In this episode of Roamings and Reflections, Director of Newlines Institute’s Human Security Unit Faysal Itani interviews Flavius Mihaies about his travels through Lebanon. Few would dispute that Middle Eastern minorities face a range of challenges. In some places they are in physical danger, while in others they face political marginalization. In this conversation, Itani and Mihaies discuss the experience of Lebanon’s minorities, particularly its Christian population, and situate these experiences in Lebanon’s ongoing political, economic, and social decay. This follows Mihaies’ visit to Lebanon to research Christian political attitudes and experiences.
Faysal Itani: Hello. Welcome to the latest episode of Contours, a podcast hosted by the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy. My name is Faysal Itani, I’m the director of the Human Security Unit at the Newlines Institute and the deputy editor for Newlines Magazine.
Flavius is writing a book covering his experiences and observations across Syria, and his journalism is focused on the situation and experiences of minorities in the Middle East, specifically he’s done a lot of work on the Kurdish minority, the Azeri minority, and Christians in the Middle East. That work has taken him, finally, to Lebanon, which is the topic of today’s discussion. Flavius, thank you very much for joining us.
Flavius Mihaies: Hello, Faysal, thank you for having me to discuss my recent trip to Lebanon, some observations that hopefully will be of help and interesting to your audience.
FI: You’ve had a fascinating set of experiences in the region, and you’ve chosen a very interesting topic, which is one that’s been controversial, divisive, misunderstood, the situation of minorities in the Middle East, particularly in some volatile places like Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. You’re also a French national, so also interested in the perspective and angle that you bring on the matter from that lens. Today, we are going to talk about a number of things related to Lebanon, which happens also to be my native country, but specifically, we’d like to use this angle or lens of the Christian situation in Lebanon as an entry point into examining a bunch of other issues that are interconnected and explain the country’s trajectory and situation right now.
Now, there’s a good reason to be doing this. Lebanon, after months of having no cabinet and having its prime minister resign, named another prime minister to form a new cabinet. Of course, if you follow Lebanon, you know that the Lebanese economy is a state of slow collapse, the macroeconomic situation is dismal, there is a currency crisis, there is a banking and finance crisis, there is a debt crisis. Basically, just about every monetary and financial crisis you can have at one point converging at the same time. Some people are wondering about what is going to happen to this country. Flavius, why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about the push or inspiration that caused you to tackle this question in the Lebanon context, given that you had spent all this time before in the region in Iraq and Syria, where the question of minorities was also in play.
FM: Thanks, Faysal. Yeah, it’s the origin story of that last trip. Concurrently, and interesting to understanding the issue from minorities, and in that case Christian minorities in the neighboring countries and see how much of the narrative, the situation is similar or different, to what extent, with what I have observed in Syria and Iraq. Practically, I did go through Lebanon to visit Damascus in 2015, but I had only a superficial understanding, and the purpose of the visit was to understand the [00:03:15] motivation, the mindset within the Christian community, as we discussed, and by extension, the civil society [00:03:24] in Lebanon.
FI: Flavius, you’re an outsider, here, you’re not making any pretense of, obviously, being from the region, but you do have a certain perspective that gives you a bird’s-eye view of how – what you got from the situation of these communities and how they were different in Iraq and Syria and Lebanon. We know more broadly, of course, that Christians in the Middle East in a tricky, difficult situation, and that’s been the case for the past few decades, in the context of the creation of the modern Middle Eastern states and their ideologies etc., and now with Islamism, more recently. But I’m curious, to what extent were your impressions, or were your preconceptions about the Christian situation in Lebanon reaffirmed or challenged, coming from places like Iraq and Syria?
FM: That’s an excellent question. I would start by saying the preconception that I had was as much if not more influenced by being in America for so long than being a French citizen. To give you a quick illustration, when I asked a [00:04:22] friend in Congress [00:04:23] [inaudible], what’s the perception of the country of Lebanon [00:04:25] [inaudible], when introduced to a member of Congress, and he said the Marine barracks –
FI: The bombing of ’83?
FM: The bombing of ’83. And it maybe was, I think, an illustration of how poor, and how PTSD America is with its relations with Lebanon and perhaps the opportunity for a richer, more granular understanding of the composition of the political and social landscape. The one manifestation of that relatedly limited glance or recent history, the understanding of recent history in Lebanon because of the demographic, and being on the ground and engaging with the with the communities there, I could have a richer understanding.
FI: You should tell us about the profile of the people you met with, but first I should probably give a bit of context, here. Of course, we are talking about a country that is, by most estimates, at least a third Christian, which is unusual in itself in the Middle East, and you are also talking about a region where, despite the fact that Christians have faced difficulties in Lebanon, however imperfect, this system has given them a place at the table, so to speak, politically, which makes a different sort of situation. And, of course, this is also a context in which the Christians used to dominate the political system until 1990 put an end to the civil war. So, in that light, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the sort of people you spoke to and what kind of questions you posed, basically. What were you trying to find out?
FM: For lack of knowledge, or for experience’s sake, the Christians in the Middle East encapsulated in that, what we call in French, the [00:05:53] [inaudible], and with the recent history and tragic history for Christians and minorities in Syria and Iraq under the same label of persecution and tragedies. To some extent, there is some truth to that. The attrition rate of the Christian community is [00:06:07] in Lebanon, the highest [00:06:09] levels of departures. Members of the community are leaving Lebanon higher than other communities. This is especially true after the explosion.
FI: Since Aug. 8, when there was this industrial explosion, essentially, at the port, you’re saying that the rate of emigration of Christians has been higher?
FM: Yeah, that’s what that’s one of the things that I found. [00:06:28] For example, the attrition, 400 Armenian families left the country within two weeks to go to Armenia, which already then was another place [00:06:37] [inaudible] where you would expect [inaudible] where you would aspire to a better life. Part of this is due to the location of the explosion, the port and the surrounding neighborhoods, the historical Christian neighborhoods. It’s also a very vibrant economic and social base. The damage to – 300-400, even more, meters radius from the explosion. I mean, when you know that [00:07:02] [inaudible]
FI: Ammonium nitrate, yeah?
FM: Ammonium nitrate, yeah. Ammonium nitrate is actually used for IEDs, for its – you can imagine its destructive capability, and the shockwave was felt all the way to where I was in Mount Lebanon, so about 25 minutes’ drive. The explosion itself was destructive, but the shockwave was just as destructive. If you remember [00:07:22] [inaudible], there was, when I worked there – it was two years later – there was still no bars fully revealed, no restaurants fully revealed. Thanks to COVID, there were so few – it was still a tragedy – there were so few victims. Sans COVID, you would have a much higher rate of casualties. And that’s across communities. It has affected the economic center and a vibrant place of Beirut, a historical Christian neighborhood, and that – many see that as the turning point [00:07:48] [inaudible] their safety, and of course it affects those who can move out, and those who can leave, and those usually are higher-educated and financially better off. But they don’t see a future for themselves and their children in the country as it is, and obviously the economic crisis compounded that even more because you can’t use your credit card. So essentially, it is pretty much [00:08:10] [inaudible] in that respect, to go to the black market or go and come back with the [00:08:15] [inaudible] trade, which kept increasing the gap between the official and the black markets and kept increasing during that state. One dollar is 1,400. So when you go to a restaurant today, you have the price if you use your credit card, so you have the official – you are under the official exchange rate, and so a meal would cost – a hamburger costs you $40 with a drink if you use your credit card, vs. $4 or $8 if you have done the exchange and have cash.
FI: So obviously dire situation, and partly because of geography you had a subset of the Christian community that was disproportionately affected. I get that. Having said that, this is a country with a lot of people in it, lot of different perspectives, lot of problems, and when you interact as a journalist with somebody who is Christian, they could answer one of several ways about what the essence of the problem is. First of all, they could give you an answer that has nothing to do with them being Christian, about them being Lebanese and stuck in this situation, versus something that’s more communal, more communitarian. What was your impression of people’s diagnosis of what was going on around them? To what could these things be attributed? Whether you were asking someone who was speaking as a Lebanese Christian or someone who happens to be a Lebanese Christian or but is having a conversation with you?
FM: Absolutely. The – how you see drivers of the crisis a priori determines how you perceive the reason of the conflict and the solution, right? And to give you a bit more background on the similarity and the difference between the other countries I didn’t mention the differences on the attrition rate, but structurally, the Christians are not a minority there. I mean they – you can argue that over time the numbers have [00:09:54] [inaudible], but they have a say in power-sharing, they have a seat at the table, where in Iraq and in Syria you’re talking about [00:10:00] [inaudible] minority, and that of course has consequences in their capability affect the [00:10:09] [inaudible] fate [00:10:10] [inaudible] and I think it’s also – it shows how careful you want to be to apply – to generalize narratives from one country to the other. That said, you have a large number of [00:10:20] patriarchs from Syria who came to Lebanon, and now you see the Syrian [00:10:26] [inaudible] both houses on the way up to Mount Lebanon. So [00:10:31] [inaudible] part of the country and therefore as such it is different, it is also a structure that promotes communitarianism, the [00:10:42] [inaudible] based system, where in the case of Syria, with the [00:10:45] [inaudible] nationalism, you have [00:10:46] [inaudible]. So that [00:10:48] [inaudible] … how the country was built guarantees a role and some form of protection and voice that Syria doesn’t have, or Iraq doesn’t have.
FI: Okay, so, structurally, obviously, different. How does this translate in attitudes, self-perceptions, and perception of one’s environment? What are some of the impressions you got during your research? So if you’re not, kind of, minority and in perpetual danger, but obviously there’s also, I mean, I say this as a Lebanese person who has partly Christian family, there is also something called the Lebanese Christian experience, and part of that experience is, as I understand it, there is a grievance or an anxiety that’s there, maybe felt unequally between people, and it may lead to very different political conclusions, but it’s a real thing. So we’ve separated it from the Syria/Iraq situation, but it is something, and cannot but color political attitudes.
FM: Yeah, it does, and at the same time, because of that unique history and recent history of Lebanon, all sects have had their militia, or so called – the civil war involved everyone. There was an attempt to form political parties to go beyond sectarianism that might or might not have failed. So there is actually a community of [00:12:10] [inaudible] that they share with the other communities that despite claims of differences, you see that common thread of a shared recent past and therefore identity. The struggle between the young generation to collaborate or tolerate, even, those who have come from a legacy of the civil war, had blood on their hands, some would say, that’s across the board. [00:12:37] [inaudible] doesn’t matter whether they are Shia or Christians, right?
And I think it points to the – what was interesting to me to observe the generation gap. You have overall a younger generation that you can argue, in broad terms, came from the Arab Spring, essentially, you know, their concerns are more toward issue-based and pragmatic, policy-based, transparency, good governance. For them, identity-based, confessionist-based, [00:13:04] [inaudible] politics is something they associate with the old way, and that produced a civil war, that has produced a system a kleptocratic, confessionalist-based clientelism, and that they want to leave behind. So their concern is on issues and not on identity. Protecting an identity is not on the top of their list because for them it’s, how do you treat minorities matters more than “we are at risk because of our confession.”
FI: I see.
FM: How do you treat women? How do you treat –
FI: Vulnerable people everywhere.
FM: Exactly. And that is an [00:13:44] [inaudible] … You can see that here [00:13:49] [inaudible] with the movement to fight against authorization, right. So [00:13:56] [inaudible] we don’t want to authorizing the other individuals based on their ethnic or religious identity. On the other hand, when they talk about their parents, that’s [00:14:07] [inaudible] … generation divide, but it exists. It is the anxiety that the future of the Christian community, in large parts the Maronites, is not guaranteed [00:14:19] [inaudible] and not only because you have a government that has issues with corruption and governance but also because they see that over time the institutions are increasingly skewed away from the Christian [00:14:34] [inaudible] in the power arrangement, in part because of demography. So you went from 80% Christian [00:14:41] [inaudible] to now about a third, a third, a third. Alternately, that reality is going to [00:14:47] [inaudible] … power sharing, which [00:14:51] [inaudible] because of the war and the Christian loss in many respects, that is the long view of some – especially from the older generation that we are not able to sustain control over our destiny in a system that nominally is corrupt but slowly marginalize us as a founding group, a founding constituent of the state.
FI: So in a sense, the first view, or maybe sensibility is the better term for it, that you described, is that of the liberal, small-L liberal, civic, democratic activist. I think we can agree that across various Lebanese sects, these guys look very similar to one another, by definition, obviously, otherwise they would not be progressive liberal activists. But they hold to kind of universalist ethos, a civic ethos that transcends this communitarian identity. I don’t know how many people in Lebanon are or are not like that, and I don’t want to be one of those guys who speculates, but I do know there’s, obviously, many, many young and old people who are outside that category, on all sides, and in a sense, the interesting question analytically, if we’re trying to understand this place and its trajectory, is what if you are one of those people who does actually identify quite strongly with your sect and does see politics through that prism, then what are you likely to say is going wrong in this country, and what are the community’s options for getting out of it? Because the liberal case we’re familiar with, and there are challenges, but this sort of inertia is still there in the community. That’s interesting to try to get a handle around, given that things in the country are meaningfully changing – for the worse, but they are meaningfully changing. Trying to understand your impressions and perspectives, what those sentiments are.
FM: [00:16:49] [inaudible] factors offer a degree of – how much you weigh those factors as an individual will predict or influence your position. A little bit more on the perception, or the self-perception of the – the role as not only a founding constituent of the Lebanese state but also as a mediator between communities, between Sunni and Shias, we’ve seen that in politics recently, and also [00:17:19] [inaudible], you – I often hear examples where, when you have a conflict in Jews in the community or Shia in the community, the Christians will be the bridge, or that you have villages where Christians and other sects will at least tend to be more for working mothers, quote-unquote. So there’s this perception [00:17:41] [inaudible] that it’s – which is a key, as a bridge, as a cement of the Lebanese [00:17:48] [inaudible] as a nation, right, or as a country.
And the problem lies not so much – another thread is that the problem lies not so much into the loss of demography or being ostracized or communitarist, of course the others being communitarist was, I guess, in our interests, but to clannic, family-based, kleptocratic system which is more here for a class [00:18:13] [inaudible] … So to give a chance to the system, if you can get rid of the ruling class. For some domination of the –
FI: So that the sectarian system can, in theory, stay, but not with this raw material.
FM: Exactly. Right. You want a change of software, the hardware is not so much of the problem. It’s the oligarch running the show, not the institutions themselves. And again, the [00:18:43] [inaudible] of the prime minister will fit that picture.
FI: Yeah, absolutely.
FM: Between the [00:18:49] [inaudible] and in politics ruling class, the establishment that we see.
FI: Absolutely, yeah.
FM: In terms of the intelligentsia, you have had a revival or moving to the direction of adapting the concept of federalism to Lebanon, so –
FI: That’s an old idea, as well.
FM: Right, right.
FI: It’s something that was a dynamic idea in the civil war, was promoted openly by Lebanese Forces, and not only them, but now you’re saying it’s making the rounds again, so to speak, in the conversation.
FM: I would be interested in your opinion, what was the driver behind pushing that idea, for the Lebanese Forces, of federalism as a solution to the crisis back then that you mentioned?
FI: I think one of the premises – so within the context of the civil war, conversation was the conversation. The fight within the community was how big and to what extent an Lebanon one and the same, but to what extent should Lebanon be one united centralized state given that it has to be somehow shared or coinhabited with the Muslims and of course they were our ally at the time, the Palestinian militias? And one of the threads was, look, at the end of the day, the best kind of Lebanon for the Christians was to kind of shrink its parameters and make it more manageable, more demographically homogenous, more defensible geographically, and with some sort of international alliance or partnership or something of that sort that would make it sustainable.
Now, when you’re talking in the context of a civil war, the idea itself was something more rigid, or more extreme, this idea essentially that Lebanon is collapsing, so we have to consolidate and redraw what it is we think what is worth keeping. I do think – this is what the Lebanese Forces themselves say, for obvious reasons there’s a kind of stigma over the whole dividing Lebanon thing, and that’s still strong, including among the Christian community, for many. But now there’s – the discourse has been a bit different. Now, it’s – first of all, we’re not in a civil war and no one is in literal physical threat of being eliminated, so now the conversation is more like localism, local governance, decentralization, guarantee of rights, federalism in the classical sense rather than just plain old military partition and defense.
Now, I think this is a kind of some of more palatable idea to more people than the kind of discourse of the civil war, understandably so, and it’s something they’re still pushing hard on, but it’s not what they spend most of the day talking about because it’s sensitive. So now there’s kind of more basic, immediate things that need to be achieved. What those things are, I’ll let the Lebanese Forces explain those themselves, I don’t want to speak on their behalf, but those ideas are still around, this idea of confederation and decentralization and things like that. Of course, like anything in Lebanon, like any issue, idea, there’s the idea in the political science sense, which we can have an interesting conversation, and then there’s, oh, what are you really talking about? Which is – every Lebanese conversation is on those two levels. Kamal Salibi, rest in piece, he called it the great Lebanese confidence game, and I don’t want to engage in it, so you tell me what people told you.
FM: Absolutely, yeah. And thank you for bringing that deeper understanding of the layers of the conversation within the Lebanese society that of course I am missing in my [00:22:14] [inaudible]. But indeed, it’s interesting that you mentioned that on the [00:22:17] [inaudible] and the meaning that it has, it carries for those who are in Lebanon [00:22:24] [inaudible], on the [00:22:24] [inaudible] there’s certainly a [00:22:27] [inaudible], a piggybacking on the decentralization that you find [00:22:30] [inaudible] … part of the reasoning is decentralization doesn’t matter when you have a system that is so corrupt, kleptocratic, and centralized and degrading by the day. So you need to be more forceful in redistributing power. It’s actually come from a supposition or solution to make decentralization – to make decentralization actually work, you need to set up federal structure, so you dedicate, distribute, you hand some of the prerogative to the region. And here, it so happens that here the region would be based on some kind of already existing communitary density or distribution, but not an ethno-nationalist –
FI: Not a blatantly confessional one, you mean?
FM: Exactly. Based not on geography, but either, on the other hand, neither on a purely confessional basis, but more of compromise like in Belgium. So Belgium is the case that was mentioned to me, that you can make it work, and you see recent history, 1975, so that’s sort of the discourse to the outside, to the groupologists, but that, you know, so [00:23:44] [inaudible] … professor in Beirut I met has launched, is launching a party, not to be jumping right the fight now but to build some momentum beyond the Christian community for later on to have potentially a role, so there is this sort of move to toward –
FI: So to kind of bring this idea mainstream, outside the –
FM: To bring this idea mainstream, yeah, exactly.
FI: Interesting, okay.
FM: And I guess try and shape the narrative and perception that will come with something that is so [00:24:11] [inaudible] by doing outreach to other communities. Their interest also lies, and it has precedent in [00:24:22] [inaudible] in the intellectual communities for the best interest of all. Now, of course, the perceptions will be affected by whom the recipient of the message is, but this group of [00:24:31] [inaudible] is confident that it could have an appeal. And that’s for the future [00:24:37] [inaudible] … So one perspective is to revive or bring the – as a solution, in fact as a natural solution for some [00:24:47] [inaudible] that is accepted as part of the [00:24:51] [inaudible] … and also answer, in part answer all the deadlock you have in politics. Say, hey, you know, it’s the best of both worlds.
FI: You get to keep the republic –
FM: You get to protect your –
FI: Protect your rights.
FM: For those who are concerned about it, right? And it solves some of the accountability and transparency problem because it’s co-local, the power is co-local. That’s one solution, or that’s one [00:25:16] [inaudible] on that same solution [00:25:19] [inaudible], you have, who agree on the symptoms, the corruptions and the [00:25:23] [inaudible] … the upshot from the 2019 protests, which they called a revolution, in October 2019, when the young people, for the most part, came out to protest against the country – took into the street to protest the country’s political corruption and waste in government. And in large part, they see that that was a failure. [00:25:45] [inaudible] on the street they were beaten up [00:25:48] [inaudible] … the militia affiliated with the parliament at the time. There was failure, actually, the – some parents told me how they –
FI: Still leader of the parliament.
FM: [00:25:57] [inaudible] … and some parents told me that it was frightening to see their – that they – for some of them, they believed in the cause, and they say, okay, express your voice, but when they saw their kids come in with a bleeding head, it also, I think, reinforced the perception that you can’t reform the system. And where the – where some in the younger generation we see power doesn’t give up without a fight, some of the older generation we see that, oh it was a sham militia.
FI: I do want to press you a bit on this, although I don’t know to what extent it was possible to have a fully transparent conversation about it, but we can’t have this conversation about Lebanon without talking about Hezbollah. Now, you were referring to another Shia militia, I guess, in this case, quote-unquote, which is the police, the parliamentary police –
FI: Paramilitary. But there’s also this kind of elephant in the room whenever you talk about Lebanon and its future, which is Hezbollah. It’s an armed, Islamist militia, obviously the single most powerful actor in the country, and shares this country with many, many Christians who, at the moment they have to think about this problem, think about how they feel about it, what the implications for their community are, what can be done about it, etc., and that’s a very loaded and complicated question for all Lebanese, but for them I think in particular. One of the things about the Lebanese Christian community, politically, I think, you can say is at least at this point in time it is the most pluralistic or competitive or kind of diverse political landscape. Whereas on the Shia and Sunni side and Druze side, you’ve had much more consolidation under a single party.
So, given that you have this broad, vast array of viewpoints, on the Hezbollah question, I’ve also always been fascinated by how that problem has been processed. I can say maybe it breaks down basically into two camps, but maybe there’s actually a bit more going on than that. I don’t want to get ahead of the question, I’d like to hear what your impression was.
FM: It’s not only a case, as you said, of who you ask, but also what are you talking about. When there’s a flare-up, which there was between Israel and Hezbollah last month, the frustration of anyone, the frustration of many would be, gee, Hezbollah, ask me before sending a car-sized missile to Israel. So yes, there is the freedom fighter for the [00:28:21] [inaudible] cause, absolutely, but there’s also this uneasiness with the lack of representation, democracy, and the [00:28:28] [inaudible] when they launch their attacks.
FM: And to that, you add the conspiracy theory that, in fact, it’s the [00:28:33] [inaudible] … That’s one. Then there is the actual cost of that fight, for which it has – it is, for many, considered as legitimate, but when you have Israel bombing the airport – I mean my host would describe how he would go to work, to West Beirut, near the airport and see the [00:28:53] [inaudible] Imagine if we are sitting here and you go to work from Columbia Heights and you see [00:28:59] [inaudible] being bombed. I mean, the trauma. Which also raises the question of the impunity of some of the strikes, right? Civilians died when Israel – it’s 2006, right, was when –
FI: Yeah, I think the Lebanese have sort of come to expect that this is what happens when there’s a confrontation.
FM: True, exactly. But –
FI: That’s baked into the calculation of how they feel about Hezbollah.
FM: Exactly. But it doesn’t take away from the trauma of living through these experiences –
FI: No, of course, of course.
FM: – and what it represents for anyone who goes to work and sees the place being bombed, right. Your city.
FI: Of course.
FM: I guess it comes back to the dual identity of just the fight – the conflict with Israel, which – the religious imagery, right, from fighting for the Palestinian cause, and its role in internal politics as a political party, right. If you look at that from the [00:29:51] [inaudible] it’s a big problem because for many parties, actually, first, it is the most powerful, as you said, in terms of firepower today in Lebanon, and it has not given up weapons, although [00:30:04] [inaudible]
FI: It’s allowed to keep their weapons as long as Lebanese land was under occupation.
FI: The argument is that that was finished in the year 2000, but they still have weapons.
FM: So that’s probably also a question of interpretation, it’s interesting. So the argument would run that they didn’t do their part of the document, so also a lack of legitimacy because of that act or absence thereof, and obviously the lack of [00:30:34] [inaudible] … and challenge to their rule. I mean, we saw, very sadly, two weeks ago this activist was killed, many say by Hezbollah [00:30:44] [inaudible] in the south. Many say it’s because of – the weapons are used internally to quell dissent within their constituency so that, with the assassination of [00:30:54] [inaudible], which is for many Lebanese, perhaps ironically, counterintuitive because when I ask them how they compare with the situation in Iraq and Syria, the answer I got was, well, you know, that’s the advantage of the current structure, political structure, is that they can’t agree to kill us. Well, when we [00:31:12] [inaudible], maybe not. They don’t need to decide amongst them – to agree amongst themselves. The roadblock, the barrier, the impediment on the road to democracy, as it’s functioning. [00:31:29] [inaudible] has emerged as the largest power broker, the largest political party. That touches upon how it’s understood in the Western context, and America is limiting ourselves to its terrorist affiliation and terrorist activities. We tend to ignore or not understand the role it has in Lebanese society. And in fact it’s a [00:31:52] [inaudible] … because it is also not showing – it is also taking, sort of distracting, if you will, from how much it is part of that political culture, corrupted, kleptocratic, clan-based political culture. If the West limits itself as considering Hezbollah through its terrorism activities –
FI: So it kind of makes them [00:32:17] transcend a group that’s in a compartment by themselves –
FI: – apart from –
FI: – whereas, I guess, this particular criticism is, actually, it’s worse than that. They are part of the system, so, therefore, that’s actually the most damning thing you can say.
FM: For Lebanese, exactly, because it’s – because, of course, they are leveraging politically and –
FI: Of course, of course.
FM: The problem we have is the sanction [00:32:41] [inaudible] and the U.S. imperialism. And that’s taking away the kind of scapegoat to apply to the [00:32:48] [inaudible] to the institution. And it’s taking away from actually their active role into the corruption and the –
FI: That’s interesting. The French, of course, have had pretty profound connections to Lebanon for a long time. People in Lebanon used to call it basically the “Benevolent Mother,” translated from Arabic. I’m pretty sure not everybody in Lebanon felt that way, but historically the Maronites in particular have had that special connection to France, so to speak, at least at one point. And France of course had the mandate authority over Lebanon before it became an independent country. You could even say they created it. So, having said that, judging from the French reaction to the macroeconomic and political crisis of the past couple of years, we saw that President Macron got heavily involved quickly in pushing for a political compromise in Lebanon that would start or lay the groundwork for a meaningful reform process that hopefully would save the country from exactly what’s happening to it now. And the attitudes seem to be that basically President Macron is here and he’s gonna tell you guys what to do and stop acting like children, and France is back, basically. It didn’t work that way, obviously. What ended up happening was, essentially, he was ignored and then really realized that maybe he bit off more than he could chew.
But I wonder if you could give us your impression of the French calculation, here. What does France care about in Lebanon, and what does France think needs to happen? And what’s your impression of what they are doing, and if you had another impression, do you have any idea or any gauge for attitudes people had, anybody you spoke to, about the French?
FM: I think the lack of much conversation and perspective on the opinion is an answer in itself. It does not – as you say, it does not produce the end result [00:34:42] [inaudible], which is in part explained by the historical role. Also the fact that France, in Iraq and Syria, tried to have a mediating role –
FI: That’s a good point.
FM: Some formalities, appointing a special ambassador to resolve the crisis and some genuine interest into stability. As on other foreign policy issues, there is a question of means and a question of resources, and there were some highly meaningful and symbolic acts by France – the day after the explosion in Beirut in 2020, August 2020, the industrial explosion, France sent the navy corps of engineers, who sat into the port, on a ship, it sat into the port and removed debris overnight for 40 days, if I remember correctly. And that was appreciated. But many debris remains today, and there is much more work needed. I don’t think it’s moving away from its perceived historical role into Lebanese affairs and the stability of the country, but it’s also a question of means, of [00:35:50] [inaudible] and priority on the part of France. And simply stated, it’s a very complex, very hard question that not one country can resolve. It perhaps used to be, a hundred years ago when you [00:36:04] [inaudible] … you had clear fault lines and the battlefield was easier to navigate for a foreign sponsor.
FI: Makes sense.
FM: But just like we [00:36:17] [inaudible] … in general, France is looking for solutions that prevent going even further into crisis, but that paradoxically is not helping, as we were discussing earlier, the long-term solution because by condoning, for example, the nomination of the prime minister, activists would tell you, the opposition would tell you, well, you’re reinforcing, entrenching even more the system kleptocracy and corrupted class. You give it another lease on life. And that’s perhaps the short-term solution if you want to keep things from completely crashing, the train from completely crashing, but it’s just making the train crash slow motion, right.
So in that respect, the fact that there was goodwill that Macron came, but whether it’s – those who have high hope on French patronage or those [00:37:15] [inaudible] acts of goodwill, not only President Macron but also the presence of help the day after with the corps of engineers, but I think the follow-up in terms of actual long-term intervention solutions are not there. I don’t know if it’s financially or if it’s a lack of resources or just that there is no easy answers for France today to fix the –
And that ties back to the complexity and the challenge of the current crisis that has so many dimensions. The financial stability is not just a bailout, at this point. You need to re-establish trust into the currency, trust within the debt lenders, [00:37:52] [inaudible] within the national debt, and that’s not one country only, it’s not only France like perhaps it could have been a century ago. [00:38:00] [inaudible] And to do so so there are prescriptions that the country needs to take, that France alone cannot compel the Lebanese government to take. One of these – I called a friend recently, an economist at the OECD – in English, it’s the OECD as well, right?
FM: I called a friend of mine, who’s an economist, a monetary economist at the OECD, and the answers, in terms of monetary policies, is pretty well known – it has worked in the past with multiple countries [00:38:31] [inaudible] – is to have a constraint on the central bank’s ability to devaluate the currency in order to restore trust into the currency and as such lay the ground for economic – rebound in the economy. That requires a minimum of accountability and check and balance because the model, the precedent revolves around a law called the currency [00:39:00] [inaudible], which France has been, by the way, [00:39:03] [inaudible] recently because it is the well-known antidote. But law passed by the parliament that will restrain the ability of the central bank to devaluate or revaluate.
FI: Yeah, to ensure some predictability in the –
FM: Which in the short term would be detrimental to some of the capability of the government to subsidize and to keep functioning, to keep the economy functioning, but there is – recent history [00:39:31] [inaudible] that it benefits the [00:39:33] [inaudible] … after neutralization from devaluation to currency or to [00:39:39] [inaudible] about two years, three years, but the short-term losers are those who benefit from that situation of a double exchange rate. And those who have access to foreign dollars –
FI: To hard currency.
FM: Hard currency and also the government itself and its ability to subsidize some of needed relief goods has failed. The challenge here is that – [00:40:06] [inaudible] … some observers of the current government, Lebanese who pay attention to their local governments, they will tell you that the interest of the parliamentarians are too much vested into the [00:40:22] [inaudible] … of which actually the prime minister is –
FM: They don’t want to lose, to be on the losing side of that currency war, and also the fact that the situation – that you need the currency war, the situation that Lebanon is not – Lebanese will tell you and in the situation where it cannot repay its foreign debt is that the loans, in short, were not put to productive investment, which typically would be a sign of corruption or [00:40:57] [inaudible]. Here [00:40:58] [inaudible] a kleptocratic or dysfunctional parliamentary system that doesn’t work for the public [00:41:04] [inaudible] … doesn’t have the stability and transparency in its decision, and its impact on the financial crisis that cannot be resolved because it’s [00:41:14] [inaudible] for a functioning parliament to exist as its role. And in the [00:41:19] [inaudible] … they won’t belong.
FI: Yeah, of course, why should they?
FI: I wouldn’t. We started this by speaking about the Christian situation in Lebanon, but we’ve covered a lot more ground than that, including some things that are uniquely challenging to that sect and its future and its role in Lebanon, what that looks like, and things that are obviously transcending any one sect’s problems, whatever their own prescriptions for solving those problems are. And that falls immediately as the economic crisis, but also is the broader question of how do you design a political system for a pluralistic country in the Middle East that actually works or at least does the basic tasks of governance well? You’ve been very generous with your time, and your travels have taken you to some interesting places.
FM: Just some departing words to bring it back to the Beltway, full circle back to America, is in terms of what the call to action or how could that possibly inform –
FI: From a U.S. policy perspective?
FM: The consideration of continuing the support or engaging with the grassroots democracy movement and to ensure that the wider geopolitical consideration with Iran, engaging with Iran or Syria, support to democracy and progress activism doesn’t fall through the cracks and that [00:42:43] [inaudible] the safety of those who are pushing for, perhaps not so short term but longer term, more transparent or representative system across confessions is a message that I heard.
FI: The message is heard loud and clear. Thanks for all your time. You have, I think, many more interesting stories to tell that we haven’t tapped into, here. I wish you luck on whatever work you continue to do on Lebanon in particular, especially, it’s obviously you’re very interested in. I know you’re working on a fascinating book on your experiences and observations in Syria, Syria Ground Zero. I wish you all the best with that, and I can’t wait to read it. Thank you very much, Flavius, and thank you all for listening. Have an excellent day.
Although transcription is largely accurate, there could be some inaccuracies due to inaudible passages or transcription errors.