Mission & Name
US Foreign Policy (Dr. El-Najjar's Articles)
Pulling Lebanon Back From the Brink
By James Zogby
Al-Jazeerah, CCUN, July 9, 2012
With neighboring Syria imploding, tensions with Iran mounting, and
Israel ever threatening, Lebanon appears to be on the brink of conflict. But
then that has been the story of Lebanon for decades now. This remarkably
beautiful country filled with extraordinary people has long been a victim of
its history, its own leaders and the machinations of outsiders. This may be
Lebanon's past and present, but if we listen to the Lebanese people, it need
not be the country's future.
It was the French who created Lebanon
and its patchwork quilt, sect-driven system of governance, designing it to
serve France's imperial interests. During the past 80 years, operating
within this imposed framework, Lebanon's sectarian elites have jockeyed for
advantage, seeking the support of external "partners" to buttress their
position. Only too obliging, these foreign "partners" all too often had
their own interests to promote or scores to settle. As a result, Lebanon was
time and again transformed into a battlefield where sects clashed and
regional power struggles were fought.
And so it is today.
generations ago, Lebanon was an East-West Cold War battleground. Today it is
an arena in which the conflict between the West and its allies versus Iran
and its surrogates plays out -- with fragile Lebanon hanging in the balance,
and its security, stability and prosperity at risk.
Some may shrug
dismissively and say "this is Lebanon" or point to the country's warlords
and armed gangs and say "they bring it on themselves." But this recurring
precarious state of affairs need not be Lebanon's fate. If we listen to
Lebanon's people, it is possible to imagine a very different country, based
on a common identity and sense of purpose.
If polling has taught me
anything, it is that people almost always know more than the politicians who
lead them. In this regard, Lebanon's people have a great deal to say -- and
deserve to be heard.
There are, to be sure, issues that divide the
Lebanese. For example, two recent polls found Lebanese holding discordant
views with regard to
Shi'a in Lebanon appear to be supportive of the Ba'ath government of Bashar
al Assad and also favor close ties with Iran. Meanwhile the country's Sunni
community holds the opposite view. Christians are divided in their opinions.
In all cases, these attitudes of various Lebanese groups, while reflecting
the positions of their leaders, only tell part of the story of what Lebanese
really think. On most issues, however, there is a strong domestic consensus
-- and it would be wise for leaders in Lebanon, and the rest of us, to pay
attention and focus on the issues and policies that could bring most
Lebanese together, not those that divide them.
There are many places
where Lebanese find common ground. They agree on the country's sorry state
of affairs, the political priorities that must be addressed, the importance
of national identity, unity and fundamental political reforms that should be
When, for example, we ask Lebanese whether they are better
off or worse off than they were five years ago, all agree they are worse
off. Similarly when we ask them if the country is currently on the right
track or the wrong track, all groups agree that Lebanon is on the wrong
track. And when we ask Lebanese to identify their top political concerns,
once again there is a remarkable convergence in attitudes. All Lebanese,
across the board, rank "expanding employment opportunities" as their number
one concern, followed by "ending corruption and nepotism," "political
reform," and "protecting personal freedoms and civil rights." Foreign policy
issues are not considered priorities, and at the very bottom of the scale is
"promoting political debate" -- something most Lebanese have wearied of.
What is also striking is that when we ask Lebanese for their principle
source of identity, they do not name their religion or sect, nor do they say
their family or "being Arab." Instead, people in all groups say that it is
"being Lebanese." In this regard they are different than Arabs from every
other country -- where responses are most often nearly evenly divided
amongst "Arab," religion, and their country of origin.
When we ask
Lebanese whether they prefer to maintain the sect-based apportionment system
of the past or replace it with a "one
man/one vote" political structure, there is broad agreement that it is
time to implement the latter. They all agree that national unity is a must
for the country. And they reject the notion that any one group should
dominate over the others.
Almost a century ago, Lebanon's
internationally renowned poet, Kahlil Gibran, wrote a marvelous piece, "You
have your Lebanon, I have my Lebanon," in which he contrasted the country's
self-centered, plundering, bickering elites with the common folk who are
Lebanon's heart and soul. Gibran was right then, and his observations hold
true today. Lebanon's leaders and those who care about the future of the
country ought take note -- listen to Lebanon's people, and help pull the
country back from the brink, before it's too late.
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