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Egyptian lessons for Lebanon 07/31/2013

Lebanon is a country very different from Egypt whether by its size, its population or its democratic traditions. It is very small compared to Egypt, whether by its surface area or a population less than one tenth that of Egypt. Lebanon’s population comprises about eighteen different religious confessions with some equilibrium between Christians and Moslems as well as between Sunnis and Shiites within its Moslem population. Egypt has a very dominant majority of Sunni Moslems with a significant but much smaller Coptic Christian segment. Lebanon has been known as the first democracy in the Middle East for more than seventy years. Egypt had a monarchy which was replaced by military rule or dictatorships emerging from the military until a little more than one year ago, when the so called “Arab Spring” culminated into democratic elections. 

Therefore, with the above differences in mind, one would wonder what lesson Lebanon can learn from the recent events in Egypt. In a globalized and digitized world, Lebanon like Egypt being a member of the Arab community, which is now confronting turmoil and difficult change, should carefully watch the recent evolution of events in Egypt and examine its conscience. The removal of President Morsi and his Moslem Brotherhood from power and the resulting street violence in Cairo and other cities, should serve as a reminder to all Lebanese groups or parties, that they should avoid seeking any dominance or abusing any power they may have over their competitors or adversaries. 

Since Lebanon achieved its independence in the early forties, its democracy was based on a covenant whereby the high elected positions in its power structure were divided amongst its major communities. Lebanon’s diversity was seen by most as a source of strength and the agreed upon division of power was intended to be a formula for stability and harmony. The system did work well for good stretches of time, but was jolted by several stretches of violence and instability. The three most serious such episodes (1958, 1975-1990, 2008) were all believed to be the result of outside interferences and the conscious or subconscious desire of one group or the other to grab more power. The 75-90 civil war, or war of others on Lebanese soil, resulted in 15 years of pain and suffering as well as major exodus of youth and intelligentsia. It still ended by a political settlement (the Taef Accord) sponsored by Arab and Western friends. None of Lebanon’s major communities could dominate or eliminate another. 

Lebanon’s population has quadrupled since independence and its demography has significantly changed. Yet the basic tenants of the 1943 covenant have somewhat survived. Though the confessional divisions and distribution of power are unattractive, Lebanon has not been able to progress safely or satisfactorily towards a genuine secular democracy, despite aspirations and promises of occasional leaders. This may be not necessarily a pure responsibility or failure of the Lebanese society. It is significantly contributed to by its geographic and cultural neighborhood. When Iraq was freed of the totalitarian control of dictatorship, it gradually evolved towards somewhat similar division of power as Lebanon, whereby: the Prime Minister is Shiite, The President is Kurd and the Speaker of Parliament is Sunni Arab. Syria which was supposed to be the most secular of all Arab countries, is now not just facing some division of power similar to Lebanon or Iraq, but may be at risk of fragmentation, largely due to the perceived dominance of its government by a minority sector of its population. In view of outside influences and interferences, it is impossible to predict reliably the duration of the ongoing strife and the type of outcome that can be expected. 

Despite an official position of the Mikati government to “distance Lebanon” voluntarily from the Syrian divisions and a noninterference pact referred to as the “Baabda Declaration” the Syrian events now constitute a serious threat to Lebanon’s stability and survival. Analysts now feel that intentionally or subconsciously, the majority of the Shiite community incited and supported by Iran and the Sunni community with the blessing of Saudi Arabia seem to be struggling for a better share of power, in anticipation of the Syrian outcome. The Christians who should have been the conciliators and diplomats working energetically to bridge the differences between their Sunni and Shiite brothers are unfortunately divided and supporting one side or the other. The recent public admission of Hezbollah that its forces are openly fighting inside Syria on the side of the Assad regime has now exacerbated the tension between the March8 and March14 forces in general and the Lebanese Sunnis and Shiites in particular. 

The sad consequences for Lebanon is the continuous decay of its constitutional institutions and gradual worsening of its security situation, with armed conflicts erupting and spreading from one location to another. More than three months after the resignation of the Mikati government and the nearly unanimous nomination of Tammam Salam to form the new government, no new cabinet could be agreed upon due to the depth of the current divisions in the country. Outside Lebanon the concerned expatriates tend to speak more freely than inside Lebanon. Supporters of March 14 now feel that Hezbollah after using its arms against fellow Lebanese in May 2008 and now fighting openly in Syria against predominantly Sunni rebel forces, has lost its privileges to freely carry arms as resistance against Israel. They therefore insist that in order for Hezbollah to participate in the new government, it should at least officially withdraw its forces from Syria, in compliance with the “Baabda Declaration”. Supporters of March 8 fight back by alleging that the Mustakbal leaders are arming and financing the opposition forces in Syria as well as some Sunni extremists in Lebanon, of whom a good number cross the border to fight in Syria. Each side accuses the other of waiting for its allies in Syria to win so that they can dominate the politics in Lebanon. 

The truth of the matter is that the situation in Syria is too complex and despite the significant role that Hezbollah is playing in the fighting, the final outcome will not be dependent or determined by any of the Lebanese players. Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the United States, Russia, the European Union and China will be much more important determinants. The final outcome may most probably be some form of political solution agreed upon by the bigger players. But at this time nobody is able to predict for how long the Syrian civil war will continue. The lesson for Lebanon from current Egyptian events and from past Lebanese history is that no group or political line should seek dominance. The results are always bad for all, but worst for those seeking dominance, even after winning democratic elections. In Lebanon, elections had to be postponed due to the shaky security and perceived instability. Nevertheless a major leader within March 14 recently stated that millions of Lebanese feel prisoners of Hezbollah’s dominant policies. It is not clear if or how such concern can be convincingly documented or contested. However Hezbollah does have intelligent and powerful leaders as well as important alliances. Until now they have skillfully and successfully participated in the democratic process. This may explain why the European Union added their military wing to the terrorism listings, theoretically leaving alone the political wing, despite the fact that in reality it may not be possible to divide Hezbollah into two wings. It should therefore be reasonable to assume that Hezbollah’s leaders would not like to be perceived as domineering in Lebanon and do not want to risk further isolation. On the other hand they can not capitulate and allow a perception of weakness following their past military successes against Israel and their current contributions on the Syrian battlefields. 

The question is therefore can Lebanon safely survive waiting for the undetermined outcome of the Syrian crisis? Everybody seems to agree that Lebanon cannot afford to passively watch continued decay of its institutions and deterioration of its security. The best and may be the only pathway to a reasonable solution is a well prepared and skillfully executed dialogue. The Lebanese President who has constantly demonstrated his independence and has now acquired important experience in directing dialogue should have no problem in starting the process without delay. We are confident he will find impressive support from the expatriate community, which can present new ideas and will be ready to perform some facilitating leg work if he calls on them or just approve their desire to help. Lebanese politicians should temporarily put aside their short term interests and give priority to patriotism, conscience and even sacrifice, in order to protect Lebanon during these very difficult and dangerous times.


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