Since the Aug. 4 explosions at the Beirut Port, politicians and policy-makers around the world have been raising questions about the future of Lebanon, particularly in relation to Hezbollah.
All those trying to formulate a policy on the issue need to understand, however, that Lebanese society has a tribal structure, which is intricate, interconnected and challenging.
What is clear from Israel’s experience in Lebanon in the 1980s, and that of the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan, is that trying to overthrow regimes and install replacement governments has not delivered the desired results. On the contrary, such a policy has led to long, exorbitantly expensive military campaigns and negative reactions on the part of the Israeli and American public.
When the Ottoman Empire controlled the Middle East for almost seven centuries, there was no concept of “national identity” as it exists today. The primary responsibilities of Ottoman subjects were to pay taxes and serve in the military. Nor was there any sort of national integration plan, like the American melting pot or Canadian multicultural mosaic.
Ottoman subjects living in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen would not identify themselves as “Ottoman.” They likely wouldn’t see themselves as being Yemenites, either. Their identity was based on their family, village, religion or sectarian group.
As the late Middle Eastern scholar Bernard Lewis explained, the idea of identity deriving from a country of origin is a recent invention, which emerged in the 18th century as a way for Western countries to delineate areas and people that they were colonizing. But even then, a Nigerian citizen would not likely identify himself as “Nigerian” or even “African,” but rather as a member of a certain family, tribe or religion.
In Lebanon and the greater Middle East, clans and tribes are more important than individuals. Tribes have heads or chiefs who make decisions for their members, and the honor or shame associated with success or failure is attached to the tribe as a whole.
Implementing a “national policy” in Lebanon, thus, requires dealing with many different groups, not a single leader and numerous individuals.
An additional complication is that the lack of “national identity” has meant that even competing and enemy tribes have lived side by side, village by village, with their own ways of maintaining order and even conducting business.
As a result, outside meddling—such as installing or removing leaders—is very difficult, if not impossible, with the support of the tribes.
What Westerners refer to as “failed states,” such as Libya, Iraq and Syria, are really regions that have no central authority, and whose tribes are all competing against one another and/or forming relationships independently, as they have done historically.
Within that kind of tribal clan system, the main way that a stable central authority was established was through the paying of patronage and benefits or power. In Libya, for instance, Muammar Ghaddafi paid and gave political benefits to dominant tribes, such as the Warfalla, in exchange for their support—and, by extension, the support of the tribes and territory under Warfalla control.
In Iraq, Saddam Hussein pursued the power model—the “Republic of Fear”—in which insubordination was dealt with so severely that subjects slept “with two eyes open” in the back of their heads.
One of the heads of the secret service in Israel, who spent decades on the ground pursuing and planning policy and coordinating it with the tribes in Lebanon, noted that its “tribal and family system is even more complex than that of the rest of the Middle East.”
It is this that enabled Hezbollah to become so ensconced in the country and its government.
Hezbollah money comes from drug-smuggling, weapons-trafficking and other illegal activities. It also takes aid money given to Lebanon and uses it for its own purposes. This should be prevented and stopped.
In addition, Hezbollah should be designated universally as a terrorist entity—as it is in the U.S. and many other parts of the world—and denied any political legitimacy. Of course, its rockets and other military capabilities should be destroyed as well.
Rather than attempting to tackle Lebanon’s convoluted tribal structure through policies that do not work, the West needs to take the necessary step of putting Hezbollah out of business.
The writer is CEO of Sussman Corporate Security and editor of the book, Variety of Multiple Modernities: New Research Design.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.