Lebanon has a long way to go

There are signs that order and stability have returned to Lebanon, after years of bloody civil war and chaos capped by a massive and destructive Israeli invasion. One repeatedly hears the refrain that feuding Lebanese factions have had their fill of fighting and are now prepared to bury the hatchet in the interests of tranquility and national unity.

The new Lebanese president, Amin Gemayel, has made an auspicious start, displaying a refreshing enthusiasm and an apparently firm commitment to national reconciliation. The presence of foreign peacekeeping forces in the Beirut area is an effective, if symbolic and transitory, pacifier. The United States is acting determinedly to try to bring about the evacuation of foreign forces, while seeking to strengthen the Lebanese Army as an internal security force. A major international reconstruction effort is under way to rebuild Lebanon's infrastructure.

Yet, Lebanon still has a long way to go. No one should be misled by the current quiescence of the Muslim population in the face of setbacks to the National Movement, a coalition of Muslim parties, and the resurgence of Maronite Christian power. Deep-seated grievances, resentments, and suspicions remain. Until the root problems which contributed to the violent civil war are effectively addressed, Lebanon faces an uncertain future.

What are these problems?

One problem is known as ''Lebanese confessionalism.'' This is a proportionate sharing of political power and government portfolios between the religious communities. For many years, following Lebanon's independence from France in 1943, this system preserved a delicate sectarian balance. It also legitimized the dominance of the Maronite Christians, at first the majority. Trouble developed when the Muslim birthrate forged ahead to the point that the Maronite Christians no longer even commanded a plurality. Yet they retained their dominant position. Sectarian tensions peaked during the civil war to the extent that a Lebanese risked being killed outright merely on the basis of the religion stamped on his identity card.

While the mood in Lebanon today favors sectarian reconciliation - and in any case enlightened Lebanese have never shared the Muslim-Christian antipathies of the militants - there is a danger that unless the confessional system is abolished or at least substantially modified sectarian tensions could recur. In 1976, when President Sarkis was elected, the Christians and Muslims accepted a proposal to alter the 6-5 Christian-Muslim ratio in the civil service to 5-5. But this new formula was never implemented and it may no longer be acceptable.

A second factor contributing to the Lebanese debacle has been the big gap between the very rich and the very poor. Lebanon became a freewheeling society where a great deal of money, virtually untaxable, was made and millionaires thrived. Four percent of the population controlled one-third of the wealth. Meanwhile, the government made only feeble attempts to bring about social and tax reform.

Those who suffered the most were the Muslim Shiites, who by the 1970s had become the largest sect and who mainly lived in southern Lebanon. Their indigent plight has been largely ignored by the central government, but what made their conditions worse and finally intolerable were the border flare-ups between the Israelis and the Palestinians, who used Shiite-dominated territory as bases from which to infiltrate and fire across into Israel. Heavy Israeli retaliatory attacks caused tens of thousands of Shiites to flee north to Beirut, where they formed a jobless, dissident political pressure group. They became ripe for leftist influence, intensely resenting the conspicuous consumption of the Lebanese elite.

A third source of trouble has been the existence of an oligarchy of rival feudal leaders, who, though operating within the fabric of the democratic system , have monopolized Lebanese politics and maintained themselves in power by blatant bribery and manipulation. Parliamentary delegates have sold themselves to the highest bidder and have accorded more loyalty to their feudal overlords than to the state.

The tight control exercised over Lebanese politics by this feudal oligarchy has discouraged fresh leadership from emerging. What is needed in Lebanon today is a new generation of leaders, as well as a different breed. The existing leadership is either in its 60s and 70s (e.g. Sa'ab Salaam, Chafiq Wazzan, Rashid Karameh) or has inherited leadership from traditional family political power (e.g. Amin Gemayel, Walid Jumblatt). Whether such a new look can come to Lebanese politics is problematic. If it does not, modern educated Lebanese youth may be added to the ranks of the disaffected.

The fourth factor which contributed to the Lebanese crisis was extensive outside Arab involvement. This occurred when rival Lebanese political leaders were driven to seek financial and political support outside the country in order to advance their local political fortunes. In the process, especially among the Muslims, internal rivalries became reflections of much wider conflicts between different Arab regimes. Thus, Lebanese politics became a microcosm of the Arab states' political rivalries.

For example, Saudi Arabia at one time supported the Lebanese rightists, Libya and Iraq supported the leftist factions, and Syria supported one group or another. Libya in particular, led by its unstable leader, Qaddafi, and with oil money to burn, poured in literally millions of dollars - especially during the civil war. In some ways Lebanon became the ideological cockpit of the Arab world.

The fifth factor, the spark that ultimately set off the Lebanese tinderbox, was the heavy-handed and aggressive Palestinian military presence. The activities of the Palestinian guerrilla forces, added to other grievances, caused the situation to explode into a bloody civil war. Claiming sovereignty not only over the various Palestinian camps but over much of the surrounding area as well, they challenged the Lebanese authorities, and, in particular, aroused the concern of the Christian Maronites. For a number of reasons, the Lebanese Army was unequal to the task of suppressing them.

What aggravated the situation was the Palestinian-Israeli cycle of violence. When in 1973 the Israeli Air Force began blasting Palestinian refugee camps deep inside Lebanon by air, the guerrillas converted them into armed fortresses and arsenals filled with weapons (subsequently to be used in the civil war). Ironically, the Syrians - who later (in 1976) were to fight the Palestinians in Lebanon - provided many of these weapons, as well as the requisite training.

Christian hardliners, meanwhile, seeing that the Lebanese Army was powerless to control the well-armed Palestinian guerrillas, armed their own militant groups for self-defense out of fear that the Christian community would be eclipsed by the increasingly potent Palestinian presence. In turn, the Muslims, including especially the Lebanese left, became alarmed at this show of right-wing Maronite muscle and started turning to the Palestinians and outside sources for arms for their own protection. Thus a vicious circle developed and the seeds for a bloody civil war were sown.

For the time being Lebanon's Palestinian threat has been contained, assuming that the some 6,000 Palestinian militants in the Tripoli area and the Bekaa Valley are to be withdrawn. But, as time passes, who is going to prevent the Palestinian militants from infiltrating back into southern Lebanon? The urge to return will be intensified by the continued presence in Lebanon of many of their families - some 400,000 altogether. UNIFIL is not designed to fight pitched battles; the current international peacekeeping force in Beirut is certainly not going to be deployed to the south on a combat mission; and the Lebanese Army is still not up to the task.

Regrettably, until the Lebanese Army evolves into an effective security force , which includes shaping an acceptable sectarian balance within the previously Maronite-dominated military, or until the Palestine problem is solved, the Israelis are probably going to have to remain in southern Lebanon indefinitely. As long as the Israelis remain so will the Syrians.

Since the Palestine problem is less susceptible to an early solution than the problem of rehabilitating the Lebanese Army, it is imperative that President Gemayel, with the support of the Lebanese Parliament, move energetically to implement the military reorganization plan which was drawn up a couple of years ago. This, together with a beefed-up US military aid program, should succeed in converting the Lebanese Army into a reasonably effective internal security force within the next year or two.

Until then, Lebanon will probably have to tolerate the continued presence of foreign forces on its soil while, one hopes, its government begins to tackle the root causes of the civil war.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.