Lebanese Civil Society after the War

National Unity and the State's Monopoly on Power

Bernhard Hillenkamp has lived and worked in Lebanon for the past eight years, serving, among other things, as coordinator of an international NGO project. In this interview, he talks about how civil society in Lebanon is likely to develop

A British Airways plane brings boxes of humanitarian aid and supplies to the Rafik Hariri International Airport, Beirut (photo: AP)
The State of Lebanon has traditionally been weak and dependent on aid from outside. A British Airways plane brings boxes of humanitarian aid and supplies to the Rafik Hariri International Airport, Beirut

​​Lebanon is characterized by the country's segregation of religious communities on nearly all levels of political and social life. Is this ghettoization of civil society also reflected in the groups active in the refugee assistance effort? Will the post-war situation change as a result of the war?

Civil society is generally segregated into two parts, a political faction oriented toward the West and a traditional faction characterized by affiliation with clans and networks similar to client-based groups. And the same division is seen in the effort to help the victims. A good example for this phenomenon is the city Saida, where the Hariri Foundation and the municipal authority were not willing to cooperate with one another. On the contrary, they were in direct competition.

But there were also small, inter-denominational groups primarily comprising students, such as an organization known as Al-Muwattinun, that pushed through their own program and provided help for all, regardless of their faith or religious affiliation. They made use of their contacts with international NGOs but also availed themselves of their circle of friends and acquaintances.

It may be that these groups represent the beginning of an alternative movement within civil society. And new groups are certain to appear as a result of this positive experience with inter-religious cooperation. But because emergency assistance is the lowest level of commitment in the area of social development, I don't really believe that the war will have any positive influence on the development of civil society. On the contrary, I expect that the conventional structures centered around religious clientele will fall apart.

The retreat of the Syrian army following the murder of Rafiq Hariri awakened among many Lebanese the hope for national dialogue and democratization. Civil-social organizations in particular began to play an active role with regard to political topics. How can and will Lebanese civil society develop with regard to its political role following the war?

Hillenkamp: It is to be hoped that the war was the last link in a long chain of disappointments for the development of Lebanese civil society. Following the retreat of the Syrian groups, people were optimistic that a more democratic Lebanon would emerge that was less oriented toward religious factions. This hope was dampened first by the elections, which were decided along religious lines as always.

Subsequently the national dialogue made it evident that certain interest groups, including Hizbollah and pro-Syrian organizations, were unwilling to compromise.

For example, the army was unable to establish a monopoly of power in the country's southern region. However, the establishment of a monopoly of power, not only militarily, is the fundamental prerequisite for normalization and for dialogue between equal partners in Lebanon, that is to say also between civil society and the government. Therefore the ongoing development of political life in the country also depends on the implementation of Resolution 1701 and the resolutions that preceded it.

At the moment when the Lebanese army acquires a monopoly on power, the country will be a step further toward becoming a unified Lebanon.

Could political development resume from the point it had reached prior to the war?

Hillenkamp: No, it's impossible to continue from where we left off in June. There will be an intensive discussion within Lebanon regarding the role of Hizbollah, or its disarmament, and I believe the status quo before the war will be maintained. But the positions have changed. The position of Hizbollah regarding its role in the south has been weakened. So it may be that the government emerges from the war stronger. Civil society itself, however, will play only a subordinate role in this discussion.

Bernhard Hillenkamp (photo: Ylva Sperling)
Bernhard Hillenkamp is the coordinator for the international NGO Save the Children Sweden (SCS). During the war, SCS worked with other national and international NROs to organize assistance for Lebanese refugees

​​In general it may be presumed that the traditional factions of society that have access to international and national assistance funds, such as the Hariri Foundation through Saudi Arabia or the Hizbollah through Iran, will be able to further exploit their client networks and acquire more money. The other part of civil society I mentioned, namely the groups who rely on political ideas, will surely not be able to mobilize comparable resources for themselves. Therefore reconstruction will tend to work against the liberal members of society.

What's more, the [substantial, ideological] aspect of our work [i.e. the work of NGO] has suffered a tremendous setback. Groups that have dedicated themselves to political development for years and which have struggled to emancipate themselves from the idea of charity and service, find themselves thrown back to the point where they started in terms of emergency relief and their development effort.

You already mentioned the foreign entities providing financial backing. What role will the Western nations and Lebanon's neighbors play in the future in terms of financing Lebanese civil society?

Hillenkamp: The discussion has only just begun. Many things, including the financial aid, now depend on the future role of Hizbollah – and whether a political solution will be found. That means that if Hizbollah is successfully integrated into the government, much more money will flow into the country from the west than would if Hizbollah were not integrated. In the latter case, Lebanon would receive more funds from Iran, for example, than from the West.

How will the government and civil society share the task of rebuilding, and who will receive the foreign funds?

Hillenkamp: During the war, governmental agencies attempted to gain the upper hand over national and international organizations. They recommended that the NGOs coordinate their tasks with the government. The aim was to produce a situation in which projects would have required authorization by governmental agencies. However, neither the national nor the international organizations were willing to subject themselves to governmental influence.

Now that the war is over, the question is, who will the agents of reconstruction be – governmental organizations or international and national NGOs?

Hillenkamp: Since there are tens of thousands of destroyed homes in Lebanon, I believe that the government will play a prominent role in reconstruction, and that many of the smaller NGOs will be relegated to the sidelines. It's possible that Hizbollah and its institutions will be allowed to participate. But the primary agents will be the traditional, national players, such as the Council of the South and the Council of Reconstruction.

Interview conducted by Anne Schober

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by Mark Rossman

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