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Is London Going the Lebanon Way?

London's current struggles with identity and internal strife draws parallels with the turbulent history of Lebanon, tracing its path from prosperity to peril

March 1, 2024 By Major General Atanu K Pattanaik (Retd) Photo(s): By wikimedia commons/Alisdare Hickson, Shahen Araboghlian and Harry Bond, london.gov.uk
The Author is former Chief of Staff of a frontline Corps in the North East and a former helicopter pilot. He earlier headed the China & neighbourhood desk at the Defence Intelligence Agency. He retired in July 2020 and held the appointment of Addl DG Information Systems at Army HQ.

 

Palestine solidarity protesters march towards the British parliament

On the surface, there is little basis to compare the world's 6th largest economy to the 112th. One is a former great colonial power with a permanent seat in the UN Security Council while the other was a French Mandate and now has tenuous hold even over its own territory. But if we understand Lebanisation as a process rather than a product, view it as a path, a direction rather than a destination, then some arguments fall in place.

Lebanon's tale of Prosperity and Plunge

Lebanon saw its heyday in the 1960s and early 1970s. The country became a regional centre for the rich and famous who flew from around the world to gamble at the Casino Du Liban, or to attend concerts in the ancient northeastern city of Baalbek.

Then the Palestinians arrived, evicted from Jordan following their attempts to assassinate the very sovereign hosting them, King Hussein, during the Black September events of 1970. By then, the PLO had already acquired a sinister reputation having staged a series of terrorist attacks, including airplane hijackings and the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

The tragic slide of Lebanon from the heights of prosperity in the sixties when Beirut was being referred to as the 'Paris of the East' to the shocking chaos that prevails today must be viewed with gravity

Palestinian fighters then began launching attacks against Israel from Lebanese territory, splitting the Lebanese. Disaster struck in 1975, with the start of the 15-year civil war, eventually pitting Lebanon's sects against each other. The prosperous Maronite Christians who held the Presidency and dominated the Army were attacked by heavily armed guerrilla bands of Muslims; Palestinian fighters leading. Syrian troops moved in, and Israel invaded twice once in 1978, then again in 1982 which marked the rise of Hezbollah.

OVER THE YEARS, REGULAR PROTESTS, STRIFE AND WAR HAS DEVASTATED LEBANON

The delicately balanced confessional system of power sharing arrangement which had been adopted in 1943 was based on the 1932 census in which Maronites made up 33.57 per cent, Sunnis made up 18.57 per cent and Shiites made up 15.92 per cent (with several other denominations making up the remainder). Since the seventies, Lebanon has seen a heavy influx of refugees including 1.5 million Syrians, 4,80,000 Palestinians, and about 10,000 Iraqis. Combined with fact that hordes of distrust Christians have fled the country since the civil war of 1975, the sectarian composition is now hugely altered.

Since the seventies, Lebanon has seen a heavy influx of refugees including 1.5 million Syrians, 4,80,000 Palestinians, and about 10,000 Iraqis hugely altering the sectarian composition

While there is virtual collapse of the confessional system, heavily militarised religious fronts are running riot. Corruption has soared, and the sectarian-based patronage system has left Lebanon with crumbling infrastructure, a bloated public sector and one of the world's highest debt ratios, at 170 per cent of GDP.

The tragic slide of Lebanon from the heights of prosperity in the sixties when Beirut was being referred to as the 'Paris of the East' to the shocking chaos that prevails today must be viewed with gravity. Two inter-related features stand out. One is the changing demography with influx of refugees and exodus of Christians after the civil war erupted in 1975. A second factor is the issue of Palestine which pushed Lebanon into civil wars, multiple invasions by Israel, and most painfully, fractured its otherwise rich blend of religions and cultures.

London's Crossroads Echoes from Lebanon's past

London is exhibiting signs of these very distinctive and innate features. Since the outbreak of war in Gaza on October 7, hundreds of thousands of pro-Palestinian demonstrators have marched through central London regularly and clogged its streets, sometimes violently clashing with the police as well as far-right counter-protesters. Earlier, Hindus and Muslims have fought pitched battles on the streets of Leicester.

(Left) London Mayor Sadiq Khan; (Right) Scotland's first minister, Humza Yousaf

Muslims now constitute roughly 15 per cent of the population of London. Mayor Sadiq Khan and Scotland's first minister, Humza Yousaf, have accused government of inflaming tensions even as the London Metropolitan Police is seen to be favouring "pro-Palestinian mobs". Extreme anti-blasphemy action in the name of 'defending Islam' are frequently seen on the streets of London and across Britain, posing a serious threat to social cohesion. ISIS has made inroads, recruiting many and drawing blood.

London is among the most preferred places to visit, do business, is a well-known centre for foreign exchange, banking and insurance, and bond trading. However, there are worrying and familiar signs of how much Palestine has come to occupy centre stage in the conversations, culture and polity of Britain.

This comes even as the grooming gangs' scandal explodes. A 2014 report commissioned by Rotherham Council said that at least 1,400 children were subjected to sexual exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013. Children as young as 11 were raped, trafficked, abducted, beaten, and intimidated, predominantly by men of Pakistani heritage, it said. Armed gangs of shoplifters are running riot in supermarkets across the country - but retail chiefs have accused police of ignoring them. Some localities have become no-go areas; one store in London was looted three times in one day.

PEOPLE ON TOP OF MARBLE ARCH STATION, CENTRAL LONDON, DEMONSTRATING SOLIDARITY WITH PALESTINE

Nations do have their fair share of ups and downs; some see meteoritic rise and precipitous fall, like that of Argentina. Before the Great Depression in 1930, Argentina stood among the world's 10 richest nations per capita. In 1913, its income per capita exceeded that of Italy, Spain, and Portugal by a wide margin. To have speculated then that Argentina was set to become an underdeveloped country would have been considered laughable. But since the 1950s, few countries have spent more years in recession and runaway inflation hitting 100 per cent. Today, more than four in 10 Argentines live in poverty.

Warning Signs and Wake-up Calls

This is not to suggest that Britain is barrelling down that path, but simply to posit that such possibilities are not unknown or unprecedented. London still remains the financial capital of the world, ahead of New York despite many setbacks including decoupling from Europe after Brexit. The country has world-class universities, significant military capabilities, a vibrant, open multiracial society and notable cultural and sporting soft power. London is among the most preferred places to visit, do business, is a well-known centre for foreign exchange, banking and insurance, and bond trading. Any obituaries are premature and presumptuous.

However, there are worrying and familiar signs of how much Palestine has come to occupy centre stage in the conversations, culture and polity of Britain. Last week, the UK Parliament Speaker Lindsay Hoyle broke with longstanding parliamentary procedure in a motion calling for ceasefire in Gaza because of what he described as "absolutely frightening" threat against lawmakers. The Conservative Party suspended their MP Lee Anderson for saying the London Mayor was under control of Islamists. Pro-Palestinian protesters beamed "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free", a call for elimination of Israel, onto the Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) of the Parliament. These developments are ominous. They happened in Lebanon over 50 years back dragging down that beautiful country into abyss. Keep a lookout!