The Tragedy of Lebanon

Lebanon is the country where I was born and raised until the age of eight. It is a place I returned to regularly to visit an ailing mother, a place of family, close friends, and familiarity in the deepest sense. Indeed, it was where my ‘self’ was forged as a child, leaving a strong enough mark to spur me on to decades of work in the Middle East as a diplomat and mediator. It is also a place of great beauty, deep mountain valleys, sunsets over the sea, and silver moonrises over the hills. Yet all this beauty has been marred by the culture and politics of the 20th and 21st centuries.

In 2015, there was a garbage crisis in Lebanon. For weeks, there were no pick ups, only pile-ups. The country stank, and the waste seeped into the ground and the underlying water. Solutions were available, but they were not taken; money through contracts was at stake as various groups vied for their cut. That event was a symbol of the corruption and incompetent governance that afflict the country, but it was only a foreshadowing of what was to come. 

After the garbage crisis, in quick succession, came forest fires of an apocalyptic quality, a people’s revolution against the corruption and bad governance, then, economic and financial collapse that led to the loss of life savings. And then followed a monster explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020 that left the Lebanese and the capital city damaged and deeply traumatised.

All of this took place in a context of chronic regional instability, including the endless threat of war with Israel, as well as the presence of one-and-a-half-million Syrian refugees among a population of five to six million. The explosion of August 4, however, was particular. It seemed like the death knell for a long-tortured country – I felt a sense of mourning for Lebanon not unlike what one feels for the passing of a loved one.

This was a long time coming. Most Lebanese were caught up in the day to day, trying to make ends meet, while their leaders were busy in the drive for greed, or glory. On the surface, as many visitors proclaim, Lebanon had the veneer of sophistication, fine restaurants (indeed, very fine), a cosmopolitan style and, in certain parts of Beirut, even a kind of artsy funkiness. The country can cast a romantic spell through its apparent mix of east and west, of neither here nor there, an illusion that insinuated that all was possible – including our worst excesses.

Beneath that veneer, matters were not at all well. Once, Ivan Tyrrell and I gave a presentation to a workshop in Beirut (he through Skype) to introduce analysts, officials and journalists to a better understanding of the psychological root causes of violent extremism: we suggested the human givens approach as a basis for thinking about a way forward.

Afterwards, I returned home by taxi, and the driver began to tell me about the local politics. “Lebanese politicians,” he said, “do everything except care about the human being. Everything is done but what we need. We are all in a state of total anxiety and we can’t function.” He was desperate for some signal that his government cared about him, his children, and their future.

This was exactly what Ivan and I had been telling the elites the day before: if citizens’ basic needs are not met, anxiety and high emotion and all sorts of odd behaviour will result, from ‘gilets jaunes’, to Tahrir to, in extremis, violent extremism. What has happened in Lebanon since is a testament to this truth. It is a country bereft of any consideration for citizens’ basic needs, material and emotional, and the result is revolt and chaos.

Although innate emotional needs constitute a life force impelling us to be fulfilled, these needs can be hijacked, denied, deformed and warped in a thousand and one ways – and, sadly, there are many ways to ruin a country.

In the case of Lebanon, first and foremost there is corruption. Leaders steal and gerrymander official positions and stitch up contracts to maximise personal profit. This denudes the public purse, so services can no longer be provided, and sows distrust throughout society. But Lebanon also has a specific governance problem. It is a competing pack of sects, and groups within each sect, gangs within gangs – who also happen to run a country. They are in an endless negotiation over the spoils, occasionally interrupted by short-lived governments, until there are no spoils left.

This eternal horse trading, to which most Lebanese had until recently implicitly subscribed, is interrupted by another horseman of the apocalypse, war. One of Lebanon’s neighbours, Syria or Israel, spills its will into the country, usually abetted by one of the aforementioned Lebanese sect-gangs. And you don’t have to be a neighbour to join the party; you can reach in from a distance: Iran has a full-blown heavily armed militia in Lebanon, Hizballah, that is more powerful than the Lebanese state. Hizballah was critical in resisting Israeli occupation; however, it is today a military power involved across the region, from Yemen to Syria, and domestically it is coercive and hegemomic. Many Lebanese do not share Hizballah’s mission, but they have to live with its consequences.

“You can’t have a country club beside a missile base,” I would tell the Lebanese – ie their lives of hedonistic splendour could not continue if Hizballah was the frontline of regional struggle between Israel and Iran (as well as Iran and some Arab states). Sooner or later, funds would stop arriving because most of the donors and investors happen to be Hizballah’s enemies. Between the hijack of the country for ideological ends, the gridlock of governance, and the corrosion of corruption, Lebanon is a kind of mafia-state where no one is focused on getting citizens’ needs met – or at least not getting them met well.

These factors came together in the port explosion. Although the exact sequence of events that caused it will likely never be known, we can link it to a nefarious alliance between the Hizballah militia, which uses Beirut’s port as an entry point for its military needs and stores munitions and explosives throughout the country, corrupt politicians, and no governance.

As we see in Lebanon, and across the world, people will fight, protest and overturn order in an assertion of that ignored law: unmet needs equal anxiety and revolt. Indeed, during the most intense demonstrations in autumn 2019, and again after the August explosion, the whole range of Lebanese society was on the street, young and old, rich and poor, people from every sect – I bet that taxi driver I had met was there as well.

What specifically were the basic innate needs unmet in Lebanon?

• The massive explosion was only the most recent manifestation of the chronic state of physical and emotional insecurity that Lebanese live in. There has been war, or its threat, on and off, but mostly on, from 1975 until today.

• Lebanese do not have control over their lives. Their most basic needs, such as electricity and water, are not met because the mechanisms necessary to supply them are left to rot. And the country can descend into war without any reference to the interests of citizens, indeed, without the government’s involvement.

• A sense of national belonging does come in spikes of pride that elicit tears and shivers up the spine. But these pass, and, when resources are to be divided, or decisions about regional relations are to be taken, coercion, intractability and cheating kick in.

• Lebanese are also the playthings of regional or global powers. Some of them are enthusiastically party to this, but many feel ignored by a world with larger agendas and concerns, and their need for status is diminished.

Ironically, one of Lebanon’s peculiar characteristics has served it well in the past. The Lebanese are tough, resilient and will adapt to almost anything; Like the Bruce Willis character in the famous action film, it is a kind of die-hard country. This ability to survive the worst of conditions, and to ‘die hard’ again and again, can displace the search for more effective alternatives. Today, that resilience is fraying badly, and there is another meaning to ‘dying hard’: to have a difficult death.

There are other ways to have our needs met than ideology, the game of thrones and the grab.

In a likely distant future, there will be another kind of Lebanon, one to be built bottom up. It does not have to be a copy-paste of a Western model of rights and institutions, a framework that is falling apart partly because of an autism towards the basics of human nature, and a lack of common sense. Lebanon can go its own way. For example, it can become a decentralised country, where the various sects and faiths live social differences while sharing a ‘commons’, such as airports, ports, and ‘Ras Beirut’, that part of the capital where sects all intermingle.

Lebanese would then have their country back. And they can differ, haggle and tussle ad infinitum, as humans will always do, but in a more tolerable way than the sinister concoction that Lebanon has become.

Many Lebanese harken back to the ideals of Gibran Khalil Gibran, the author of The Prophet and many other works, to dream of a better nation. Little known is that the world-famous writer had a Lebanese mentor called Mikhail Naimy. Like Gibran, he wrote in both English and Arabic, and is author of The Book of Mirdad, set in a monastery in the mountains (a metaphorical Lebanon). In it he writes:

“Man walked out of Eden through the twin gate of Good and Evil; he shall walk in through the single gate of understanding.” That cannot be but an understanding of ourselves and what we are made of, our innate, most basic needs, the very basis of a more human politics. No country needs to die hard, again and again – and again.


John Bell is director of The Conciliators Guild.

This article was first published in the Human Givens Journal, Volume 27, No 2, 2020.

The Conciliators Guild is presenting its second online course entitled ‘Context is Everything.’ It will explore how working and living more in context can help us perceive social and political relations through a wider lens, and achieve greater meaning in our lives. The course will also look at three examples of working in and out of context: in diplomacy, the media and bureaucracy.

The webinar runs on January 27, 2021, and will be led by the co-founders of The Conciliators Guild. Click here for more details.

(Above photo by Fadi Chammas)