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The International and Constitutional Lebanese Entity

The Lebanese paradox can be formulated as follows: while the Lebanese idea of an independent state, recognised and proclaimed by all its citizens, has expanded and survived a terrible war, the Lebanese fact of a sovereign state, run by representative institutions, is now evanescent.

Farès Sassine’s purpose in this article is not to clarify both sides of the paradox, but to attempt to shed light on how this Lebanese idea has evolved in relation to the institutions and to question the blatant inability of Lebanese identity to overcome its growing paralysis.

Farès Sassine was professor of philosophy and literary critic born in Zahlé (Lebanon) in 1947. He was the author of numerous books, including The Book of Independence, and a multitude of published articles. The paper reproduced here is the last he wrote before his death on July 24, 2021.

Credits Text: Farès Sassine Translation from French: Rachel Thorpe September 03 2021

The Lebanese national idea preceded the entity. At the beginning of the 20thcentury, as Levantine nationalistic ideologies began to emerge in the moribund Ottoman Empire, the Lebanese idea presented itself in a simple form, against the self-conceitedness of political notables at that time. Therein lay a fact, a reality that has existed since 1861: the autonomous status of Mount Lebanon, guaranteed by the European powers. The idea was to strengthen this legal status and extend Mount Lebanon’s geographical area.

According to public law experts, Lebanon is the fruit of both history and geography. The 1861 status as a legal entity is but a despoiled form, as well as the latest incarnation, of an ongoing historical reality, once illustrated by the emirs, and is itself the expression of a natural fact: the everlasting Mountain.

With the end of the World War and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire (1918-1920), the local populations’ aspirations overlapped, contradicted each other, and faced uncertain colonialist ambitions. The Lebanese national idea benefitted from the positive, long-standing collective memory of the Mutassarrifiyya as a haven of peace and safety, and an active cultural centre. Any shortcomings, such as emigration, were attributed to the small size of the territory. The victory of France, a friendly power, was perceived as an opportunity to fulfil ‘national’ aspirations.

The first two Lebanese demands at the Treaty of Versailles (1919) were: the extension of Mount Lebanon’s borders and the recognition of its “independence” (Istiqlal). The third was a Legislative Assembly elected by the people on the basis of proportional representation, to safeguard the “rights of minorities”. This reflects the essential link that has always been upheld between the Lebanese idea and an assembly representing the country’s various components.

The demand for the "restoration of territories” was made in the name of history, geography, and a “vital imperative”. “Of these territories, some would provide Lebanon with the wheat necessary for its existence and others (Tyre, Saida, Beirut, Tripoli) would constitute natural outlets that are absolutely essential to the country’s economy”. An additional argument: “The vast majority of populations occupying these territories were favourable to an annexation to Lebanon and opted for Lebanese nationality, which had always been their ideal, as they were almost all Lebanese by origin”.

The above quote reflects a facet of reality (the city of Beirut was built on the Mountain’s demographic contributions, growing from 6,000 souls at the beginning of the 19th century to 130,000 in 1914), but it also blatantly contradicts the views of most inhabitants in these regions, who firmly declared their opposition to being annexed to Mount Lebanon. Moreover, Lebanese designs on these lands were perceived by inner Syria as a spoliation of their territory and an attempt to cut them off from their maritime ports.

The situation was further complicated by a final but important point, that could even be said to be at its origin: the foreign presence dividing up the Levant. In theory, Lebanonists could request “international guarantees” or benefit from “cordial relations with (their) neighbours” to achieve their aims. But in reality, they could only rely on the French forces. The memorandum of the delegation chaired by the Maronite Patriarch was particularly expressive in this respect: “Lebanon, which has been under international mandate for 60 years and has long been politically educated, deserves to be a sovereign state. Nevertheless, while maintaining its rights to this sovereignty, Lebanon bows to the decision of the Peace Conference with regards to the mandate regime. Lebanon accepts this all the more willingly in the current global political and economic crisis because it needs the support and assistance of a great Western power.”

On the 1st of September 1920, “Greater Lebanon” was proclaimed, satisfying Lebanonist demands. But the proclamation by General Gouraud was overshadowed by the “Arab Kingdom” of Syria’s defeat in Maysalun (24/07/1920) a few weeks earlier. Despite now being established as a fact and benefitting from international status under the Mandate, Lebanon lacked regional recognition, as well as that of a large part of its population.

“In 1920, we had the territory and the possibilities of independence. In 1945, after a second World War, it was the natural development of a reality that progressed ineluctably with time.” From a Lebanonist perspective, this statement refers to 2 dates and 2 events. But it is important to add that 25 years of living together forged a national experience.

A new factor also emerged without failing to divide: the Phoenician past. The mountain, now linked to maritime cities, could look back in time beyond community history, to a glorious past, “a past remote enough and great enough… that all present-day Lebanese can relate to, beyond their different languages, customs, religions, or ‘races’”. Which raises the question: are we Arabs or Phoenicians?

The Second World War and the defeat of the French army (1940) placed the country at a crossroad of three evolving movements: the Syrian nationalists, part of the Maronite political class and the Muslim notables of Lebanon. The first, anxious to restore unity and independence to their own country, favoured an allied Lebanon; the Muslim notables recognised the existence of a Lebanese state, as well as its borders, in exchange for close collaboration with the other Arab countries; the Christians accepted the withdrawal of the French and the end of foreign protection in exchange for the recognition of the Lebanese state by Muslims in and outside of Lebanon. At a time when the Arab League was taking shape with Britain’s blessing, these three movements formed the premise of what is commonly known as the ‘National Pact’ (Al-Mithaq al-watani).

Through this Pact, Lebanon was no longer the fulfilment of a community’s political will, but the object of a consensus, to be accepted by all political forces. Those living in the ports and plains were no longer seen as occupants of an annexed area, but as stakeholders of an entity.

The first positive outcome of the new republic was the country’s full independence: “It is not true that (the) men (who achieved independence) gave their country its lost independence back. What is true is that, for the first time in history, they restored independence in the full sense of the word.”

The National Pact, based on living together and striving towards full citizenship, was the pillar of independence. It alone made independence possible, and it alone built the state.

From then on, the role of the Constitution, Presidential and Council prerogatives, domestic and foreign policy, the distribution of administrative functions among the various communities, the structure and role of the army etc., were all defined according to the political forces’ interpretation of the Pact.

A few developments were made to this founding act:

Although the National Pact was agreed between the Maronite and Sunnite communities, “respectively located at opposite ends of the Muslim-Christian divide”, it introduced pluralism to the core of the state and recognised, or established, community plurality as the country’s very essence. This political act had ideological repercussions and the diversity of its components fundamentally contributed to creating an entity. Lebanon is “a religious mosaic without equivalent on earth”. Not only do the communities co-exist, but they live freely and openly, in close connection with their spiritual roots, wherever they may be in the world, East or West.

As Lebanon gradually became the only country in the Middle East to safeguard, to a large extent, democratic life and institutions, the “literature” based on Lebanese plurality and on Lebanon as a place of exchange and dialogue, came to hold an increasingly important place.

As a meeting point between the East and the West, Islam and Christianity, and a place of “tension” between the past and the present, Lebanon delivered a “unique message in the history of civilisation”.

The plural and democratic nature of the Lebanese Republic, born of the Mithaq, gave rise to several "functional" definitions: Lebanon’s role in a tormented region, or even in the world, justifies its existence; it is a country in which Christians and Muslims exist on an equal footing and in complete freedom; it is a land that welcomes all minorities while respecting their identity: “Lebanon is a multi-confessional state. All minorities should feel a sense of belonging and acquire rights”; it is a political formula, born of voluntary membership, that strives for the happiness of its citizens: “a country such as this, which embodies the diversity of beliefs and traditions in private life, finds its primary raison d’être in this desire to co-exist, which attests to the fact that we are happy to live together”; finally, it is home to public and private liberties: “The first and ultimate raison d’être is freedom, which is the condition and path to greatness”…

Without Lebanon, the meeting of the East and the West, of Islam and Christianity, would have remained highly abstract, making the country essential for its real-life, everyday experience.

The Lebanese idea is, in short, three-dimensional. It is first and foremost the idea of a fact. As Chiha eloquently said: “Forty centuries of Phoenicia attest to it, nineteen centuries since the coming of Christ confirm it, and some thirteen centuries since Islam… The character of Lebanon is such that past history has recorded it. It has recorded it since the inception of writing and language”. This fact, engraved for some in Nature itself, is now undeniably an established and recognised legal entity: Lebanon is a founding member of the Arab League and the United Nations. Secondly, it is the idea of a historical compromise, of a Pact made between two parties establishing independence and Arabness. Finally, it is the idea of a set of values embodied by institutions and daily life: freedom, equality, openness to modernity, tolerance, Islamic-Christian coexistence, the home of minorities, togetherness… This is what makes Lebanon so unique and appealing.

Sir I. Berlin’s views on utopia can be applied to this aspect of Lebanonism: a theoretical and practical impossibility because of conflicting values that one can only strive to reconcile imperfectly and establish an unstable balance between them. Take, for example, the relationship between communities and individuals: are the guarantees for communities not made at the expense of free and equal citizens?

Today, these three dimensions are inscribed in the “Preamble to the Constitution”, one of the most significant outcomes of the Taif Agreement (1989), which extends and rephrases the National Pact. It embodies the Lebanese idea and experience (“Lebanon is a sovereign, free and independent homeland… an ultimate homeland… an Arab identity and belonging… committed to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”; “the respect of public freedoms”; “equality in rights and duties among all citizens”; “the charter of co-existence”) in the clearest possible way and we can now define Lebanonism as per Habermas’ expression of “constitutional patriotism”. But what is the patriotism of a constitution if not a battle to enforce it?

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