The Lebanese Minister of Defense has recently announced plans to reinstate mandatory military service 13 years after its abolition in 2007. More details are expected to follow in the coming few weeks.
Once considered essential to bring together a deeply torn society after 15 years of civil war, mandatory service, also known as conscription or flag service, consisted of one year of military training that only young Lebanese men meeting specific criteria undertook.
The Minister's announcement on Twitter was received with both enthusiasm and skepticism as some citizens invoked the national cohesion and unity that mandatory service can induce while others questioned the government's ability to organize such a large-scale program or its right to force citizens to serve.
Amidst the rapidly shifting pieces and impulsive decision-making in Lebanon these days, it is refreshing to know that some form of nation-wide longer-term planning is still taking place. In times of crises, firefighters and first responders are essential, but ensuring longer term systemic health and safety requires architects and structural engineers.
If properly thought through and rolled out, the reintroduction of a revolutionized flag service may present a foundational bloc for the rebirth of a nation that has continuously suffered from socio-economic, cultural and religious fragmentation.
An even better outcome would consist of toning down the 'military' in 'military service' to design and implement a secular youth program grounded in civics and national belonging.
As alternatives to their military programs, countries such as Switzerland and Austria have introduced civilian service programs decades ago where conscientious objectors can engage in activities spanning areas such as social work or environmental protection.
A combination of basic military service, civil service, and civics could be the perfect mix for Lebanon at this point in time.
Why Mandatory Service Is a Good Idea
Chaos, corruption, kleptocracy and economic stagnation have created a culture of despair, prompted mass immigration and significantly hampered political participation rates because of a fundamental lack of trust in government and politics.
When the current storm passes - and it eventually will - Lebanon will need to heal its wounds and address the disconnect between who we are and who we want to be as a country. This will entail rebuilding a tolerant, just and tight-knit society.
Compulsory service presents a great opportunity to do just that by allowing us to rethink the meaning of being Lebanese, enhance civic engagement and strengthen national identity among young citizens.
It comes as no surprise that the Lebanese Army is the natural figurehead of such an undertaking. For the last decade - and probably long before that - the Army has been the one national institution that citizens respect and have faith in.
According to Arab Barometer Data, four out of every five Lebanese trust the Armed Forces to a great or at the very least medium extent, compared to roughly one in five (and often fewer) in the case of the main executive, legislative or judicial institutions.
The lack of trust in the latter has had a bleak snowball effect on the relationship between citizens and the state. The less trust people have, the more cynical they are about any public initiative or program (this one included), the less they are willing to engage politically, the less trust they have.
Mandatory service comes at a time when the last trustworthy institution in the country can re-infuse belief in the need for a strong state and effectively rally the next generation around national values that, at the end of the day, encompass its very own.
Level of Trust in Select Institutions (Extracted from the Arab Barometer Survey Data)
What A Successful Program Would Look Like
In my mind, a successful program would consist of a set of modules on integrity, history, culture, religion, warfare, peace-building, and communication (to name a few) that bring together young Lebanese citizens on the brink of adulthood and offer them a safe space to interact, experiment, learn and grow.
It would build the foundations for civic engagement and community service, bridge cultural and religious differences, and promote a collective understanding and appreciation of Lebanese citizenship.
Although it might be useful to learn how to fire a gun, gather basic intelligence or swim in a mud pond, it is at the very least as useful to learn about another religion, participate in a reforestation campaign or practice public speaking.
Furthermore, a revamped program would have no room for wasta and would include all Lebanese youth - men and women, single children and siblings of ten, wealthy and poor, children of ministers and children of cobblers. When it comes to serving one's country and immersing oneself in its values, we are all equal.
Finally, and because pursuing higher education opportunities is understandably a key consideration for many Lebanese, the program would take into account educational timetables following careful coordination between the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Education.
One option would be to condense K-12 education into 11-11.5 years, leaving a 6-12 month dedicated period for service. Another option would be to leverage the extra year that Lebanese students have vis-a-vis some of their international peers when transitioning from secondary to tertiary education - Lebanese college students currently skip freshman year.
Either way, dedicating an exclusive period of time for service as opposed to arbitrary weekend and holiday service would arguably yield better results in terms of personal growth and civic immersion. A boarding-school-like program is also definitely worth considering.
Anticipating the Challenges Along the Way
Like any undertaking at a national level, the program is likely to face many tricky - and often self-imposed - obstacles.
Religious interference, political inertia and historical baggage are clearly some of them.
Will religious clerics facilitate a move towards a secular state? Will mainstream politicians risk the undoing of years of demonizing "the others"? Will a country that has not yet agreed on a recount of its own modern history and civil war put together a narrative for the future?
Another challenge that is likely to surface is the issue of costing and financing. How much would putting together and staffing a program that is expected to mobilize ~100,000 young men and women every year cost? How can the government fund it?
These challenges are by no means trivial. They are, nevertheless, foreseeable.
With the right momentum, a modicum of courage, an appetite for real change, strong partnerships and the right minds behind design and execution, a powerful and effective program can see the light.
Now is time for a significant, bold, nation-wide initiative that brings this country’s people together to constructively envision the future rather than pointlessly fight over the past.
At this critical moment of its 100-year-old history, Lebanon needs to grow dedicated, honest and fearless leaders who think collectively and selflessly about its well-being and prosperity.
At the end of the day, all it takes is one generation to reverse the downward decay spiral that we have come to embark on.
Christophe Abi Nassif is a joint MBA-MPA student at the Wharton School and the Harvard Kennedy School.
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