When I saw the scenes of French President Emmanuel Macron visiting the devastated areas of Beirut, I was filled with a number of conflicting emotions.
I was pleased that he went directly to the site of the explosions as a sign of respect for the suffering of the people and the city. I was furious that no one in the Lebanese government joined him. And I was amazed by the throngs of Lebanese who turned out thankful for his recognition of their pain and eager to demonstrate their contempt for their own failed leaders.
I was once again conflicted when Macron announced that France would be convening a donor conference to provide aid to Lebanon that would be conditioned on the implementation of real reforms. What he said was “I will propose a new political pact in Lebanon and I will be back on September 1, and if they can’t do it, I’ll take my political responsibility.”
It made me both sad and angry that in the face of the massive corruption that has bilked billions of dollars from the country and the political dysfunction that has brought Lebanon to its knees, that it took this enormous tragedy and the French president to press hard on the reform issue. Hundreds of thousands of protesters in sustained demonstrations were not enough. Covid-19 wasn’t able to do it. Neither was the economic crisis.
It is, therefore, upsetting that it is the arrogance of the French, who created and saddled Lebanon with its sectarian feudal regime, that is now demanding to “fix” the country. At the same time, I’ll admit a bit of relief that at last someone put down their foot and said “you must reform, or else.”
Last year, in the midst of the countrywide protests against corruption, I was honoured by a Lebanese humanitarian organisation. I began my remarks paraphrasing Kahlil Gibran’s poem “You have your Lebanon, I have my Lebanon.” Like Gibran, I love the Lebanese people, their poetry, art, song, and love of life. I love their generous and welcoming spirit. I also love what Lebanon has given to the world – especially its gifted people. And I love the sheer beauty of the country – its majestic snow-capped mountains and its pristine seascapes.
And, like Gibran, I do not love Lebanon’s petty bickering politicians who lead because of an accident of birth. Nor can I embrace the country’s system of sectarian privilege and the corruption that is endemic to the political-economic regime that has squeezed Lebanon dry to the benefit of their chosen ones. And I reject the armed militias, whether they be Christian, Muslim, or secular, that in the past and in the present continue to torment those who challenge their dominance.
In the wake of the protests, the government fell, but was replaced by more of the same. The economy, already in a shambles, went into free-fall. And still the leadership could not make needed reforms. “How could they,” one might ask, “when they were the problem.”
Over the past few decades, I have polled in Lebanon and the results are instructive. Lebanese, of all sects, want “one man one vote.” They reject sectarian governance and the tyranny of militias. And they are wary of US and Iranian meddling in their internal affairs. In other words, they want reform.
From everything I’ve heard since the explosions in the port, many Lebanese have crossed the line from frustration with their government to despair that change is possible. A collapsing economy, a loss of control over their domestic and foreign policies, a dysfunctional government that remains insensitive to their needs and aspirations, coupled with a pandemic and continuing refugee crisis, have left them still angry but despondent.
While France is an unlikely patron of change, Macron, therefore, was “singing to the choir.” The planned donor conference should provide immediate assistance to aid those in need of support and combine it with a long-term package to rebuild – conditional on needed reforms. This will empower the popular movement in Lebanon and restore their hope that they have allies who will be by their side in the long road ahead to save, rebuild, and restore the country.
Make no mistake, the path forward won’t be easy. The sectarian elites will not just step aside, nor will Hizbollah simply agree to end their threat to use arms against those who demand change. But we’ve come to a crossroads. If the Lebanon we love is to be saved, then the Lebanon we do not love must be defeated. Either that or Lebanon may die.