David Broder reviews Fawwaz Traboulsi’s A History of Modern Lebanon (Pluto Press)
Baptised by its publisher as “the first comprehensive history of Lebanon in the modern period”, Traboulsi’s is a thorough account of almost 500 years of ethnic and religious conflict in the Middle Eastern state. However the author, a 1970s leader of the Organisation of Communist Action (OCA), obscures his own analysis and views in favour of a work which rarely amounts to anything more than dry chronology of events, dates and facts.
As a self-proclaimed Marxist, one might have thought that Traboulsi would take an interest in the long history of workers’ struggle and labour movement activity in Lebanon. The book is however merely interspersed with occasional nuggets of information on this score — a page on what he calls the “nearly uninterrupted series of strikes and protest movements” from 1964-7, a paragraph on a seven-week student strike in 1968 and just a sentence or two on massive wildcat strikes in Mukallis-Tall al Za’tar organised by his own OCA party.
Much better covered are the activities of leftish movements and popular fronts such as the Lebanese National Movement (LNM), which included the OCA, Communist Party, Ba’athists, Nasserites, Amal and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
Later substituted by the Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF), the LNM’s programme was based on abolishing Lebanon’s sectarian political structures, and the formation of some sort of bourgeois-democratic secular order. It is interesting to note that Traboulsi makes no real attempt to relate the history of the LNM, which attempted a coup in 1975, or even the Communists, to that of the labour movement or the working class. No doubt his assertion that the LNM merely aimed “to impose a new superstructure on the Lebanese oligarchy” through “simple democratic reforms within the context of the capitalist system” is accurate — but this is commented upon only matter-of-factly.
The whole work is coloured by abstractions and terminology which camouflages class distinction, such as the repeated reference to “progressives and leftists” and ill-defined “social movements”. Throughout the author counterposes the fortunes of the free-marketeer “merchant society” and strong oligarchy to the lot of “the poor” and peasants. Although worthwhile background information, this presents the oppressed as passive victims of political feuds going on above their heads, rather than posing questions about their own organisations and political allegiances.
Nevertheless, there is much of value to be found within the pages of Traboulsi’s History. As a long-time fighter for secularism, the author does bring out effectively his central idea, namely that Lebanon’s sectarian political order, formalised in the National Pact of 1943, was itself at the heart of ethnic and religious conflict, rather than providing the intended balance between different groups. He explains the contradiction in a system which not only recognises all Lebanese people as “citizens” of an “independent state enjoying indivisible unity and integral sovereignty” , but also pigeon-holes them into hierarchical religious communities, allocating parliamentary seats to each on a confessional basis according to quota.
The problem is not merely that these allocations could be deemed unfair to one religious group or another, the system assumes that there is some inherent commonality of interests of co-religionists. It aggravates sectarian divides by giving autonomy to each. It puts politics on the terrain of religion rather than individuals’ political beliefs.
Indeed, Traboulsi comments that it was when the principle of religious communities’ autonomy was played out in its purest form — sectarian militias controlling different districts and towns like fortresses, collecting taxes, and lording it over their “own” populations during the civil war — that inter-communal tensions were most aggravated.
But again, Traboulsi has disappointingly little to say about a working-class riposte to sectarian politics. He refers in the chronology at the back of the book to trade union demonstrations against religious chauvinism on all sides during the civil war, but makes no mention in the text itself. Instead the author lauds without criticism the “Ta’if agreement” which brought the Lebanese civil war to a close in 1990 — an accord which gave Muslims as many parliamentary seats as the Christians, while keeping the sectarian political order in place. Of course, such measures amount to little more than shifting around the proverbial furniture when the whole structure is rotten, but Traboulsi dignifies Ta’if with the character of a workable system. His history ends in 1990 with “peace”.
This cut-off point seems particularly crude given that so much has happened to redefine the contours of Lebanese politics since, in particular the rise of the clerical fascist Hezbollah movement. The book is after all very new, and we are now living in 2007, a year after the summer war with Israel.
So what is Hezbollah’s social base? Why is it so strong and the secular left so weak? Can it unite non-Muslims behind it in a “national cause” against Israel? Besides this sin of omission, Traboulsi seriously underplays Hezbollah’s role in the civil war, which receives only the scantest of reference.
Overall therefore the work is of poor use as a guide to understanding Lebanon through the prism of its history. Besides the dense writing style “this happened and then this happened and then this happened...” and the sweeping coverage of hundreds of years of history in just 200 pages, Traboulsi has singularly failed to integrate his mass of empirical knowledge into any sort of analysis of religious sectarianism or its antidote.