"Lebanon's tragedy is political sectarianism"

With no end to Lebanon's crisis of statehood in sight, Qantara.de met up with leading Lebanese thinker and theologian Martin Accad to discuss the country's current difficulties and explore ongoing efforts to find a way out of the morass. Interview by Erik Siegl

By Erik Siegl

The immediate causes of Lebanon's currently dire situation are corruption and a state "living beyond its means". Yet both these factors are found in many other countries. Why, then, has Lebanon fallen so far?

Martin Accad: Corruption and living "above beyond one's means" are aspects that are closely linked to our political system. Lebanon's tragedy – and the source of all its problems – is political sectarianism. "Objective sectarianism", on the other hand, with Lebanon boasting 18 sectarian groups in total, is something quite different. Such identities may hinder the emergence of a common national identity, but they are not themselves the cause of our current crisis.

"Political sectarianism" stems from the political system established after the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990, with corruption, fraud and embezzlement justified by or cloaked in collective interest. This corruption derives its existence and structures from the country's many religious divisions and sects.

Another root cause of the current crisis is that we as a nation have failed to address our past. Following 15 years of civil war, the leaders of sectarian militias who fought against each other were transformed into Lebanon's new political leadership. In 1991 the warlords came together and agreed to a general amnesty, forgiving each other their war crimes with the expressed intention of becoming untouchable.

As a result, we slipped into 30 years of national amnesia, which manifests in an overriding culture of impunity. The country's bureaucracy, firmly in the hands of former militia members, each serving his own sectarian ends, has created a situation that is systemic.

One year and a half ago, more than 200 people were killed, and 6.500 others injured, in the #BeirutExplosion that took place here in the port. Meanwhile, political leaders continue to obstruct the probe. #Lebanon pic.twitter.com/rfiDGrsJxa

— Matthieu Karam (@MatthieuKaram) February 4, 2022


Is it fair to say that sectarianism has been historically present in Lebanese politics from the outset – that it is inherent to the country's political reality?

Accad: Insofar as the notion of nations in this part of world is not older than a hundred years and is thus fairly new, I agree. The proto-state of Lebanon was established after the First World War under the French protectorate. We can also argue that the underlying cause of the Lebanese civil war was related to finding the right formula for these diverse communities to be able to live together and be equally represented. No properly functioning model had achieved this previously. The Maronite Christians dominated Lebanon from 1943 until the onset of civil war, which was a vicious expression of the dissatisfaction of others with their domination.

The 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the civil war redistributed power, with Sunni representation taking the lead in the person of prime minister Rafik Hariri. His era is synonymous with the controversial post-war reconstruction of downtown Beirut and a popular culture of entertainment and affluence. This remained consistently at odds, however, with the "culture of resistance" fostered by Hezbollah – fighting the Israeli occupation, the U.S. and Western dominance. These two cultures have continued to co-exist in constant tension with each other. Arguably, the assassination of prime minister Hariri in 2005 tipped the balance in favour of Hezbollah.

What about the mass protests against the ruling classes that began in October 2019: were they another milestone?

Accad: The October 17 uprising marked the dawn of a new era. It calls itself "revolution" and "movement of change" (thawrat). Its main tenet is the anti-sectarian desire for a civil state that ensures equal opportunities for everybody. Unfortunately, the current crisis is making it difficult for the protesters to drive their message home. Meanwhile, Lebanon's kleptocratic elite is fearful that a new unpredictable element will enter the political arena and disrupt its wheeling and dealing.

Lebanese protesters demonstrate against corruption and the political status quo in October 2019 (photo: picture-alliance/Zuma Press)
The dawn of a new era: despite everything that has happened since, the October 17 uprising in 2019 was a milestone in Lebanese history. The main tenet of the "movement of change" – 'thawrat' in Arabic – is an anti-sectarian desire for a civil state that ensures equal opportunities for everybody. After all, despite regular elections, Lebanon is not a democracy, but a kleptocracy, ruled by a handful of crooks

France, EU, the United States and by extension, the International Monetary Fund, have all actively engaged with Lebanon in an attempt to find a way out of the crisis. Why do you think these initiatives have so far failed?

Accad: Let's assume France and the U.S. are really trying to find a solution to the Lebanese crisis. If so, it is possible that President Macron and other stakeholders have simply concluded the "movement of change" is not a viable partner. They may regard it as too divided or too decentralised – and thus unable to lead the country as a real alternative to the existing or "old" political parties. As a result, the West continues to strike deals in a spirit of pragmatism with the existing elites, despite its low opinion of them.

The more cynical observer would likely argue that rescuing Lebanon from the current crisis or its interests long-term are not a top priority for either France or the United States. The West favours other geopolitical goals, such as securing the offshore drilling concessions for oil and gas. After all, it has done little to help combat the political corruption in Lebanon that has become so endemic in recent decades. How did the state obtain so many loans and grants from international partners with the minimum of oversight and accountability? How come funds were either spent ineffectively or remain untraceable? Is the West not complicit?

Could the upcoming elections prove an opportunity for change? If not, why not?

Accad: Despite regular elections, Lebanon is not a democracy. The state is a kleptocracy, ruled by a handful of crooks, an extension of the civil war era. Six or seven main political leaders and their parties emerged from the Lebanese civil war as power-brokers. As a society, we closed our eyes to the status quo and accepted the general amnesty for crimes past, without learning any lessons from them. The Syrian occupation during those years also presented an added burden, which continues today.

"Leaders of change" report produced by Martin Accad's Action Research Associates (source: Action Research Associates)
No magic solution to Lebanon's problems: "The 'movement of change' rejects the use of violence to achieve its agenda. What we are hoping for is gradual infiltration of the 'cartel system'," says Martin Accad, founder of Action Research Associates. "We need more transparency, accountability and an independent judiciary. This is what our friends in Europe and the rest of the world should be pushing for"

Your project – "Leaders of change" – brings leading figures of the protest movement and civil society stakeholders together. What do you aim to achieve?

Accad: Our research company Action Research Associates was set up with two primary objectives. Firstly, to understand the nature of the October 17 movement and to establish what its motivations, objectives and solutions are. This is key, since there has been much fragmentation within its ranks, with some members refusing representation and the need for structuring.

Following interviews with October 17 activists and independent political actors not directly linked to the current regime, we formed thematic focus groups with our interviewees to assess the data collected together. Five consensual recommendations emerged that will likely play a major role in framing and directing thought when planning how to effect the desired political change. These were laid out in an initial report, which can be read here in English.

Working groups made up of activists and independent political actors have continued to discuss each of the five recommendations, elaborating on them in more practical terms. This has produced a set of talking points and several practical initiatives aimed at stimulating public discourse and spreading the "movement of change" message.

As organisers, we harbour no political ambitions. Part of our success is being able to win the trust of those participating, precisely because we are neutral and have no hidden agenda. We aim to be the glue that holds this multi-faceted movement together.

Since, as you say, many of Lebanon's current problems stem from a reluctance to address the past, the second declared objective of your initiative is to help the Lebanese people process their history. How do you go about that?

Accad: Our aim long-term is to approach Lebanese history from a multi-narrative perspective. What the 1989 Taif peace agreement stipulated was that we as society needed to agree on a unified history book. Since then, there have been many failed attempts: our children still stop studying Lebanese history at 1943, because we simply cannot agree on one common interpretation of past events. We believe the unified history approach is wrong. History should be studied for sake of developing civic values such as empathy, active listening and the ability to accept different perspectives and realities. I would like to see Lebanese children study history as an end in itself, i.e. as a means to develop these skills. We would then be able to accept that our history is one of multiple narratives. This would also help address the root of Lebanon's current problems.

Despite having more or less dropped out of the news, the war in Syria remains unresolved. Refugee returns are very low despite the crisis in Lebanon. Why is that?

Accad: For years now, Syria has been a playground for regional power politics and enmities. Lebanon is sandwiched between Israel, the Palestinian territories and Syria and has been deeply involved in the war, especially through Hezbollah. Closely allied to Iran and the Syrian regime, this Shia militia has extended and even changed the course of the conflict. Despite the current situation in Lebanon, Syrian refugees feel safer staying put than returning to their home country.

The economies of both states are also closely intertwined. As long as the price of fuel was subsidised in Lebanon, trafficking to Syria was encouraged, despite the damage this inflicted on the Lebanese economy. The banking crisis in Lebanon also froze the accounts of many Syrians.

We can of course re-visit history: Syria has never recognised the legitimacy of an independent Lebanon or its borders. During the civil war (1975-1990), Syria actively propped up different warring parties under its tutelage. The current system of corruption was established and mentored during this Syrian dominance and partial occupation. Unfortunately Lebanon failed to liberate itself effectively following Syria's withdrawal in 2005 and things got even worse.


At the same time, I am against a view that would ascribe too much responsibility for Lebanon's current ills to the Syrian war or even assign guilt to Syrian refugees. Even before 2011, we did not have electricity 24/7, solid infrastructure, a viable economy, or true democracy. The Syrian war may have played a minor role in exacerbating our crisis, but it was an accident waiting to happen long before the unrest broke out in Syria.

Is there anything you would like to add so readers around the world can better understand the current crisis?

Accad: Do not make the mistake of thinking that our upcoming elections are the magic solution. The "movement of change" rejects the use of violence to achieve its agenda. What we are hoping for is gradual infiltration of the "cartel system". We need more transparency, accountability and an independent judiciary. This is what our friends in Europe and the rest of the world should be pushing for.

Interview conducted by Erik Siegl

© Qantara.de 2022

Martin Accad holds a DPhil from the University of Oxford, UK. He is chief academic officer at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Mansourieh, Lebanon and founding director of its Institute of Middle East Studies. He is also associate professor of Islamic Studies at ABTS and affiliate associate professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California, USA.


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