Lebanon: mixing the young generation

Interference in Lebanon is rife, but the country’s internal politics are often misunderstood or igno

Last week the English-language Daily Star reported that Hezbollah was organising "jihadi tours" to the south of the country. On the trip, Lebanese of all religions were taken to the sites of key battles and the rather surreal border crossing with Israel at Fatima's Gate, before meeting some of the largely elusive Hezbollah fighters themselves.

Tim Llewellyn commented at the launch of Spirit of the Phoenix, his new book about Lebanon, that parallel trips are being organised whereby Lebanese Shias visit Christian areas of the north.

While regional interference in Lebanon is rife, the country's internal politics are often misunderstood and ignored. This is partly due to the large disagreement within the country about what it actually means to be Lebanese, and whether the country is the Switzerland or the mini-Balkans of the Middle East.

This absence of an agreed common identity, enshrined by the 1943 National Pact that codified the politics of Lebanon's confessional system, could be challenged by a process of greater interaction between the country's various communities.

In essence, this means the Lebanese getting to know Lebanon, in contrast to the current state of affairs whereby confessional green zones -- ranging from the southern suburbs to Mount Lebanon and the Chouf and on to Palestinian refugee camps -- are largely avoided by Lebanese from different backgrounds.

In particular, this mixing of a young generation, not bloodied by the country's 15-year civil war, could provide a source of stability that ultimately could make the country less permeable to the politics of more powerful regional states.

Such permeability makes Lebanon extremely attractive as a location for proxy warfare. Alliances crystallised on the departure of the Syrians in 2005 into a conflict between a pro-western alliance and a pro-Iranian alliance.

Upping the game

The current quiet in Lebanon is partly explained by the tortuous and bloody road to a government of national unity in 2009 where, despite the two alliances believing in substantially different things, they have managed to come together for the sake of the country (a bit like a more extreme form of the British Lib Dem-Conservative coalition).

Such a fine balance is forever being challenged by the gradually raised stakes against Iran.

On Monday the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, was in Washington, where President Barack Obama brought up concerns over reports of Syrian Scuds being transferred to Hezbollah. It would seem that another story of intelligence concerning "mysterious weapons" has placed a roadblock in the way of a US-Syrian rapprochement and therefore regional progress.

Lebanon's potential as a battlefield for the wars of others has been heightened by its position on the UN Security Council. As the net tightens on the Iranians, with the Russians and Chinese seemingly being brought round to sanctions, Lebanon's vote in any upcoming resolution will come into sharp focus.

A week before meeting Obama, Hariri was in Damascus consolidating his relationship with President Bashar al-Assad, whose country still casts a large shadow over Lebanon. Hariri's natural political stance would be to look west not east. Yet with millions of dollars in US aid on the line, he is likely to tread carefully at the UN.

Otherwise, the latest attempts of the Lebanese to live united in peace may quickly descend into the violent factionalism of regional conflict, a curse that has all too often blighted the country's modern history.

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Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.