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“Lebanon First:” On the Politics of Neutrality on a Moving Train

Weeks away from the centenary of "Greater Lebanon," and two days after the criminal explosion at the Port of Beirut, French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Beirut to announce a “new era” in Lebanon.

His heavily mediatized visit to Gouraud Street in Gemmayzeh, a shattered neighborhood that is yet to recover from the blast, was filled with raw anger and presidential embraces with anguished survivors pleading for his help to a resounding "vive la France” briefly echoing in the background. Within hours, an online petition calling for the return of the French mandate garnered over 50,000 signatures.

The historical irony was not lost on critical commentators who remarked on the colonial significance of the scene. Allegedly motivated by historical ties, fraternal solidarity, and friendship between the two countries, the French president basked in his image as a savior on a morally justified mission to literally rescue the Lebanese from their corrupt rulers, not without a hefty dose of paternalism. France would stand by you, he said, "On sera là et on ne vous lâchera pas."

On September 1, 2020, a city still shaking from the tremors of the blast was offered a military show in the sky, courtesy of the French Air Force, to commemorate 100 years of "Greater Lebanon.” This Lebanon was declared by the same Gouraud whose sovereignty stubbornly persists in the street named after him, as toponymy is the domain of power, where his descendent Macron was hailed a hero. Later that day, security forces cracked down on protesters in the center of the city, raining, after dusk, birdshot pellets, rubber-coated bullets, and French tear gas canisters, a Parisian token of friendship to the people.

In 2020, Lebanese oligarchs survived and extended their rule through the backing of both Western liberal democracies and their foes. And as weeks and months went by, neither the French’s honey pot approach, nor their sanction threats have managed to usher this supposedly new era under the banner of the "French initiative."

For those nostalgic for mandate-Lebanon, the reality that the general public is not within the purview of the initiative's fine print seems insignificant. Although they are told there will be reforms, their nature and implementation remains unclear; although they are promised a government composed of independent figures, names and political agendas remain elusive. What they are guaranteed, however, is another "national unity" constitution that inevitably reproduces the same oligarchy through the old veneer of sectarian representation. 

Similarly, in 1920, the mercantile bourgeoisie that shook hands with the French was rewarded with colonial privileges. Although the mandate over Lebanon may have formally ended in 1943, another form of colonialism persists. It perpetuates imperial relations of patronage and ensures that “post-colonial” countries, like Lebanon, and many others in the Global South, remain dependent, if not subservient to their old masters in the global scramble for capital. Nowhere is this relationship clearer in Lebanon than in the recent competition over the reconstruction of the port and the exploration of oil and gas wells in Lebanon's maritime domain.

The construction of the new port and the development, a euphemism for gentrification, of its vicinity is conditional upon “anti-corruption” reforms and a “neutral” stance that steers Lebanon away from regional disturbances, and upholds its sovereignty in the face of the so-called anti-imperialist axis — but not Western imperialism, one of the longest and most violent imperialisms to be normalized.

So-called political neutrality, while not new as neither demand nor discourse, is increasingly adopted by the Lebanese as a means of attaining security and prosperity within the dominant global dis-order. But, as a violent campaign of ethnic cleansing resurged next door in historic Palestine, this politics of disengagement materialized in its ugliest of forms.

The supremacist "Lebanon First" slogan and its softer variation "Lebanon is my cause" — though no one has yet explained what that cause might be — became the knee jerk response to those who expressed even symbolic support for the Palestinian people. I say ugliest of forms because this neutrality consequentially endorses the settler-colonial project in Palestine, normalizing expulsion, military conquest, the vile mob attacks that characterize apartheid regimes, and particularly Palestinian marginalization in Lebanon.

Neutrality, however, is an impossible position to take. As the late historian Howard Zinn explained, “you can’t be neutral on a moving train...[since] events are already moving in certain deadly directions." To be passive is to be a "collaborator."

The unofficial, but widely adopted, national narrative within the borders of Greater Lebanon ignores the reality that Lebanon is indeed a colonial project built on a series of pervasive national myths. That the creation of "Greater Lebanon'' was the result of proxy elites succumbing to the colonial tactic of divide-and-conquer might offend. But this colonial tactic created, if not bolstered, the sectarian politics within what became Lebanon and its surrounding countries.

It insidiously severed our organic ties with people across Greater Syria, which includes today’s Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and indeed Palestine. Divide and conquer then paved the way for Zionism, a settler-colonial project that secured, in the aftermath of the Nakba, the isolation of Palestinians from everyone else. With Zionism, we further succumbed to the Western logics of imperial powers and lost any possibility of political and economic sovereignty as a people.

Now is not the time for neutrality, and there is never such a time.The neutrality of which we hear so often these days is another weapon brandished by our former colonizers through neo-colonial processes of political and economic capitulations they impose on their representatives who have come to rule us, crushing our resistance while portraying neutrality as an evolved and rational national stance.

It is this neutral position that also foments a violent culture of exclusion and a detachment from notions of justice and solidarity. It condones, and indeed celebrates, the burning of Syrian refugee camps. Divide-and-conquer and the mantra of neutrality serving it have created competition, if not enmity, fragmenting working classes everywhere across imagined nation-state borders in the interest of domination and capital. This explains why the Lebanese working class lay dormant during the general strike that swept across Palestinians camps in July 2019 in response to the state's criminalization of Palestinian labor.

Neutrality is oriented toward submission and subservience and sovereignty cannot be attained by groveling at the feet of the Saudi ambassador, reminiscing about the French mandate or the so-called golden age after “independence.”

Because sovereignty is intrinsically tied to liberation, we ought to struggle for collective liberation, which is only possible through anti-colonial commitments and solidarity with peoples across the region and beyond who have been inflicted with the pains of authoritarianism, fascism, capitalism, settler-colonialism and indeed imperialism.

Palestinians today need not neutral observers, they need our power so they and all of us can be free. This country's manufactured amnesia does not start in 1975, but lies in the foundational myths of its establishment. It's time we shed that worn-out cloak.


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