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Demonstrators shout during a protest in Tripoli, Lebanon, November 2, 2019 Image Credit: Reuters

In 2012, I wrote an article about Lebanon that still rings true today. It ended with a quote from one of my favourite pieces written by Kahlil Gibran “You Have Your Lebanon, I Have My Lebanon.”

I am including below some of my July 2012 article, followed by a few comments on current developments:

“With neighbouring Syria imploding, tensions with Iran mounting, and Israel ever threatening, Lebanon appears to be on the brink of conflict. But then that has been the story of Lebanon for decades now.

This remarkably beautiful country filled with extraordinary people has long been a victim of its history, its own leaders, and the machinations of outsiders. This may be Lebanon’s past and present, but if we listen to the Lebanese people, it need not be the country’s future.

“It was the French who created Lebanon and its patchwork quilt, sect-driven system of governance, designing it to serve France’s imperial interests. During the past 80 years, operating within this imposed framework, Lebanon’s sectarian elites have jockeyed for advantage, seeking the support of external ‘partners’ to buttress their position.

“And so it is today.

“Two generations ago, Lebanon was an East-West Cold War battleground. Today it is an arena in which the conflict between the West and its allies versus Iran and its surrogates plays out — with fragile Lebanon hanging in the balance, and its security, stability and prosperity at risk.

“Some may shrug dismissively and say ‘this is Lebanon’ or point to the country’s warlords and armed gangs and say ‘they bring it on themselves’. But this recurring precarious state of affairs need not be Lebanon’s fate. If we listen to Lebanon’s people, it is possible to imagine a very different country, based on a common identity and sense of purpose.

Importance of being Lebanese

“What is also striking is that when we ask Lebanese for their principle source of identity, they do not name their religion or sect, nor do they say their family or “being Arab.” Instead, people in all groups say that it is “being Lebanese...”

“When we ask Lebanese whether they prefer to maintain the sect-based apportionment system of the past or replace it with a “one man/one vote” political structure, there is broad agreement that it is time to implement the latter. They all agree that national unity is a must for the country. And they reject the notion that any one group should dominate over the others.

“Almost a century ago, Lebanon’s internationally renowned poet, Kahlil Gibran, wrote a marvellous piece, ‘You have your Lebanon, I have my Lebanon’, in which he contrasted the country’s self-centred, plundering, bickering elites with the common folk who are Lebanon’s heart and soul.

Gibran was right then, and his observations hold true today. Lebanon’s leaders and those who care about the future of the country ought take note — listen to Lebanon’s people, and help pull the country back from the brink, before it’s too late.”

That was what I wrote seven years ago.

This remarkably beautiful country filled with extraordinary people has long been a victim of its history, its own leaders, and the machinations of outsiders. This may be Lebanon’s past and present, but if we listen to the Lebanese people, it need not be the country’s future

- James J. Zogby

For the past two weeks, the two Lebanons have been at a dramatic stand-off as sustained mass demonstrations have called for an end to old regime. They no longer want feudal dynasties governing and looting the country, nor do they want to be held hostage to an armed militia that uses threats to protect its position in this dysfunctional system. Their simple, yet eloquent, slogan has been “All of them, means all of them.”

Pan-sectarian protest

The protests have been pan-sectarian, creative (a human chain of demonstrators holding hands connecting Lebanese from the north to the south — over 120 miles), and massive (at one point there were one and one-half million demonstrators in the streets — over one-third of Lebanon’s population). Why were they demonstrating? Our most recent polling shows Lebanese public opinion fed up and unified — with a greater consensus than seven years ago.

Today, across the board, Lebanese are even more dissatisfied with the state of their economy and more pessimistic about the country’s future. Like seven years ago, they overwhelmingly say “creating employment opportunities” is their number one priority, but they have little confidence that their governing institutions can deliver.

There is also a growing concern about Iran’s involvement in their country. Lebanese are deeply concerned about their country’s inability to cope with the economic and social strains resulting from the presence of over one million Syrian refugees.

Given the depth and intensity of their dissatisfaction and frustration, no one should have been surprised when the protests began — not even Lebanon’s decayed and corrupt political elite. If they had been listening to the people, they would have known that their time was up.

In response to sustained protests, the government finally resigned, despite Hezbollah’s threats. But significant challenges remain if the aspirations of the protesters are to be fulfilled. To replace one sectarian/dynastic cabinet with another will not bring change. Neither will new elections based on the same sect-apportioned system.

Lebanon needs a real democratic transformation — that’s what the people want. One place to start would be to implement a provision from the old 1926 constitution which called for the creation of a one-man, one vote non-sectarian lower house of parliament, while reserving sect representation for an upper house with limited powers. This might give the country an elected government that puts Lebanon and all of its people first.

This kind of change will not come quickly. It will not be easy, but from what I’ve seen over the past few weeks, I’d listen to the Lebanese people and I wouldn’t bet against them coming out on top. For the sake of Lebanon’s future, I hope they do.

—Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan national leadership organisation.