On the surface, it felt like so many rallies I have covered in Lebanon. Young people, hungry for change, fighting the powers that be, yelling over a megaphone trying to push back police lines, to make a statement, to be heard.
But this wasn’t a battle against the system of tribal/nepotistic Lebanese politics, it was a rally for one of its chief players: retired Army general Michel Aoun, who fought one of the bloodiest battles in the Lebanese civil war during the late 1980s, leaving thousands killed. At the war’s end, he and his rival Samir Geagea were banished from politics–Aoun was sent into exile, Geagea was sent to prison. But now some 20 years later, both are back in the game and their supporters are just as fervent. Well, sort of.
At today’s rally in front of the prime minister’s offices, the constant chant was: “God, Lebanon, Aoun and that’s it!” It’s a spin on the anthem of authoritarianism, the type of personality worship that pervades our political culture. From Syria to Egypt, Muslim or Christian, Sunni or Shia the slogan is deployed, switching out the names of course, to lavish praise, not on a political statement or movement in general but a specific leader. A specific person who is hailed as being the answer to all problems. That was essentially what was being said today. Just elect Aoun as president and the country will be back on track. (Lebanon has been without a president for over a year due to political deadlock.) And although Aoun and Geagea do not come from the powerful feudal families that have traditionally ruled Lebanon, they have increasingly adopted their same nepotistic tactics. One of the most powerful members of Aoun’s political coalition is his son-in-law, minister Gebran Bassil. Geagea’s wife, Sethrida Geagea is now a member of parliament, representing his party.
Crowd goes wild as MP @Gebran_Bassil arrives with body guards pic.twitter.com/QPhpiipuSi
— Habib Battah (@habib_b) July 9, 2015
So why do people partake in such rallies, such cult worship of an aging politician or political dynasty which may seem particularly medieval to many?
“He is very Lebanese,” one women in her 50s told me as she waved a flag with the General’s insignia on trademark orange. “He doesn’t stay silent in the face of wrongdoing.”
Others literally wore their views on their shirts. This one says “Aoun the resistor”:
And “General, General, total liberation”
“Aoun is the dignity of the people”:
“We only kneel before God”
The last reference seems to be related to the idea that Aounists are being somehow marginalized by the government, due to a failure to elect a president. This plays into the larger discourse of “Christian rights” that has become a central rallying call of the party. The idea is that Lebanese Christians have been robbed of their political rights, as Muslim parties such as Hezbollah and the Hariri dynasty have become increasingly prominent in the last couple of decades. This is partly true, but it is also a somewhat natural evolution due to a decreasing Christian population as well as the long fall of the French colonial system that conveniently gave huge powers to elite Lebanese Christian politicians during the founding of Lebanon, while Muslims and particularly Shia, were largely disenfranchised during the period. But as you can imagine, a critical read on Lebanese history is very unpopular with those who stand the most to lose from it.
One woman even brought along her Ethiopian housekeeper, who wore a Virgin Mary baseball cap. “She wanted to come to protect the Christians,” her employer told me with a huge smile. The girl nodded shyly.
Putting aside the shameful Kafala system for a moment–in the broader sense, what seems to be at stake here is identity politics, cultural history and the worldview to which we are born into, contributing to what and who we blame for our problems. In Lebanon, all this is complicated by the violence of war. Which side killed our relatives, which side protected us? Many of those who rallied today may have had fathers or cousins who fought under Aoun during those dark war years. Some may still look to his leadership or that of others for patronage, a little bureaucratic help here and there, to get your kids into school, help find a job or pay for health care, what we call “wasta.”
These are not easy issues to deal with– particularly when faced with institutions and public services gutted by civil war– and they will probably be with us for years to come. For example, the United States civil war ended over 150 years ago, yet as the recent confederate flag controversy indicates, Americans are still grappling with the social and economic ruptures of that battle.
A truth and reconciliation process is desperately needed in Lebanon. Perhaps one day we can worry about which leader is best suited to do the job and give little credence to his feudal or religious pedigree and our visceral fears or assurances that a certain politician “will protect us,” “our rights” because he is “one of us.” (Some in Lebanon are already fighting for that)
But in the meantime, it might also be helpful to realize that we are all human and want many of the same things on some level. We also need to be brave enough to accept each other’s deep-seated issues, no matter how ridiculous or misguided we think they are.
Of course violence was not absent–some people got injured while trying to nudge army lines and some army members may have gotten understandably frustrated:
But Red Cross medics were standing by to treat the wounded and no shots were fired. Perhaps that is some share of progress in itself.
Heck, the whole event lasted only a few hours, only around 300 people showed up and it was so mildly dangerous, I even spotted a couple of hipsters walking by with rolled up shorts and endless summer footwear:
Others were busy taking selfies:
All in all, it seemed a lot more of a docile situation than some media outlets–opposed to Aoun–made it out to be. Indeed local media’s obsession with the old political class, dramatizing every speech while spending little time investigating the country’s actual myriad of problems, is also a major part of the postwar challenges we face. But that’s the subject of another post.
Correction: An earlier version of this post noted that Gebran Bassil was Aoun’s nephew, when he is actually his son-in-law. Aoun’s nephew, Alain Aoun is also a member of parliament and part of General Aoun’s political coalition.
Concerning Aoun’s supporters, they have the right to show up and this can’tt justify any harsh response from the army. Besides, perhaps the problem is not thay people still believe that Michel Aoun is the solution, or that Geagea or Mikati or any ‘old-class-warlord-politician’ is, but that the people that could represent an alternative are not enough showed by the media (especially Tele-Liban, which we pay for its functioning) and that are more keen to get involved in NGOs..
Concerning lebanese history, the shia were indeed very poor prior to the civil war (they formed the core of the communist party before Hezbollah killed many communist Shias in the 80s), but they were not the only “deprived”… Many Christians and Sunnis and Druze were too. And if the Shia were, it was thanks to their feudal leaders. I recall the word of some Shia MP before the war, to whom someone asked why he didn’t make a project of school for the south, for his electors. He said that as long as his own children were in good schools, he didn’t feel concerned with building new schools for his region.
Also, you forgot mentioning that before taef, there were more Christian MP than Muslim (6 to 5 ratio) which was truly unacceptable. But today, even though the Christian’s share in the resident population is about 39% (not taking into account Lebanese Emigrants, which until today cannot even vote from the countries they live in), the Christians are not electing their own MPs(under Syrian rule, they truly elected only 19 out of 64, and today only 35) , not because only their share in the population declined, but also because the actual “découpage des circonscriptions”(I ignore what’s the English word) is very bad for the Christian’s representation. Regions that once were Christian or partly still elect Christian MPs, while their original inhabitants are in Greater Beirut or beyond. After the war, unfortunately, the big majority of the permanently displaced(even taking the Shia of Dahyeh into account) are Christians. They once were the majority in the Shouf, in Damour, in Dahyeh. They formed a very significant share of West Beirut’s population (Msaytbeh, Ras Beirut, Bashoura, Mazraa, Hamra, the Old City etc. etc.), of Tripoli’s population (33% is the percentage usually cited), of Saida’s population (the majority in Saida’s suburbs), of Baalbeck’s population, of Tyre’s etc. etc.
The ministry of the displaced is supposed to do justice to these people, and also to the displaced of the South.
And what about the 200000 non-lebanese, mostly Muslims, that became suddenly lebanese by the will of Rafik Hariri and the signature of Hraoui, while muslims already formed a majority in Lebanon? That reminds me of the decision of the Lebanese Government to naturalize 50000 Palestinian, mostly Christians but not only, in the 50’s, even though I don’t know all the reasons behind that one.
Yes the Christian’s rights have been taken away. Like anyone else perhaps, but because they lost the war, more of their rights than that of the other communities were taken.
Thanks for the comment Rayane. You bring up an important point about how election districts are drawn, which is an opaque and confusing process for a lot of people.It would be great if someone could help map that out to get a better understanding of who draws those lines, how they are drawn and what interests (political or financial) lie behind that. The displacement of the war also brings up voting issues with respect to municipal elections, as many are not voting locally in the regions and neighborhoods they have resettled in. However these are problems that affect the whole country, not just Christians and I think we have to be careful not to generalize with categories like “the Christian vote” or “the Muslims” as the political fabric is very diverse. Did Christians have more rights? It depends on which Christians. As you note, many were poor and forced to emigrate abroad, just like other Lebanese Muslim communities. This is why I noted in the post that Lebanon was founded on deals made with “elite Christians.” So class can be just as important if not more important of an indicator than religion or clan when looking at who has power in Lebanon today and who doesn’t. But in general, it would seem that Christians are also often better off financially than a lot of other communities and may have broader purchasing power. So the idea of who won or lost in contemporary Lebanon cannot be reduced to religion alone. From my experience dealing with developers and multi-million dollar projects, the elite classes and financial powers are actually quite diverse. Finally what is a right in this context? Should any community have more rights than others for any pseudo-historical reason? I don’t think so, but again reconciling that reality is yet another massive postwar challenge
I agree with you when you write that Lebanon’s contemporary problems are also related to differences of life conditions and purchasing power. It would not be honest to consider they are only related to differences between sectarian categories of population. Even though I have no reliable statistics to say so, or even no statistics at all, perhaps the Christian in general do have better life conditions than Lebanese Muslims. This is not what truly matters if we try to decide whether the Christians’ political rights have been taken from them or not (unless we try to think about the impact of a wealth on education and how education – or educations – could allow individuals to truly be able to use their political rights or not ). Are Lebanese Christians really represented in the Parliament they elect, along with their Muslim fellows?
When bluntly asking this question, another question appears: can a Muslim man represent Christians, or the opposite (which is more often the case)? He obviously can. Therefore the Christian’s political rights problem is that of the electoral districts, and of the displaced, and of the emigrants’s access to nationality and vote. The rearrangements of electoral districts or gerrymandering, the powers that obliterate the ministry of the displaced’s activity, all the actions that are behind this situation are the consequence of the Christians’ defeat in 1990 (or the defeat of the Christian militiamen – excepted for those who were already with the Syrians, which confiscated their fellow Christians’ political rights) against the Syrian-led forces, which later became the protectors of Hariri’s actions, and Berri’s, which de facto confiscated the power, along with some people of the Christian political elite (Murr, Hraoui, Pakradouni etc.), by paying Anjar’s occupant a few prostrations per week.
But mainstream Christians were deprived at that time from their political rights, falling with the Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces. They lost their representation, which was not the case of the Muslims, which were not touched by the defeat. So there is indeed a problem of representation I believe.
Speaking of a Christian problem is perhaps generalizing it, as Christians do not form a whole, but are divided in numerous sects, and the problem does not concern Christians of all regions. But there is anyways a problem of representation.
The Christians ask for more rights because they are concerned by the emigrants’ vote’s problem, and the emigrants’ access to nationality, and the problem of the displaced. I don’t believe it is a pseudo-historical right they ask for, considering that because they helped the founding of Lebanon or once formed a majority that their rights should never change, and also because Lebanon is founded on the parity between Christians and Muslims. It is very legitimate to ask for the rights of the emigrants (which some Christians identify their cause to because the majority of them are Christians), and the stopping of gerrymandering, and a true action for the displaced. The displaced were in majority Christians. It is also very legitimate to strive for the reintegration in the system of every Lebanese who was compelled by circumstances to flee the country.
The quest for parity is very interesting itself, because it is considered as a fundamental element of Lebanon, even though it never truly existed. I believe it would not be that important if people from different sects would vote for the same parties.
Besides, concerning the French Mandate, it is obvious that French privileged Christians in the political institutions they created, such as the Parliament. They gave way more MPs to the Christians than to the Muslims, and were firmly opposed to seeing a Muslim being elected president for instance. But let’s not forget that at that time, the Christians didn’t have any real power, just like the Muslims. Under the French rule, the true leader of Lebanon was the Haut-Commissaire. Many, many times the Constitution was suspended just because the French felt like it. Even Maronites had not that much powers. In the history of the relations between French and Maronites, the French Mandate was the worse period, because both of them wanted to be number one in Lebanon (just like Rafik Hariri and the Syrian government). So of course the system that the French established and that still ran Lebanon after 1943 cherished Christians (or Maronites), but yet, excepted for the ratio of Muslim MPs to Christian ones, practically the Maronite President’s rights were almost equal to the Sunni Prime Minister’s. Reforming the system was essential, but it became a revenge of the Muslims on the Christians that had more rights than them in the past decades.
The cause of the Christian’s rights should not be considered as illegitimate because some Christian leaders made it a sectarian one. It should be that of all Lebanese, along with the cause of the rights of any Lebanese.
I think the cause of all Lebanese should be human rights–not Christian rights– and transparent accountable government for all, no matter what their religion or class. Let’s start talking about a better future for everyone not just one group or (imagined) community. Every group has a historical authenticity narrative : Shia, Maronites, even Lebanese Jews can claim 1,000 years history in Lebanon, which is more than a lot the others. I think Lebanon’s only hope is if we start embracing each other and stop trying to claim who was here first and deserves more. In the end, we all need to share the same space.
Mr Battah, I am sorry you misunderstood my opinion, perhaps you didn’t read well, because I fully agree with everything you just wrote in that last comment. It is not contradictory with what I myself wrote.
Perhaps some of my sentences were badly written. I am not with what you called “pseudo-historical rights” (based on historical authenticity narratives, as you said). Maybe I did not write well this sentence: “I don’t believe it is a pseudo-historical right they ask for, considering that because they helped the founding of Lebanon or once formed a majority that their rights should never change, and also because Lebanon is founded on the parity between Christians and Muslims.” I should have precised more clearly that I do not support that argument.
Note that if I did, all my long comment would seriously lack coherence.
If suddenly the sectarian-based political system that is in place disappeard, then everyone would be forced to vote for the best candidate to represent them. It may seem like a pipe dream, but the solution is really that simple.