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The legacy of empire behind Lebanon’s explosion

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The devastating blast in Beirut highlighted Lebanon’s rotten political system. This sectarian set-up was built by Western imperialism, writes Nick Clark
Issue 2717
Devastation in Beirut after the blast in the Lebanese capital last week
Devastation in Beirut after the blast in the Lebanese capital (Pic: Voice of America (VOA) )

People in Lebanon rightly draw a line from the devastating explosion in the capital city Beirut to the rule of a corrupt elite.

The explosion encapsulates a rotten political system in crisis. The vast majority of ordinary people in Lebanon are suffering because of the hostility and indifference of those at the top.

Even before the explosion hit, Lebanon was plunging deep into an economic crash.

Up to 60 percent of its population was expected to be in poverty by the end of this year.

Lebanon’s ruling parties hoped to resolve their crisis with more of the punishing austerity and free market policies that impoverished so many in the first place.

And though a mass ­movement forced the resignation of former prime minister Saad Hariri last year, and waves of protests continued, the system has so far remained intact.

Many of the protesters associate Lebanon’s confessional political system—where positions in government are handed out on the basis of religious sect—with corruption. They rightly want rid of it.

But it’s sickening to see ­governments of countries that helped to form, prop up and benefit from that system now claiming to oppose it.

When French president Emmanuel Macron toured Beirut last week, he made sure he was filmed telling protesters the aid he promised “will not go to corrupt hands”.


He demanded reforms and a new “political pact,” promising to return on 1 September to “take my political responsibility” if this doesn’t happen.

Why does the French ­president feel such “political responsibility” for Lebanon?

Because France played a major role in setting up Lebanon’s system in the first place and then propping it up over decades.

When the victorious imperial powers carved up the Middle East after the First World War, France wrangled Syria and Lebanon for itself.

By that time French capitalists had already turned Lebanon’s developing economy almost entirely towards silk production for export to France.

Maronite Christians, who lived in the mountains where Lebanon’s silk factories were based, came to dominate Lebanon’s capitalist class.

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So the French colonial rulers imposed a political system that divided positions on a religious basis.

This ensured the political dominance of the Maronite capitalists and aimed to divide ordinary people—Christians, Muslims and Druze even after France left. Independence was formally declared in 1943.

But just days before, France arrested Lebanese president Bishara al-Khuri and virtually his entire government for trying to pass laws undermining its influence.

French soldiers stayed in Lebanon for another three years.

And even after they finally left in 1946, Western ­imperialist powers used military force to make sure Lebanon had the political system they wanted. In 1958 a new movement demanded that Lebanon join with the Arab nationalist governments of Egypt and Syria that challenged US control of the Middle East.

In response the US sent some 14,000 troops to prop up the Western-backed government.

It was a foretaste of what was to come some 17 years later, when resistance against Lebanon’s rulers combined with the Palestinian liberation struggle. Palestinian refugees were another poor and politically marginalised section of Lebanon’s population.

Tens of thousands of them had fled to Lebanon after being expelled from Palestine when Israel was created in 1948 (see right).

The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) organised among them and from 1971 used Lebanon as a base for guerrilla struggle against Israel to the south.

They had a common cause with the secular nationalists and left wing groups that organised among the poorest sections of Lebanese people.

Fighting between the PLO and the Christian fascist Phalange party erupted into civil war in 1975. The alliance between the PLO and the left posed an existential challenge to the Lebanese political system.

They were beaten when competing states intervened to rescue it.

The Syrian regime of Hafez al‑Assad, which wanted to control the Palestinian resistance, was encouraged by the US to invade.

Syrian soldiers defeated the left, pushed the Palestinians back into refugee camps and occupied a big chunk of west and north Lebanon.

Then in 1978 and 1982 Israel invaded to try and crush the PLO. Its 1982 invasion culminated in horrific massacres in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps.

Israeli soldiers surrounded the camps and prevented anyone from leaving.

Then, with Israeli ­coordination, Phalange militias entered and began killing indiscriminately. They murdered as many as 3,500 Palestinians.

Israel occupied ­southern Lebanon. In these conditions, the militant movement Hizbollah was founded and became the focus of resistance to the Israeli occupation.

It was based mainly among Lebanon’s Shia Muslim minority, carved out and particularly impoverished by the sectarian system.

Rather than challenge the basis of the political system in Lebanon, Hizbollah wants to fit into it, and relies on backing from Syria and Iran


But its successes in ­fighting the Israeli occupation gave it much wider support. Israel ended the occupation in 2000.

Hizbollah is more than just a militia. It even runs its own schools, hospitals, clinics and education programmes.

But rather than challenge the basis of the political system in Lebanon, it wants to fit into it, and relies on backing from Syria and Iran.

Again, Western powers have interfered to keep Lebanon under their control. In 2005 for example they backed the “Cedar Revolution”—a series of demonstrations against the Syrian occupation.

This was led by right wing parties backed by the West. Syria ended the occupation in 2005 and the US hoped it was a sign that it could turn the tide against Hizbollah.


But there were also mass demonstrations against US interference that went far beyond support for Hizbollah. Lebanese revolutionary socialist Bassem Chit, reporting from Beirut for Socialist Worker in 2005, quoted one young demonstrator Maher.

“I agree that Syrian troops should leave the country, but I don’t want them to be replaced by US troops.

“The Israelis are the biggest terrorists in the region. I want Syrian troops to leave the country, but I don’t want there to be a racist war against the Syrians, the Palestinians, or other Lebanese communities.

“I don’t agree with everything Hizbollah says, but I feel I need to have my voice heard.”

Demonstrations also turned against the free market policies of the Western-backed ­government that enriched a few but left many impoverished.

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Hizbollah increased its ­representation in the Lebanese parliament in 2005 elections and for the first time joined the government.

Israel invaded Lebanon once again in 2006, this time hoping to crush Hizbollah. Its plan involved widespread destruction of Lebanese civilian ­buildings and infrastructure.

But it failed. The widespread support for Hizbollah’s resistance to Israel, which went far beyond the Shia population, and solidarity among Lebanese people across religious lines, gave Israel its first humiliating defeat.

Hizbollah had mass support. But it was caught in a contradiction. On one hand it had the support of people who suffered at the hands of imperialism and Lebanon’s political system.

But its increasing role in the government, and its reliance on Syria and Iran, meant it would turn against mass movements.

As revolutions swept the Middle East in 2010 and 2011, Hizbollah fought on the side of the Syrian regime’s counter revolution.

And as ordinary Lebanese people united against the government and corruption in last year’s mass movement, Hizbollah thugs attacked their demonstrations.

Ultimately Hizbollah became part of the system it was a reaction against. Corruption isn’t unique to Lebanon—and ­sectarianism doesn’t run as deep as those who rely on it would like to claim.

Time and again ordinary people have united across religious divides to challenge that system.

This sort of unity comes through struggles from below.

We saw it in the movement that took to the streets last year. People demanded an entirely new political system.

Popular chants included, “Revolution,” and, “All of them means all of them”—meaning they wanted to get rid of all the corrupt elites across sectarian divides.

Taking on that corruption doesn’t just mean ending sectarianism—it means challenging the system and the imperialist powers who rely on it.

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