Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Lebanon: The Challenge of Independence

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Lebanon: The Challenge of Independence

Article excerpt

Lebanon: The Challenge of Independence, by Eyal Zisser. London: LB. Tauris Publishers, 2000. vii + 245 pages. Notes to p. 277. Bibl. to p. 290. Index to p. 297. $59.50.

The history of Lebanon in the first half of the 20th century is no longer terra incognita. Books by Meir Zamir, Gerard Khoury, Laura Eisenberg, Carolyn Gates, Elizabeth Thompson and others have advanced our knowledge of Lebanon's confessional communities, economic development, state formation, gender politics, and its relationships with France, Syria, and the Zionist Movement.' Eyal Zisser, an historian at Tel Aviv University, looks at the politics of the period 1943-1952, when Bishara al-Khuri served as the first President of independent Lebanon.

Zisser suggests that Khuri, more than any other political leader, made the Lebanese state a viable structure, strong enough to survive a devastating civil war 25 years after his presidency. On the one hand, he credits Khuri with introducing modern government and correcting the grossest imbalances in the Lebanese confessional system of politics. On the other, he suggests that Khuri was responsible for preserving significant elements of the old, corrupt, and fragmented political order that independent Lebanon inherited from the late Ottoman and French eras. Thus, the categories of analysis implicit in Zisser's analysis are oldfashioned: what is good is modern, what is bad is traditional, and whether Lebanon thrived or simply survived depended on the former outweighing the latter, but not by too much.

Khuri is the protagonist in Zisser's narrative, but Riad Sulh, the Prime Minister for much of the period, rightly receives considerable attention. Together, they shaped the 1943 National Pact, the division of power by confession on which the Lebanese political system, more or less, still rests. The President was to be a Maronite and Khuri was duly elected; Riad Sulh became Prime Minister, the top job reserved for Sunni Muslims. Zisser reconstructs their working relationship and rivalry in great detail and always against the backdrop of regional and international competition in the Middle East at the start of the Cold War. He also follows the early careers of Camille Chamoun, Sa'ib Salam, Kamal Jumblatt and other rising stars in the Lebanese political firmament. In explaining the elite's political behavior, he appears to adopt Albert Hourani's "politics of notables" framework of interpretation. The Hourani framework, however, was built to explain how a local elite emerges and exercises power as an intermediary between a distant or foreign overlord and local society. It does not hold up when the local political elite itself comes to power in its own right and is responsible for how it exercises that power. Thus, a new framework is needed to understand the relationship of the political elite to the political needs of the rest of the country after the departure of the French from Lebanon in 1946. …

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