Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Maayan Hilel reviews Winning Lebanon

Dylan Baun. Winning Lebanon: Youth Politics, Populism, and the Production of Sectarian Violence, 1920–1958. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 250 pp.

Review by Maayan Hilel

What does it mean to be young in places like Lebanon? Is youth just a passage between childhood and adulthood? Baun sees youth both as a rite of passage and a state of mind. If we just briefly look at what young Lebanese experienced from the late 1910s to the 1920s—a war, regime change, state and border creation, neocolonialism, and rapid modernization—we can better appreciate how that generation shaped the politics of the coming decades; hence, looking at youth in Lebanon prior to 1958 helps, according to Baun, to better understand how young individuals saw themselves and their agency, and how they envisioned the future of Lebanon. He clarifies that his book is not about sectarian violence but about how violence, which came to be known as sectarian, was used by youth organizations in order to achieve their goals; more importantly, as the author states several times, violence was not inevitable but one of the various tools that were developed by the seven organizations under review.

The book is divided into five chapters with an important epilogue discussing how the events of 1958 were globalized and memorialized by those who experienced them. The narrative is well organized. It must be said that this publication is mainly targeting scholars specializing in Lebanese history or with a larger interest in the history of childhood and youth. The book is not easily readable; it is loaded with jargon and references to organizations and individuals that may be obscure to some readers. As for the question of Winning Lebanon, it is clear that the author believes these organizations were competing for power, adding their political and action capital to the large and complex Lebanese political spectrum of the postwar era.

Chapter one summarizes the organizations under scrutiny. These are not the only ones operating in Lebanon, but a selection based on power, influence, and diverse composition—one that is necessary to delve into the chapters that follow. One thing the author seems to have missed is providing readers with a solid definition of populism, as he makes it clear that these organizations, while different in many ways, were all populist. In light of the contemporary rise of populist political parties everywhere in the world, it would have been useful to contextualize and clarify the term, as readers may end up attaching their own understanding of this phenomenon to the circumstances of the book rather than the author’s. Crucial to each of the seven organizations was their relationship with the Lebanese state, as some supported the state’s politics and others openly opposed them; their views reflected the ways in which the state supported, tolerated, or repressed them. One interesting aspect of this chapter is that every organization is discussed in terms of its approach to young individuals, its recruitment, and its affiliation; all groups, in the end, were able to provide a new identification for the youth associated with them, adding an extra layer to their single identities.

Chapters two and three look at the internal organization, rituals, and expansion of each of the seven groups. Baun argues that all youth organizations established headquarters in Beirut that then served as a privileged space where young members met, played, and were indeed indoctrinated according to the ideology of the organization itself. It must be said that while all organizations were mostly secular, and religious affiliation was not necessarily a major factor, it is also true that a number of organizations followed what we may call sectarian lines. The politics of these organizations were originally contained in their headquarters, but through the 1930s and 40s this was not enough, and they began to expand their physical and political borders. This process was also accompanied by the production of rituals like the blood baptism of the Kata’ib members, suggesting to an extent that the fluidity of sectarian lines was in time being superseded and that violence was slowly becoming part of the organizational language.

Chapters four and five are dedicated to the events of the 1958 war that also constitute the chronological end of this work. Clearly, Baun did not want to engage in any debate about the causes of the 1958 war. It is enough to say that there were two main camps: one supporting President Chamoun and one opposed to him. Looking at the war itself, as it was mostly defined along Christian-Muslim lines, it would be very tempting to define 1958 through sectarian lines only. Baun does not believe that popular organizations were primarily and necessarily sectarian. Though they contributed to the development of sectarianism, violence emerged from other contextual factors. Baun's analysis of organizational violence aligns with recent work by other scholars like Ussama Makdisi and Bedross Der Matossian, who look at the larger question of the uncontrolled enlargement of the public sphere since the beginning of the 20th century with the Young Turks Revolution as a locus for the development of sectarian violence.[1]

In conclusion, Baun suggests that since young people are not just the product of history but its producers as well, by giving attention to childhood and youth as elements in the larger history of the Middle East, we advance our understanding of Lebanese and regional dynamics of identity formation.


[1] Ussama Makdisi, Age of Coexistence: The Ecumenical Frame and the Making of the Modern Arab World (Oakland, Calif., 2021) and Bedross Der Matossian, The Horrors of Adana: Revolution and Violence in the Early Twentieth Century (Stanford, Calif., 2022).