The end of sectarianism?

10 February 2010

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With the end of sectarianism in Lebanon the political class would lose its raison d’etre. (Matthew Cassel)


Every society has its embarrassing moments. Lebanon seems to be based on them. Take for instance a recent study debunking the myth about the consequences of Lebanese women married to foreign men being allowed to pass on their nationality to their husbands and children. The popular argument is expounded as such: If these women were allowed to pass on their nationality, the sectarian make up of Lebanon would drastically change because of the sheer amount of Palestinians that would be naturalized, thus upsetting the delicate sectarian “balance” of the country.

In typical Lebanese fashion, the issue does not stand alone in the context of wider regional conflicts. If all of these stateless Palestinians were naturalized, then they would lose their right of return as they did in Jordan.

So how many Lebanese women are married to Palestinians? Two percent. And, to make matters worse the largest group of foreigners married to Lebanese women is actually Syrians, not Palestinians.

The results are first and foremost embarrassing since we Lebanese do not even know the makeup of our population. It is also telling of how sectarian fear spreads like cancer within the public consciousness and produces the political and social discourse in the country. What it also explains is why the recent proposal to establish a committee to abolish political sectarianism has created such uproar.

One would think that a society that has suffered the ills of sectarian conflict would enthusiastically do away with the political concept that has constrained, not only their political progress, but their economic and social one as well. But don’t be fooled.

This embarrassing political construct is older than Lebanon itself. It was etched into the constitution’s preamble some 20 years before independence and states that political sectarianism is to be abolished according to a “gradual plan” starting with the formation of the proposed national committee. That said, politicians bringing it up now is little more than political posturing.

The figure spearheading the proposed committee, speaker of the parliament and head of the Shia Amal Movement Nabih Berri, has much to lose if such a thing ever occurred. Logic would dictate that any committee would begin by proposing to implement tenants of the Taif accord — which ended the country’s 15-year civil war — that address abolishing sectarianism. One of them states that a senate would be setup “on a national, not sectarian, basis,” comprised of “all the spiritual families” that would have power over “crucial issues.”

However purposefully contradictory this may be, it does not take away from the fact that the speaker’s power would be significantly diminished by such a council. So why is he proposing to take measures to abolish political sectarianism. Well, this is where the political sword-fighting begins.

Since the Lebanese vote along sectarian lines (whichever way their sectarian leaders tell them to), the country’s Sunnis, Christians and Druze are convinced that the burgeoning Shia population will swallow them up if government posts are open to be open to anyone, and voted on by everyone. Knowing this, and the fact that most of those factions want to strip the Shia population (and Hizballah in particular) of their arms, Berri has floated the idea in the hopes that his opponents would forget about the issue or at least tone it down.

To complicate matters further, Berri has also proposed lowering the voting age in this year’s municipal elections. While the municipal elections are not legally based on sectarianism, in effect they maintain it since the different parts of Lebanon are also mainly populated by one sect or another. Lowering the voting age to 18 would give more influence to the country’s Shia population, who have been the fastest growing community in Lebanon and, consequentially mean, more of them voting in the elections.

By doing this, however, Berri may have opened a can of worms he cannot shut. His ally, and the only Christian party in the opposition, Michel Aoun is now in open conflict with him over the measure and Hizballah is in damage control mode.

Not to be outdone, the parliamentary majority has demanded another electoral reform by proposing to allow the Lebanese Diaspora to vote. According to popular consensus and not empirical evidence this population is comprised mainly of Christians. Such a move would tip the sectarian scales back in the Christian’s favor. The only trouble is that no one really knows the sectarian makeup of Lebanon’s Diaspora since records have not been kept outside of Lebanon, not to mention within the country.

The cherry on top comes from Lebanon’s novice Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri. Having learned a thing or two about Lebanese politics since his father, a former Lebanese prime minister, was assassinated, Hariri stressed that any agreement on these issues should be based on “consensus,” the Lebanese code word for indefinite procrastination.

However disingenuous Lebanon’s so-called leaders’ intentions are regarding the abolition of sectarianism, the issue is a dangerous one for both the country’s leaders and its population.

Typically, Lebanon’s politicians have had a wide array of talking points to steer political discourse away from any structural reform. It’s easy to point fingers when you are occupied by both Syria and Israel and car bombs are almost as frequent as seasonal allergies.

Even through the threat of war with Israel is ever-present, neither Israel nor Hizballah seem to have the appetite for another war in the short term. The results of this, and the relatively stable security situation in the country, have muted the usual political arguments related to security and occupation. Although Hizballah-led opposition bloc was defeated in last June’s elections and was powerful enough to prevent the formation of a new government for almost six months, it did not have enough political momentum to adequately counter renewed calls for disarmament by the parliamentary majority after their election victory. As such, calls for the abolition of political sectarianism by the opposition are little more than political posturing, as opposed to any real commitment to the measure.

Recent statements by opposition leader Michel Aoun about abolishing sectarianism “without getting into classifications,” or as a package deal that would see all reforms tackled at once, seem to point to an agreement by the opposition to push the issue forward despite differences over the details. Thus, some would say the opposition is now ready to show all its cards and going all in on the matter. But while flowery all-encompassing statements are the forte of politicians, the reality of the matter is that if a basket of reforms related to the abolition of sectarianism are enacted, Lebanon’s political and religious class will lose their raison d’etre.

Fifteen years of civil war followed by 20 years of civil strife have cemented the role of Lebanon’s leaders as bulwarks of their communities. If any serious sectarian reform begins to occur, hereditary inheritance and the defense of the tribe will cease to be sufficient reasons for these figures to retain their statuses. That is a prospect Lebanon’s politicians can hardly be expected to accept.

As long as talk of abolishing sectarianism remains mere lip service, Lebanon’s relative politicians will likely protract the status quo. But if that boat begins to rock, Lebanon’s political elite will most likely seek to readjust the political paradigm back towards issues of security and occupation — and of course blame each other for consequences or yet another round of sectarian malaise. It’s up to the Lebanese not to be duped once again and not to forgive their politicians and religious figures; for they know exactly what they do.

Sami Halabi is a Beirut-based journalist and editor who covers the Middle East and North Africa.