Lebanon's tribal legacy

MENASSAT's project manager, himself a member of the Lebanese Druze community, revisits last month's sectarian violence in Lebanon and the role of the media in it.
I spent the last month coping with all that was happening here in Lebanon, and admittedly, a part of me was excited.

At the end of the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war,  when the country started rising from the ashes, I knew that the real conflict had not ended, that it would resume at some point later on. And I felt this sort of "painted black" despair, to quote the Rolling Stones.

Then it did happen. Again. May 8th. Only on a smaller scale, and what we saw were the remnants of a war that had not ended since Lebanon's "Battle of the Mountains" between the Maronite and the Druze sects in 1863.

It was history re-visited, and what excited me was the idea that perhaps something new would come from it.

In 145 years, the modern cultural-religious and sectarian differences in Lebanon have never been resolved. Instead, the Lebanese political players have continuously adopted a malfeasant approach to resolving conflicts – using facets of the tribal system internalized by the population for centuries in order to hide their own selfish ends behind the demands of their supporters.

And for more than 90 years, Lebanon's leadership was given a blank check to exploit the citizenry because of the major errors committed by their colonial predecessors, the architects of the modern Arab world.

They (British, French, Ottoman Empire, etcetera) drew borders between populations without taking into consideration the tribal natures and family relations that existed on the ground imposing the concept of a nation-state despite such tribal realities.

(Most of these cartographic experiments were also accomplished or accompanied by force. And as the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq has shown, force cannot change the nature of tribal populations.)

With what happened during that one-week period in Lebanon (May 8 - May 15), it is clear that only a small percentage of the population was physically involved in the street fighting. But, for those fighting, family support for their actions was implied, because in the Arab world, once a family member has been hurt or is under threat, every member of that family will come to his defense.

So the May events are ultimately something of great sadness because the violence was a major indicator that there have been no practical efforts from local or international actors to question the methods for creating modern nation states in areas where tribal concerns still rule the day.

To simplify the thought, Middle Eastern populations are still attached to the values of the family or the clan, and the cult of personality is still very influential. In order to fit into the system of a modern nation state, a change in the social behavior is required.

For the time being however, democracy remains a complete illusion in the region.

Take Lebanon, a place I characterize as perhaps the hallmark of a "hypothetical" democracy. It was tailor-made by French colonialism, and inherited a French legal structure. But it is a country filled with obvious sectarian differences. 

If you happen to be born into a minority, like the Orthodox Christians, you can't even dream during your childhood that one day you might be President or Prime Minister or Parliamentary Speaker or even Army Commander because these seats are apportioned by sect. (The President is always as Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Parliamentary Speaker a Shia Muslim, the Army Commander a Maronite...)

In the end, what does this have to do with MENASSAT or the media? Years of monitoring the Arab and Lebanese media have led me to believe that these institutions are all tied to the major political players or local tribe leaders. In this equation, the media are nothing but pawns in an intricate chess game, manipulated by religious zealots, clan leaders and various architects of war.

During the civil violence in Lebanon this past May, I monitored a lot of the local and regional TV news coverage of the events, and if I had not had the presence of mind to understand how the media was being manipulated, I would have been the first to run in the streets of west Beirut or the [Druze-dominated] Chouf mountains to defend the honor of the Druze clan, of which I am a member.

In the aftermath of the violence in Lebanon, I feel the Lebanese have lost any faith they may have had with the concept of news objectivity in the Arab world.

(Samer Mohdad is a photographer and the project manager of MENASSAT. He also runs the ARAB IMAGES FOUNDATION.)