“At the foot of these majestic mountains, which have been the strength of your country and remain the impregnable stronghold of its faith and freedom; on the shore of this sea of many legends that has seen the triremes of Phoenicia, Greece and Rome, that, in subtle spirit, carried through the world your fathers, skilled in commerce and eloquence. Now, by a happy return, this sea brings you the confirmation of a great and ancient friendship and the blessings of French peace. In front of all these witnesses of your wishes, of your struggles and of your victory, it is in sharing your joy and pride that I solemnly salute Greater Lebanon in its glory and its force from Nahr al-Kébir to the gates of Palestine and to the crest of the Anti-Lebanon mountains.”
With these historic, and emotional, words, French High Commissioner General Henri Gouraud proclaimed the state of Greater Lebanon on September 1, 1920.
Yet, as Lebanon celebrates its centennial, few are optimistic that this small and trouble-ridden country will see its second centennial. Lebanon’s many challenges mainly boil down to its archaic and medieval political system, which has provided a fertile ground for Iran and its militia Hezbollah to establish its hegemony over Lebanon.
Lebanese in general, particularly the Christian majority, tend to stress the golden years of Lebanon’s history and even go back to their primordial ancestors – the Phoenicians – while failing to take responsibility or justify why they have failed for a century to build a country that is immune to internal and external intervention.
Perhaps one of the most dangerous traits the Lebanese cherish is their supposed resilience, which is dangerous when mixed with their diehard conviction that their country is too important to be forgotten by the West and thus all calamities will simply be remedied through a return to the French mandate era. This belief was clear when French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Lebanon this week to celebrate the centennial but also to deliver a French plan to force a Cabinet formation within two weeks, and push for a reform plan that would hopefully lead Lebanon to its salvation.
Macron’s trip however and his many exhibitionist gestures, such as meeting the Lebanese diva Fairouz and planting a cedar tree – a national symbol in Lebanon – in one of the country’s reserves was nothing short of orientalism, and of the bad kind. Macron’s whole approach hinges on the political establishment accepting to implement radical structural reform to their clientelist and corrupt political system and for Hezbollah to accept that it must practice constraint vis-a-vis Iran’s regional expansionist plans. These adolescent or perhaps wicked assumptions might have bought the Lebanese at least three more months until Macron’s next trip in December, but the plan will certainly not place Lebanon on the right track to recovery.
The French, and consequently the Europeans, believe that the United States’ maximum pressure tactics placed on Iran are futile and renders diplomatic channels useless. While this approach has many supporters, prior experience in dealing with Iran have shown that neither the carrot nor the stick is enough to divert them from pursuing their goals and thus one is left with the option of confronting them or simply becoming their accomplice.
The Lebanese, by entertaining the possibility that Macron’s plan could succeed, are gambling on their legendary resilience. Yet, they have failed to acknowledge that the terrible state the country finds itself in is the byproduct of this toxic pliability, as they have missed every chance to rebuild a stronger, better Lebanon.
A hundred years ago, the French Mandate carved out Lebanon under its current borders, not because the Lebanese wished it, but rather because it suited their imperial ambitions and because appearing as caring about the Christians of the Levant was a good public relations stunt. But now, all that remains of this French commitment to Lebanon is a picture of Henri Gouraud surrounded by the heads of the Lebanese sects and one of Macron trying to fill the shoes of his ancestor, only to fail miserably.
The Lebanese are left with very few options, and waiting is not one of them. The one-handed WWI veteran Gouraud and his devotion to his Catholic faith might have created Lebanon but it is time for the Lebanese to win it back or simply fade away into the realm of oblivion.