How Similar Was Really Lebanon to Switzerland?

For decades, we Lebanese accepted the label of “Switzerland of the Middle East” yet we never really believed it, did we? We even chanted it, poetized it, and bragged about it, but we all knew that it was mainly us wanting so much to believe it… against all odds (and I wonder why).

Our country, despite all its amazing features, was always riddled with conflicts, internally and on our borders, for our sectarian divisiveness and those of the region, and for our political parties’ causes and for other countries’ causes.

And no, that was not the result of the Civil War as some assume. That was what caused the Civil War; to only cite our modern history.

So, how is it that our country came to be compared to Switzerland, that prominently evolved country with a highly civilized standard and equitable civic laws, and that symbolizes Peace and Prosperity?

I have been wondering that for decades, since before the civil war, which I saw starting and ending, and lived it and through it.

And, if argument advances that such status had existed before my existence, how come my father, like many of his fellow countrymen in their early twenties, had to emigrate to the other side of the world for better living conditions?

I do remember when he relocated us to Lebanon 10 years after his emigration. I was a kid, yet I remember. That wasn’t Switzerland. That was Lebanon with its goods and bads, but not Switzerland.

So, no, we weren’t the Switzerland of the Middle East by a long shot. However, and this might surprise many of you, Switzerland was neither always the country we know today; not for hundreds of years, it wasn’t. 

That country, which we know as a beacon of prosperity and stability, is relatively new. And that’s where we meet in similarities.

We all know that both World Wars spared the Swiss neutral confederation in the heart of Europe. While most countries around it struggled to get back on their feet, after these massively devastating wars, Switzerland managed to establish itself gradually as we know it today:

A role model of peace and prosperity, fair civic laws that serve all equally, one of the world’s banking hubs, and the host state of many international organizations, including the United Nations.

However, as shared with me this week by a Swiss professor, a family friend, “Switzerland used to be one of Europe’s poorest nations: landlocked and hostage to its mountainous terrain.”

He went on explaining, “The Switzerland of 150 years ago suffered as a battleground of religious and sectarian motivated civil wars and was much less developed than its imperial neighbors, which used the Swiss as proxies and mercenaries for their own regional power politics.” (Sounds familiar?)

In our exchange, we came about some interesting parallels between Switzerland before its nation united, and our Lebanon of these past long decades.

Keep in mind that this is only a comparative breakdown, which could, maybe, just maybe, tell us that since that country did it, so can we. And as you’ll come to see, we today have more advantages than the Switzerland of back then.

#1 Nations within a nation / Sectarian communities within a nation

Like Lebanon with its multi-sectarian communities, Switzerland had a similar formation, yet with some major differences in which Lebanon has a strong comparative advantage.

Switzerland was actually a nation of various nations, literally. It remains even today a patchwork of multiple nations:

  • the francophone Romandie in the west,
  • the germanphone Deutsch-Schweiz in the center and north,
  • the italophone Ticio in the south,
  • the romnachophones (ancient Latin language) Grischun in the east.

Lebanon has a stronger comparative advantage on that; three actually: We are NOT different nations within one. We are ONE nation of diverse sectarian communities. That’s a huge difference.

We don’t have language barriers; we are united by one same language of communication, the Lebanese-Arabic language. And, we have One predominant culture (regardless of the subcultural features).

These are very important factors that cement our current stance that we are all Lebanese first and foremost, and we are ONE nation.

#2 A history of internal wars; sectarian motivated

We had several through our history, and so had Switzerland and worst. Throughout its early modern history, it was plagued by a series of civil wars, mostly fueled by the authoritarianism of patriciate families and Catholic-Protestant divisiveness.

Overall, through their history, the Swiss people had to live through long years of painful and destructive wars before awakening to the must of uniting as one.

They rose from these ashes and above their pains to form the Switzerland we know today: A beacon of prosperity and peace to the world. That had required from them to form a constitutionally secular and technocrat government.

It is actually only in the early 20th Century that Switzerland adopted secularism (1909) and the Civil Law (1912).

#3 Proxy of regional powers

According to the Swiss professor, “The Swiss people were constantly involved in foreign wars, be it as mercenaries, as a proxy battleground of regional powers, or outright as a conquered satellite state of the French revolutionary republic. That until the European powers accepted to perpetually recognize Switzerland’s neutrality in 1815.”

I believe we can relate. Since even before our independence, Lebanon has been partially transformed into a satellite of regional and international powers.

And, we have had “fighters” fighting causes of foreign powers in other countries of the region and in our country. 

That has come with a heavy price on our nation that has failed to put itself and its citizens as a top priority in its agenda of existence and of governance.

In the dis-unity of the governing elite, we the people have been paying the painful price (not them) and our country decaying in miseries (not them). We all know that, so let’s move on to the final point of comparison.

#4 Regional banking hub

It is a fact that Switzerland stands today as an international banking hub, with some USD 6.5 trillion assets held in its banks.

It is also a fact that, since the1950s, our Lebanese banks have gained an international reputation, serving as a regional financial hub, and attracting over 227 billion USD worth of bank assets.

While it doesn’t compare (yet) to Swizterland’s banking assets, Lebanon is not so far away from the UAE’s USD 600 billion; once we achieve this revolution and clean hands handle the governance of our finances so we can rebuild international trust in our system.

That achievement would include Lebanon creating a secular technocrat government and a business-friendly state, managed by clean hands and minds. That would provide Lebanon with many competitive advantages as a regional banking hub.

After all, Lebanon has a longstanding merchant tradition and a culture of banking privacy.

It is safe to say that since Switzerland achieved what it is today after ages of wars and poverty, that which had seemed impossible to them back then, Lebanon also can.

With the advantages we have – especially today with the nation finally united, on the ground at least, which is what matters primarily – Lebanon can.

We were never a Switzerland nor a Paris, nor do we want to be. No offense intended to any; I appreciate them both and do visit them often.

We are our own great nation with our own great attributes, and we don’t need any foreign labels to give value to our country; let alone self-value.

We are more than enough, more beautiful than enough, smarter than enough, and more capable than enough to bring our country to the awesomeness it deserves.

We don’t lack great brains and we don’t lack honest and patriotic experts in all needed fields. We only need to ensure them and us a chance to work towards a glorious Lebanon we all so earnestly want with this revolution.

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Such a lovely place. #beirut #zaytonabay #lebanon

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The questions that are in your mind now, as they are in mine: How to start when we are now living such a highly critical stage, facing stubborn resistance from the current political authorities? 

The people have proven the power of their will and their strong patriotic unity these past weeks. Where do we move from here to manifest our dream for Lebanon?

The people’s demand for a technocratic non-partisan government is clear and adamant. The current authorities are obviously resisting the nation’s urgent democratic demand for immediate parliamentary action.

Moreover, the people have lost all trust in the authorities and what they could form of government.

We do remember that, not long ago, the political authorities left the country without a president for over a year. If that was okay with them back then, and if that is what they consider now for the government, it isn’t okay with us. So, how would we move from here?

The one million dollar question!

I assume that a transitional government, with a limited mandate, could maintain the necessary public utilities and organize general legislative elections; a national general election to form a new parliament, and with the participation of our Lebanese citizens in the diaspora.

The governance of our nation and its affairs should prioritize first and foremost Lebanon as its own independent country and the wellbeing of its citizens, equally at all levels, and that will require civil legislations of social, marital, and family affairs as well.

For a country with such a high level of education, we are far behind in that. And it’s a shame; a shame we need to eradicate once and for all. Our nation has suffered more than enough. It’s time we end that.

And the one million dollar question: How do we get there from here? The question remains, for I am not a political expert nor claim to be so.

I do know, however, that when there is a will there is a way, and the power will of the Lebanese nation has been strikingly evident these past weeks. 

A country is not the government but the nation, and the nation is the people. May we reach our destination and safely, for we all deserve it.

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