- Pax Syriana: Elite Politics in Postwar Lebanon, by Rola el-Husseini
Postwar Lebanese politics have often been described as an era of systematic Syrian control. In this timely study, Rola el-Husseini details one of the key mechanisms of Syrian influence in Lebanese politics: elite recruitment. Based on extensive fieldwork and interviews, this qualitative study maps the spectrum of postwar Lebanese [End Page 482] elites. Meticulously tracing the paths through which elites attain and retain power, Pax Syriana thus underscores one of the most significant continuities in Lebanese politics. In a country characterized by weak political parties, the author documents the entrenchment of old notable elites while identifying new players on the Lebanese political scene: warlords, religious players, and businessmen. Whether old or new, most (but not all) Lebanese political elites seem bent on establishing sectarian political dynasties. As was the case before the war, clientelism is an important tool in the toolbox of Lebanon’s political class; however, financial means are also increasingly important. With the state and state institutions being the repository of financial means during the country’s reconstruction, this reviewer would nuance el-Husseini’s statement that the state in Lebanon is weak, and side instead with those, like Reinoud Leenders, who argue that it is stronger than may seem at first sight.
The study’s rich details and clear exposition provide a very accessible introduction for anyone interested in the contemporary politics of Lebanon. Not only does el-Husseini provide a succinct, but substantially comprehensive political history of postwar Lebanon, she also develops a typology of Lebanese elites. El-Husseini thus draws a distinction between state elites who “are at the zenith (or slightly past the zenith of their careers, and …tend to occupy important positions in state institutions” (p. xx); strategic elites, “individuals who emerged onto the political scene because of special circumstances or unusual talents” (p. xx) and who frequently operate from the shadows; and emerging elites “composed of young, aspiring politicians who are ready to accede to positions of political responsibility when the occasion presents itself” (p. xxi). The author provides an analytical lens into the convergence of pro- and anti-Syrian elites by using the useful concepts of elite settlements (the equivalent of political pacts) and elite fractionalization. Thus she documents the manner in which Syria succeeded in weakening and, ultimately, bringing most of its opponents into the fold.
But the book’s strength may also be its weakness. By favoring a detailed description of elite recruitment and circulation, el-Husseini has left aside a broader consideration of the environment in which elites operate and which affects their margin of maneuver. Indeed, in her well-founded critique of Arend Lijphart’s analysis of Lebanon’s First Republic, the author emphasized that the arrangement required two conditions to work smoothly: that the interests of external powers be “better served by a cohesive Lebanese nation” and that “the cooperative position of the elites would be supported at the grassroots level” (p. 6). If the interaction of external powers is somehow addressed in the book, particularly in relation to the convergence of interests (or lack thereof) between Syria on the one hand and (at different times) Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States on the other, there is very little in Pax Syriana about the impact of the grassroots on elite politics. Yet, el-Husseini’s own observations would suggest the need to pay more attention to this factor. In her chapter on emerging elites, the author identifies seven new types of elites, four of which emerge because of their connection to a (more or less broad) popular constituency: the civil society activist, the local representative, the Hizbullahi, and the nationalist militant. Further, in her penultimate chapter, the author observes that elites tend to agree on bilateral relations Syria but continue to disagree on their visions of Lebanon. Both of these observations suggest that elites cannot totally disregard their clients and that the various Lebanese communities continue to play a role in the calculations of the members of...