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Review of Phares Book
By Dr Dominic Mohammed
May 2, 2003, 19:20

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By Dr Dominic Mohamed
Florida International University

The Rise and Fall of an Ethnic Resistance
Walid Phares

Lebanese Christian Nationalism: The Rise and Fall of an Ethnic Resistance (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1995) is a benchmark book in Middle East studies and provides a totally new angle to understand the interethnic relations of Lebanon. As a case study in ethnonationalism, Walid Phares book is all the more valuable to comparative studies and the field of nationalism. Two hundred and fifty pages, well written, and number of geo-political maps.

The author

Dr Walid Phares is a professor of international relations and comparative politics at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of seven books on the Middle East, including, Al-Thawra al-Islamiya al-Iraniya [The Iranian Islamic Revolution] (Dar el-Sharq Press, 1986); Treize Siecles de Lutte [Thirteen Centuries of Struggle] (Mashreq International Press, 1982); Hiwar Dimucrati [Democratic Dialogue] (Manshurat el-Tagammoh, 1981); Al-Taadudiya fi Lubnan [Pluralism in Lebanon] (Kaslik University Press, 1979). Published a large number of articles in the international, Middle East and North American press. His scholarly articles are found in periodicals such as Global Affairs, The Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, The Journal of Intelligence and Counter Intelligence, The Copts, Assyria Political Review, Middle East Quarterly, etc.

The timing and relevance

The timing of this new book is important for two reasons. One is the dramatic developments in the Middle East. On the one hand, the Peace Process involves Israel, Syria and Lebanon. A better knowledge of Lebanon's history and its structural problems is a must to assess the viability of the above process. On the other hand, the emergence of Islamic fundamentalism from Algeria to Iran will increase the interest in the study of the various forms of ethnic resistances -including the Christian resistance of Lebanon - to the latter.

The second reason for the good timing is the exploding ethnoreligious conflicts worldwide from India to Sudan, through the former Yugoslavia. Lebanon's crisis was the "mother of all ethnic crisis" as it was described by the author. A comparative analysis with similar or comparable cases is of a great interest to decision-makers and scholars. Therefore, such a study has a great relevance for studies in nationalism, ethnonationalism, and religious-nationalism.

An unknown history

One major contribution of Walid Phares book is the summarized chapter on the history of a poorly known group: the Aramaic-rooted Lebanese Christians. The historical background of most of the non-Arab ethnicity in the region, suffers from lack of sufficient research. More importantly, Coptic, Assyrian, Syriac, Melkite, Nubian and Maronite odysseys, are not thougroughly analysed. Phares' work on the Lebanese Christians met this decades-old challenge. The most important novelties of the historical section are the following:

1. The existence of an early Aramaic resistance to the Arabo-Islamic conquest of the upper Middle East, particularly in Syria and Lebanon. Such a hypothesis was never fully explored in earlier works. Phares makes it necessary to researchers to revisit the history of the seventh century in order to either refute the Aramaic element or reconsider the official version of Middle East classical political historians.

2. The formation of a Mardaite state: Between 676 and 13O5 an independant Aramaic state was established in the Lebanese mountains. Phares summarize and bring further clarifications to the titanic epopee of Ibn el Qalai, and the gigantic work of Boutros Daw. By demonstrating that the ancestors of the Lebanese Christians have been able to edify a military entity ruled by the "Marada" (famous Aramaic warriors tribes), the entire historical legitimacy of modern Lebanon will be irreversably re-established. In this regard, the thesis of a late formation of a modern entity in Lebanon will fall at the feet of a multi-century historical claim. As Phares states in his chapter on the Mardaites, "this era will impact the history of Lebanon, until today, and will possibly determine its future."

3. The end of the Mardaite independance in the fourteen century is even more impressive. A comparison with the dramatic fate of Lebanon's Christian community in recent times is stricking. The fall of the mountain in the middle-ages was due principally to the power struggle among its feudal leadership, a troubling precedent to end of twentieth century events. Phares paradgime on Lebanon's Christians is clear: Most of their major defeats are basically caused by internal strife. A reality which seems to repeat itself until today.

4. Arab and Ottoman domination: After the invasion of the Kesrwan highlands in 13O5 by the Mameluks, a new era starts in Lebanon. For two hundred years, direct Arab power administered the occupied districts of Mount Lebanon. The Maronite peasantry is spared because of its economical importance to the Mameluks and their agents, the Makataagie. The Maronite Church survives this difficult period and becomes the beholder of national resistance. In 1516, the Ottomans conquered Syria and created a province in Mount Lebanon. Phares analysis of the Druso-Christian alliance is enlightning. The Druse Emirs rules, the Maronite middle class provide them with economic, military and diplomatic support. The "Emirate," based on this entente, last more than three centuries

5. By the early nineteen century, national and social movements among the Christian community sucitates fears and reactions among Druse feudals. A civil war bring the Emirate to its end. The Christians, principally the Maronites, have the upper hand. The European intervention grant them an autonomous entity in northern Lebanon, while a mixt district is created in the south. In 1858 a democratic revolution shakes the northern country and spill over the southern borders. The peasant revolt created a small peasant republic in the Maronite sector, but it triggered an all-out war between the Christians and an alliance of Druse, Moslems and other pro-Ottoman groups. Phares explains the consequences of the "War of the mountain" preparing the reader to understand another similar conflict which will unfold a century later.

6. The Mutassarifia: As a result of the 186O war, the European powers imposed another entity known as the Petit Liban (smaller Lebanon). The author argue that this political entity was the closest to the Christians' dreams. Seventy percent of today's Lebanon with 8O% of its population from the Christian communities. The chapter on "Greater Lebanon" in 192O explains the two options made possible by the French mandate. "Mount Lebanon's upper class choose a larger country, creating a bi-national state," concluded Phares. Under the protection of France, the ruling elites of the Maronites didn't assess the difficulties which will rise after their departure.

7. The chapters detailing the formation of a "national pact" between the ruling Christian class and its Moslem counterpart bring a new perspective to the understanding of Lebanon's modern crisis. Indeed, the community is divided between "Arabists" and "nationalists." In the years which followed the independence, the partisans of a "Christian homeland" are persecuted by the new regime. However the concession made by the Christian supporters of the "national pact" did'nt stop the escalation of tensions inside the country. Phares hilights the benchmarks leading to the 1975 conflict: adhesion to the Arab League, 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, 1958 first civil war in Lebanon, 1968-197O clashes with the PLO, 1973 collapse of the government's authority, the emergence of militias, and finally the outbreak of the civil war.

8. Lebanon's war from a different angle: The book's chapters on the sequences of the 15 years war of Lebanon is fascinating. The events are interpreted with accuracy, and the decision taken by the Christian leaders are presented in a historical framework. The reader can grasp the intertwined situations and understands better the background of many dramatic issues: Bashir Gemayel choices, internecine struggle, the relations with Israel, the lack of ideological grounds, the incertainty within the leadership, etc. Phares consecrate a whole chapter to illuminate a crucial fact: "The Christians were not ready intellectually and strategically. They went to war without an objective; they resisted an enemy without a claim!"

The slow fall

In an exclusive amalgame of facts and analysis, Phares reserves the next chapters to the end of the Christian enclave. An impressive account of the modern history of internal struggle within the ruling Christian elite pave the way to the latest power tensions among the leadership. From the Frangieh - Gemayel dispute which lost the Maronite north in 1978, to the Phalangist - Chamounist onslaught of 198O, internecine clashes persists as the major threat to the community. The internal indecision is behind the collapse of the Christian - Israeli alliance in 1982-1984. In 1985 the Lebanese Forces militia rise against the conservative regime of Amine Gemayel. The following year the radical Samir Geagea takes over the command from Elie Hobeika, turned pro-Syrian. The bloodshed continue with two unsuccesful attempts to overthrow Geagea. In 1989 the Christian militia clashes with the mostly Christian brigades of the regular army led by General Michel Aoun. The same year, the latter launches a "liberation war" against the Syrians, while his foe of the militia outmaneuver him and allies himself with Damascus. In 199O the Christian enclave is ravaged by a destructive civil war between the two colosses. "Aoun lost the war but his adversary Geagea didn't win it," accurately concludes Phares. On October 13, 199O thirty thousand Syrian troops invade the Aoun's controlled section of the enclave. Between 1991 and 1995, the other Christian factions are slowly and gradually eliminated from political life. "The civil war among the Christians led to their military and political end," wrote the author.

In the last chapter of the "Fall of the resistance," Phares describes the dismantlement of the Christian entity, slice by slice. Today he wrote, "Lebanon is ruled by a power, politically Syrian, ideologically Arabist, and spiritually Islamist." The Arab-brokered Taif accord eliminates the last ethno-political claim of the resistance and establishes a new regime in Lebanon. While the resistance goes to exile, a southern enclave defended by the South Lebanon Army and controlled by Israel is the only area which escapes Syria's domination. In the diaspora, expatriates groups get organized: The Aounist current, and the Christian nationalists attempt to resume the struggle and maintian the claim. Their voices are lost in the new world order led by the United States. "The Christians of Lebanon raised their issue too late, and lost their war too soon," said Phares at a panel dedicated to the discussion of his book.

The comparative analysis

The rise and fall of Lebanese Christian Nationalism can be compared to many other attempts by small nations to obtain self determination. A chapter is dedicated to comparative analysis at the end of the book with a bold attempt to establish a new parameter in ethnonationalist struggles. The book clearly poses a number of crucial issues with regards the Lebanese problem:

First, he adresses a poorly explained claim. Indeed the Lebanese Christians were longtime misunderstood in the international arena. Phares' book is the first and only in depth study of their inner world. Second, the book put the subject in its proper international context. One can see the big picture after comparing their case to other similar situation. The territorial factor is primordial in that sense that Mount Lebanon enclave has provided a safe haven for a minority group, otherwise very vulnerable elsewere in the Middle East. Third a special emphasis on the "Arabists" is often brought about by the author. Phares argues that the Lebanese Christian claim was badly vitriolized by authors and critics who's primary objective was to deny this ethnic group from having access to its right for self-determination.

The conclusions are very revealing. A global survey of external factors such as the American position, the Israeli facor, the strategic dimention of the security zone in the south Lebanon, Syrianization, Arabization and finally Islamization. Phares is not indulgent with the Christian, particularly Maronite leadership. Highly critical of the ruling families (including the Gemayels) the militia leaders, including (Geagea and Hobeika) and even of the popular General Michel Aoun, the author put the entire political establishement on intellectual trial. He simply apply the principle of checks and balances by comparing the discourses of the leaders to their deeds.

In sum this series of analysis explains the conflict of from an angle never explored before.

Bibliographical sources

The powerful text is supported with a comprehensive bibliography, easy to check, with the exception of Lebanese war documents. The sources are extracted from various research realms. Phares was able to merge previously separated bibliographical worlds, in English, French, and Arabic.

The only major gap with Lebanese Christian Nationalism is his brutal end. The author denied us his views on the future of the Christians in Lebanon, which could have been of a greater academic and public interest. Perhaps Phares didn't want to interfere with History in the making. His work, in conclusion is the first, only, and most comprehensive book on the Lebanese Christian politics.

251 pages; maps; found in major libraries

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