The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Lebanese sectarianism in 2010

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Image above: Hat/Tip: Matthew Cassel

It has been over 20 years since the Taif accord was signed to officially bring about an end to the Lebanese civil war, a war so long and bloody that it brought a country to the brink of ruin and saw it ruthlessly exploited by foreign interests.

An approximation of the distribution of Lebanon's main religious groups, 1991. H/T: Wikipedia

The accord changed the system of power established by the National Pact in 1943 by checking the political power of Lebanese Christians, an edge that had become progressively disproportionate as Lebanese demographics changed to a sizeable Muslim majority. Where the Christians once enjoyed a 6:5 parliamentary majority, this became 50:50, and the Prime Minister (who was usually a Sunni Muslim as per the pact) was no longer accountable to the President (a Maronite Christian) but instead to the House of Parliament.

Apart from bringing an end to the devastating war, one of the major aims of the Taif Accord was also to bring about an end to sectarian politics in Lebanon and to establish a united country. Unfortunately, the path to achieve this was ambiguous and not explicitly stated in the Accord itself, and with good reason. How do you go about uniting a country that has been divided for so long? A country that has only survived by virtue of a deeply divisive, sectarian compromise in the form of a National Pact? How do you go about uniting a country where even sectarian intermarriage (the symbolic unity between Lebanese of different sects) is effectively impossible? Lebanon’s very existence, rooted in the colonial history of the Sykes-Picot agreement, Maronite West-leaning lobbying and fear of persecution as part of Greater Syria is questionable and a deeply divisive topic.

So more than 20 years later, the BBC reports that civil society activists in Lebanon are “hoping that thousands will turn up for an unprecedented rally in Beirut.”

The march for secularism will call on all Lebanese to unite and work towards the abolition of the country’s deeply divisive sectarian system.

The organisers say it is time to redefine what it means to be Lebanese.

Apart from a potential lack of trust in ‘secularism’ as a solution, I wonder if these civil society activists face the same old questions when proselytizing their new, non-sectarian Lebanese nationalism. Eg. Which sect do they belong to? Who do they support politically? Who is funding them? It seems an evolution from sectarianism in Lebanon always faces the same brick walls, especially while the country is still being used as a proxy for foreign powers. From Syria, to the Saudis, to the Americans, to the Israelis, to the Iranians, everybody still wants a finger in the Lebanese pie. Can you then blame the Lebanese for being suspicious, cynical, divided? Is it really possible to achieve any kind of civil peace in these kind of social conditions?

In an excellent piece for Beirut’s Daily Star, Fadia Kirwan answers some of these questions:

The elites and political leaders of the various communities must realize that absent far-reaching reform, the Lebanese state will remain dysfunctional. These community leaders should, therefore, come together around a common agenda and launch a media campaign in which they directly engage political leaders on the imperative of strengthening the state’s political institutions, raising awareness in the public of the cost of continuing down the path of systemic paralysis.

A good place to start is with in-depth reform of the public sector and judiciary, banning cronyism and pie-sharing among the political leadership on behalf of their respective communities.

The second step must be a genuine overhaul of electoral law to institute a proportional voting system: in an initial round, there could be uninominal voting (one member per district) based on 128 districts, which is the current number of members of Parliament; next, a determining round could take place in which the country would be divided into medium-sized constituencies – proportionally comprised of six to eight seats, with the option to arrange these candidates in order of preference.

The benefits of such a law would be twofold: first, Lebanese citizens would vote on a political rather than community basis and, second, this would reduce or remove the stranglehold of a religious majority over any given constituency.

Of course I’m not entirely sure what the ‘medium-sized constituencies’ that Kirwan envisions would actually look like, what sort of ethnic mix they would include and how it would all work out practically. Nor am I sure that Lebanon is ready for such action. Banning cronyism and pie-sharing are excellent things to do, but is Lebanon ready for politicians that try to unite rather than divide? Or is the ever lurking specter of civil war, stemming from a mutual distrust and fear for survival, something to genuinely fear?

The problem with Kirwan’s, and other similar plans, is that the distrust and foreign meddling is a chicken-or-egg paradox. Lebanon cannot unite without a truly Lebanese security force able to protect the country from foreign threat, while that security is in the hands of Hizbollah, peace can never be achieved. However, the country’s biggest security threat is Israel to its south, explaining the polar nature of security in Lebanon. A US-backed group cannot be trusted to truly defend the country so security falls to Hizbollah, but Hizbollah is sectarian by nature and linked to its benefactors in Syria and Iran, so it equally cannot be trusted either. The reality of modern politics in a country like Lebanon is that the group with the guns has the power. This, more than anything, defines the modern Lebanese experience. So how can a transfer of  responsibility for security occur without first uniting the country’s sects? And how can the sects be united while the firepower is disproportionately spread? And if it was to be spread more equally but the other reasons for mistrust removed, would that bring about a situation of civil war again?

I do not have the answers to these questions but I can say one thing for certain. A comprehensive solution to the Israeli-Palestinian impasse that brings about a state for the Palestinians, and a dignified state at that, not a paper tiger stripped of the right to its own defense and its rightful capital of East Jerusalem, would go a long way to helping Lebanon. If the threat of Israel was removed or at least diminished, and if the element of Arab solidarity and moral outrage at the treatment of Palestinians that drives animosity towards Israel within Lebanon was also removed, then the enemy on the southern border could be viewed in different terms, as could the national security situation. This would go some way to allowing Lebanese to focus on Lebanon, and remove an excuse for foreign powers seeking to meddle. This is just another reason why Israel-Palestine holds the key to truly stabilising the Middle East.

Written by alexlobov

April 25, 2010 at 9:49 pm

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