Lebanon has often been referred to as the “Switzerland of the Middle East,” a line once taken seriously until the 1975-1990 war brought on howls of laughter whenever that cliché was uttered.
Fair enough. Lebanon is no Switzerland, and even its snow-capped mountains look different. Instead of pastoral tales of “Heidi”, the country can tell you stories of Shaker al-Abssi and car bombings.
Yet there is an essential similarity between the two countries: the fact that for a considerable amount of time they have had to manage the very different interests of a diverse, often conflict-ridden, population. What became Switzerland, in 1848, was for a long time torn apart by rivalries between Catholic and Protestant French-speaking, German-speaking, Italian-speaking, and Romansh-speaking populations, all manipulated by surrounding European powers. Lebanon, though all its citizens speak the same language, has nevertheless, similarly, been a society replete with divisions that its neighbors have played upon.
For many Lebanese whenever Switzerland is mentioned, federalism comes to mind. That’s understandable, but also too narrow a reaction. Often, the difference between federalism and partition is wholly misunderstood in Lebanon. In many respects both ideas may be inapplicable to the society, perhaps even undesirable. But that doesn’t mean that a new Lebanese social contract should not be discussed — one based on the idea of devolving powers to the local and regional levels.
Any serious capitalist culture must be based on the availability of choice and liberty, as well as the opportunity to bypass the natural inefficiency and overbearing nature of the state. Switzerland is a paradox in this regard. Local and regional autonomy and diversity are inherent in the federal structure. This, in theory at least, creates choice, renders local and regional development more efficient, and limits the powers of the federal government in Berne. The system certainly creates a looser, more plural structure than the centralized Jacobin state that exists, let’s say, next door in France, where everything tends to emanate from Paris.
But that doesn’t mean that the Swiss are free from state authority. Taxes are high and must be paid at several levels. The federation’s obsession with compromise can also be suffocating for those seeking to break the consensus. Politics in Switzerland are not between a majority and an opposition. Everyone has a share in decision-making, at all levels of the state. Though ideological ambitions can be advanced, the process is slow. Individuals can be influential, but the system guards against dominant personalities.
Lebanon’s weak state authority
In Lebanon, the situation is very different. From the outset, when Greater Lebanon was created, the state was centralized, reflecting the French approach. Yet this administrative centralization was imposed on a diverse political society. Much informal authority had been exercised by the political class at the local or regional levels, which Ottoman rule had allowed for in the post-1860 mutasarrifiyya. What was the practical result of this? That the modern state became a repository of Lebanon’s contradictory social tendencies. Though centralized, state authority was never more powerful than that of the various factions in the state, who in turn represented different communal or other interests.
In Switzerland, the initially independent entities that would form cantons voluntarily agreed to join together into a single federal structure; in Lebanon, the change was imposed from the top down, from outside, and with the state mirroring the fractures in society. In Switzerland there was positive movement toward a common center of gravity; in Lebanon, the center of gravity became acceptable because it allowed autonomy.
These two different trends are not at odds — on the contrary, they were different dynamics leading to the same goal — but there was a key difference: the Swiss created governance structures that ultimately proved more powerful than the society’s individual parts; in Lebanon, the country’s individual parts (traditional confessional leaders, religious identities, and the like) remain more powerful than the state’s local, regional, or national governance structures. That is why the state is less stifling in Lebanon’s case, but also why the Lebanese cannot seem to hand power over to broader governance structures that might one day allow them to build a more solid state.
Finding the right balance between what to give to the state and what to keep for oneself in the form of liberty from that state, is an essential goal of successful capitalist culture. That’s why Lebanon and Switzerland, so fundamentally different, are so similar in trying to strike an equilibrium that allows them to manage their societies’ differences. Now all Lebanon needs to do is start that process, which the Swiss have spent over 150 years perfecting.