Lebanon and Middle East’s Vicious Circle

August 15, 2020

On August 4, only two days before the 75th anniversary of the dropping of world’s first atomic bomb, Beirut experienced its own Hiroshima. Exactly a month ago Turkey had its own tragedy when 6 were killed and 97 injured in a fireworks factory blast. Although the devastation and the death tolls are incomparable, underlying reasons are the same: mismanagement and negligence.

These, of course, are only part of the fundamental problem of the Middle East, the lack of democracy with its many subtitles. Prominently among them are:

  • Lack of transparency,
  • Lack of accountability,
  • Lack of an independent judiciary,
  • Bad governance,
  • Corruption,
  • Nepotism,
  • Mistrust,
  • Politicization of issues,
  • Polarization,
  • Apathy, and most disappointingly,
  • Hopelessness leading to readiness to embrace a “benevolent autocrat” as if there is such a thing.

In brief, these are symptoms of a state’s failure which require no testing.

After the explosion thousands took to the streets in Beirut, once called the “Paris of the Middle East”, to express their anger with Lebanon’s leaders. The government resigned. Lebanese protesters look no different than those demonstrating on European streets. But do they represent a commanding majority? What about the country’s endemic sectarian divide? What about Hezbollah? Hasan Nasrallah warned against blaming the Hezbollah for the tragedy. He said, “The country needs time to heal. Afterward, we will discuss politics,” he said. What does “heal” mean? Settling of the dust so that everything goes back to “normal”? Is it possible that new political forces would emerge and get sufficiently organized to compete in elections to be held at some point? What about more than a million Syrian refugees in the country? What about the economy?

There are no easy answers.

President Macron was the first world leader to visit Beirut after the blast. France is the former colonial power in Lebanon and the visit do doubt was another attempt by Mr. Macron to score domestic political points and enhance the global status of France. On the eve of the visit, euronews reported that more than 50,000 signed a petition calling for France to take control of Lebanon. “With a failing system, corruption, terrorism and militia the country just drew its last breath. We believe Lebanon be placed back under a French mandate in order to establish clean and durable governance,” they said.

The mandates were an imperialist/colonialist arrangement by the victors of the First World War. Former Ottoman provinces of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were put under “A class Mandates” which meant that they were considered sufficiently advanced for “provisional independence” but still subject to Allied administrative control until they were fully able to stand on their own feet. Syria and Lebanon were the prizes for France. Lebanon became an independent state on November 22, 1943 after 23 years of French rule. It is sad that the Lebanese can utter the word “Mandate” after nearly eight decades of independence. I trust that they do not mean what they say but simply wish to underline their frustration. Mr. Macron appeared delighted with his visit. But how much his Lebanon project and constant Turkey bashing will help further his political interests and French national interests remains to be seen.

Lebanon, country of eight million is now at a dead end because, among other reasons, it is in the heart of the Middle East. Suffice to look at Lebanon’s neighborhood to understand the challenges it faces. When my Western counterparts referred to Turkey’s unique geo-strategic location in our diplomatic talks, I sometimes asked them if they would wish to change places. No one ever showed the slightest interest.

The constitution of UNESCO says that since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed. This was after the Second World War and the overriding concern was avoiding another world conflict. And, former adversaries were able to manage this. But in the Middle East even the defenses of internal peace could not be built. What the peoples of the region have witnessed so far is a vicious circle with internal and external problems feeding on one another, and armed conflict. The Arab spring has proved a myth and has paved the way for new Western interventions in the absence of regional leadership.

Democracy cannot be airdropped but it can be promoted. And, the best way to promote democracy is leading by example. The problem is there are no regional examples to follow. Until the last decade, Turkey was far ahead of the Middle East in this respect essentially for two reasons: Our proximity to and centuries of close relations with Europe and Ataturk’s enlightened reforms. This is how Turkey became a member of the Council of Europe, NATO and launched accession negotiations with the EU. Had the process remained on track this would have set an example for the peoples of the Middle East.  Unfortunately, the EU lacked strategic vision and Turkey decidedly left the democratic path. Thus, the axiom “Turkey is a bridge between East and West” failed to prove its wisdom. Hardly anything progressive crossed the bridge towards the east. Thus, refugees are now trying to cross it by the thousands in the opposite direction. And, Middle East countries remain pawns in the chess game between major powers. Tough policies, high-handed talk, promises of a better life, skyscrapers, luxury hotels, sports events, Mars missions, charities are only a facade.

A final note: The “Joint Statement of the United States, the State of Israel, and the United Arab Emirates” announced on Thursday that the U.A.E. and Israel agreed to establish normal diplomatic relations. It said, “Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace and focus its efforts now on expanding ties with other countries in the Arab and Muslim world.”

Pros and cons of the deal aside, establishing formal relations with the third Arab state and paving the way for others to follow in return for “a pause” in West Bank annexation plan is a lesson by Israel on how a country can reach its objectives through diplomacy.

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