Book reviews - Conflict Resolution: Wider Middle East.

Reconciliation, reform and resilience: Positive peace for Lebanon
(London: Conciliation Resources, 2012, 107pp.)

With the growing intensity of the conflicts in Syria, with the flows of refugees and increased foreign participation, the dangers of serious, negative impact on neighbouring countries is real. This impact is already being felt in Lebanon which has its own multi-level divisions and scars from its own long civil war (1975-1990). Thus this issue N°24 in the Accord series published by Conciliation Resources is a most useful analysis of the complex situation in Lebanon and its historic links with Syria. Each chapter is written by a different author, and no attempt is made to create an artificial consensus. Different views are expressed — a reflection of a moving reality influenced by domestic and regional conflicts involving a wealth of actors.

Syria and Lebanon have been historically entangled — economically, politically and socially, both having been parts of the Ottoman Empire. At the end of the First World War, the Ottoman Middle East was divided between France and England and placed under the mandate system of the League of Nations. France held both Syria and Lebanon. France linked the two with a common currency until 1948 when both Lebanon and Syria became independent states. (1) During the mandate period, people moved freely between the two states, especially for business reasons. Thus one finds family members in both countries as well as broader clanic/tribal ties. During the Lebanese civil war, Syrian political leaders played a role, often behind the scenes. The 1989 Taif Peace Agreement which led to the end of the Lebanese civil war was largely guaranteed by Syria and was followed by more formal treaties between the two states on such issues as commerce and education. The post-1989 relationship was seen as asymmetrical, favouring Syria — a widely held view in Lebanon. Attitudes toward Syria have become a line of division within Lebanese politics, symbolized by the names of the political alliances: 14 March Alliance (named for the date of anti-Syrian street protests in 2005 that prompted Syria’s military withdrawal) and the 8 March Alliance (named after pro-Syrian demonstrations, also in March 2005).

Lebanon has been commonly called “the Switzerland of the Middle East” — not only because of its international banking system but especially for the way regional and religious interests are carefully balanced in the government and parliament. This system of government has been called “consociationalism” by the leading scholar of the term, Arend Lijphant who has analysed the Netherlands, Switzerland and Lebanon.(2) Consociationism is basically a system of government that allocates power between religious or ethnic communities with power-sharing between community leaders often in a “grand coalition”, with regional autonomy and a spirit of compromise so that no group is felt overly “shut out” from decision making. However the basic difference between Switzerland and Lebanon is that political factions in Switzerland do not shoot at each other.

The constitutional divisions of Lebanon are complex and frozen so that they end up being based in part of myths — such as the division of the population in two equal halves: Christian and Muslim. There is also an over-representation of rural districts as many people left the rural areas for the Beirut area or for work in the Arab Gulf states. To make things more complicated, there are 18 recognized confessional groups: 4 Muslim; 13 Christian and a small but recognized Jewish community. Plus there are people who consider themselves as “none of the above” but you have to choose to be only in recognized communities.

The first group to upset this delicate balance was the Palestinian refugees who arrived after the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israel wars and Palestinian leadership which was expelled from Jordan in 1970 — today some 450,000 people. The Palestinians do not have Lebanese citizenship and are barred from owning property or from entering certain employment such as medicine, law and engineering. The Palestinians are divided among themselves — PLO groups, pro-Syrian factions, and Islamist militant groups. They are kept out of formal Lebanese politics but are nevertheless there.

New flows of refugees from the fighting in Syria may aggravate the Lebanese balance. There are Palestinians who have been living in Syria and no longer feel safe as well as Syrians with ties to communities also found in Lebanon.

Ideally, Lebanon’s people need to find ways to empower themselves to move forward so that reforms deemed necessary are implemented, so that building national consensus and reconciliation are pursued as priorities, and so that policies are adopted that allow their state to survive and manage in its perilous environment.

Is there a Lebanese civil society and can it play a role in the reconciliation and reform efforts? Marie-Noelle AbiYaghi in her chapter on Civil mobilisation and peace in Lebanon writes “ Lebanon’s civil society is often seen as a collection of communal groups each with its own associations and structures of mobilisation. However, since the final years of the civil war, Lebanese society has also mobilised through trans-sectarian associations devoted to peacebuilding, social reconstruction and welfare, and to ecology and human and political rights.”

There would be three sources for trans-confessional civil society efforts: youth, women, and business — the three sectors largely left out of the political structure. However, the sectarian ruling elites have been able to divide, co-opt and manipulate civil associations in order to preserve and advance the interests of the elites. The elites — often the same families from one generation to the next — have hijacked NGOs and trade unions, infiltrating them and weakening them from the inside. As AbiYoghi concludes “Neither the Lebanese state nor civil society provides an area in which citizens can claim their rights or hold sectarian leaders to account. At a time when sectarian ties define citizens’ participation in politics, civil society activists have learned that sectarian leaders will only support or represent agendas that do not challenge their hegemony or that contribute to consolidating their patronage networks. In this highly fragmented context, most civil associations do not act as means for civil interaction, but rather are used as tools to reinforce the clientist and sectarian status quo.”

It is likely that refugees from Syria will only increase the sectarian leadership though there may be changes in some power relations. Hezbollah has strong links to Syria and Iran and its relative strength could change were the government in Syria to change radically.

What role can non-governmental conflict-resolution organizations play? There is a significant Lebanese/Syrian population in the USA, some dating back to the early 1900s — the family of the Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran being an example. Often these Lebanese and Syrian Americans are educated and have professional positions in society. The same holds true for Western Europe Some NGOs or peace research centers may be able to facilitate discussions on the future of the Middle East, the role of trans-confessional movements and the impact that can have those living outside the Middle East given that Lebanese communities may be vulnerable to political and sectarian manipulation and mobilisation in relation to the conflicts in Syria.

The Accord study ends with a useful bibliography and a list of key websites for those who want to continue being active on this important situation.

1) For a lively account of the break up of the Ottoman Empire and the start of the mandate system, see Robert Fisk The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (London: Harper Perennial, 2006, 1368pp.)
2) See Arend Lijphart. Democracies in Plural Societies: A Comparative Exploration (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977) as well as other works by the same author.

Rene Wadlow