The success of Hezbollah and its allies at the parliamentary elections last May and the effective collapse of the March 14 parliamentary coalition are the latest indicators that Lebanon has drifted away from its traditional adherence to the Western liberal democratic order to side with theocratic and totalitarian regional regimes, argues Basem Shabb


Last year, 2018, was the year liberal democracy died in Lebanon. Liberal democracy in Lebanon was always tainted with regional and religious overtones. But Lebanon has now succumbed to a toxic dose of religious fundamentalism allied with totalitarian left-wing Arab nationalism. As a consequence, Lebanon is no longer affiliated with the Western liberal world order and, instead, will be linked, rather subjugated, to an illiberal regional order. The borders of Le Grand Liban may still hold, but the Western liberal spirit has long departed.

The creation of modern Lebanon post-World War I was intertwined with a Christian and Maronite presence. In effect, the Maronites were the guardians of this new order, modeled after French institutions, and oversaw a modern and secular constitution.

Freedom of faith and expression were integral to this order so much so that Lebanon became a sanctuary for the intelligentsia of neighboring illiberal countries. It is telling that Lebanon was a main contributor to the Human Rights Charter and the founding of the United Nations. Lebanon was a beacon of liberal education and enlightenment, much to the dismay of its neighbors who viewed Lebanon as a source of instability. Post-World War II Lebanon was part of the new liberal world order lead by the US. Economic prosperity and relative political stability were by-products of this affiliation. While most Christians subscribed to affiliation with the West, other constituents, mainly Muslim, resented Western influence and preferred Arab nationalism and other doctrines. Western support for Israel as well as the Cold War exacerbated these differences. Evolving demographics in Lebanon spurred the Muslim community to seek a more balanced representation.

“The mini civil war of 1958 was but a rehearsal of the horrors to come”

Lebanon was to be tested more than once throughout its modern history, with each tribulation pushing the country further away from the Western liberal world order. The Maronite and Christian communities, with cultural and religious affinity, were opposed by Arab nationalist and leftist forces allied with some regional regimes and the Soviet Union. Those opposing Maronite-dominated Lebanon had little interest in a Western-style democracy or any liberal order.

The mini civil war of 1958 was but a rehearsal of the horrors to come.

In the late 1960s, the confrontation degenerated into armed conflict with Palestinians, culminating in Lebanon conceding sovereignty over parts of south Lebanon to the Palestine Liberation Organization with the blessing of a large segment of the populace. Decades later, sovereignty would be conceded to a Lebanese faction in the same vein.

The civil war ended in 1989 with the Taif accords just before the demise of the Soviet Union. It addressed issues relating to equal representation and redistribution of power between religious factions. In reality, it was a victory for the anti-Western factions. The outcome may have been more favorable had the deal been struck after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Christians resisted the Palestinian armed presence before and during the civil war and continued to resist Syrian hegemony in the post-Taef era. Democracy under Syrian influence became an orchestrated fanfare. The bomb attack on College Hall in 1991 at the American University of Beirut was an assault on Western cultural influence and culminated a decade of hostage-taking and suicide attacks on Western targets in Lebanon.

Lebanese rebels, who opposed the then government of Camille Chamoun, stand guard in front of a public building in Beirut on June 15, 1958 (Intercontinentale/AFP)

As Iran’s influence rose through Hezbollah after Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, the anti-Western momentum gathered pace. Only lip service was paid to the Lebanese liberal tradition as Hezbollah consolidated its influence within the Shia community and expanded it in the Sunni community by promoting Islamic extremist factions.

The liberal democracy model, though weakened, survived external pressures as well as Palestinian and Syrian hegemony because a large faction of Christians still subscribed to it. The March 14 parliamentary coalition was the last hurrah for liberal democracy. While many of its constituents advocated a Western-style democracy, the opposing forces were committed to either theocratic or authoritarian anti-Western dictatorships. In turn, the rise of Islamic extremism and Islamic conservative movements took Lebanon further away from liberal democracy as well as the liberal world order; the core values of Le Grand Liban. Nevertheless, the demise of the 100-year order of Le Grand Liban was triggered when a large faction of the Christians concluded a Faustian deal with Hezbollah in February 2006. A more apt description may be a Kevorkian-style assisted suicide.

“The pact Louis IX concluded with the Maronites of Lebanon in Acre 1250 expired in 2018”

The traditional guardians of cultural and religious affinity with the West traded a time-honored promise for an alliance with an anti-Western theocracy. The pact Louis IX concluded with the Maronites of Lebanon in Acre 1250 expired in 2018. In effect, the Christians of Lebanon mortgaged their affairs to the kindness of regional powers. One hopes the Christians of Lebanon will fare better than their brethren in the Levant in this brave new illiberal theocratic order.

The recent history of Lebanon can be seen in different lights. One interpretation of the modern history of Lebanon is a protracted struggle between pro-Western advocates of liberal democracy and anti-Western fundamentalist and Arab nationalist forces. The pro-Western advocates now constitute a slim minority in public life and in parliament. The majority of the many denominations have given up on liberal democracy at home and are vehemently opposed to any association with the Western liberal world order. Ironically, when it comes to personal interests, the Lebanese as well as others seek refuge, education, and employment in the liberal world order they oppose.

As political ties with the west erode it will not be long before economic and cultural ties follow suit. It is questionable whether Lebanon can thrive culturally or economically as its cements its alliance with illiberal anti-Western regional powers. Microeconomics will be no remedy for a macroeconomic dissociation. Le Grand Liban could have been another Cyprus.

La Belle Époque may have been over decades ago but it officially died in 2018.

Basem Shabb is a former member of the Lebanese parliament