Beirut. In a city that is reborn and at risk every day, an interview with Georges Corm. A Maronite Christian, a politician, a writer, a lecturer and a polemicist, a multi-faceted man who, like so many of his fellow countrymen, goes against the mainstream. 'His' Lebanon is different from the clichés and traditional interpretations and shines out because of its vitality intertwined with pain and drama.

This article was published in Oasis 11. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2022-04-22 09:42:51

On the cover of his book on the history of contemporary Lebanon (Jaca Book, 2006), Georges Corm placed a view of the hill of Achrafieh of the 1920s: small houses immersed in verdant greenery. Nothing could be more in contrast with the very modern architecture of the centre of Beirut where Oasis met him at the end of February. Formerly the Minister of Finance between 1998 and 2000, a university lecturer and consultant for a large number of international organisations, Georges Corm is an overflowing river. Between cigars he describes the past and the current situation of his country, beginning with a singular approach: political communitarianism is not the only destiny possible for the Lebanon.

Professor, it is a widely held view that the Lebanon constitutes a model for co-existence between different religions and communities. It is generally believed that such co-existence is assured by the spoils system of power which is so characteristic of this country. In your studies you call this idea into question. So what is false and what is authentic in the idea of Lebanese communitarianism?

Communitarianism is a product of modernity. It is a category of German sociology which makes a distinction between a community (a closed universe) and a society (an open universe). I always say that the Lebanon is a society in the full sense of the term and is not a mere agglomerate of communities. For that matter, my writings use neither the word ‘people’ nor the word ‘nation’, high-sounding concepts, children of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That the Lebanon is designated with the name ‘communitarianism’ is the result of French and English nineteenth-century interventions in the affairs of the Lebanese mountain, Mount Lebanon. They obviously also provoked strong intervention on the part of the Ottoman Turks who reacted into order to maintain their influence.

You refer to the millet system which assured internal autonomy for the communities.

In reality, the Lebanese mountain enjoyed total autonomy in relation to the Ottoman Empire; the millet system applied only to the coasts. For that matter this system, for that epoch, was extremely advanced. It protected the specificities of the Christians and the Jews and religious freedom, as well as freedom of education, but it also acted within the administration as regards questions connected with personal status (marriage and inheritance). However, this freedom was not applied to the heterodox non-Sunni Muslim communities. It is clear, however, that this regime was superseded by the general evolution of the region and in particular by the spread of European nationalist and democratic ideas. It was for this reason that it was not able to survive and that during the last years of the Ottoman Empire it even helped to create the specific atmosphere of inter-communal massacres which took place in that epoch. The ethnic and nationalist passions that came from Europe infected the communities of the empire and caused an aspiration to the homogenisation of the population in a specific territory. And we still have not come out of this situation. Furthermore, after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire other complications were added: the creation ex nihilo of a state in the Middle East that defines itself according to its religion, Judaism, and the very important role of Saudi Arabia which also defines itself by its religion. And then, the most recent development, the revolution in Iran. To summarise, we are one lives one is immersed in a strong exploitation of religion which plays an increasingly important identitarian role, replacing the nationalism and the ethnic loyalties of the twentieth century and once again strengthening forms of communitarianism.

To go back to the Lebanon. What was on the mountain at that time?

The mountain had a strong autonomy because it was governed by a fiscal feudalism, that is to say by a hierarchical organisation of local notables who levied taxes on the population and then gave a part of these taxes to the Ottoman Sultan as a tribute. Political communitarianism, therefore, did not exist and this was because these feudal lords had an indiscriminate dominion over the peasants of all the communities.

In your view do we encounter here the specificity of the Lebanon?

There were other regions of the Middle East and the Balkans where the same situation existed. Naturally, there were also regions of the Empire where Ottoman power was much more severe. One should add that from the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards European pressure on the Ottoman Empire to reform itself, in the period called the period of the Tanzîmât, produced an extremely destabilising effect. Why? Because on the one hand the Ottoman Empire was told “you should achieve complete equality between your citizens or between all your subjects,” and on the other it was said in contradictory fashion: “you should not touch the traditional privileges enjoyed by the members of the various Christian and Jewish millet.” This ambiguity generated tensions. In my view there is a surprising analogy between the pressure that was applied by the United States of America during the presidency of George W. Bush to make the Middle East reform itself along democratic lines and the pressure applied by the colonial powers on the Ottoman Empire during the nineteenth century. In both cases one is dealing with interventions in the domestic affairs of states with the aim of increasing one’s regional power rather than expressions of a sincere love for democracy and human rights. To go back to our subject, in response to European pressure the Ottomans introduced political communitarianisn which was something different from the millet regime, which only bestowed civil rights. When they organised the first municipal elections the Ottomans wanted to ensure that the Christians and the Jews were represented in a way that was proportionate to their demographic presence. And it is here that I see a prefiguring of the political communitarianism of the region, which was established in the Lebanon in 1864 in relation to political management under the control of the European colonial powers. In the Lebanon people tend to think that the communitarianist system protected ‘minorities’ but one should realise that it was specifically this system that ended up by setting in motion the massacres and the forced migrations that took place in various regions of the Middle East. Whether it is a matter of the Greeks or the Armenians in Anatolia, the Lebanese in 1840, 1845 or 1860, and then in 1958, and again from 1975 to 1990, not to speak about Palestine, I am sorry but I cannot see that communitarianism everywhere performed a protective role.

However this system has also had advantages...

In the Lebanon one can make an assessment of the positive effects of communitarianism on the condition that one puts the term ‘positive’ in inverted commas. And the affirmation that communitarianism impedes the dominance of one community by another is not to be taken for granted. A state always needs a force that guarantees its cohesion and functioning. For a long time during the recent epoch the Maronites played this role, which is now played by the Sunnis (previously, this was done by the Druses and before them by the Shiites, during the medieval period). Each time that a community acquires the government of a multi-community state this creates explosive discontent amongst the other communities. This does not remove the fact that this system impedes the taking place of a military coup, even though at times – I am about to say something that you will not like – a military dictatorship, where a country is ungovernable or overly badly governed, can lead people back to reason. I am not referring here to the dictatorships of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or of Pinochet in Chile: if we could have military men able to intervene for two or three years in order to implement the innumerable reforms that the country needs and then return power to civilians perhaps the Lebanon could be governed better than it has been done hitherto, avoiding repeated inter-community massacres.

The question is specifically that: knowing if military men would really return power to civilians.

I agree that often things do not turn out that way, if we are speaking in general terms, but in the case of the Lebanon a military dictatorship would not last for long. Whatever the case, a military coup in the Lebanon would be difficult to carry out. Because, once again, whoever intervened in politics would immediately receive the label of belonging to one community, and this would limit their moral authority in relation to the population as a whole.

Going back to an assessment of the positive aspects of communitarianism, we could also refer to a certain freedom of expression…

No, at the present time freedom of expression is very weak in the Lebanon. First of all the Lebanese are constantly subjected to terrorism by those militia chiefs who are still very powerful on the political scene. To criticise a militia chief, still today, is no small matter. Secondly, they fall prey to terror about money. Who would ever allow themselves to criticise this person or that person who are so rich that they could offer a job or a study grant to their son? In addition, they are subject to brainwashing by the regional and international mass media. No, as regards freedom of expression I am much less optimistic than you are. Furthermore, the present system leads to a constant reproduction of the same political families ruling over their communities, as it does to a marked polarisation of political tensions about the location of the Lebanon on the regional chessboard. For this reason, today an accentuated polarisation is to be seen – although not a new one – between those who feel near to the pro-Westernbloc, who want the Lebanon to be allied with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and Western countries, and the opposing bloc which rejects a Western hegemony which in scandalous fashion protects the Israeli -occupation of Palestinian, Syrian (the Golan) and Lebanese (some square kilometres have still not been evacuated by Israel) territories. This strong polarisation helps to strengthen the power of the political families, above all at the time of parliamentary elections when five heads of lists (General Aoun, Walid Joumblatt, Saad Hariri, Nabih Berri, and Hezbollah) choose and impose their candidates. Thus as things really are ordinary citizens feel not very involved, above all if they do not identify with these heads of lists. Despite this fact, at the last elections mobilisation was high because each of the ideological blocs said that it was a life or death question.

And then a government of national unity was created.

This was a part of the agreements reached in Qatar following the events of 7-8 March 2008. The crisis that began after the murder of Hariri can be summarised in the following way: first, there was a Syrian-Saudi Arabia condominium which divided up control of the Lebanon with the blessing of the United States of America. Hariri was the embodiment of this equilibrium. Then, following Resolution n. 1559 of September 2004, everything changed: the Americans and the Saudis told Syria: ‘Out, we take back the Lebanon 100%’. The four subsequent years of destabilisation, the intervention of Hezbollah in May 2008 in Beirut and the Doha summit were needed to recreate a certain equilibrium. The Doha agreement was made possible by the fact that some Arab governments believed that Saudi Arabia had gone too far in its intervention in the Lebanon and this was even more the case given that the American policy of George W. Bush in the Middle East was turning out to be an evident failure. It was in this context that the leaders at Qatar were able to adopt a stance in favour of the stability of the Lebanon.

And how is the new government performing?

You know governments in the Lebanon do not work well. Nothing is new in this sense. However the tension has greatly decreased. Think of how things were before, during the years 2005-2008, and how we are now, thanks to the equilibrium achieved between the two opposing camps. The Lebanon is very calm, as you can see.

Hezbollah has been present for a long time on the Lebanese scene. A certain evolution within it has taken place when we look at its origins, the movement has become more Lebanese, or continues to be…

I do not like this language. For me Hezbollah is made up of Lebanese people. Thus I cannot answer a question posed in these terms. You can ask me what the influence of Iran on Hezbollah and its development has been – this is a more neutral question – but not whether Hezbollah has become more Lebanese. I have a recurrent problem with my European friends, all of whom are people of good will, and it lies in the fact that their thinking may be pre-packaged to begin with. Forgive me, but all those people who died to free the South of the Lebanon from twenty-two years of Israeli occupation were not Iranians. They were young Lebanese who came from regions occupied by Israel who gave their lives for their country. If you want peace to return to the Middle East, you must know how to use words: with totally ideological and emotive words peace will never be achieved. Having said this, we can speak about the development of Hezbollah. Everyone forgets that the birth of Hezbollah was the work of Imam Mussa al-Sadr who was not in the least anti-Western and had come from Iran at the time of the Shah to fight Communism in the Lebanon. One should remember things somewhat. Subsequently, al-Sadr was made to disappear in Libya in 1978 for reasons that are not clear and have never been explained. Hezbollah is like Hamas, it is the product of the fight against the secular nationalist parties and against the Arab communist parties. Young people belonging to the Shiite community during the 1960s, Communists, pan-Arab and secular…it was they who were the core of the resistance to the Israeli occupation of the Lebanon. Hezbollah was born in the context of the new Israeli invasion of 1982 which came on top of the territories already occupied in 1968. Specifically while the American army (which had arrived as a multinational force with French, Italian and British contingents) was stationed in the Lebanon, weapons flowed freely towards Hezbollah as it was being created, whereas the secular members of the resistance to the Israeli occupation were disarmed and put in prison by the Israeli army. This military advantage allowed Hezbollah to place itself in the wake of that resistance and continue it. Amongst other things, at that time the Iranian revolution had just exploded and Saudi Arabia in its turn was fomenting in all possible ways the Islamic revival in line with the dictates of Wahabite fundamentalism. In this way the Lebanon fell into this atmosphere of the exploitation of religion. Certainly, the influence of Iran has been strong. The Iranian revolution, because of its anti-imperialism, inspired many Lebanese, and not only the Shiites. At the time I spent my days discussing matters with a large number of friends, Muslims and Christians, who admired the Iranian revolution, including the deceased Edward Said. In France, as well, two or three major philosophers approved the revolution in Iran.

At the outset…

Yes, at the outset. I believe that there was a misunderstanding because the Americans and the French who contributed to the seizure of power by Imam Khomeini believed that they would have obtained an accommodating anti-Communist Islam, like that to be found in Saudi Arabia. It is true that the Islam of Khomeini was anti-Communist but it also remained anti-imperialist, and this, indeed, was an unpleasant surprise! ¬Furthermore, Khomeini took up the vocabulary of Marxism, but in an Islamic key.

Forgive me, but the question seems to me to be more complex. Does not Hezbollah officially recognise the principle of Wilâyat al Faqîh which since 1979 has constituted the ideological foundation of Iran?

This is a principle at the level of inspiration. Even though a great deal of empty talk has surrounded this subject. The Italian Communists or the French Communists, who thought that Marxism interpreted by Moscow was the supreme truth, did not for this reason cease to be Italians or Frenchmen. In addition, within the Shiite community, both in the Lebanon and elsewhere, including Iran, there are many religious authorities that contest this principle of political-religious organisation. I really do not believe that we will have a Wilâyat al Faqîh regime in any other part of the world. It is a specifically Iranian reality that has no chance of being reproduced elsewhere. To discuss the possibility is thus a waste of time. For that matter, the day of the liberation of the south of the Lebanon, in May 2000, when everyone had a terrible fear that there would be massacres between Christians and Shiites, I was there at five in the morning to be certain that communal and collective vendettas did not take place. It was then – at that time I was Minister for Finance – that I was able to realise the discipline of Hezbollah and its exemplary behaviour: the collaborationists (or their families) were not given even a physical blow. They were handed over to the state to be judged by the justice of our country, as had been promised by Hezbollah to the government to which I belonged. It should be said, lastly, that within the party, as within all parties, a monolithic reality does not exist: there are hardliners and there are moderates. Sayyed Nasrallah, the General Secretary of Hezbollah, represents the median current. Certainly, in many of his public speeches he stresses the importance of Wilâyat al Faqîh and also thanks Iran for its support (as well as Syria). But one should not forget that in the case of Rafik Hariri and his son the propensity to enter into deep expressions of gratitude to Saudi Arabia in every pious breath has been no less rooted, and other political parties express their ¬support, not to say their admiration, for American and European policy in the Middle East. Personally I am not surprised that Iran is thanked. It was Iran that helped the Lebanon to free a territory that neither the United Nations nor the great European democracies had helped to liberate. In addition, everyone forgets a basic point: that of the Palestinian refugees whom Israel refuses to give the right of return to and the fact that in 1968 and for many years the Israeli army bombarded the Lebanon every day. And after engaging in a bloody occupation of various parts of the territory from 1978 to 2000, still today Israel continues to carry out daily and illegal reconnaissance flights over the territory. As a reward they rebuke us in this way as regards Iran…It is not an indicator of great seriousness!

In your book you speak about the economic situation, above all as regards the post-war period. Now the economic crisis is worldwide.

The world economic crisis has not affected us in the least. We are an economy that does not depend on international trade or the circulation of technologies given that, unfortunately, we do not produce a great deal. We have a stock exchange that is of no consequence, that is ridiculous. We could not be struck by the crisis. To be struck by the crisis one had to be a great actor in globalisation. But we do not have anything, we do not have industry, our exports do not amount to billions of dollars, at the most we have some emigrants who come home because they have lost their jobs. I will simplify the question: in the Lebanon there are fifty or sixty square kilometres where a crazy wealth holds sway: luxurious buildings, flats worth a million dollars, cars steeped in luxury, exclusive restaurants, and grandiose hotels. And then there are 10,400 square kilometres on the threshold of poverty. Thus when you look at these fifty to sixty square kilometres you are led to exclaim: ‘Here you are, the Lebanese ¬miracle!’ If, instead, we look at the rest of the territory, at the 10,400 square kilometres, we are led to ask ourselves how so much insolent wealth and wealth concentrated in a few hands can live together with such poverty. The hinterland is desert, in the North there is a poverty that has dramatic features and there a nursery has been ¬created for the recruitment of the extremists on the Saudi model. We are led to ask whether people are not made poor specifically for this reason…In Sidon the situation is the same. There is the Palestinian refugee camp where Sunni Islamic radicalism prospers.

The prospects are not good. In your view how can this situation be left behind you?

On the contrary: the situation seems to me to be excellent if compared to the succession of dramatic events from 2005 to the present day (the serial murders, the massive external interventions of the Americans and the Saudis, the brutal Israeli attack of 2006, the attack in 2007 in a Palestinian refugee camp against the Lebanese army in the north of the country by Fath al-Islâm). Show me a country that has such a capacity for resistance! Remember that between 1975 and 1990 we experienced fifteen years of chaotic and uninterrupted violence without the country being dismembered, whereas other entities, such as Yugoslavia, which I loved, have disappeared.

And why are you still on the scene?

Because nobody is able to dominate us for a lasting period of time. Because people change their positions. This is a game that has been played out since 1840. One day you are with America, the day after you change alignment. It is not my ideal society but when I compare it to other countries that endure external or internal destabilisation…The Ukraine, for example, was about to explode after 2004 when the American and European mass media arbitrarily divided the population of the country into pro-Russians and pro-Europeans. Here in the Lebanon they tried the same thing after the murder of Hariri when the Western decision-makers and mass media classified us as ‘bad’ pro-Syrians and ‘good’ anti-Syrians, the worshippers of democracy. The way that the mass media approaches the problems of our region is scandalous. For example, now everyone is concerned about the Christians but not about the Christians that live in Iraq. When Obama made his speech in Cairo in June 2009 he sought to protect minorities, for that matter citing only the Egyptian Copts and the Lebanese Maronites, as though they were rare species, like the panda, to be protected from extinction. But he did not express one word of regret about the 500,000 Iraqi Christians who had to leave their country following the American invasion, while those who remain are threatened or attacked every day. It is difficult to take seriously what is said in much of the mass media or what one hears said by political leaders.

Therefore you hope as regards the future that things remain as they are?

I do not hope at all. I am a person who works in the field to prevent people from coming to blows or giving fanatical speeches. I am a fireman so to speak, engaged in a work of prevention. Unfortunately, if you are objective it is difficult to believe that this region will experience peace. I find it indecent that crowds continue to be gratified by being told that after eighteen years of direct negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis the United States of America will now encourage the implementation of indirect negotiations. This is simply grotesque. As long as this pantomime continues, there is no chance that this area of the world will calm down. Not even the Lebanese fully understand the Lebanese question because they are clouded by communitarianism. The real problem is not that Christians are troubled by the fact that Muslims can have four wives – a phenomenon for that matter which is very marginal. And the problem for the Muslims does not lie in the fact that Christians believe in the Trinity. The deep problem of the Lebanon, today as yesterday, is that of the place that it should occupy in the struggles for influence in the region. Not only between Western and Eastern states but also between the various states of the region and in relation to Israel. Today the division that exists amongst the Lebanese is totally trans-communal. The principal Christian force, that of General Aoun, is allied with Hezbollah in resistance to the so-called Western pressures on the Lebanon. This has nothing to do with religion. In the past things were even worse, for example in 1840 and 1860, when the English, allies of the Ottomans, applied pressure on the Druze community to oppose the Maronite community, which had entered the orbit of France which wanted to create a Christian state in loco. And thus it was that even at that time British diplomacy had the idea of -creating a Jewish state in Palestine, fifty years before the Zionist movement.

But the logic of religious opposition and hatred is widespread amongst the Lebanese.

There is a dichotomy between verbal violence and actual reality. There are people who are extremely fanatical in their speeches but who then personally run risks to go and save a Christian or Muslim neighbour by dragging wounded people from ruins. The real problem is the great poverty that exists amongst certain strata of the population. The same kind of poverty that existed in the 1970s when belts of poverty were created around Beirut because of a strong emigration from the rural areas. It is very dangerous to allow situations of poverty to grow gangrenous. Only that today there is almost no longer any concern about social justice and ethics. Fortunately there is the Pope. But who listens to the Pope? His last encyclical, Caritas in veritate, is extraordinary. All the Christians in the world should reflect upon it.

In October the Synod of the Middle East will be held.

From 2003 to 2005 a very great Synod of the Maronite Church was held here. The resolutions were excellent. There are three principal texts: one on the Church and the economy, one on the Church and the social question, and one on the Church and the land. Everything is there: it is a programme of principles of economic reforms for the country from the point of view of social justice and the creation of full employment in order to slow down emigration and keep Christians as well as Muslims in the country. It will be a matter of seeing whether the next Synod in Rome will be based upon the work that has been done and will ask the hierarchy of the Lebanese Churches to apply the recommendations that have been made.

In your experience, how has Islam changed, and what do you think about the fundamentalist movements? What influence do they have on the Lebanon?

The re-Islamisation of the Lebanon had already begun before the war of 1975-90. The Hariri phenomenon, as the principal agent of Saudi Islam in the Lebanon, is to be located on the same logic of struggle against Communism and Iranian anti-imperialist influence. At the present time the entire space of the mass-media is occupied by fundamentalist Islam simply because of the fact of the political, economic and financial preponderance of Saudi Arabia in the whole of the region. ‘The Islam of the Enlightened’ continues, however, to exist, but its supporters are ignored by the mass media and by academic research. Islamic reformism is nothing new. It began at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Since, however, Saudi Arabia, like Pakistan, is one of the principal allies of the United States of America in world geopolitics, there is silence about the fundamentalist and radical nature of the Islam that forms the basis of the Constitutions of both countries.

When speaking about the Lebanon it is impossible not to refer to the drama of war. It is not easy to understand how during the war, amidst a striking level of violence, a part of the population was able to go on working.

Not only did it go on working but Christians and Muslims went on helping each other. I am a Maronite and lived in West Beirut. For that matter I was one of the last Maronites to remain in West Beirut. However I lost an uncle (who disappeared) and very dear friends. There were the professionals of violence, the snipers: to belong to a militia had become a profitable business. Not all the Lebanese population was involved. There is another history which has still to be written, something that has not been done, that of the resistance of the majority of Lebanese to the criminal violence of the members of the militias and to the division of the country on the basis of communities.

Has this other history begun to be written or is this not yet the case?

No, not much. First of all people are still very traumatised by the war. When I was a Minister I made myself a spokesman for the claims of the Committee of Disappeared Relatives. Between 1975 and 1990 18,000 Lebanese disappeared. I supported a number of these claims with the Council of Ministers but it was thought that it was better not to reopen the wounds of the war. I believe that above all else the Lebanese state should declare that the people who have disappeared are dead so that their families can engage in a final mourning. And then in every village and in Beirut monuments should be erected with the names of those who disappeared and those who were killed (150,000 civilians). Lastly, these families should receive reparations. And above all a generation of atrocious militiamen who still occupy the political scene should be removed.

Amongst young people in particular there is the great problem of emigration. Instruction does not always guarantee access to the world of work. There are many young people who study here and then leave the country to go and work abroad. One can often hear it said that the problem of emigration particularly afflicts the Christian communities.

This was once the case but now emigration is indiscriminate in its impact: Sunnis, Druses, Shiites. The Christians have a very weak demographic base because their birth rate has fallen and this has been the case for a long time. One of the requests which I find to be completely legitimate is that the Lebanese who are abroad and still conserve their Lebanese nationality in an active sense should have the right to vote. Those who are in this condition are probably Muslims and Christians in equal measure. If the hope is that internal political equilibriums will be restored in this way, one runs the risk of encountering major disappointments. In the Lebanon there is a culture of emigration as an ideal. The Lebanese are convinced that emigration is an ineluctable destiny and that it is a good thing because it allows money to be sent to the country. This is a mistaken calculation. From a strictly material point of view it is mistaken because parents spend a great deal to offer the best possible instruction to their children. And then when their children become productive it is the country that receives them that gains from this. And here we get only the crumbs.

It is constantly repeated that emigration should be stopped… It is not repeated enough that emigration should be stopped. To me the opposite seems the case. When we organise meetings with Eastern Christians they always tell us that the urgent priority is to stop emigration.

I was speaking about emigration in general. The problem is that people do not speak enough about an economic reform that is indispensable if we want to move from an economy where 3-4% of the population live off capital to an economy that is fully ¬productive and based upon social justice. Without this transition it will be impossible to stop emigration. For that matter the brains that emigrate, whether Christians or -Muslims, I would like to keep them all here. I cannot think in categories…

Communitarianist categories…

Communitarianist categories, impossible, impossible. I really cannot have communitarianist reflexes

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Georges Corm, “Catch us if you Can!  I will explain to you why despite everything  no one will manage to put us Lebanese in a trap”, Oasis, year VI, n. 11, June 2010, pp. 71-79.

Online version:
Georges Corm, “Catch us if you Can!  I will explain to you why despite everything  no one will manage to put us Lebanese in a trap”, Oasis [online], published on 1st June 2010, URL: