In an address from the balcony of his limestone residence in the town of Bkerke, Lebanon, at the end of February, Lebanon’s senior Catholic prelate, Cardinal Bechara al-Rai, made it clear he believes his country is on the brink of collapse—and the key to rescuing it involves disarming Hezbollah. “There does not exist two or several states within one land,” Rai said before a crowd of hundreds of people, who had gathered despite the pandemic. “There does not exist two or more armies within one united state.”
It was the latest of a series of sermons and speeches in recent months that continue to grip the Lebanese media and made the 81-year-old Rai—patriarch of Lebanon’s Maronite church, the Levant’s most influential Christian community—the unlikely head of a new political movement that leans on the support of establishment figures while taking up the language of anti-government protesters. It’s fair to wonder where this balancing act is leading.
Rai’s rhetoric may seem like vague patriotic talk and moral exhortations. He has been careful not to directly criticize Hezbollah or Iran, instead couching his demands within a broader political initiative to “save Lebanon.” But Rai has also portrayed his campaign as a direct challenge to Lebanon’s present sectarian rulers—one grounded in what he sees as his historical mission.
Rai’s call to make Lebanon a constitutionally “neutral” country—akin to the role that Switzerland or Belgium sought during the years of great-power rivalries in Europe—are an unmistakable reference to Hezbollah’s alliance with Iran and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad family. At Rai’s February speech, members of the crowd acknowledged his allusion by chanting, “Out Iran!” Rai concluded with a call to protesters to “not be silent on illegitimate and non-Lebanese weapons,” warning of “the coup against the state and the regime.”
Rai also seems committed to organizing political forces, not just making spiritual appeals. In the tradition of his patriarchal predecessors, Rai says he is speaking for all Lebanese—regardless of their religion—and carefully motioned to the Muslim clerics that had been seated front and center in the crowd. His rallies, however, are heavily attended by partisans from the Lebanese Forces—a Christian political party whose leader, Samir Geagea, led his own militia during the civil war of the 1980s.
Sejean Azzi, a former Christian politician who coordinates a political group advising the patriarch, said Rai’s demands include the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1559 that calls for the disarmament of all militias within Lebanon. “The patriarch refuses the maintenance of the military arsenal of Hezbollah,” Azzi said. “The patriarch refuses the Iranian project that Hezbollah propagates in the Middle East and Lebanon. The patriarch refuses the blockage of institutions in Lebanon that Hezbollah practices.”
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has rejected the patriarch’s call for U.N. intervention in Lebanon’s crisis as a “declaration of war” that could thrust the country into civil strife. Talks have been launched between the Shiite group and the Maronite church, with some supporters of the patriarch displaying signs of readiness to fight despite the vast imbalance of power in Hezbollah’s favor.
In one sense, Rai’s campaign is a historical irony. The Maronite patriarchate—traditionally the guardian of the conservative political and social order that Lebanon inherited from its French colonial rulers—is now portraying itself as an ally of anti-government protesters while the previously insurgent Hezbollah has become the defender of the political status quo it predominates.
History is also impossible to separate from the broader political maelstrom Rai’s comments have created in Lebanon. The question now is whether he has a plan for getting out of the confrontation he has started—and how his vision measures up against the anger of Lebanese protesters who he’s claiming to represent.
It is no exaggeration to say the republic of Lebanon—as it was founded in 1920 and reconstituted at the turning points of 1943, 1958, and 1989—is falling apart. The country’s ongoing economic crisis has metastasized into a five-alarm bell crisis with wide-reaching political and social consequences. Half of the population has sunk below the poverty line since the financial crash began over a year ago. In the absence of any real reforms or the possibility of negotiating an international bailout, the state is running out of currency reserves to fund critical services, such as running the country’s already fitful supply of electricity. The interior minister, who is charged with overseeing national security, has described the situation as in “free fall.”
Amid the political and literal wreckage—including, not least, the devastation wrought by the August 2020 explosion at Beirut’s port—Rai says he is working to save Lebanon’s viability as a country, which exists in no small measure because of the Maronite church’s role in the early 20th century. Rai has invoked the legacy of his predecessor, Elias Hoyek, who persuaded France in 1920 to establish Christian-majority “Greater Lebanon” as a separate state from Syria as well as established the role church leaders played at the outset of Lebanon’s independence in the 1940s.
Like his modern predecessors, Rai is trying to align himself with popular anger while cultivating his role as a broker among Lebanon’s fractious elite—most notably in the standoff between Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri and President Michel Aoun, whose Christian party is allied with Hezbollah. “Greater Lebanon hasn’t failed,” the patriarch said in an interview with Alhurra television in March. “But the politicians have failed while Lebanon has stayed and lasted 100 years.” Yet when speaking with Alhurra, Rai balked at the slogans of “down with the regime” or “down with the president.”
Clearly, Rai is no revolutionary but rather practicing the conservative realpolitik that Levantine confessional leaders—both Muslim and Christian—have long sought to excel in. Rai was elected patriarch in March 2011 as the Syrian civil war erupted. He cautioned against “genocide and sectarian war” and warned of Islamism if the Assad family was overthrown. During his tour of the United States, the new patriarch canceled a stop in Washington after failing to obtain a meeting with then-U.S. President Barack Obama, weeks after the prelate publicly expressed his wariness over the Arab Spring.
Tellingly, the patriarch’s supporters chanted, “The people want the reform of the regime,” at his February rally—a strikingly watered down version of the Arab Spring slogan: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” The Lebanese daily L’Orient-Le Jour reported the patriarch above all wants to avoid a constituent assembly that would diminish the weight of Christian political representation in the state—a move that Hezbollah’s chief, Nasrallah, has suggested he could support by establishing a three-way division between Sunni, Shiite, and Christians that would reflect Lebanon’s demography. This would uproot the principle of Muslim-Christian parity in government enshrined in the Taif Accords that ended Lebanon’s civil war—most notably reserving half of parliamentary seats for Christians even though Muslims represent a clear majority of the population today.
The Lebanese protesters who took to the streets by the thousands during the October 2019 uprising fought to overcome precisely these endless sectarian calculations by demanding the entire ruling class step aside. But the collapse of the economy and government has opened the way for traditional elites to reassert their role in the political vacuum and find constituencies who are anxious to protect themselves. The growing confrontation between Bkerke and Hezbollah demonstrates the political initiative is back with the ruling establishment—however damaged and diminished its authority is.
This plays into what the late Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi dubbed the “confidence game” that traditional leaders play in Lebanon—where each actor professes to support establishing reforms for a civil and non-confessional state but practices political sectarianism so long as his rivals within the elite do so. Lebanon’s chief Shiite cleric, Sheikh Ahmad Kabalan, recently said political confessionalism has failed, but as long as the country lacks a full civil state, every sect needs to be represented and protected within the system. His comments came not long after the Supreme Islamic Shiite Council accused Rai of unfairly targeting its followers, just as the West is “attacking” Shiite groups throughout the region. Rai, however, has shown every sign of intensifying his campaign—most recently accusing Hezbollah of attempting to drag Lebanon into a war with Israel and insinuating its followers were more loyal to Iran than their homeland.
As ever, the political situation in Lebanon remains hostage to a broader regional conflict between the United States’ allies and the Iranian-led camp. Rai’s calls for “neutrality” in this context are quixotic so long as there is no meaningful detente among Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Israel. The patriarch’s initiative seeks to restore a political balance within Lebanon based on the Taif Accords that hasn’t existed since Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated in 2005 and Lebanese politics organized into pro- and anti-Hezbollah camps. The civil society movements behind the October 2019 uprising—which believe in replacing this broken sectarian system with a non-confessional state—aimed to surpass this same conundrum of aligning around Hezbollah.
The real meaning of Rai’s initiative is historical. When the state of Lebanon was founded, it was, to paraphrase Salibi, a country without a nation; it was a state that was largely created at the demand of the Maronite patriarch to fulfill the church’s historical vision of the land. A century of shared history has largely rendered moot these doubts over Lebanon’s identity. Indeed, what is surprising is not the persistence of sectarianism in Lebanon but Lebanon’s success in taking shape as a nation despite the archaic confessionalism practiced by the elites who control the country. The tragedy is history has largely reversed Salibi’s maxim: Lebanon is a nation without a state.