You can physically get away from Lebanon and its turbulent politics for a few days, but you can never move around in this region without the symbols, causes and consequences of Lebanon’s current confrontations following you like a shadow in every discussion. I discovered that this week in Dubai while participating in Dubai in the three-day meetings of the Arab Strategy Forum. This annual gathering brings together officials, journalists, academics and business leaders from the Arab world, Asia, Europe and North America, for a rich series of panel discussions on trends and conditions in the Middle East. Without fail, every public panel or private discussion inevitably points to Lebanon as a worrying and perplexing microcosm of a widely troubled region that is in the throes of significant upheaval and contestation. Yet there is little if any consensus on why Lebanon finds itself once again–for the third time in half a century–a symbol of the stresses and uncertainties of a region that suffers similar dislocations in half a dozen countries. The confrontations in Lebanon that broke out into a few scattered clashes Sunday are, at one level, a straightforward local contest between two forces vying for political power and national ascendancy–the Hizbullah-led camp versus the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. In Lebanese and Arab politics everywhere, though, this first tier of contestation never explains the entire story. The wider issues and many players in Lebanon reflect, rather, the cumulative consequences of the past century. An increasingly dilapidated state-centered Arab political order is slowly unraveling in places, and reconstituting under the banner of new identities and power centers. That order has navigated a tortuous path: from post-colonial independence, to government-dominated sovereignties, to security-run state-building endeavors, to fragmenting societies often dominated by non-state actors with an increasingly Islamist character. The recurring dynamics of this trend involve local security systems, foreign interference, regional interventions and patronages, armed militias, ethnic- and religious-based communities, freewheeling economic interests, and, all the while, a spirited but elusive quest for stable statehood and satisfying citizenship anchored in constitutions and law. All you need to do to appreciate this living legacy of political dynamics is to run through the litany of personalities that defines and drives the street confrontations in Beirut and other parts of the country: the legitimately elected and increasingly American-backed Siniora; the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah; the former general and presidential aspirant Michel Aoun; Saudi-backed Saad Hariri who carries the mantle of his assassinated father and the Sunni community; Druze leader Walid Jumblatt; Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir; and assorted Christian community leaders like Samir Geagea, Amin Gemayel and Suleiman Franjieh, to mention only the most prominent. Here in this lineup of local and national leaders is a catalogue of half a century of Middle Eastern political movements that continue to confront each other in the street. Lebanon is not alone in suffering this bitter and frustrating legacy of nation-building that remains hostage to narrow local community interests, alongside the sustained intervention of external powers–Syria, Iran, Israel, the United States, France and others. Lebanon’s stressed and discordant nationalism is now joined by others in the region who suffer similar pressures and fractures. Iraq, Sudan, Palestine, Somalia, Yemen and Algeria have experienced similar bumpy rides on the challenging road to national stability, coherence and prosperity. Other lands–Syria, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait–have suffered and survived lesser traumas of strained statehood, denominated in the brutal currencies of civil wars, terrorism, violent challenges to state authority, and ethnic and communal tensions. Everywhere we see the same signs that we are witnessing in downtown Beirut: the post-Ottoman, post-European independent Arab state is constantly confounded and occasionally shaken by erratic relations with the Western great powers, irresolute views of Israel as neighbor or nemesis, inconsistent perceptions of the role of religion in public life, imprecision on the limits of state power and the rights of ordinary citizens, and deep ambiguity on the need for clarity, transparency and accountability in managing the power and finances of the state. Consequently–Beirut reaffirms–non-state actors become strong and sometimes trusted guardians of citizens’ interests and aspirations. Hizbullah, Hamas, Moqtada Sadr, Mohammad Dahlan, and dozens of others like them become strong at the neighborhood level, and compete for national power because they affirm indigenous identities while offering a range of day-to-day services that ordinary citizens need to live a reasonable life. They do this in many realms, including ideology, religion, culture, security, identity, economy, healthcare and social services, and armed struggles against colonialism, imperialism, and Israeli occupation. Nearly a century after the end of the Ottoman Empire and the advent of nominal Arab sovereignty and independence, stability remains elusive, prosperity a distant dream, constitutional and democratic governance a teasing mirage. A mighty, modern battle for power and national identity continues to be waged in the streets of many Arab cities, by frightened, vulnerable but determined citizens on both sides of the barricades.
Rami G. Khouri writes a regular commentary for THE DAILY STAR.