Why Lebanon is definitely not Switzerland

I have been cooking up this post for so long now, ever since the Swiss president paid us a visit, and yet before that, I was thinking that it is time to set the record straight. Yesterday, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea (who we love to talk about on this blog, and here (also here) some background reading) presented his Defense Strategy plan. And again, ever since, because it is always about picking up from the past, ever since Hizbullah’s SG Hassan Nasrallah in a goodwill gesture, mentioned that if one needs to talk about Hizbullah’s weapons, one should first discuss a workable “Defense Strategy plan”, everybody from all ends of the political spectrum seem to have defense plans.

But how the hell would the LF have a Defense plan? Against who? The Syrians? Since when did they perceive the Israelis as their enemy, and since when, oh since when, anything past the ‘Christian cantons’ did matter to them? Well, I mentioned the key word here, Cantons, because Geagea took this as an opportunity to propose to follow the Swiss model of ‘7iyadiyeh’ (neutrality), that is the word used I am still working out how did the ‘Defense Strategy plan’ made him think of Switzerland. First, this is an interesting slip from the original Christian isolationist ideological version, couched in Western-State-building jargon: Federalism. One has to be in tune with fashionable words. “Defense Strategy”, “Consensualism”, that is the stuff one wants to hear on the Lebanese political arena. Basically today, in this tiny shit hole called Lebanon, you don’t talk about Federalism anymore, you just say ‘the Swiss model’, even though no one knows anything about Swiss history and their lack of neutrality that spanned for centuries when their State was being built. But let me address all this by branching out and picking up from the footsteps of that lovely Swiss president who came to visit us some time ago.

Some time in October 2008, when Swiss president Pascal Couchepin listened to his Lebanese counterpart talking about the years of sectarian strife in the Lebanon, Talal Salman reports that Couchepin simply answered “not to worry”, that Switzerland experienced ‘civil war’ for more than a hundred years, only to come down to the conclusion that “people realized that they had to live together whether they want it or not”.

Couchepin was maybe trying to be ‘civil’, or ‘diplomatic’, or maybe he just did not know (just like any other politician) ‘what people think’. The only ‘civil war’ (labeled as such by the official authorized versions of Swiss history) lasted a mere 27 days at some point in 1847, marking a transition between one form of rule and another. This does not mean that people were not divided inside the country for centuries, who knows, probably till now. But the Swiss State actually grew to become strong as it engaged and won battles thanks to a long-time feared army. How come this is so there but not here? How come poor little Lebanon could not have a strong army, or a strong state? When one comes to think about it, not only do we have the ‘divided people’ criteria in common (multi-confessional society) but we also “have banks”, and we tried to remain ‘neutral’ during the “Israeli-Arab conflict” just like Switzerland during the Word Wars. Worse, we actually speak the same language whereas they don’t even do that in Switzerland!

In order to understand this seeming paradox, let’s go back a little. First of all, this ‘We’ I am using refer to political Maronitism who was the first to join the nods that made up this highly imaginative comparison. Political Maronitism basically loved the ‘neutralit’ argument, the ‘confederation’ setting, all supposed to justify their isolationist stances.

In the middle of the twentieth century, theories flourished on what makes up the particularity of Lebanon and one of them, very dear to Christian elites (that was subsequently very much internalized by Muslims as well) was the idea that Lebanon is the Switzerland of the Middle East. Although I would think that the ideological wind will shift hegemonic nationalist discourse towards one based on the idea of “resistance”, we still hear a lot of people from all sorts of social backgrounds saying that Lebanon is like Switzerland more or less. One of the highly useful aspects of this ideological construction is that it could ultimately legitimize the idea of a federal state and of a inoffensive army. As used to say Pierre Gemayel (father of Kataeb cum LF), the strength of Lebanon is in its weakness. In the ideological euphoria of the 50s and 60s we hear people talk about ‘confederation’, a laughable term in Lebanese standards judging by how the actual Swiss confederation came into being, through wars, and the strengthening of an army.

The first irony to mention here is that Switzerland may be the oldest ‘state’ or political arrangement alive today. What is called the Old confederacy was instituted in 1291, so roughly when say the Ottoman empire was starting to enjoy monopoly over what can be labeled as “Islamic” territory. So yes, one cannot say the same thing about our dear Lebanon who in fact is a late colonial creation (compared to India say, or Latin American states). But more importantly, the Swiss confederacy emerged ‘from within’, as an alliance between several commercial hubs (city-states) that facilitated trade between them. This alliance became so strong that it could military rival neighboring powers. These dudes were so keen on having their interests (namely economic) preserved and trade channels unchallenged by the conquering fantasies of neighboring kings that they ended up agreeing on a political formula. We are very far from Lebanese standards: Lebanon is created by a colonial power (France) and strongly lobbied by one paranoid sect of the Middle East (the Maronites) that happened to be quite concentrated in a particular mountainous region, as an alleged mean to protect itself from, yet at the same time dominate the other neighboring sects and groups.

This basic difference is just huge. First and foremost it foreclosed the possibility of initial ‘homegrown’ contract or agreement. And in the first place there was no need for any such agreement because only the Christians were calling for this isolationist stance, while other groups were content with having some kind of a pan-Arab form of rule. So even if the Christians wanted, with the best intentions at heart, to have an agreement with the different non-Christian groups convincing them of the economic and political utility of the creation of the Lebanese entity, that would not have worked in the first place. So it locked the project of building a State and sharing power through outside alliance to protect the divisions in place.

But ideologies flourished. The analogy to the Swiss model was used to legitimize other segmenting drives. It brought substance to the idea that Lebanon’s economy strive through the strength of its banks, another laughable statement judging from how poorly they fair today. The whole ‘service economy’  argument, developed by lauded ideologues such as Michel Chiha, all these pieces were fitting in this big puzzle called ‘the Swiss model’ , that the Lebanese were creating for themselves, imagining a Switzerland of their own, each group to his own benefit.

And yet the biggest difference still remained at the ‘existential’ level:  Switzerland’s various groups came together to protect themselves against outside intervention, whereas in Lebanon it is the various local groups who pick outside actors to protect them against ‘inside intervention’!

There are so many unexplored sites when one opens this highly ridiculous analogy. I prefer to focus on a couple of points as this post is already too long. But just as another area that could be explored, it seems flagrant to me why Federalism as an ideology, a system of thought (but not as a de-facto option, the distinction is huge) is so alien to Hizbullah’s political culture. The idea of Federalism in Lebanon, ferociously lobbied by Christian elites can only emerge from there, from an isolationist trend that in the first place led to the establishment of the State of Lebanon. And that’s isolation from within, against the ‘other’ within the delineated territory, and that is one of the crucial difference with Switzerland. The way Hizbullah dealt with the ‘other’, the way also it conceptualized itself in re-action to the ‘other’ followed diametrically opposed trajectories than the Christian one. I will write more on that later.

And I leave you with this brilliant line from a Chinese newspaper article writing on Couchepin’s October visit to Lebanon:

This was the first visit of a Swiss leader to Lebanon, however, the Swiss model has been seen as convenient to apply to Lebanon due to the similarity of having various factions in the same country.

Don’t you love the “however”? If you thought the Americans don’t know where Lebanon is on a map, well, see how the next superpower looks at the miserable 10,542 km2


4 thoughts on “Why Lebanon is definitely not Switzerland

  1. From someone who is so used to say ‘I wanted it to be short to make it clear, I know I wasn’t so I’ll get back to it later’ this is really funny and LONG.
    There are things I agreed with on some level, such as ‘So it locked the project of building a State and sharing power through outside alliance to protect the divisions in place.’
    But I find it funny that you can’t even think straight on various levels : ‘the strength of its banks, another laughable statement judging from how poorly they fair today’. Do you actually know anything about that or about what financial markets are going through right now ? Stick to confessionalism, it seems to be your natural-born passion, that along with, of course, your poor personalized theories about the various confessions in Lebanon, which by the way you live in for some weird reason, in spite of your criticism of its existence. Syria is right next door you know. Oh, but will you be able to blog there ?


  2. You should read more about the banking sector in Lebanon and its evolution from the 60s till today. You might learn stuff such as that their performance way lower than, say, the Gulf, and why.

    And you should maybe drop the ad hominem arguments: insulting me as a mean to try to make a point.

  3. i was going to reply to your article but as i kept referring to your blog, I kept losing the point you’re making.

    anyway, Lebanon Swiss cheese of the middle east is more like it. Can you write an article on Hizballah’s Iranian model as well?

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