Lebanon, the litmus test of the Middle East. Gianni Bonini and Lorenzo Somigli have a conversation with Maroun el Moujabber

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Visto il grande interesse, Il Tazebao è lieto di proporre in inglese l’intervista a Maroun El Moujabber uscita ieri. Un sentito ringraziamento a Irene Ivanaj per l’attenta e fedele traduzione.

“Democracy in Lebanon is at risk. Without Christians in the Middle East, fundamentalism is bound to be on the rise. The killing of Hariri? Chaos started with that incident”.

Since the explosion on the 4th August 2020, the world has become aware of Lebanon again, after years of discontinuous attention, as a result of the war in Syria, which unloaded 1 million and a half refugees on a country where 75% of the population already live in poverty, out of 4 million inhabitants. Not bad. Lebanon is fragile, on the verge of continuous instability that, in the last 10 years, has already engulfed countries such as Libya and Syria.

Gianni Bonini and Lorenzo Somigli had a conversation with special guest Maroun El Moujabber, Senior Officer of the Istituto Agronomico di Bari (versione italiana), part of CIHEAM, the Centre International de Hautes études Agronomiques Méditerranéennes. This international organisation founded in 1962 gathers 13 countries of the Mediterrenean and constitutes the crowning jewel of Italian cooperation in the Mediterrenean. Il Tazebao is honoured to host what is actually a lot closer to a geopolitical analysis to an exchange of thoughts, thanks to Maroun’s graciousness. About this topic’s historical background, Gianni Bonini wrote an article for the journal Il Nodo di Gordio, n. 13, January-April 2017 edition, “Where do we go now? A magical potion called Lebanon”. In his book, “Il Mediterraneo Nuovo” (Samizdat, 2018), the institutional framework and reforms are also discussed with Maroun. It was a phase of comparative stability, which deluded one into thinking one could look forward. Sadly, this wasn’t the case, peace in the Middle East is a dream, or a brief pause in the middle of a permanent nightmare.

How did you find Lebanon recently?

We heard from you when you were in Byblos, a couple months ago, for Christmas, and you were very alarmed at the economic crisis and its political implications. 

“Lebanon is going through a deep crisis. Now, 100 years after the birth of Greater Lebanon, there is a very real risk that it might not maintain this form of state for a variety of reasons. The financial crisis was a result of the choices that were made after the war in 1990 and has made the situation worse. The politicians have proved themselves unable to rule in the name of the people, while defending its privileges strenuously. If the situation will remain unchanged, there will be no way out within the democratic framework, while an extreme solution such as a coup wouldn’t stand a chance. The middle class has taken a blow and the political situation is still unstable, the institutional equilibrium is shaky and families are suffering from high interest rates, limited access to financial instruments and restrictions on international transactions”.

We said on more than one occasion that the presence of the Iranian proxy Hezbollah is excessively pervasive in Lebanon. Alert and prized Lebanese American analyst, Raghida Derham, never fails to underline this scourge. Indeed, she launched the alarm on the possibility of a renewed nuclear deal on Biden’s behalf. The first time I was in Lebanon in 2005, during Rafiq Hariri’s funeral rites immediately after the terrorist attack, the seafront promenade in front of Hotel St. Georges  was closed, and I had the opportunity of visiting Sabra and Shatila, and we made a contribution to the nursery on behalf of the Craxi Foundation. At the time, there was an “air of mistrust” among the Lebanese towards the Palestinians who had arrived in 1948 and who at the time were half a million, distributed in different refugee camps. They were considered to have caused the civil war that ended with the Ta’if Agreement in 1990. I remember the Italian ambassador Franco Mistretta, who spoke to us about Hezbollah and feared the crisis that would then turn into the armed conflict of 2006, whose effect was to legitimise the Party of God in Lebanese politics. It is a decisive time.

The financial crisis serves just the purpose of increasing Hezbollah’s popularity…

“The crisis is also a way of putting pressure on Hezbollah. This strategy was put into practice by Donald Trump and his allies, especially in the Gulf, but I wonder if this pressure is likely to hand the country over to Hezbollah. We, the Lebanese, are all suffering, regardless of political and religious affiliation. But Hezbollah is tolerating the situation better than most, and I’ll tell you why. Hezbollah’s supporters are very resilient: their living standards are low on average, and as such they’re able to survive such shocks to the system. Whoever thought they’d manage to organise a revolt against Hezbollah forgot this detail. Hezbollah has been embargoed for years and has managed to build a grey economy: they receive funds from abroad, they have their own banks, and they decide the value of the dollar on the black market. Recent events have made them stronger, and they’re providing assistance. Time is in their favour, they’re also growing demographically. It is deeply rooted around the Israeli borders, in the Tyre area, in the Golan Heights between Lebanon and Syria where the Druze population led by Walid Jumblatt is struggling with political survival, among the peasants in the Bekaa valley and Baalbek, also known as Heliopolis among the Greeks and Romans. In the area around the international airport of Beirut”.

Lebanon has always been influenced by international balances of power in general, and Middle Eastern ones in particular. It’s a sort of litmus test since the times of Sargon the Great, maybe even before then, when the founder of the Akkad dynasty “washed his blades in the Upper Sea”, the Mediterrenean. You rightly noted that Trump, beyond the Abraham Accords that normalised the relationship between UAE, Bahrain and Israel, hasn’t started any new wars, and instead has seeked a normalisation of the relations with Russia and Turkey. Let’s not be misled by the tough talk, the coup against Erdogan in July 2016, blamed on Fethullah Gulen, happened before he was sworn in. USA-Turkey relations were already awful. In these days, the US is building a new outpost in Ain Dewar, around Hasaka, in the North-East of Syria. As the magazine Limes informs us, NATO intends to “send a further 4000-5000 soldiers on the field for military training”.

Does Biden want to continue dealing with the MENA region along the same line that brought about the destruction of the Arab Spring?

“Lebanon is in a strategic position and it’s rich in natural resources, making it an appealing target for regional and global actors. Now more than ever, with the Chinese Silk Road. With this political and financial crisis, the risk of foreign meddling is very real. Every time the government meets to discuss to pass laws on the gas fields in the sea just off our shore our prime minister resigns. It might be a coincidence…

We mentioned the US. I noted they make use of several tactics. A part of the US establishment wants to sever the strategic alliance between Teheran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut; another persuasion wants to sever the Sunni axis, starting with Turkey. If I was a European politician I would try to sever ties between Turkey and the Gulf states. After the Second Gulf War, the Middle East was not the most important area to the US. For Trump it was mainly a matter of economic interest. Will the new administration’s strategy be to stamp out specific hotbeds, in accordance with the interest in the Indo-Pacific area? In this vein, Turkey and Iran, as regional powers, play an important role. Turkey has a hold over Central Asian countries that may be useful and want to stand their ground on a regional scale. Iran, in the meantime, is at an intersection with Russia and China and it uses its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to deal with both. It’s a winning strategy because it uses the weaknesses of its opponents. Iran is also clear on what they can offer the US in order to contrast the rise of China. Russia is on the same path as before the end of the Cold War, adjusting their strength based on specific strategic interests: they keep their backyard under control, holding their own and defending the borders of the late USSR, without forgoing any chance of penetrating warm waters. Indeed, they have solid control over Cyrenaica. In Armenia this was their strategy, placating the Turkish and de facto annexing Yerevan”.

You described a complex puzzle, growing ever more complicated, in the case of Yemen.

On the Red Sea, it is a passage between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. Giulio Sapelli, italian geopolitical analyst, gives China its due weight: demographically a giant, it is still trailing behind in terms of economic and military power. We agree with this view, because we don’t believe in the Silk Road Economic Belt as a strategy, and because we think China’s successes ought to be measured in Africa. We’ll see how the situation with the port of Taranto will evolve, but the Vatican is more worried about Africa. In the continent, Catholicism is up against Chinese colonisation, which exports workforce as well as financial and technological resources. Mesopotamia remains a bridge between Asia and the Euro-Mediterrenean world. The ancient Romans of both the Eastern and Western Empires dealt with it during the times of Crassus and Marc Anthony right up until the times of the caliphate, the Parthians and the Sasanians kept the Eastern front of the Greco-Roman koinè in turmoil. Ottomans kept the peace for a while before Gertrude Bell and Thomas Edward Lawrence came along and the Royal Navy started using oil instead of coal.

“L’Iraq has always been central in conflicts, for the strategic position between East and West, and for its oil reserves. With the Second Gulf War, Americans got involved directly – the bargain aboard the USS Quincy between Ibn al-Saud and Roosevelt took place in February 1945 immediately after Yalta. And the US started behaving like a main player. It might have been a good or a bad move, we’ll be able to tell in 50 years’ time. But I’m living the resulting instability that has involved Arab states heavily. ISIS has started carrying out its military operations, a convenient situation for the various players. IS magically reappeared in Marib while it was under Houthi attack just as the war in Yemen appeared to be losing intensity and on the 11th February the European Parliament adopted the usual humanitarian resolution. We’ll see the Christian component disappear in Lebanon, exactly as has happened in Iraq: in 2003 there were a million and a half in the country, and now there’s fewer than 500,000. Not to mention what happened in Syria and Egypt. No Lebanese politician is doing anything about it, sadly, recently the Church has started to try to do what they can with the help of the Pope. We’re hoping the Biden administration will commit to putting out the hotbeds of ethnic and religious intolerance, because they haven’t stopped growing in the past few years”.

The theme of Christians in the Middle East, the land which saw the first communities of disciples and which preserves its historical and linguistic heritage – in Maaloula they resisted the vicious desecration by ISIS still speaks Aramaic – is central. The West, so sensitive to the rights of Navalny, is indifferent to their fate. A sly sense of secularisation that emptied out European churches and spirit prevails. “Mother Fortress”, a beautiful Italian film about Agnes, a Carmelite nun organising a Syrian aid mission, has seen a subtle boycott because it contrasted too much with the official narrative, the same narrative that made us suddenly withdraw from Damascus in 2012. We can’t let Putin embody Christian interests. But in a few days the Pope is visiting Iraq. 

“There is not a single village in Lebanon where the presence of Christians, of Maronites, doesn’t function as a societal glue. This is what we are, the determining component of the country’s identity as a civil society, without us Lebanon would inevitably lose its cultural and political autonomy that makes it one, a historical mediator between East and West. Before mentioning February 2004, I’m convinced that without the killing of Hariri, the Arab Spring could never have happened. The preparation of chaos started there. Rafiq Hariri was an extraordinary character, he embodied the balance between faiths, the optimism of reconstruction after the civil war, moderate pragmatism and sovereignty, while also being able to talk to global powers. It was a huge loss. But we must move forward, to a socioeconomic framework that might bring a modicum of stability.

This is why I push for a return to agriculture – it’s unbelievable but there is no public planning of the land in Lebanon – for small businesses, or for the employment of women. These are the projects CIHEAM is involved in: stabilising rural areas is important now and critical for tomorrow. The demographic drop comes from afar and does not only involve Christians that will, if the trend doesn’t change, find themselves critically outnumbered. Maybe it is even convenient to European countries if they all migrate to the Old Continent. In my nephew’s school the kids graduating were almost all Christian: 75 out of 100 are already abroad. The coup of the 4th August – I read about the families of the victims protesting in the streets for there to be a court case – has further accelerated the diaspora. We have 8 nephews, 5 are already abroad and the others are waiting to leave. None of them return with a life plan in Lebanon. countrymen, both Sunni and Shi’a, would like to redefine the social equilibrium, to the detriment of the Christian and Druze population, strong in Syria and Israel where they also serve in the military.

Christians have a critical role in Lebanese society, as I already said, because they act as a glue between societal components. Without them, fundamentalism in the Middle East is destined to rise. Europeans, having lost political sway in the Middle East, haven’t understood much if they believe this issue doesn’t concern them. Europe, because of its history and its cultural richness, would have to be invented if it didn’t exist. Let’s hope it regains some awareness of its role in the Mediterrean”.

Thank you Maroun, for this nice and relaxed chat, that is worth much more than other external readings of the Lebanese situation in which you live, a situation which you are able to communicate. He who knows Beirut, cannot forget it and this is an occasion for our readers to go to the heart of Middle Eastern events and history that so directly concern us.

La versione in italiano dell’intervista de Il Tazebao a Maroun El Moujabber

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