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What It Takes to Become a Nation III: Imagining the Nation from Below and from Above and the Question of Boundaries in Lebanon

September 10, 2012

When the Ottoman empire collapsed after World War I, the great European powers disussed the future of the ex territories of the empire. In the post war time when self-determination was the new idea, nationalists in Lebanon imagined their country as a new nation. In reality it was France to impose its own idea of Lebanon and neither its image nor its borders stuck in the imaginery of the people. At least half of members of the new nation called Greater Lebanon failed to imagine a community of fellow nationals who existed in the same geographcial space. The post below discusses why it was so.

From Below. From 1861 to 1915 Lebanon existed in the form of a Mutasarrifiya of the Ottoman Empire known as Mount Lebanon. This administrative unit had an Administrative Council (AC) of 12 members comprising both Christian and Muslim. It enjoyed limited decisional power vis-à-vis the governor (veto to Ottoman interventions and tax increase). Yet, it introduced a sort of representation of the popular will. The Administrative Council became the fortress of a new social class linked to the development of the silk economy and of the colonial/capitalistic penetration. This social and economic forces comprising functionaries, middle-level notable families, merchants and liberal professions imposed itself on the political stage. These homines novi was the group of people which, as Anderson explained (see here), in other countries came to imagine and formulate the idea of their nation. As historian Traboulsi explains “idea of independence, Lebanonese nationalism and reformism germinated among their ranks”[1]. They did so because, arguably, in their journeys as functionaries within the Mutasarrifiya of Mount Lebanon they weaved a sense of connected-ness with other fellow-functionaries and nationals: they were all members of the same geographical unit.

Mount Lebanon’s boundaries did not coincide with the borders of today Lebanon. Beirut, Tyre and Saida (number 3 on the map) on the coast were part of the wilaya of Damascus along with the region of Akkar in the north (number 2 on the map above) and of the Bekaa in the east (the area between Beirut and Damascus). Their ideas of nation and independence were rooted into a reality whose limits were set by the administrative unit called Mount Lebanon yet looked beyond it. It went beyond it because Mount Lebanon as such was for many not an economic viable project.

In 1919, in the post war period dominated by the notion of countries’ self determination, the AC unilaterally declared Lebanon’s independence under a democratic system “without protection or annexation”. The Lebanon whose independence they declared was the Mutasarrifiya to be then expanded into a Greater Lebanon. The Bekaa valley and the coastal cities (neither Akkar in the North nor the South were requested to be annexed) were to be annexed to Mount Lebanon so that it could be self sufficient in food and with access to an outlet to the Mediterranean. Interestingly, prominent members of the AC did not talk of the people in the Bekaa as Lebanese: Lebanese after all resided within Mount Lebanon. This region was to be Lebanized so to ensure an economic viability to Mount Lebanon. People in the territories annexed did not see themselves as Lebanese either. When their territories were annexed to Mount Lebanon they fought against it.

From Above: Opposition and The Consent of the Governed. Annexation took place in 1920 when France declared the creation of a Greater Lebanon under the French mandate. To the original territory of Mount Lebanon it was annexed the territories of Beirut, Saida and the regions of Akkar, Bekaa and the South. Tripoli came also to be absorbed into Lebanon: this was according to France the best way to break the backbone of the Sunni resistance in Syria. All of the Muslim population in the Greater Lebanon opposed such decision and favored attachment to and absorption into Syria[2]. A significant proportion of the Christian population refuted the French mandate on the basis of their right to self determination. This popular will was trumped and the patriarch of the Maronite church, who backed up the French proposal, was recognized as the only spokesman of what would become Greater Lebanon: the consent of the governed was thus manufactured.

The population of the annexed territories protested against the economic, fiscal and administrative injustice. The majority of the functionaries of the administration of Greater Lebanon came in fact from the ancient Mutasarrafiya. No functionaries from the periphery made the journey into the administration which would allow them to experience the new nation. Their disenfranchisement from the new nation continued over the years. Significantly, when president Iddi returned in Lebanon in 1936 after the negotiation with France for independence he was met with protest in Saida reiterating the demand for annexation to Syria. These protests were echoed in the North where protesters raised Syrian flags and shouted their support to a unite Syria (p101).  This fact was recognized by the French governor de Caix who stated that people in Tripoli and Akkar did not consider themselves as Lebanese but as Muslim after 6 years of the Mandate(p.86).

Why people in the annexed territories did not buy into the new nation called Lebanon? If one wants to follows the thesis of Imagined Communities, one can argue that the class of homines novi who imagined the nation and its borders rooted their imagination into the territorial reality of the Mutasarrifiya. They manufactured the attachment to this entity called Lebanon together with other functionaries from within Mount Lebanon. The people from the peripheries were to be annexed either because it served Mount Lebanon’s economic interests (see Bekaa) or because other powers had decided to do so (see South and Akkar). However, they did not consider people residing in those countries as Lebanese, nor the people in the peripheries imagine themselves as Lebanese. This disenfranchisement continued during the mandate years. The existing administration made little bone about their unwillingness to put in place policies (public education and extended administration) which could root the image of Lebanon into the reality of everybody. Reforms to administrative decentralization were aborted and public schools were trumped to favor religious schools (president Iddi made an attempt in this direction p. 94). From an economic point of view French governors backed traditional leading landowners in Akkar, Bekaa and the South to distribute government aid. The peripheries remained marginal and their cooptation occurred through traditional landed notables. When one looks at it from this angle, it comes with no surprise that Lebanon as a reality failed to materialize for half of its population residing at the margins.

The Border and Disenfranchisement Today.  People in the Bekaa, Akkar and the South (Tyre and Jabil Amil) did not see themselves as Lebanese at the time their territories were annexed to form a Greater Lebanon under French mandate. When the declaration of independence in 1943 sanctioned the borders little had changed in the attachments of the populations at the margins. Lebanon was imagined mainly by the homines novi of the original Mount Lebanon. The peripheries felt less Lebanese at that time and to a lesser extent today they continue to do so. When in May 2012 a Sunni Sheikh in North Lebanon was killed by a soldier at a checkpoint, his funeral elicited strong popular participation. Flags of the Sunni movements were aplenty, as were the flags of the old Syrian nation. No one single Lebanese flag were held aloft:  as the journalist Fisk puts it “Lebanon had somehow got lost”. The seed of this disenfranchisement were sown at the time when the new entity called Lebanon was imagined and its borders drawn.

[1] Traboulsi “A History  of Modern Lebanon”, chapter 3 Grandeur and Misery of the Mutasarrifiya 1861-1915, p.49

[2] Their position echoed those of the larger population in the region as proven by the report of the Georges-Kane Commission



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