While the rest of the Arab world has been inflamed by protesters demanding democratic reforms and engaged in political upheavals, one small corner of this part of the world remains untouched by the spirit of revolution sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa.
The tiny nation of Lebanon, squeezed between Syria to the east (where demonstrators have done the unthinkable and have dared to protest against the repressive Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad) and Israel to the south (which seems engaged in endless wars with its enemies at home and abroad) remains largely free of anti-government fervor.
That’s not to say that life in Lebanon is tranquil either. Indeed, earlier this year the national unity government collapsed after ten opposition ministers and one presidential appointee resigned over controversies related to members of the Hezbollah terrorist group who assassinated the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Iran (which supports Hezbollah) has long been criticized by Beirut for meddling in Lebanon’s internal affairs.
Lebanon also endures repeated turmoil with Israel due largely to the activities of Hezbollah militants in the south. The civil war that tore Lebanon apart in the 1970sand 1980s still has aftershocks, including thousands of displaced people, including many Palestinians.
Still, compared to the violent unrest we are now witnessing in Bahrain, Yemen and Libya, we must conclude that Lebanon is an oasis of stability.
For one thing, Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy (virtually unheard of in the rest of the region, except for Israel). Moreover, in order to minimize sectarian conflict, the Lebanese government specifies that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of the Parliament a Shia Muslim, and the Deputy Prime Minister Greek Orthodox.
Dilshod Achilov, a professor of political science at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tenn., explains that Lebanon, Israel and Turkey are the only free republics in the entire region.
“One of the main factors that explain the present relative tranquility in Lebanon is its high levels of freedom of expression and civil liberties compared to any other Arab country in the region,” he said.
“Historically, Lebanon has been more open and transparent with moderately strong democratic institutions compared to the rest of the Arab world.”
Achilov notes that Lebanon has a long tradition of press freedom, including multiple independent TV channels, dozens of independent radio stations and numerous independent newspapers give a voice to a wide range of views.
“Lebanon is a highly heterogeneous society,” he said. “Thus, the social-demographic and political context of Lebanon is unique and deserves special attention.”
Although the country is predominantly Arab by ethnicity, Lebanon is divided along three main religious identities (Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Maronite Christians).
“Political power is shared among these three religious sects,” he said.
“From this perspective, the venues for self-expression have been essential in order to maintain Lebanese democratic institutions. “
When the Syrian military withdrew from Lebanon in 2005, it removed a major obstacle to freedom in Lebanon.
Achilov cautions that many challenges lie ahead for the country.
“For instance, even though Lebanese courts, as well as the security apparatus, are seemingly independent and transparent, they are not completely free from heavy political influence or interference,” he said.
“Nevertheless, Lebanese state institutions enjoy far more civil liberties compared to other Arab-peers in the region.”
However, Joshua Landis, Director, Center for Middle East Studies in Norman, Okla., had a different view of Lebanese stability.
“The reason that Lebanon has not had any revolts is that it has almost no government and thus the people are only repressed by the lack of a central state and not too much on one,” he said.