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Demonstrators wave Lebanese national flags during ongoing anti-government protests at a highway in Jal el-Dib, Lebanon, October 23, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Damascus: The October Revolution of Lebanon has awakened cross-sectarian national sentiment in in the tiny Mediterranean country, after years of slumber imposed by Israel occupations and full-blown Iranian hegemony.

For two months, young people have been on the streets of Beirut, demanding the resignation of corrupt politicians and doing away with the sectarian order that has been in place for an entire century. There anger was directed at everybody—Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and Christians.

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Even Hezbollah chief Hasan Nasrallah was not spared the wrath of angry demonstrators, nor was President Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil.

Throughout its modern history, Lebanon has undergone massive transformations in the collective psyche of their peoples, affecting the very essence of what “nationalism” stood for.

No unifying identity

For the Shiites, nationalism was loyalty to so-called Shiite empowerment, triggered by the Khomeini Revolution of 1979.

For Muslim Sunnis, their orientation was constantly more pan-Arab, with sub-divisions on whether to be pro-Palestinian or pro-West.

Lebanese Druze were more independent from both communities, championing a Lebanese identity that protected their interests as a minority.

As for Christians, who regard themselves as the rightful leaders of the country, they too have been divided in loyalties—and nationalism—between being pro-French (mostly in the Maronite environs of Mount Lebanon) or Arab nationalist in cities like Beirut.

Those divisions have divided the country both horizontally and vertically, creating very different and conflicting visions of what nationalism and identity stood for.

For many years, there was no unifying identity in Lebanon. Each sect identified nationalism according to the dictates of its community chief, political party, and sectarian orientations.

A pivotal moment

The current revolution is the most cross-sectarian movement to rip through the country since the 2005 Cedar Revolution that was launched in the aftermath of former prime minister Rafik Hariri’s murder.

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In this 2005 picture Lebanese participate in the Cedar Revolution after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. As a result, Syria was forced to end its decades-long occupation of the country. Image Credit: Agencies

It is now the "corrupt" state rather than “the other” that is uniting Lebanese of all sects and political colours.

First step towards full-fledged identity

If it succeeds to dismantle the network of corruption, in which Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and Christians are all involved, this would be the first step towards creating a full-fledged Lebanese identity since the country’s creation 100 years ago.

“A revolution is similar to birthing twins,” said prominent Iraqi historian Selim Matar.

Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “The people are the mother; the revolutionary spirit is the father, while revolutionaries are the medical team that supervise the surgical operation.”

In all cases, revolutions produce twins, “one is a new state, the other is new thought.”

A look at Lebanon's modern history

Originally limited to the enclave of Mount Lebanon under Ottoman rule, the country got its current borders with the advent of French colonial rule in 1920.

Beirut—once a part of greater Syria—became its new capital, and four districts were attached to it from Syria, being Hasbaya, Rashaya, Baalbak, and the Bekka Valley.

Due to their numerical majority back then, Christians were given the presidency of the republic.

In 1943, a gentleman’s agreement was reached to give Sunnis the permanent post of prime minister, and in future years, it became an accepted norm to give the speakership of parliament to a Muslim Shiite.

Divisions emerged from the start

Lebanon’s citizens were never on the same page as to what kind of future they wanted for their country.

Sunni Muslims from Beirut and Tripoli were originally not too pleased with a Christian-led French-ruled state, with some preferring unification with Syria, while many Christians welcomed the French Mandate, seeing it as more favorable than four centuries of Ottoman rule or to annexation to a Syria that was led by a Muslim majority.

French occupation

The fault lines were not too clear, due to foreign occupation.

While certain Christians supported the French, others rebelled against them, including the Gemayel family of Bikfaya and the Frangieh family of Zghorta.

Other Christians like Emille Edde, a prominent Maronite politician, positioned himself as an ally of colonial France.

In 1943, Edde’s successor Beshara Al Khoury was arrested by the mandate regime for pursuing a nationalist anti-French agenda, along with his Sunni Prime Minister Riad al Solh.

When the French evacuated at the end of World War II, President Al Khoury said that Lebanon was part of the Arab World, going against mainstream Maronite views who wanted nothing to do with the conflicts of the Middle East.

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Lebanon's first President Beshara Al Khoury Image Credit: Archives

His administration had helped co-found the Arab League in Egypt and showed commitment to the Palestinian Cause by joining the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948.

Then, being Lebanese meant being committed to the greater Arab World, and although some Christians adhered to that, many refused to be part of that order.

Unpopular war unites Lebanese

Israel’s creation in 1948 sparked the Nakba which uprooted thousands of Palestinians from their homes with many arriving in Lebanon as refugees.

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Palestinian refugees enter Lebanon after being uprooted from their homes in 1948 during the creation of the state of Israel. Image Credit: Archives

At first, fissures automatically resurfaced along sectarian lines.

Most of the refugees were Sunni Muslims, threatening to tip the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon if allowed to stay for too long, or receive full patriation rights.

Lebanese Maronites did not agree with Al Khoury’s decision to go to war with Israel, as they did not feel a strong connection to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Lebanese Muslims, on the other hand, felt very connected to their Palestinian brothers and supported resistance against Israel.

However, the sentiments did not last long and when the war drained the economy, Lebanese then united into toppling Al Khoury in 1952—its second revolution.

That revolt was also cross sectarian, but very short lived. Christians and Muslims united against Al Khoury, because of perceived corruption at the junctures of power.

How Pan-Arabism divided Lebanese

When Gamal Abdul Nasser came to power in Egypt and led a pan-Arab movement across the Middle East, he won many supporters but also many enemies.

Nasser promised to do away with artificial borders imposed on the region by the British and the French raising hope that a united Arab World would emerge under his leadership.

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Gamal Abdel Nasser waves to a crowd of supporters in Egypt. Image Credit: Archives

Heavyweight Sunnis like Sa’eb Salam supported him, and so did Druze like Kamal Jumblatt. Christians were mostly unimpressed with his bravado, saying that their country was too small to confront the military might of Israel.

His 1956 confrontation with France during the Suez War only heightened their fears given that many still considered Paris as a natural protector of minority rights in the Middle East.

A second revolt broke out in 1958, supported this time by Abdul Nasser. Its main target was Khoury’s successor, President Camille Chamoun, who was struggling to position Lebanon as an ally of the West in its war against Communism.

When Chamoun tried to counter Abdul Nasser’s movement by welcoming US marines into Beirut, Lebanese ‘Arab nationalists’ toppled Chamoun, known as Lebanon’s first civil war.

Civil war and the PLO

Then came the second civil war in April 1975, originally against Yasser Arafat’s tutelage of Lebanon.

As the Lebanese state crumbled, Maronite Christians launched a bloody war against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO).

PLO fighters pose with Yasser Arafat in Lebanon Image Credit: Archives

Some like then-President Suleiman Frangieh, sought military assistance of Syria, while others, like Bashir Gemayel of the Lebanese Phalange, turned to Israel.

That added yet a new dimension to Lebanese nationalism. For PLO-supporters, the enemy now became Lebanese Christians, with Druze leader Kamal Jumblatt telling Syrian President Hafez Al Assad that his aim was “to get rid of the Christians, who have been on top of us for 140 years.”

Bashir Gemayel saw the Palestinians as the greater of all evils, however, equating Lebanese nationalism with resentment of Arafat and the PLO.

He, in turn, facilitated the 1982 Israeli occupation of West Beirut, while another Christian figure, Elie Hobeika, personally oversaw the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila camps in September 1982.

Bodies of Palestinian refugees who were killed in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre. Image Credit: Archives

That year, the newly created Iranian theocracy founded Hezbollah, creating an all-Shiite militia to fight the Israelis in south Lebanon.

With time, they managed to monopolize the resistance against Israel, which became exclusively Shiite. (Before there was a sizable number of Christians from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, Communists, and Lebanese Arab Nationalists.

Syrian Occupation

In 2005, the Lebanese revolted yet another time, this time against Syrian military presence in Lebanon, securing the ejection of the Syrian Army after the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Critics of Syria accused it of being behind the plot to assassinate him, along with Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

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Syrian soldiers leaving Lebanon in 2005. Image Credit: AFP

Syria became the new enemy, followed by Iran. Hezbollah and Tehran stood firmly by the Syrians, while Sunni Muslims, led by Saad  Hariri spearheaded the “Cedar Revolution” that was broadly described as pro-West and Saudi-backed.

October 17 protests

The fourth revolt erupted two months ago.

On October 17, 2019,  angry young people took to the streets of Beirut, after a government decision to impose a tax on Whatsapp calling.

Lebanese youth protesting against the government in 2019. Image Credit: AFP

Protests quickly evolved demanding an overhaul of the entire political system and the toppling of President Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally.

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Will nationalist sentiment permanently take root?

The renewed nationalism is still “a work in progress,” said Joseph A. Kéchichian, a Lebanese political scientist at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies.

Speaking to Gulf News, he added: “Although party hacks and associated parsimonious goons float their colors as a sign of intimidation, few are paying attention, preferring to display the Lebanese flag as a symbol of honor and unity," he said.

"We’ve seen this throughout the country, something that surfaced during the past two months but must have been there all along, even if most folks were tepid to express their nationalist sentiments.”

"Time will tell whether this anti-everything and anti-everyone phenomenon will take hold but what seems certain is that the Lebanese seem to have graduated from their anti-this and anti-that preferences and embarked on a pro-Lebanon bandwagon," Kéchichian added.

Time will tell whether this anti-everything and anti-everyone phenomenon will take hold but what seems certain is that the Lebanese seem to have graduated from their anti-this and anti-that preferences and embarked on a pro-Lebanon bandwagon

- Joseph Kechichian, Lebanese political scientist

“It is easy for politicians to hijack the aspirations of their constituencies and rekindle their sectarian tendencies,” added American University of Beirut Professor Hilal Khashan.

“National identity construction is a slow process that requires the growth of civil society to the point of coercing the ruling elite to act on public demands. Transition from sectarian politics into a modern form of governance requires that society undergoes fundamental behavioral change toward civility.”

“It is still too early to claim that two months of protests have created a new Lebanese psyche that put the divisive sectarian past behind it. My fear is that Lebanon’s corrupt politicians know how to reinvent themselves. Time will tell us if they will fail this time.”