Lebanon is not resilient, it is traumatized
How does a whole society become submissive, overtaken by apathy and unable to react or protest, while exhibiting signs of confusion, defeatism and incoherence? Lebanon is not a resilient country, as is often claimed. Rather, it is deeply traumatized by the events of the last two decades and has lost the will to resist or the ability to revolt.
It is no longer satisfactory to blame the crisis on the entire political class, the corrupt elite or the banking system. They may be the victims too. Our minds become captive to certain slogans that are repeated robotically until they lose their meaning. No country or society can survive the constant bullying that Lebanon has been subjected to by Hezbollah.
Years of systematic violence and paralysis have taken their toll; society is broken and so is the political system, the economy, the banking system and all the services and institutions that allow a country or a society to function. This is due to the assassinations and constant state of war, with Hezbollah holding the country hostage, paralyzing all institutions until they submit. And then there is the nuclear-scale explosion that destroyed large parts of Beirut in 2020 and the brutal Israeli attack of 2006.
One is mystified to find the right words to describe the phenomenon. It has similarities with the way a drug cartel, a criminal organization or a revolutionary movement gets hold of a population. Totalitarian states can exercise similar control — their grip over society is the result of long-term suppression and indoctrination. Individuals in a long-term, toxic and abusive relationship exhibit similar symptoms.
Some theories in social and political psychology may help, but this is not the place to explore them, nor am I the right person to do so. What follows are some anecdotes and concepts gathered informally from friends that could help illustrate the problem.
My first story is from a Brazilian journalist who was covering the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979. He found the junta frantic that a counter-revolution was inevitable — all textbooks said so. Advice came from allies behind the so-called Iron Curtain: To preempt a counter-revolution, you should start your own. This would trigger reactions; society would expose itself and the spectrum of opinions would then be mapped with a plan to neutralize the opposition. The tools are there too: Some would be accused of treason or corruption, others would be framed, bribed, blackmailed, jailed, exiled or assassinated. These instruments of control, together with capturing the moral high ground of the revolution, would eventually result in a submissive society.
When a criminal organization takes over, it uses similar tools. A drug cartel in Latin America creates its own enabling environment by taming politicians, the police, the judiciary and the army. Its members terrorize the rest of the population, who also become dependent on them. Their tight grip on society is reinforced by the fact that the population cannot trust the authorities because they can never be sure they are not working for the cartel. Cartel heads become heroes to their victims because they protect them from the corrupt authorities they themselves corrupted.
The same control happens in long-term abusive relationships. Victims are broken and trapped, unable to stand up to their tormentors. The victim’s self-confidence is eroded and a combination of physical and psychological manipulation leaves them blaming themselves, feeling inadequate and guilty, and forgetting what healthy alternatives exist. Psychologists call this “gaslighting” after the 1944 film “Gaslight” starring Ingrid Bergman.
Political psychologists have come up with an explanation for submissive behavior, in that people do not like uncertainty and would rather adapt to a gradually worsening situation than risk a jump into the unknown.
One can observe many of these elements in Lebanon. Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the country has been battered into submission. The Cedar Revolution that brought more than a million people onto the streets demanding the truth and the withdrawal of Syrian troops has fizzled out. When the truth was delivered by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which accused Hezbollah, it was ignored out of fear. It was like a prisoner having his cell door opened but refusing to escape.
Hezbollah is a combination of all the examples given above. As an extension of the Iranian revolution, it is partly Sandinista, partly a totalitarian regime, partly a drug cartel with global connections and partly a guerilla force calling itself the resistance against an occupation.
Hezbollah is also that partner in an abusive relationship, with the victim unable to break away. The total grip that Hezbollah has over its own community makes partnering with it indispensable in a country built on partnership and coexistence. After the Syrian withdrawal in 2005, reconstituting the country led to a series of compromises.
In speech after speech, Hassan Nasrallah wags his finger, capturing the moral high ground and threateningly accusing any critics of treason or of being agents of foreign embassies. He maintains the state of war by threatening Israel four to five times a year, thus sustaining a state of mobilization.
Another interesting symptom can be observed in the period during and after the revolution of 2018. From Day 1, Hezbollah declared itself to be against the movement and accused it of being driven by foreign, particularly American, interests. It also sent its thugs to the streets to beat up the protesters. Yet the revolutionaries rarely mentioned Hezbollah by name, instead using euphemisms like “the powers” (sulta) or the slogan of “all means all” against the whole political class.
In May’s elections, a group of 13 independents won seats as “Change” MPs and this was hailed as a defeat of the “sulta,” breaking the monopoly of the traditional parties. On the one hand, these MPs wanted justice for the Beirut Port explosion, the investigation of which was openly blocked by Hezbollah. On the other hand, they totally ignored the verdicts of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which proved beyond any reasonable doubt the involvement of a Hezbollah hit squad in many assassinations.
Where the trauma is most obvious, it is in the circles of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the head of the Future Movement founded by his father. The victims of assassinations included his advisers, members of his parliamentary bloc, allies, participants in the international tribunal’s investigation and his friend and adviser Mohammed Chatah, who held the whole group together and was its main strategist.
No country or society can survive the constant bullying that Lebanon has been subjected to by Hezbollah.
The Future Movement was the main target of the paralysis and its institutions the main target of the attack on Beirut by Hezbollah’s black shirts in 2008. The reforms that were blocked were mainly associated with the movement’s political program. In January 2011, Hariri was ousted as prime minister when Hezbollah reportedly threatened Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, forcing him and his parliamentary group to change sides.
For 29 months, the country remained without elections, without a president and without a government, with parliamentary sessions postponed dozens of times until Hariri accepted the compromise to elect Hezbollah’s candidate for the presidency, Michel Aoun. He is mostly blamed for that move and advisers blame themselves for going along with it.
The second anniversary of the Beirut Port explosion passed this month, but what was expected to be a mass protest full of rage was more like a whimper and the low turnout was only made notable by the spectacular collapse of one of the damaged grain silos. The investigation is still blocked, so is the formation of a government, and the paralysis of the last three years has cost the country as much as the paralysis of the last 20. Lebanon is a broken country, traumatized by a feeling of utter failure and battered into submission by a combination of a revolutionary movement and a criminal drug cartel.
- Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist. Twitter: @Confusezeus