A couple of days ago, the dailystar published an article that covered a conference in Notre Dame University. (NDU). It appears that three speakers spoke, and I thought it would be interesting if I laid them out, what they said, and attach a few of my comments:
Issam Suleiman - Political Researcher and Professor
-developing Lebanon's democratic experience in its political, economic and social dimensions
-renewing social infrastructure
-strengthening "the nation"
I've never heard of a more abstract reform plan! I think this tendency to be abstract is one of the greatest flaws of most Lebanese academics and "thinkers" - a flaw, that I have to admit, I succumb to sometimes. What does Mr. Suleiman mean by his first point? What exactly does he mean by social infrastructure? When he says "nation," does he mean the country or the Lebanese people melting into an organic nation?
Ali Fayyad - Consulting Center for Studies & Documentation
- Political parties should play an essential role in developing democracy & modernism, and fighting sectarianism. His caveat is that "considering Lebanon's structure this role seems impossible... 'Therefore Lebanese parties either adopt a sectarian identity or face marginalization.'"
-Unless a secular system based on the Taif Accord is not adopted, no real reform of the government institutions will be allowed.
Mr. Fayyad is a little more concrete. He believes that political parties and the Taif accord can be used as mechanisms for reform. I think he skips the hard part, though: The biggest challenge for reformers in Lebanon has been reconciling political parties with the political realities that already exist in Lebanon. For example, a good question he should have raised is: what kind of mechanisms do you infuse into a political party so that it does not become a sectarian body? Do you have a rotating presidency? Do you run the party via committee as opposed to an individual? Although these ideas may seem like compromising the "integrity" of such modern institutions, I believe it is essential to adopt them (or similar ideas) at least as a transition.
Kamal Hamdan - Head of Economics Department; Consulting Center for Studies
"the lesson Lebanon had learnt after 15 years of civil war was the incredible fall of theories that suggest it is possible to build a modern democratic state based on religious sectarianism."
This is a very controversial claim. My friends at Across the Bay would definitely disagree with Mr. Hamdan. In Lebanon, there seems to be two schools of thought concerning sectarianism. The first school, houses people like Mr. Hamndan and the other two speakers in the forum. People within that school argue, for a plethora of reasons (some of which have been listed above), that Sectarianism is the bane of Lebanon. The second school is best represented by Tony at Across the bay, some of his readers, and my former PSPA department chair at AUB, Dr. Farid el Khazen. Generally this school sees political sectarianism as a virtue. They argue that had it not been for the sectarian nature of the Lebanese state, dictatorship would have replaced consociationalism, and we would not have been different from any of the other sorry excuses for states that exist in the Arab world.
I agree with both schools. I really do believe that Lebanon's sectarianism, and the political acceptance of sectarianism has manifested in Lebanon a value that is crucial to democratic governance (a value that does not exist anywhere in the Middle East): respect for minorities. Furthermore, I disagree with Mr. Hamdan's assessment concerning what the civil war taught us. The United States fought a bloody civil war, but as far as I am aware of, did not change the fundamental characteristics of their Polity or their governing system.
However, just because I agree that sectarianism ensured a semblance of democratic governance in Lebanon, doesn't mean that I think that we should stay where we are. I really think that we should build on our political strengths which, as I've already mentioned, can be summed up as "respect for minorities," and move our country towards a more secular and modern polity (as opposed to a completely "secular" and "modern" polity).
Rami, one of the readers of Across the Bay says the following: "...[I] seek the building of a coherent nation (out of the multiplicity of nations and conflicting national narratives that we have in Lebanon....)"
Tony, asks the following question:
"How do you introduce non-consensus procedures and elements into the existing [sectarian] framework that would capitalize on the new-found sense of security, while not recreating the fear factor by saying we're overhauling the entire thing?"
He goes on to say:
"You start by introducing key elements, strategically and wisely. The end result...is not the elimination of the consensus model because there's an ideological underpinning there of coexistence and compromise, that understands that ethnic identities can be very difficult to eliminate...but also understands that in a plural society it's actually GOOD to acknowledge this diversity "
Finally, Tony ends his comment by asking the following question:
"The question is how to enhance this system. The end result I believe would be something closer to the American mixed system, and not a Westminster model."
Both Rami and Tony raise essential issues for Lebanon. Furthermore, I totally agree with Tony's prescription. The American system is the best model for Lebanon for many reasons pertaining to the power and autonomy of states as well as the overriding respect of minorities which you do not see in a Westminster model.
Going back to my comment on Ali Fayyad's remarks, Lebanon could adopt the same mechanism the Unites States does for their Republican and Democratic parties. Both parties are, in effect, 50 parties! There is a Republican party in every state... the same applies for the Democratic party. Each of those parties are focused on electing state governors, state legislatures, and other elected officials at the state level. The National Committees of both parties offer support, try to set the agendas, and coordinate efforts for national campaigns such as the presidential race. Maybe this system, or something similar, could be the key to creating national parties in Lebanon, and of course, helping to foster a less sectarian political environment and discourse.