Lebanon is a unique Middle Eastern country home to various religious groups. In the last decade, it saw disappointing economic development. Civil unrest is not uncommon. Public outburst can lead to severe clashes between security forces and civilians. While media freedoms are generally present, the state oppression of protestors is common. Anti-immigration feelings are high after years of refugees arriving from bordering Arab states. Various political parties use this discontent to fuel populism. In a country with deep divides and fault lines, populism is the norm.
Lebanon’s landmass has attracted various cultures and religions, from the Mediterranean, North Africa, and Arab regions. Its position has given it a distinct character and made its population highly diverse. Historically, it has roots in the Phoenician civilization and later experienced colonization by Romans and Arabs. For the last part of its pre-modern history, Lebanon was ruled by the Ottoman Empire and later the French. The country is not only home to various factions of the Abrahamic faiths, but has its own religious variant, the Druze.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the League of Nations handed control of the country to France. The question of identity remains a huge one. Its prized location and maritime connections made it a pivotal place during the Second World War (WWII). Britain feared German control of Syria and Lebanon and thus sent its forces to the region. In 1943, Lebanon was granted independence.
The early history of the independent country, before the outbreak of civil war, marks a unique period. Acknowledging its diversity, a confessionalist government allowed for the country to retain equity. Each community had almost equal representation and power in the government through this system. The system seemed to work, at least for a while. Lebanon developed into a dynamic economy. Unlike many other Arab states, it did not rely on oil. Rather, its services sector and skilled labour were the engine of economic growth. At its peak, Beirut, the capital, was called the Paris of the Middle East. These developments undoubtably had a positive impact on the overall human development of the region. Lebanon was more developed than most other Arab nations at the time. At this early stage, nationalism did not take the form of populism, as the heterogeneity of the society was widely embraced and accommodated.
This period of brief prosperity was overshadowed by a war that lasted 15 years, between 1975 and 1990. The conflict displaced millions and killed thousands. The divisions of the civil war mean Lebanon is still prone to unrest. Combined with sluggish economic growth, this has created room for populism to take root. Political parties are divided on religious lines and use their own variant of populism.
The war itself was triggered due to the international geopolitical climate. The country was an example of a civil war being internationalized. The governmental system, designed under the Europeans before their departure, skewed the system in favour of the Maronites (the Lebanese Christian faction). The group’s population has decreased over time compared to the country’s Muslim population. The large influx of Muslims from Palestine was largely responsible for the demographical changes. During the Arab-Israel, war the country hosted some 110,000 Palestinian refugees. At the same time, pan-Arabist, left-wing groups were embraced by the Muslim Arab factions. At the opposite end, the Maronites more pro-western. This division make it hard for the groups to share a common vision for the country (Ghosn & Khoury, 2011).
With arms flowing into the country from various factions of international support, the “otherization” was militarized. Each group began claimed they’d been “victimized” by the “enemy.” Syria, Israeli, and Iran (after its revolution) contributed to the animosity and fighting. Key towns and ports were captured by groups who used these places to collect taxes for generating revenue. This kept the supply and trade of arms abundant throughout the war effort (Ghosn & Khoury, 2011). Religious militant groups took part in these fights, deepening the fissures. Amongst the many factions that still survive today as political parties, are the Shia-leaning Amal Party, the Iranian-linked and radicalized Hezbollah, and the Lebanese Forces (LF) who are a militant voice for nationalism based in conservative Christianity.
The war was inspired by the emergence of Arab Nationalism and Arab Socialism inspired by Nasserism. The conflict was also intensified by the Arab–Israeli conflict, the Iranian Revolution, Palestinian displacement, and Islamist fundamentalism. The civil war only came to a close when the Iran–Iraq War announced the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussain as a “great threat.” In 1990, owing to the growing instability in the Middle East, the Taif Agreement was drawn. The pact helped the process of democratization and reunification. This set into motion the formation of a new government after parliamentary elections were held in 1992.
While the war came to an end, the issues that launched it remained. The lack of decent economic growth, sectarianism, and the issue of a “civilizational” divide between Muslims and Christian are key flashpoints. These have repeatedly led to unrest in the country. Successive governments have ended up using force and brutality to curb dissent. Over the years, the “fear” of migration led Lebanon to issue a series of laws that deny Palestinians the right to be fully integrated into the country. As an example, Palestinians are barred from buying and owning property. Lebanese women married to foreign nationals cannot pass on their citizenship to their children (Human Rights Watch, 2020).
Lebanon’s dream of a “Greater Lebanon” has not been achieved because of its demographic realities. Rather, the country has been exploited by Christian and non-Christian factions. Sectarian leaders have also effectively used the concept of “the other” and “the pure” to construct various pockets of identities. “The other” is often a member of a different faith or a refugee who has come seeking shelter from war-torn areas.
Gebran Bassil, the current leader and son-in-law of former President Michel Aoun, founded the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). While FPM is a democratic party, its leadership has long espoused the ideology of Maronite Christianity. This has led leaders such as Bassil to not only lobby for support from the West, but to also use divisive populism. Bassil, like Aoun, has actively used rhetoric against Muslim refugees from Syria and Palestine. This rhetoric does not target Muslims from Lebanon; the Islamophobia is reserved for non-Lebanese Muslims. Bassil has been recorded saying that refugees are taking over the country with their culture and is a critic of Saudi and Iranian influences as well. He believes that the divisions between the Mormonite and Muslim factions is due to these outsiders functioned as a “third state.”
In addition to religious divides, the use of anti-corruption slogans against the government is a universal feature of the parties (Mneimneh, 2019). Saad Hariri, who was recently forced to resign from his position as Prime Minister, has run for office on the basis of this sectarian divide. Following his father Rafic Hariri’s assassination, he and his party, the Future Movement (FM), used the rhetoric of economic progress and neo-liberal economic reformism. In reality, clientelism was rampant in his government, embroiling him in accusations of corruption. Rather than “saving” the country, as he promised, he has been ousted from office by mass protests (AbiNader, 2020). Despite Hariri being Sunni, he relied on Hezbollah for constant support—achieved mainly through clientelism (Newsome, 2020).
Nabih Berri and his Amal Movement (AM), along with Samir Geagea and his party Lebanese Forces (LF), are both militants turned political parties. The parties represent the interests of Shia and Christian groups, respectively. Berri and Geagea draw support from their sectarian/religious groups. Their success in mainstream, post-war politics has brought faith-based politics to the national stage.
One of the most prominent populist right-wing groups in Lebanon is Hezbollah. The party claims to represent “the people” with a divine right. Despite being a Shia-interest group, it has been involved in the Palestine cause as well. This involvement helps cement the legitimacy of its anti-colonial, anti-west, anti-Semitic stance in conservative Muslim factions. The party’s right-wing populism takes an ethno-sectarian dimension within the internal context of Lebanon. It “otherizes” various segments of the political body. The party’s anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment make it a popular party in a country where external intervention has led to great turmoil in the past. It also gives a more vociferous face to the Shia community. Compared to AM, it enjoys support from Iran, still the flagship of Shia thought. Hezbollah embraces “jihad” against the “oppressors,” giving it a divine appeal, especially to the “pure” and “just” (El-Hibri, 2017). Populism still widely shapes electoral politics in the country.
The Lebanese Pound has lost 80 percent of its value since October 2019. The pandemic and the resulting economic slowdown have further complicated the economic situation. The people face severe shortages, and purchasing parity is extremely low. Many lack basic items, such as shelter and food. Meanwhile, the state has failed to keep up with the country’s energy demands. Electricity breakdowns can last up to 22 hours per day, even in unbearable scorching heat. Protests are banned and attacked by security forces for “violating” the pandemic lockdown. the populace is extremely isolated. To make matters worse, the heart of the country, the Beirut Seaport, was razed to the ground after a massive chemical explosion took place in 2020 (Human Rights Watch, 2020).
Lebanon’s last civil war also came at a time when economic prosperity was dwindling, and the heterogeneous society sought enemies or scapegoats to blame for the deteriorating conditions. While the streets have been repeatedly occupied by youth groups who call for unity and change, most in the country are still divided on religious lines. This has made the country a fertile ground for populism. There are plenty of “out groups” to be “otherized” in the diverse country (Salamey & Tabar, 2012).
March 1, 2021
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