, bursts of energy that destroy much on their pathway, including the people and ideas that inspired them. So it is with the Arab uprising. It will bring about radical changes. It will empower new forces and marginalize others. But the young activists who first rush onto the streets tend to lose out in the skirmishes that follow. Members of the general public might be grateful for what they have done. They often admire them and hold them in high esteem. But they do not feel they are part of them. The usual condition of a revolutionary is to be tossed aside.
“The Arab world’s immediate future will very likely unfold in a complex tussle between the army, remnants of old regimes, and the Islamists, all of them with roots, resources, as well as the ability and willpower to shape events. Regional parties will have influence and international powers will not refrain from involvement. There are many possible outcomes—from restoration of the old order to military takeover, from unruly fragmentation and civil war to creeping Islamization. But the result that many outsiders had hoped for—a victory by the original protesters—is almost certainly foreclosed.“
I am very rarely optimistic about Lebanon’s short-term political prospects. We seem to go from one election to another pinning our hopes on the notion that the next crop of plutocrats will not be as feckless as the last. However, reading over Agha and Malley’s prognosis, I could not help but think that Lebanon’s problems seemed somehow more manageable than its neighbors’.
Consider the fact that of the three major players shaping the future of the post-Arab Spring states, only one (the members of the old political class) possesses any real political muscle in Lebanon. The army enjoys widespread support but is not a major political and economic force, as it is in places like Egypt and Turkey, or in Iran, where the army controls entire industries and maintains its monopolies with the assistance of the state.
Lebanon has Islamists, but there is no mainstream movement calling for the creation of an Islamic state. A recent Pew Research poll found that only a small minority of Lebanese Muslims (second only to Turkey) were in favor of harsh punishments for adultery, theft, and apostasy. Meanwhile, it is rare that one meets a Maronite today who believes their country should be a Christian homeland in political and spiritual communion with France.
Finally, even our politicians, as odious as they are, hardly constitute a unitary and hegemonic “regime”. For all of Lebanon’s problems — a weak central authority, political and economic corruption, clericalism, foreign influence, sectarian structures and mindsets, patronage networks, etc. — it remains a multi-polar arena, with all the “self-regulating” mechanisms that such a structure engenders.
Would I trade this brand of dysfunction for the challenges facing reformers in Egypt, Libya, or Syria? I don’t think I would. I’ll take entropy or centrifugality (or whatever physics-inspired euphemism one might use to put a positive spin on our chaotic system) over the deeply rooted political, military, and economic structures of a post-dictatorial regime.