Will June 6, 2020 become the dark day that marks the slow descent of plural and tolerant Lebanon into oblivion? Like in many other moments of sectarian rage where hearts are clouded by resentment and obscured by hatred, and where fanatical hordes indulge in political and moral turpitude and unworthy demands, religious fanaticism once again weighs heavily on Lebanon's already bruised body.
To measure the depth of the abyss in which Lebanon is sinking, we must step back from any cool-headed political analysis. How can we explain that in a country struggling to establish the rule of law, national integration and civic fraternity, gangs of young fanatics are hurling insults deliberately attacking Aïcha, "the mother of believers", while others are attacking Caliph Ali, his family and his daughter in return? And what about the “bazar vigilantes” who have been raiding urban neighborhoods to provoke their Christian inhabitants?
Of course, one is perplexed by these nauseating outbursts and provocative insults, which bear no relationship whatsoever with the problems and issues at hand; unless if, in the minds of these troublemakers, these acts are supposed to be part of a national debate! Most notably, one remains stunned and dismayed by this display of primitive violence. Like a cluster of ominous clouds carrying sectarian storms, these outbursts and insults seem to herald the return of a Medieval mentality to a country often described as an exemplar for co-existence.
Lebanon could previously boast of having preserved some inklings of modernity despite the religious regression that hit a region which had to face authoritarian headwinds and several ideological waves. With its intellectual, scientific and artistic elites, Lebanon had projected to the Arab world an image far removed from the pervasive obscurantism all around it. At least such was the prevailing wisdom. Now however, a wave of blasphemy driven by a " street theology" (or perhaps malodorous alleyways) has replaced arguments with slogans. Hopes had been raised earlier by the revolutionary breath of fresh air with demands for justice, equality, citizenship and democracy; how can we now continue to long for a civil state when part of the population is inclined to replay scenes from a quarrel dating back almost fifteen centuries?
For voices to arise from the worst memories calling for for sectarian attacks, even murders, in a country of culture and universities (including some of the most prestigious in the Middle East), causes one to wonder whether the “revolution” was after all an illusion. What has happened for such a social rift to open and for such insanity and ineptitude to be unleashed leaving only anxiety and disgust in their wake?
A tactical retreat
Like many other uprisings that aim for change, the Lebanese "hirak" movement is evolving on a path that has only just begun. The power of the social protest was clearly demonstrated which the fall of the Hariri government, a major setback for a class of professional sectarian politicians. The significance of this political victory with its undeniable symbolism is that it shows that games of entrenched interests and opportunistic alliances can be defeated. A discredited political class whose leading representatives, including most recently, the Secretary general of Hezbollah, are now seen as a cast of “rejects”.
In its first phase, the revolution was eminently ethical, a cry from the heart of the Lebanese collective psyche as people became aware of the extent of the national tragedy and of the criminal rapacity of those responsible for their fate. Almost ashamed but not entirely convinced of their own guilt, the rejected politicians pleaded extenuating circumstances; but they were ultimately incapable of facing popular disapproval and started to fade away. They didn’t disappear however, most of them melting into the anonymity of the surrounding desolation and borrowing the most cynical tones of circumstantial contrition, protesting their good faith and blaming those who put obstacles in their way. They came forward dressed, as the poet said, in "candid probity and white linen". But that was all an illusion! Their retreat was merely tactical and everybody knew it. That retreat was facilitated later by the unexpected windfall provided by the pandemic, an almost divine windfall one might say, had it not been accompanied by illness, death and economic desolation. By calling for the formation of a government of experts, people thought they were paving the way for a political transition. However, as expected, this attempt was ill-fated. And awareness of its flaws came too late. Under the cover of technocrats and experts, the formation of the government mirrored fully the existing balance of political power. How could it not be so in a country that has become the advanced front for the Iranian military strategy? The “government of experts” is a mere cover that allows politicians to protect their interests and impede the decision-making process. A technocrat is clearly not by vocation a politician; his function is to advise not command. His legitimacy comes from knowledge not power. Since he cannot rely on the support of voters, he can only count on his character, if any, in order to impose a decision. In such exceptional circumstances, a technocrat would have implemented policies aimed at national recovery and would have avoided the trap of a public spectacle whereby saying something is equated to doing it. Thus, technocrats have served the interests of traditional politicians and have allowed them to escape from their responsibilities and consolidate their power. What a strange role reversal! Obviously, it is difficult for women and men ministers to lead a country where the executive authority resides outside the government. That said, no one belittles the efforts that honest and competent ministers have made in an attempt to prevent the disaster, nor the selfless sacrifices they have made for the public good. It remains the case however that expertise does not equate to policy and a group of technocrats doesn’t guarantee government.
The time has now come to act. No one expected immediate reforms but the short-term initiative measures urgently needed were not undertaken despite the determination of the Prime Minister. Subsequently, the virus lockdown forced the Lebanese "hirak" movement to halt its courageous initiatives. Meanwhile the lack of coordination among those leading the protest movement, which was evident on June 6 compounded the lethal inertia of the government and public authorities. Unless positive steps are implemented, how is it possible not to expect the collapse of a society that will then be left to fend for itself?
Loathing at the core of a revolution
It is in this context that the seriousness of the June 6 imprecations comes to light. The exchange of insults was shameful, violent and unworthy, reflecting not the discontent and frustration but a response to the impasse orchestrated by those threatened to be swept away by the wind of rebellion. There is nothing new in that, some might say, the civil war and even the October 17 uprising came with verbal profanities too. But, the war is behind us, unless some are working for its return. As for the verbal outbursts of the October demonstrations, they were reportedly signs of revolutionary health and proportional to the frustration level. All politicians were targeted, some more than others and some in a more vulgar way. Everyone still remembers how the "President son-in-law" was considered the very symbol of the hated political class and whose sung insult served as one of the slogans for the revolution.
Ad hominem insults should have no place in a democracy or in any self-respecting political regime; especially when these verbal attacks target the honor of the mother of a politician who cannot be responsible for the actions of her son. Unfortunately, the history of revolutions teaches us - this is by no means an excuse but an observation - that individual men and women have been the target of popular vengeance. Whether it was Marie-Antoinette or Rasputin, one had to go after the apparent front lines of power. In the case of the "son-in-law", the political insult was not aimed as much at the man himself as at what he represented, namely an entire political class used to unethical dealing, corruption and lies. Rightly or wrongly, the man summed it all up in his persona. For the demonstrators, he represented the quintessence of the political class, in short, the epitome of loathing at the core revolution.
But how can attacks against religious symbols and characters belonging to the holy history of religions be explained? Surely, this is a change in tone, one that is highly significant. While national unity was possible around democratic and social demands and the advancement of citizens' rights, now the effort to destroy and disunite has borrowed from the vocabulary of sacrilege to launch its meanest attacks. No one should be fooled by this practice of symbolic transfer from one domain to another. It is obvious that insulting religion in this context has the force of a cannonball. Those who have used it know that very well. They know that religions in Lebanon are the ultimate strongholds of identity. When targeted, religious identities easily give precedence to the god of war over the god of commandments; it is not religion that kills, it is the counterfeiters and the forgers who deal in God’s name who are the real criminals.
Manipulation of minds and hearts
Are there elements of civil war underlying the recent invocation of religious symbols? There is no doubt about that. The feeling of losing ground, the fear that obedience can be eroded when people are faced with hunger and a dark looming future, can transform the most secular politician into an angry zealot defending the offended deity. We knew that warlords are heartless and merciless. Their passed actions demonstrated that. We knew that they also are looters of public assets, devoid of any conscience or restraint. What we did not know was that they are without a soul and without that piece of humanity which drives all the rest of us towards solidarity, tolerance and respect for all beliefs including religious ones. This enables them to manipulate minds and hearts repeatedly in order to serve their own purposes.
It is impossible to oppose a religious sedition by resorting to reproach and repression. The best way forward would be to establish a special judicial tribunal in order to indict all those responsible for one of the most spectacular state collapses of all time, while preventing them from continuing to divert the attention of Lebanese citizens away from their crimes.
Lebanon has collapsed due to looting of public resources and wealth by its political leaders. States generally collapse as a result of war, occupation or military defeat. Other countries are weakened due to environmental disasters, economic crises or poor political choices. Although Lebanon's collapse shares many characteristics with that of other countries in payment default such as Greece and Argentina, the main reason for its collapse is rooted in the organized looting of public assets by a ruling “élite”. The smuggling at border posts, custom evasion and cronyism exacerbated this outcome. The root cause of this tragedy is clear, the remedy too. The country cannot recover without first getting rid of those who caused the disaster. The real dilemma is that we still don't know how to get rid of them before they take Lebanon away from us.
(This text was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 13th of June)
Will June 6, 2020 become the dark day that marks the slow descent of plural and tolerant Lebanon into oblivion? Like in many other moments of sectarian rage where hearts are clouded by resentment and obscured by hatred, and where fanatical hordes indulge in political and moral turpitude and unworthy demands, religious fanaticism once again weighs heavily on Lebanon's already bruised...