Thursday, May 26, 2005

Reformers in Lebanon

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:

Speaker #1:

Issam Suleiman - Political Researcher and Professor

Calls for:

-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?

Speaker #2

Ali Fayyad - Consulting Center for Studies & Documentation

Claims that:

- 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.

Speaker #3

Kamal Hamdan - Head of Economics Department; Consulting Center for Studies

Claims that:

"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 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.


Doha said...


I think you should just make it clear what you're advocating for here, a party system similar to the US not Federalism (because I know you're not with federalism)...just so you wouldn't be misunderstood by many.

The political party model you gave, gleaned from the American experience, needs more clarification. The US has 52 states, 52 Republican and 52 Democractic states--each state representing a territory and not a group of "peoples". It's different with Lebanon, because the divisions are along sectarian lines.

I look forward to your clarification, because I understand that your aim is to lay out realistic and articulate reform ideas.

Raja said...

doha, federalism can only exist when you have defined geographic entities. In Lebanon, the different sects are dispersed all over the country, so you cannot have "sectarian states" in Lebanon. However, I did mention the reasons I advocate for the American model - its respect for minorities, and for autonomy of political entities at the subnational level (i.e. states).

In Lebanon, we don't have states, we have sects. The political elite have always claimed to represent their sects, and consequently have turned sects into political entities. From my previous posts, you know what my position is concerning that phenomenon. Although it has saved us from rotting under a dictatorship by fostering a consociational system, sectarian politics is a prison in its own right! Therefore, I proposed the American political system as a realistic compromise . A way to get us where we would like - i.e. a place where sectarian/identity politics exists, but is in the backburner, rather than the forefront of political discourse.

At the moment, I cannot propose any more details because I don't have the time to think about them. However, on the whole, I think that the American system offers us many models we can use to move forward. As I'ver already mentioned, the respect for minorities in the United States, and the different nodes of power broadly reflect the political situation in Lebanon.

Doha said...

Thanks, Raja, for the clarification. While I was reading your comment, interest group politics came to mind, because that is the essence of the American political system. And interest groups can range from ethnically-defined, to religious, to political, to issue-based, and so on...And as the Lebanese are the opinionated people they are, then perhaps such system, particularly the interest-group model, could be most suitable, as then the political system would be open to any interest group organized enough to push through their policies/agendas.

Raja said...

frankly, aside form all of this talk about institutions and politics, a fundamental problem is the way Lebanese individuals deal with one another. Almost every Lebanese has a group mentality, and consequently befriends or associates exclusively with people from their own sect or community. I think that kind of behavior is very unfortunate. We all live in a country that is so rich, but, for whatever reason, we stay in our little cocoons or enclaves and despise other Lebanese without really getting to know them! If we can't even get ourselves to have decent and friendly conversations, then I wonder what's the point in talking about political reform and political institutions!

Which one came first? The chicken or the egg? can someone answer that question for me?

Charles Malik said...

Totally off topic, but I've just spent quite a lot of time reading things you wrote and looking at your picture.
No, I'm not stalking you.
I was doing the same to Kamal Sanjakdar, Sary Zantout, Hussain, Mirna Shidrawi, Rami Salameh, that Cypriot girl (sorry forgot her name).
Wow, I had never heard of Galloway until the recent flap over Iraq, but you were meeting him face to face in 2000!
Crazy to see you in places other than the internet. We definitely have one degree separating us, although we have never met.
Crazy stuff...

Doha said...


I worked in Outlook between 1999 and 2000. I was taking a look at the Outlook archives and was only able to go back to October 2000. I was by far more active during the 1999/2000 school year; that's when Galloway visited AUB and I wrote an article on him. I browsed the net and couldn't locate Galloways' article. How did you find it?

I still keep contact with Hussein and Mirna.

How do you know all of us?

It's such a small world...

Charles Malik said...

The online archives are a recent phenomenon. But the paper archives are available in Jafet, the information office, and the Outlook office.
Supposedly, professors keep copies of them, as well. I've heard there is a professor who has copies from the sixties through InLook and LookOut to the re-creation of Outlook in 1997. I don't know the guy, though.

There are a lot of people still at AUB from your days: Fadi Shaker, Rami Salameh, Kamal stops by a lot, and Joe Manok is now an AUB employee.

Anonymous said...

What Kamal Hamdane said is not really controversial. There is near unanimity in Lebanon about the fact that sectarianism is a plague.
Your friend Tony from Across the Bay is an extreme right wing fanatic.

Anonymous said...

To anonymous:
Once and for all:

1) Being a "right wing" is not an insult. Stupid intolerant anonymous

2) Anti-right wing or anti-Maronites pertain to racism. You f... anonymous racist


Anonymous said...

3) I forgot to add that stupid intolerant self-righteous people like you anonymous are Lebanon's plague, not sectarianism


Raja said...


If Tony is an extreme anything, he's an extremely good analyst and writer. His postings consist of articulate arguments that are founded on strong evidence, and shaped by sound theoretical frameworks. If you want a good understanding of what is going on in Lebanon, I highly recommend you read his posts.

What I like about him, is that he gives all of us "wanna-be reformers" a strong dose of Lebanese reality. The fact of the matter is that the overwhelming majority of Lebanese, from all of the sects, are part and parcel of a sectarian political system - whatever they CLAIM to think about sectarianism. Druze, Shi'a, Orthodox, Maronite, Sunni, etc... Most people (whether we like it or not) identify with their families, localities and sects, and practice politics accordingly! So, the question is: do we do like military dictators and quash the system? Or do we create formal state institutions that are modern and effective, however, manage to take account for the sectarian political tendencies of Lebanese - as, I believe, Tony recommends? That is not "fanatic" rhetoric. In fact, I see Tony's rhetoric as much more rational than some of the anti-sectarian rhetoric that we hear every once-in-a-while (including some of my own posts).


please control the language. You make one valid point. But, it could have been done without the inflamatory language. On another note, I just wanted to ask you a sincere question. I have a close friend in Beirut who happens to be Bahai'. Yet he never talks politics because he says that his religion forbids him from doing so. In fact, he told me the story of a Bahai' lady who was excommunicated from the faith because she joined the PLO and was participating in politics.

Was he misinformed?

Anonymous said...


You are right on both points:

I was too inflammatory.I apologize to the readers.

As to the Baha'i faith, your friend is absolutely well informed: True believers are not supposed to have political activities (even though they can vote!).

[As to the case of that person involved in PLO, i was told it was rather due to an "image de marque" issue with Israel. It is yet another interesting story i might talk about elsewhere].

Even though i don't think your answer is as sincere and unbiased as you say, i will answer sincerely: I am a Baha'i by family and education but not at all a true believer... I don't mind at all being "excommunicated"; i expect even the use of the "Greatest Name" Baha' is not very recommended for blogging. But hey, i despise ALL religious dogmas (including YOURS, dear reader) and don't see why i should make an exception with that of my parents.

I am a Baha'i agnostic (sorry if that horrifies the thirlworldist view of sympathizers of "this sooooo cute and primitive religion we must take care of -as we do for Pandas- for the sake of cultural diversity" as Canadians put it). As agnostic as every reasonable person should be.

Excommunicators and blasphemy watchdogs are trash.

Thank you for your original post raja


Hussein said...

Baha' and Raja,
This is the first time I hear of this religion. I read a bit about it and found it amazing. I had no idea that there is an organized religion that was so open. Some of the key points that I found appealing/interesting were:
-All human beings are members of a single race, which should soon be united in a single global community
-All human beings are different, but equal; there should be no inequality between races or sexes.
-The Bahá'í religion accepts all other faiths as true and valid
-Bahá'ís do not regard God as having a gender.
-There is no ban on having a homosexual orientation, so long as one does not act on it, but it is regarded as a burden on a conscientious soul.
-Divorce is abhorred - but it is not banned.

Source: BBC website

Anonymous said...

I know this is a personal attack but I cannot resist.

Sounds like the first academic, Sleimane, is your regular idiot savant (probably hiding his Marxist bent under pompous words).