Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Deja Vu?

In history that reads like yesterday, not even the names have changed
Claude Boueiz Kanaan's 'Lebanon 1860-1960' chronicles eerily familiar political era

By Paige Austin
Special to The Daily Star


BEIRUT: Forget taking a stroll down memory lane. By the time "Lebanon 1860-1960: A Century of Myth and Politics," by former St. Joseph University history professor Claude Boueiz Kanaan, reaches its crescendo in a detailed analysis of the political crisis of 1958, it reads like a veritable time warp. The crisis of 1958, says Kanaan, "is like a symbol, an example, of all the crises we have lived through and are living with now [in Lebanon]. And if sectarian troubles continue like this, of the crises we will always be living." Kanaan's careful discussion of Lebanese social history during the 100-odd years before, written originally as part of her doctoral dissertation in history, is really just a lead-in to her discussion of the 1958 conflict. That crisis, a milestone in Lebanon's post-independence history, refers loosely to the summer when the United States deployed 14,000 troops to Lebanon to shore up support for the country's embattled Christian president, Camille Chamoun. At the same time, the US administration dispatched a special envoy to the country, Robert Murphy, who eventually brokered a settlement. Chamoun ultimately stepped down. Kanaan's account of all this is lucid and well-documented, a rich historical account of how the inter-communal tensions underlying the crisis formed, festered and finally erupted among both the politicians of the day and the masses who elected them. If all this doesn't leave readers in Lebanon with a slight sense of deja vu, it is hard to imagine what would.

History seems to repeat itself in every country, but in Lebanon the continuities are uncanny. Even the names are the same. In "Lebanon 1860-1960," published late last year by Saqi Books, Kanaan makes frequent reference to the editorials of Gebran Tueni and the political dictates of Pierre Gemayel. Whether those men ever imagined that a book on their history, published half a century later, would so tragically yet neatly coincide with the assassination of their grandsons and namesakes - whose work also helped to mold the country's political scene - is anyone's guess. The parallels do not end there. In 1947, notes Kanaan - who left her academic post to become vice president of the National Bloc party in 2004 - Lebanon's Constitution was amended over widespread objections in order to allow a Christian president, Bishara Khoury, to serve a second term. It was arguably the 1951 assassination of the wildly popular Sunni politician, Riad al-Solh, that dealt Khoury's controversial presidency its final blow. Khoury's replacement, Camille Chamoun, would serve until a looming political crisis and deepening sectarian strife forced him out in 1958. In the heat of that crisis, the Maronite patriarch, Boulos Boutros Meouchi, labored for a compromise. A proposed UN fact-finding mission to the country, meanwhile, was welcomed by Christians but greeted with rank suspicion by Muslims, who felt it would act with a pro-government bias.

The conclusions that the scholar-turned-political leader draws, too, have lost little of their relevance. Throughout her book, Kanaan lays the blame for Lebanon's political turmoil squarely on the Lebanese people, using newspapers and diplomatic correspondence to show that it was Lebanese Sunnis and Maronites themselves who polarized the situation. Other accounts, she writes, have assigned too much responsibility to external events, like the Cold War or the rise of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. In what Kanaan herself calls the most provocative part of her book, she argues that Nasserism in Lebanon was essentially a "gloss" for more local concerns, which had been consistently ignored by Christian and even Muslim politicians. In this rendering, Sunnis embraced the Egyptian president because they thought he would strengthen their hand domestically. Maronites, in turn, rallied around their embattled and increasingly corrupt president. Exacerbating it all, Kanaan argues, was both sides' reliance on outside support, from Syria and Egypt on the part of Lebanon's Sunnis, and Europe and the US on the part of its Christians. This patronage, she says, entrenched both sides, thwarting any chance for compromise - until American troops showed up to force one through. "The history of Lebanon is so recurrent in Lebanese politics today," says Kanaan, seated in her office at the National Bloc's headquarters in Gemmayzeh. "Even today, with what is happening, you are dealing with history and politics as well."

The final note Kanaan sounds in her book is a relatively positive one. With Maronites increasingly comfortable with their Arab identity, and Muslims with their Lebanese one, a new, cohesive national identity seemed well on its way to forming, she wrote. In person, though, she adds that the old myths die hard. One illustration of that, she says, comes from the continued Maronite perception that Lebanon's Shiites are a better ally than the Sunnis. "There have always been better relations between the Maronites and Shiites than the Shiites and Sunnis," says Kanaan, whose party is allied with the pro-government March 14 coalition. "Syria was Sunni-ruled before Hafez al-Assad, so the Sunnis of Lebanon found Syria to be their ally in the 1950s." By comparison, the Shiites' traditional allies of Iraq and Iran seemed more distant and, on the whole, less threatening to Maronite power in Lebanon. "The remnants of this you see now in this crisis," she says. "A big part of the Maronites feel more secure, whatever Hassan Nasrallah says, because of this myth."

Sources that undercut the old myths, she adds, can be hard to come by. With so many politicians in Lebanon still trading on the family name, many archives - like those of Charles Malik, Amin Gemayel or, most challengingly, the Maronite Patriarchate itself - have yet to be opened to the public. Others, like those of Camille Chamoun, were destroyed in the 1975-1990 Civil War. With so many challenges to the writing of a cohesive national history, the conflicting narratives and myths developed by each of Lebanon's sects may seem too entrenched to refute. But Kanaan, whose father once served as an MP, has a different vision for the country's social and political future - and it is one that finds considerable support in her book, with its damning conclusions about sectarianism in Lebanon. In the National Bloc, she explained, "we want to do away with the confessional system. We know this is impossible right now, so we work within the present system. But our ultimate goal is another thing."

Claude Boueiz Kanaan's "Lebanon 1860-1960: A Century of Myth and Politics" is out now from Saqi Books

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