Lebanese movement for change should heed warnings from history
Everybody wants change in Lebanon, the key question is what exactly this will entail. Today, the demand for change is led by Lebanese millennials, a post-civil war generation that has no memory of Lebanon’s golden days. Their debate tends to emphasize the flaws in Lebanon’s principles of communal power sharing and its liberal laissez-faire economy, which they blame for turning the country into a failed state. Yet, in doing so they are rewriting history in a narrative that could favor authoritarian models of rule.
If we were to go about this scientifically, we would have to conduct a laboratory experiment under controlled conditions in order to find out which system is better. Such as building an iron wall separating two halves of a continent and observing on which side people were desperate to escape to the other and which side initiated the bringing down of that wall.
In fact, such an experiment did happen in the Middle East over two decades in the last century. After the defeat of 1948, various forms of secular nationalism dominated in Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. These regimes overthrew what were seen as failed post-colonial liberal governments dominated by Ottoman-era elites and notables.
Lebanon, meanwhile, skipped the nationalist models that dominated the 20th century. Since 1926, the Lebanese constitution has enshrined sectarian power-sharing measures, which are based on the legacy and values of its Ottoman past. Lebanon maintains an archaic Levantine system that views its population as a composition of different religious groups. By contrast, its regional neighbors adopted a modern, secular and homogeneous view of citizenry.
In the words of historian Philip Mansel, the old Ottoman cities like Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut were “simultaneously windows on the West, generators of revolt against it, and targets for its battleships.” They were cultural beacons in the Levant: Port cities where making deals mattered more than ideals and where foreign consuls had more say and people approached them for protection.
Across the region, the zeal of nationalism clashed with the customs of Levantine society. Nationalism’s ideals of homogeneity and cohesiveness gradually triumphed over the region’s natural diversity. By contrast, Beirut remained as the last outpost of Levantine cosmopolitanism, where multiple identities coexisted and religious cultures were allowed a certain autonomy.
Where did the people choose to move to? Beirut. Subsequently, Lebanon flourished and became the cultural and financial center of the region. The cream of intellectuals and merchant classes from societies like those of Adana, Haifa, Alexandria, Aleppo, Damascus, Mosul and Baghdad moved to Beirut, each bringing rich traditions and global business networks. It became a service economy because it had the human capital to provide the services. The standard of living in the capital and the country’s gross domestic product per capita exceeded those of the lower-income European states like Greece, Spain and Ireland. In fact, Alexandria in its heyday also attracted people from Greece and Italy because the standard of living was higher and jobs were better paid.
That model was disputed during the Lebanese civil war. Yet, when it looked like progressive nationalist secular forces were winning, people voted with their feet and migrated out of the country. Many came back while Rafik Hariri was trying to restore that old diverse culture.
Meanwhile, the secular nationalist states became authoritarian and failed. The defeat of 1967 gave rise to more radical forces and the systems crumbled with the Arab Spring. But it is difficult to move away from authoritarianism once it has been established. Today, the trend is to engage with authoritarian regimes, such as Syria’s Bashar Assad, and for them to be propped up with the idea of maintaining stability.
The UAE is the closest successor to the Levantine cosmopolitan model, with more or less all of its advantages and faults. Again, we see the same phenomenon of talent, businesses and creativity in the region moving to the UAE and the other Gulf states. The Gulf model attracts people from all over the world and it is not just because of the oil. States like Iran, Venezuela and Iraq also have oil but people do not emigrate there because of the types of regimes and governance. On the contrary, people are moving out. The wars that caused their failures were also driven by nationalism and homogenizing ideologies, as well as authoritarian regimes.
Such experiments in the laboratory of history are not perfect and are full of flawed assumptions. There is the obvious lesson that cities that are at intersections of caravan routes and have more diversity and freedom of movement will always prosper over the closed societies of fortresses and garrisons. But open and free cities that prosper also have to protect themselves from the greed of the garrisons who want to capture them and the corruption of their rulers.
The homogeneous identity created by secular nationalism ultimately became intolerant of diversity and rejected it.
Another paradox from Ottoman times is that intellectuals in cosmopolitan cities tended to favor the secular nationalists. The Committee of Union and Progress was a product of the rich cosmopolitan atmosphere of Ottoman Salonica; it ultimately led to its demise and the demise of other such cities when the Young Turks and later Kemalist nationalists homogenized these societies. The poets and intellectuals of Alexandria, like Constantine Cavafy and Henri Curiel, also favored the nationalists and viewed their homogenizing ideas as promoting equality. But the homogeneous identity created by secular nationalism ultimately became intolerant of diversity and rejected it.
Lebanese demands for change tend to totally discredit the Levantine model, with its service economy that made the country prosperous in the past. They only see its flaws. Some blame the freedom it provided and the weak state for the dominance of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Hezbollah. They also tend to favor a homogenizing, strong secular state with a “productive” economy, perhaps some sort of Syria-envy, and disregard its flaws.
The forces of change in Lebanon need to examine the past more closely before going down a path from which return is difficult. There are already discussions of handing power over to the army “temporarily,” ignoring that previous instances of such a move have proven to be difficult to reverse.
- Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist. Twitter: @Confusezeus