A Renewed Colonization?

French President Macron at a press conference in Beirut on August 6 via Myriam Boulos

It is almost as if Emmanuel Macron was trying everything to win over a devastated Lebanese population.

After visiting explosion-ravaged Beirut only two days after the blast, comforting distraught crowds, promising to rebuild the city and expressing  how “the heart of the French people still beats to the pulse of Beirut,” President Macron is now headed to meet the legendary Fairouz on his second promised visit to Beirut on Monday, August 31.

The explosion at the capital’s port that killed 190, leaving 300,000 people homeless, stunned the world. From Australia to Turkey to the United States, countries readied to send in aid and rescue teams.

Reflecting both the gravity of the disaster and France’s special relationship as the former mandatory power and the partitioners of Greater Lebanon in 1920, France wasted no time in dispatching two planeloads of specialists, rescue workers and aid supplies to Beirut on August 5.

Because Lebanese politicians are inept and fail to see beyond their personal interest, Lebanon has become a failed state while Paris’ pressure grows tighter by the day. French impatience is culminating over the lack of progress in forming a new government to undertake reforms like anti-corruption laws in the aftermath of the blast.

When asked whether the Lebanese politicians are attempting to negotiate with France to retain power by selling some of the nation’s resources, Hilal Khashan, scholar of Middle Eastern regional security and political science professor at the American University of Beirut, said that, ”Such a stale game does not work any longer. Lebanese politicians are facing the moment of truth and seem to be completely out of touch with reality. The French will not be fooled again by sweet-talking Lebanese politicians who perfected the art of deception.”

The risk today is the “disappearance of Lebanon”, warned French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in an interview with RTL radio.

The French president has also created a roadmap for Lebanese politicians outlining political and financial reforms. “The priority must go to the rapid formation of a government, to avoid a power vacuum which will leave Lebanon to sink further into the crisis,” the two-page concept paper reads.

In fact, Al-Akhbar sheds light on how the Lebanese political climate that Macron calls to save the Lebanese from is “the same one that has been backed by France for years by boosting foreign donations since the virtual Paris 1 congresses in 2001 that destroyed the people.”

But President Macron’s visit engendered  a spectrum  of feelings and responses from astonishment to indignation to admiration.

“I love the way France has been acting as a bigger sister to Lebanon,” said Christian Borgi, a 26 year old Lebanese entrepreneur and Saint Joseph University graduate with a Master’s in political communication. “I am sure that especially today, France has a very big role to play and I am definitely with this role. I prefer for France to have more influence than other countries such as Iran, KSA or others.”

An online petition asking for France to restore the mandate it used to hold was signed by tens of thousands, translating the exacerbated desperation of a nation. 

The idea of placing Lebanon under trusteeship is obviously improbable, as Yann Kerbrat, professor of international law at the Sorbonne explained to Le Figaro. “The terminology used refers to an institution which ended with the creation of the United Nations in 1945.” 

Borgi, who signed the petition also said that “it was more of a symbolic move to show the corrupt political class the amplification of the crisis.” 

Even though his timely outreach has brought some hope to a crashing nation, the French president must have a plan to grasp more influence in the Levantine state.

Macron seems to be strategically working on a devastated nation’s pent up emotions. 

Being the first politician figure to visit the site of the blast and greet emotional locals in the remainings of Gemmayze, tweeting in Arabic and ending his last speech in Residences Des Pins with “بحبك يا لبنان”, are not impromptu acts that simply reflect France’s undying love or unconditional Lebanese trust of France. 

In fact, Macron’s benevolent overtures have  sparked controversies. His timely outreach is another iteration of foreign meddling that has always impacted Lebanon. “France will always interfere in Lebanon,” said Ayat, a student at the Lebanese University. “Ever since our independence they made sure to leave behind many traces within our own system that will always make us dependent on them.”

His extraordinary posturing was criticized, even in Paris where Macron’s leftist opponents warned the centralist leader against slinking neocolonialism, staking a claim on shaping Lebanon’s future, almost as if picking it up from where the mandate was left off.

France’s ties with Lebanon reach back to the 16th century, when the French monarchy negotiated with the Ottomans to protect Maronite Christians in the region conceiving Lebanon as a European enclave in the “Muslim East”. By the time of the French mandate, Lebanon already had a network of French schools and French speakers whose influence are still omnipresent in the country.

Today, the sectarian implications of Macron’s prompt actions are not to be denied. The president seems to be playing the delicate balance between the protector of a Christian minority in the East, the pragmatic administrator criticizing everyone, and the hero who is coming to unite and save the country. 

With a confessional system underlying Lebanon’s corruption, institutionalised sectarianism is primarily a French product, revised under the 1989 Taif agreement that Macron praised, saying that it “is perhaps one of the last existing forms” in the Middle East of the “peaceful possible coexistence of religions.”

However, responding to the criticism, Macron said he was acting in the interest of the Lebanese people because if France did not play its role, other powers may interfere, whether it be Iran, Saudi Arabia or Turkey.

“If we let Lebanon go in the region and if we somehow leave it in the hands of the depravity of regional powers, it will be a civil war,” he said on Friday.

A few days after President Macron’s visit, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu came to visit Lebanon in a similar manner. In a televised appearance, the delegation stated their support to the Lebanese people, pledging to rebuild the destroyed port and also offered the use of Turkish ports until the reconstruction is complete. Turkey has sent 400 tons of wheat, two field hospitals, as well as 10 personnel of the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, along with equipment to aid in search and rescue. 

During their visit, the foreign dignitaries visited a neighborhood populated by Lebanese with Turkish roots in Beirut and received a warm welcome as residents raised the flags of both countries.

Many Lebanese communities have a history of giving in to foreign powers in an attempt to strengthen their respective community’s political position. After the end of the First World War, the Maronite community through its leaders, most notably Patriarch Elias Hoayek, requested a French mandate and the formation of what has come to be known as the Republic of Lebanon. In 1958, foreign intervention was still a problem with Gamal Abdel Nasser influencing the Muslim Lebanese communities and inciting them to rebel against the state which prompted the Christian communities to turn towards Western countries, primarily the US, for aid.

It appears as if the days of foreign intervention are upon us again. Turkey’s influence is rising first in backing the UN-recognized Government of National Accord in Libya, as well as the Syrian National Army in northern Syria. Now, it has its eyes on Lebanon. Erdoğan has a support base in Lebanon among Sunni Muslims who praise him for the orthodox Islamic reforms that he has brought to Turkey although Erdoğan only uses the trope of Islamism  to further his influence at home and in the Middle East. Tensions are still rising in Lebanon after the explosion and Turkey’s role will only grow in importance. 

Three Lebanese diplomats expressed concerns that Turkey is stockpiling weapons in Lebanon, with two army intelligence sources also voicing their worries of growing Turkish armament. The clash that Khalde witnessed on the 27th of August is worrying and was not the first of its kind, as a similar clash happened back in June. If these types of clashes intensify then it wouldn’t be surprising to see Turkey supporting the Sunni community with weapons and arms in a bid to further Ankara’s influence in the country.

And while every step taken by President Macron during his visit in Lebanon is a media event garnering the vast majority of political media and public attention, Turkey’s aid has hardly been registered. Europe seems once again reproduced as the safer horizon, the real solution, the only future.

Collapsing Lebanon, is now more than ever, reflective of what renowned Canadian author, Naomi Klein defines as “disaster capitalism”.

“In moments of crisis, people are willing to hand over a great deal of power to anyone who claims to have a magic cure — whether the crisis is a financial meltdown or … a terrorist attack,” wrote Klein, in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.

Today, Lebanon should be aware that its descending situation is the perfect opportunity for any of its former colonials to perform  a comeback. “If you say you don’t want France involved, you’re saying you prefer Iran, Syria, Israel, US or KSA involved,” said photojournalist and AUB media professor, George Azar. “As Lebanese, we are unable to govern ourselves and we have proved it. So if France wants to come in and rebuild Gemmayze, let them do it. Our government doesn’t deserve to govern anymore.”

The successive corrupt Lebanese governments are to be blamed, but their lethal neglect cannot be seen separately from the global order.  The bigger issue remains: Western imperialism. Even though regional agents are big forces in the current Lebanese climate, their agency is structured by Europe and inherited by the United States, a European settler colony. After all, for Macron to meet up with Fairouz, a major icon of unity that is never mediatized, could exactly be what Lebanon needs during these critical times; and perhaps turn into one of the best post-colonial stunts in history?

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