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By Adam Lomax
On Thursday 7th February, the Henry Jackson Society welcomed Dr. Naji Emile Hayek of the Lebanese Free Patriotic Movement to discuss the condition of Christians in the Middle East. The event was chaired by Baroness Cox and Tom Wilson of the HJS New Middle East Centre.
Dr. Hayek began by summarising the history of Middle Eastern Christians and their often strained relations with expansive neighbouring powers. Today only Lebanon bears any notable Christian presence despite its demographic declining from 79% in 1913 to 40% in 2016. Furthermore many Arab states have supported the Palestinians (400,000 of whom were welcomed in 1948) in their attempts to subvert a Christian-ruled Lebanon under the guise of fighting for their homeland.
Such increasing instability and sectarianism ultimately led to the Syrian invasion in 1976. This was further exacerbated by the 1989 Taif Agreement which ended the civil war but also increased corruption, reduced Christian political power and ensured Syrian monopoly on the government. In 1990 Michel Aoun’s interim regime was finally overthrown and he fled to France. Since then fortunes have changed somewhat following the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005. Aoun returned from France soon after and his party ‘Free Patriotic Movement’ merged with Samir Geagea’s ‘Lebanese Forces’ to ensure victory in the 2016 elections.
Nevertheless Dr. Hayek went on to explain how current neighbouring crises threaten to further undermine Lebanese security and prosperity. The 1.5 million Syrian refugees who reside in Lebanon enjoy free care and education while also increasing the rate of crime and the probability of radicalisation. Meanwhile the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon live outside of police and government control, allowing terrorist groups to develop unimpeded as shown by the Nahr El Bared camp that was seized from Al Qaeda in 2007. Nevertheless Dr. Hayek was confident in the government’s efforts to combat corruption and inequality through new laws and judiciary reforms. He also praised Lebanon for its traditionally open society, secular constitution and Westernised educational system.
On the subject of Hezbollah, Dr. Hayek stated that the group is popular among many Lebanese Sunnis and Christians for its liberation of Syrian Aramaic towns from ISIS control and also for its support of Christian political demands after the injustices of the Taif Agreement. The Israeli withdrawals of 2000 and 2006 further added to this heroic depiction of Hezbollah. While many oppose the group’s participation in Syria (both for supporting Assad and for dragging Lebanon into the conflict) Hezbollah has greatly contributed to border defence against ISIS since the Lebanese army does not yet have sufficient capabilities to do so. Furthermore Hezbollah has repeatedly promised to lay down its arms and become a purely political party once the Lebanese army is able to function independently.
After Dr. Hayek’s speech, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. One person asked about the possibility of future talks with Israel, to which Dr. Hayek responded that there can be no such prospect until the other problems of the Middle East are resolved first. Another person asked what Lebanese-US relations might look like under Trump, to which Hayek expressed optimism given the US’s history of military aid to Lebanon as well as Aoun’s close collaboration with the US congress during his exile. The last questioner asked how the new government planned to deal with Hezbollah to which Dr. Hayek responded that at this moment in time government does not have the luxury to be uncooperative with Hezbollah. Once all the questions had been answered, Baroness Cox thanked Dr. Hayek for coming and the lecture was adjourned.