Having hit an impasse over the election of a president, Lebanon is experiencing one of its periodical crises of identity. Sixty years ago, as Lebanon was trying to shake off the French mandate, the crisis was conjured up by rival visions of the country’s place between Europe and the Middle East. While some in the Christian communities, then accounting for almost half the population, saw Lebanon as part of the Christian West, pan-Arab nationalists dreamed of a Lebanon as a building bloc of a united Arab state.
A way out of the impasse was found using the “double negative” formula, which paved the way for the National Accord (Mithaq Al-Watani), to be implicitly accepted as independent Lebanon’s constitution. Many on both sides, Christian and Muslim, mocked the “double negative” formula through which Lebanon would be neither exclusively European nor Arab.
Writer and journalist George Naccache jeered: “Two negations don’t make a nation!” History proved him wrong. Lebanon became possible exactly because of that double negation.
The initial debate suffered from a misunderstanding of the realities of the time. Pan-Christians wrongly assumed that Christendom was a single entity to which Lebanon could be attached. They ignored the fact that, at the time, supposedly Christian nations were setting the whole of Europe on fire in pursuit of nationalistic ambitions.
At the other end of the spectrum, pan-Arabists were prisoners of their fantasies. They ignored the reality of local identities that transcended linguistic and cultural affinities. In matters of national identity how others see you is often more important than how you see yourself.
The reductionist approach is incapable of taking into account the complexities of a people’s identity at any given time. Like all other nations, Lebanon is a cocktail of identities, sharing ingredients with many other nations, but offering its distinct flavor. Lebanon could not be only Christian or only Muslim, because it was also Christian and also Muslim Arab.
Today, Lebanon needs another double negation to break out of a new crisis that could propel it into dangerous waters. Did I say double negation? Maybe it would be better to suggest a triple negation. The reason is that this time, the Arab Muslim segment of Lebanon also has its internal divisions. The Sunni community sees itself as heir to the pan-Arab tradition of 60 years ago, while the Shi’ite community is, in turn, divided between those who dream of making Lebanon part of a Shi’ite empire led by Iran and those who want Iran only as friend not master.
The current crisis in Lebanon is highlighted by the impasse over the election of a new president. To be sure, since the Ta’if agreement of 1989, the role of president is no longer as significant as it was under the National Accord of 1943. Nevertheless, as head of state and arbiter among communities, the president is still capable of making a contribution to shaping policy.
Leaving aside internal differences, rival Lebanese political factions are divided into two-and-a-half blocs. One bloc, led by Iran through Hezbollah wants ex-Gen. Michel Aoun as president. Another, led by the Future movement, promotes the candidacy of Samir Geagea. The half a bloc that is left is represented by the Druze community, which, conscious that it cannot impose its choice, is determined to prevent both Aoun and Geagea from winning.
The overall situation is interesting for several reasons.
Iran is backing Aoun as a matter of expediency. The former general is disliked in Tehran where the leadership has not forgotten, nor forgiven, his collaboration with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Israel in the 1980s. Tehran’s assumption is that Aoun, lacking a genuine constituency of his own, would have no choice but to toe whatever line Tehran might want.
That, however, may well be a miscalculation. Aoun’s loyalty is only to himself, and there is no evidence that he has abandoned his hatred of Iran. Worse still, Aoun is a divisive figure at a time when Lebanon needs consensus. For his part, Geagea is also a problematic candidate. His whole political philosophy is built on suspicion of pan-Arabism and fear that Muslims might be plotting to de-Christianize Lebanon. Moreover, as a prominent figure in the Lebanese civil war, Geagea evokes as many divisive memories as does Aoun. Victory for either Aoun or Geagea would be perceived as total defeat by one or the other of the rival blocs.
Ironically, the current crisis coincides with a period of exceptional tension in the Middle East, an instability that raises the value of Lebanon as a haven of peace. By pressing for total victory, Lebanon’s rival factions may throw away an opportunity that an accident of history is offering their nation to cast itself as a key participant in reshaping a new and more stable Middle East.
Complete takeover by Iran would deprive Lebanon of an independent role, tying its fate to that of the Khomeinist regime in Tehran at a time its fortunes are increasingly in doubt. On the other hand, complete victory for the pan-Arab bloc would also reduce Lebanon’s freedom of action, transforming it into a bit player in a bigger regional conflict.
In every geopolitical configuration where rival blocs are in conflict, the existence of a neutral space is of importance. For over a century while the whole of Europe was on fire, rival blocs maintained the neutrality of Switzerland because all benefited from it. In South America, Uruguay played a similar role while Brazil, Chile and Argentina engaged in conflictual rivalries. For six decades, Thailand played a similar role in Indochina.
Rival regional powers and their allies beyond the region, notably the United Sates on one side and Russia on the other, would all benefit from a political compromise in Lebanon. A consensual figure, neither enthusing nor threatening any of the rival blocs, could help Lebanon assume a new role in regional politics on the basis of a triple negation.