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Lebanon, forever colonised?

In calling Europe to our aid, we Lebanese are falling into the same colonial traps that led our country into crisis in the first place.

Demonstrators wave Lebanese flags Goran Tomasevic/REUTERS
Demonstrators wave Lebanese flags during protests near the site of the explosion in Beirut on 11 August.

When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beirut last week, two days after a massive explosion destroyed swathes of the city, he was met with great public, political, and media attention. Surrounded by reporters, and with live coverage across Lebanon’s television channels, he toured the remains of the Beirut port and the nearby neighbourhoods, spoke to citizens, hugged them, expressed pain and support. 

On streets named after French colonialists, the first state leader – Lebanese or foreign – to walk Beirut’s devastation pledged to always be by Lebanon’s side, exclaiming that “France will never let Lebanon go”. He was met with cries of “Revolution!” and “Vive la France!”

It is ironic that Macron should model France as Lebanon’s saviour.

In the wake of World War I, Lebanon was created – via the Franco-British partition of the Ottoman Empire – as the beacon of France’s Mission civilisatrice. Formally given the mandate for Lebanon in 1923 by the League of Nations, France claimed it sought a “home” for Maronite Christians in the largely “Muslim East”. 

But the confessional system put in place by France has riddled the country with institutionalised sectarianism and corruption ever since.

The roots and cause of Lebanon’s political crisis can be identified in the French-imposed system. Similarly, its economic crisis is a result of Western-empowered neo-liberal policies and the global political order. Indeed, the blast of ammonium nitrate that engulfed Lebanon’s capital last week was made possible – to a large extent – by global capital flows and a lawless world of international shipping

For sure, the Lebanese government is not innocent, but its deadly negligence and corruption cannot be seen separately from the global order. It wasn’t the Lebanese who put the warlords in place after the civil war ended in 1991; who thwarted every attempt at revolution since; or who co-opted the country into regional politics to ensure their interests. Successive corrupt governments are of course to blame, but that is not the core of the problem, and it certainly isn’t something that can be fixed without addressing the larger issue: Western imperialism. It would be like trying to cure a disease by treating the symptom. 

What the Lebanese people fail to see in their embrace of Macron and European-led aid is the renewed colonisation of Lebanon.

And yes, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other regional powers are also agents in what is going on, but their agency is similarly structured by the global order established by Europe and inherited by the United States, a European settler colony.

These realities went conspicuously unrecognised or ignored as my fellow Lebanese called on Macron to bring forth salvation.

Several times, Macron said that it was not up to the French president to write Lebanon’s story. But in his short visit, he called on Lebanon’s political forces to create “a new political pact”. He added that he would be back in Beirut on 1 September – the 100th anniversary of the declaration of France’s colonial outpost in the Levant – to assess progress towards this “essential reset”. If the political elite could not do it, “I will uphold my responsibilities with you”, he told crowds of Lebanese gathered on the street. 

As France seeks to exert control and establish its global presence amid geopolitical competition, Macron also pledged to organise European and international cooperation. Aid and unconditional support to the population would be the priority, “because it’s Lebanon, because it’s France”, he said.

Meanwhile, a petition was circulating among Lebanese people online: “Place Lebanon under French mandate for the next 10 years”. By the time of writing, this petition had gathered more than 61,000 signatures within the space of a few days. Many more expressed overt and covert sympathy to the idea across media platforms.

What the Lebanese people fail to see in their embrace of Macron and European-led aid is the renewed colonisation of Lebanon. 

Only when we recognise this can we direct aid and support towards our anti-imperialist interests, needs, and aspirations. 

First, let’s take the aid pledging conference in Paris.

During the conference, Macron tweeted: “Lebanon’s future is being determined”. In his political meetings in Beirut, and in his coordination with President Donald Trump’s administration in the United States, Macron has been the one to frame the terms of Lebanon’s political, economic, and social crisis. The majority of the Lebanese political elite are already on board and the International Monetary Fund, which holds the purse strings for a $10 billion loan to Lebanon, is also on the same page. 

Lebanon’s future is being determined without the Lebanese.

Macron has also explicitly set out to frame the terms of the resolution of Lebanon’s crisis. Donors pledged $300 million in aid, to go “to the Lebanese people directly”. In practice, this means aid delivery through the EU,  the UN, and frontline responders, with the involvement of the IMF – a complete hollowing of the Lebanese state. 

In effect, Lebanon’s future is being determined without the Lebanese. The Lebanese government, which has since resigned, was excluded from meaningfully partaking in the Paris meeting, from the resulting aid, and from any coordination of relief and support.

While some argue that it was the popular will of the Lebanese people to exclude the Lebanese government, it remains the constitutional government. We can disagree with its international marginalisation even while we revolt against it (and the political elite behind it).

And Lebanon, as a state, has other institutions that could have been meaningfully involved, from its parliament and presidency to its Armed Forces and its local municipalities. 

Yet, these options were not explored. Throughout, the Lebanese have remained outside, literally on the streets, as their future is, again, mapped out in the (virtual) corridors of Paris and the IMF, born of the post-World War II Bretton Woods agreement – and thus the same old colonial system.

But secondly, examine the narrative around who is giving the aid.

Within one day of the blast, Iraq had dispatched medical aid, food aid, gas, and oil in large quantities to Lebanon, and announced plans to send monthly support. Turkey and Iran sent large amounts of aid. Russia sent in rescue teams, as well as five planes of humanitarian aid. Morocco also sent 18 planes loaded with humanitarian aid. 

And yet, this aid has hardly registered in political, media, or public debate. 

Instead, the Paris conference has garnered the vast majority of political, media, social media, and public attention – in Lebanon and abroad – about the aid effort. European aid has dominated the conversation – to the extent that the Lebanese army had to issue a correction in its list of countries supporting Lebanon with aid, after Iraq expressed “sorrow” about being left out. 

Meanwhile, non-Western aid is being ridiculed on social media: While it is seen as “pathetic” and “shameful” to receive aid from “third world” countries such as Bangladesh, European aid is somehow seen as honourable. The hierarchy of humanity, with white supremacy established by European imperialism, has been evident in the reception of aid efforts in Lebanon.

My argument here is not that Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, Russian, or other aid is not power-laden, nor that it is decolonial. It certainly comes with its own political and civilisational baggage – even if this baggage is arguably a shadow of that of France and Europe.

But non-Western sources of aid are concealed, erased, and sidestepped, while Western aid is magnified, centred, and celebrated. Non-Western aid is never considered, in the Lebanese consciousness, to offer a political way forward, while Western aid is framed as political salvation.

Throughout, Europe is reproduced as the only horizon, the only possible. Macron’s aid effort seems to affirm itself as the only real future, while existing alternatives – ones the Lebanese could mobilise to secure their protection and needs in line with their own priorities and concerns – are negated.

This aid is disempowering – and extremely dangerous: It limits both the movement and the imagination of the Lebanese. By reproducing Europe’s centrality as the ultimate hope and saviour, aid in Lebanon is working in the way it was intended. For this reason, and through this mechanism of concealment, it is both colonial and colonising.

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