ESR 5 Blog June 2021: Claude Nassar

On Political Leadership In Lebanon

The power of the Lebanese leader does not come from the individual’s political knowledge nor the ignorance of their followers. Their power comes from the incarnation of the state in their person, which simultaneously undermines the power of the nation as a non-existing unity of Lebanese society. From the inside, Lebanon as a coherent whole does not exist. There are multiple Lebanons, multiple Lebanese states that function as states of their own, each having their own histories, social norms, values, economic networks, media institutions and even military branches. As such the conception of Lebanon itself is directly attached to the person of the Leader, which becomes inseparable from the definition of the nation and the national consciousness of their respective sects. Accordingly, because of the consolidated identities of leader and nation, removing a leader or even attempting to define Lebanon without a leader is not a simple task. Such redefinition entails a critical return to history, or rather to the histories of Lebanon, simply because the contemporary structure of governance predates our current leaders.

The state of Lebanon was not conceived to resolve or address religious tensions, rather it was designed to contain them, to package them in a “developed” and “civilised” (i.e. capitalist) incarnation. The tensions between religions that were used by the Ottomans as a governance strategy in Mount Lebanon were adapted by France as the basis of social, political and economic organisation of Greater Lebanon. This repackaging of already violent social structures happened mainly around two interrelated lines: the production of a political system and the production of leaders as the functional unit of that system. A strategy best summed up by a passage from Maurice Barrès’s Une enquête aux pays du Levant published in 1923:

How will we be able to form for ourselves an intellectual elite with which we can work (…)? How will we create relationships with a view towards preparing the way for agreements and treaties which would be the desirable form taken by our political future (in the Orient)? All these things are finally all about soliciting in these strange peoples the taste for maintaining contact with our intelligence, even though this taste may, in fact, come out of their own sense of their national destiny. (Quoted by Said, 1978)

This intellectual elite that Barrès aspired to find in between us was not different from the already established religious leaderships. The local elite, the religious feudal leaders were transformed into a (religious) national bourgeoisie (Fanon, 1961). Families that had already accumulated wealth, influence, and power during the Ottoman times, became capitalists: traders, industrialists, bankers, and politicians. Their social and financial status was reinforced and legitimised as political leaders in an empty neo-liberal state, thus institutionalising the double bind condition for political leadership in Lebanon: external legitimacy acquired by the association with a colonial power; internal legitimacy acquired by assuming a role in the regional religious choreography.

The conditions of political legitimacy in Lebanon have changed with seismic historical events such as independence, the civil war, the end of the civil war, the retreat of the Syrian army, and the Israeli wars. In the same way, the revolution of October 2019 and the explosion of August 4th 2020 will have a significant effect on the structure of the Lebanese society. With each of these events, leadership is redefined, and with this redefinition, the group of people involved in the governance of Lebanon is expanded to include a new type of leader. New Leaders are added to the leaders that governed before them, reshaping the political landscape, and redefining the ways the state apparatus functions. In turn this amended political system provides the framework within which the different forms of leadership morph to form a coherent class, accordingly, redefining the conditions of being part of that political class. From the kernel of feudal lords, to the national bourgeoisie that includes people with wealth in addition to feudal families, to the expansion of the circle of these families with the independence, to the emergence of militia and military leaders during the civil war, to a new wave of capitalists that surfaced with the New Lebanon of the 90s. The way we choose our leaders have changed according to the local political discourse, and the neo-colonial powers that support our leaders have changed according to the shifts of interests in the region. The internal relation of the leader with his or her people, and the external relation of the leader with a global power reflect the shifts of the circumstances of the time. What remains the same is the double bind condition to political influence that positions the leader in-between a neo-colonial power from one side and the Lebanese citizens and residents from the other, in a hierarchical structure that allows flows of power to travel from the top towards the bottom, while capital flows the other way. Capital and labour are extracted from marginalised peoples through the political class in the direction of a foreign sponsor, and/or the interests of neo-colonial powers are enforced through political alliances with the political class which translates these interests into policies imposed on disempowered bodies.

Because of the foundational structure of the state of Lebanon, political leadership cannot acquire official legitimacy without fulfilling both the internal and the external binds of the historically set of conditions of leadership. In this sense, the legitimacy of new ‘revolutionary’ leaders presupposes the same social fragmentation, and the same clientalist relations that led to the present crisis and its resulting upheaval. For this reason, when approaching the topic of leadership, whether relating to current traditional leaders or future revolutionary ones, it is important to be aware of the power dynamics operating in between the fragments of Lebanese society. The structural problem of the late capitalist world is not only in its leadership, but in the forms of social organisation that produce hierarchies favourable to the abuse of power.

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