Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Politics is not our problem, it is our salvation

Fellow Lebanese... we are now in the spotlight. The news coming out of Lebanon and Syria is ludicrous... Heated (and sometimes, disgusting) exchanges between commenters have been taking place... and some of our blogs (including yours truly) have been subjected to the equivalent of "hate mail" through our comments section.

In response to all of this hubbub, I felt the urge articulate in a very concise fashion what I think is unique about Lebanon. When one is under siege, it pays to look within to discover what his or her real streangths are. In fact, in doing so, I will paraphrase none other than the Afandi at Across the Bay:

Lebanese are unique in the Middle East because we manage to live with our differences, rather than deny that they exist.

Tony goes on to say that the desires for secularism and "a united Lebanese voice" are misdirected and even dangerous because they essentially sum up to a desire to emulate the political systems of our Arab neighbors. I agree with Tony on this issue. I agree with him fully. Lebanese are so comfortable under their sectarian skin that it sickens me! However, from a political stand point there could be no healthier situation.

I am very aware of the recurring nature of this debate. In fact, I am quite sure that bloggers will keep it alive as I lay on my death bed (hopefully, at least 50 years from now). But, in the interest of elevating the discourse by a notch or two I will make the following recommendations concerning political sectarianism in Lebanon:

  1. We, as Lebanese, should not think that all of Lebanon's problems will go away when we all "speak with one voice" as a secular Lebanese community. Even when all of us become agnostic, we will still have differences and perceive different "Lebanese interests."

    Rather than strive for a politically immature ideal, we should all strive to accept two principles: 1) respect of the will of the majority and (paradoxically) 2) respect of specific minority rights. When Lebanese understand that breaking the will of the majority is a sacrilege (on condition that minority rights are respected), we will all be in political heaven. Democracy is key. The democratic process defines us as a country and is our country's salvation.

  2. I am also aware of the popular adage that claims that Lebanon has not achieved its economic potential because of sectarian politics and all the baggage that our political system brings with it. My response is simple: The political system is too valuable to dispose of because it is the guarantor of Lebanon's integrity. Therefore, rather than get rid of it, we should strive to diminish its influence.

    Markets should play a larger role in decisions pertaining to allocation of resources. Lebanese should arrive at a consensus to immunize certain governing decisions from politics (more bubbles such as that which currently protects the Central Bank should be created). Once these oases of policy are created, the state will become more effective, and will help enlarge the Lebanese Pie rather than simply act as a conduit for distributing the existing one.

In suggesting these two points, I hope that I have contributed positively to the never ending discussion about sectarianism in Lebanon. Lebanese will never have one voice, and we should all be proud of that fact. Lebanese are sectarian, and we should accept that fact. Once the Democratic process is viewed by all to be above any cause or sect, the insecurities that lead many to cling to their sectarian identities in political contexts may decline. The possibilities from there are endless... but let us not forget that democracy is the key!


sam said...

Good point. I just need a some clarification.

This may not look like a question, but it actually is :-)
Religious communities will always have certain specific political views. We will never speak as one voice and that ensures a certain degree of freedom that other Arab countries don't know. Except that currently, each community is more or less speaking as one voice. What bothers me is not that there is more than one voice in Lebanon, but the one-to-one mapping of voices to religious communities. I know that it is the best thing we could come up with, but right now we have a couple of issues:
- Many problems are common to all communities and are currently being tackled by the sectarien representatives. That is understandable seeing how the only way you can get things done is wasta for now.
- Giving too much power to religious authorities over the lives of everyone who is born within their community, is detrimental to freedom within the communities. Especially for people who do not share the view of the majority within the community.
- It is currently difficult to stop sectarian and religious authorities from eventually manipulating and blackmailing their communities, and other communities for that matter, because religious leaders are not elected by the community and politicians cannot take positions too far from the religious leaders.
- Elected officials only have to answer to their community, which in itself is not necessarily a negative factor. But it may reduce the chances of a Lebanese step towards democracy if a community refuses to go along.

When you said "democracy is the key", did you mean the key to solving all those problems, professors?

When you said the possibilities are endless, did you mean: civil marriage, human rights, women's rights, gay rights, abortion, humane prisons, decent retirement, higher education for all, public transport, freedom of speech (and I mean stopping the silly censorship on stuff like Salman Rushdie, Woody Allen, Kazantzakis, Da vinci code, AC/DC, Last Tango in Paris etc.)?


Anton Efendi said...

Sam, your first sentence hit it on the head. That's what I said in the comment thread about HA and the Shiites, etc. I said that the solution is INTRA-communal diversity. That allows for better inter-communal alliances without establishing the "federation of sects" as it's called, with HA, Aoun, etc.

OK since this is an ongoing discussion maybe I should post on it soon to clarify my position. But in essence, what I said was to have a power sharing arrangement that combines integration (hence intra-communal diversity, and an ability to establish a cross-sectarian coalition majority that could form a government and rule without any one party monopolizing an entire sect), and consensus whereby the system won't turn into a majoritarian system, and minority voices would be meaningful and safeguarded, only not in the sense of monopolizing an entire sect as HA is doing now, and establishing another form of deadlock.

Anton Efendi said...

And it's not the best thing we could come up with. It's the miserable 2000 law. Look at the Christian scene. Despite Aoun's success, there is a real diversity of political players. The Sunni case is a little different, because the FM also has managed to include under its aegis a significant number of minority sects and different voices.

Once we have a new electoral law, this diversity should become the norm, and the current situation will hopefully disappear.

Anonymous said...

"Religious communities will always have certain specific political views"

I think the problem lies less in the political views and more in the way of life and the role of religion in everyday's life.

"Tony goes on to say that the desires for secularism and "a united Lebanese voice" are misdirected and even dangerous because they essentially sum up to a desire to emulate the political systems of our Arab neighbors"

No, REAL abolition of sectarianism (in the society, not in the political system) is a desirable thing. The day it will happen, it will remove 90% of the frictions between Lebanese. I am only saying that it will not happen soon. You can't abolish this kind of sectarianism with a decree, but by improved education and economic growth.

"We, as Lebanese, should not think that all of Lebanon's problems will go away when we all "speak with one voice" as a secular Lebanese community. Even when all of us become agnostic, we will still have differences and perceive different "Lebanese interests.""

I beg to disagree. As I said, when we all become agnostic (=not sectarian in our way of thinking), the difference will become irrelevant.

bashir said...

"Secular community" does not and should never mean speaking with one voice. It should mean allowing the "democratic process" to take its due course. Which means equal rights and duties under the same law for all citizens. Sectarianism has gone a long way from being a denomination within a religion into being a factor for discrimination against individuals and groups. Many examples can be given of recent practices that amount to racism by individuals and institutions. The democratic process can not work if we have different courts with different laws for different individuals in the same 10452 sqkm.
Sectarianism contradicts democracy. I believe that the days when governments sought to create citizens that are "photo-copies" of each others, walking, talking and facing in the same direction, are long gone (hopefully). It is not only either the damning "one voice" or "sectarianism". Let me quote Raja "The democratic process defines us as a country and is our country's salvation."

Raja said...

Sam, you said that what bothers you "is not that there is more than one voice in Lebanon, but the one-to-one mapping of voices to religious communities." Anon 12:11 and Bashir both point to the same problem of sectarianism (Bashir specifically pointed out how sectarianism actually undermines democracy rather than enforce it).

These are all valid problems that we can identify in the Lebanese status quo. God knows that if I were in Lebanon, I'd be screaming about those problems too. However, political institutions can only be legitimate if they reflect society’s institutions. The "problem" of sectarianism is a societal one that can only be solved within that context. Of course, politicians can, and often do, take advantage of sectarian fissures to advance their own goals, but they are merely taking advantage of a societal reality that already exists.

Okay, so now what about solutions?

Well, Anon 12:11 proposed education and economic growth. I agree to a certain extent. Economic growth is not good enough. We need economic prosperity that results from our own "sweat and blood," not rent money from natural resources that allows us to sit on our butts, change nothing, and just wait for the cash to flow in.

Tony believes that the solution lies in fragmenting sectarian political representation so that Christians have more than one voice (which they already do), but Druze, Shiite and Sunnis also have more than one voice. Under such conditions, inter-sectarian coalitions may be formed to govern the land no matter who wins electoral battles. Well this solution is not exactly a solution to sectarianism, it is merely a recommendation to make the current system work better. Therefore, I will take his recommendation one step further, and propose that broad policy-driven parties act as "umbrellas" that absorb these different sectarian factions. The hope here is that in due time the party itself will grow in strength at the expense of the sectarian coalition it represents, and eventually absorb them. We have started to see this development with the Future Movement (as Tony pointed out), but those are merely the first baby steps. We need to see more.

Ultimately, this problem of sectarianism is one that my generation (indeed, OUR generation) will need to deal with. Even though our fathers (figuratively speaking) managed to destroy the country, they also left us with a relatively healthy democratic political system we can all work under to achieve our goals. The onus is now on us, not the system.

Vox Populi - Agent Provocateur said...

What Tony proposes will not abolish sectarianism, but will give to sectarianism a frame for it to work properly. In a stable environment and with the proper framework, sectarianism may progressively decrease.

We'll be back to a system similar to the Qaysi-Yamani (was it Qaysi-Yazbaki? I can't remember).

Secularisation of the country is important. And yes secular people do speak with one voice when it come to core values such as democracy and human rights, but they don't have to speak with one voice when it comes to more casual political issues.

Note that, you can abolish sectariansim AND have proper sectarian reprsentation through a fair electoral law and super-majority (3/4, 2/3, 3/5, whatever ) on important topics.

The thing that we must avoid is a majoritarian democracy. This will dismantle the country. It is not important for the system to be explicitly confessional as long as it assures proper repersentation and consensual politics.

Ramzi said...

Here here!

Now, how do we go beyond words on a page? A virtual one at that...

Raja said...

well ramzi... these words simbolize some form of consensus. I believe we're all from different sects. that is definitely a first step.

Anton Efendi said...

Raja you've got me right. And also Vox. I'll have to elaborate on this in a post, and by the way, this is something Jonathan Edelstein has addressed in his series on Lebanon, the idea of intra-sectarian variety and inter-sectiarian coalitions, is precisely to create that umbrella, which develops programs, or at least tangible positions that people can identify with, that renders the traditional concept of "sectarianism" rather obsolete. The end result, in the long run (but perhaps not so long run. witness not just the FM but also the FPM), will be specific positions linked to these umbrellas/parties. In other words, it slowly becomes issue driven. The building of bridges inherent in this approach is obvious, and it circumvents the highly sensitive and confrontational approach of the deconfessionalization parties.

This in the long run establishes that culture, which is very important. All the while, primordial and minority fears are assuaged. Nobody is calling for deconfessionalization, so nobody is scared (and here I don't mean minority Christian sects, but also Druze, and even Sunnis. Like I said last time, NOBODY in Lebanon will be happy with the results of a census. The Shiites will be DEEPLY disappointed and deflated. The Sunnis, and some of you may not know this, will also be disappointed because many Sunnis believe it is they, not the Shiites, who constitute the country's largest sect.).

Concomittant with this, or perhaps somewhere down the road, we should also start thinking about bicameralism. This way, all the disgruntled "secularists" (it's such a bad term. Lebanese politics is very much "secular" with the exception of your "taleef shar'i" here or use of Churches or Mosques for mobilization here and there. It's really not a matter of interference of religion or even religious authorities.) can find some sort of representation, if indeed they can muster the numbers. You can have quotas in parliament for non-sectarian affiliates, etc.

In other words, there are a bunch of workable options, I'd argue much preferable ones, to deconfessionalization. Remember, as you said, deconfessionalizing the system doesn't deconfessionalize the voter. It just eliminates the mechanism of power sharing and representation without any guarantees or proper alternatives. In teh long run, these proposals will help build a culture that would challenge the bad aspects of sectarian politics. It's de facto deconfessionalization of politics through inter-sectarian alliances without abolishing the system and what it means psychologically, and constitutionally (the question of al-'aysh al-mushtarak, convivencia, and power sharing, tolerance, and that no one group dominates the rest).

All these things develop through an active political life, which will hopefully continue to grow with the Syrians gone (and hopefully with HA disarmed).

Remember, these kinds of "pluralist" democracies do exist elsewhere. We have nothing to be ashamed of (the "racism" stuff always makes me laugh). This is not to say that we can't improve and apply self-criticism. That's precisely what we're doing. Only we need to be careful, reasonable, and pragmatic. There is no timetable for these things. This is a matter of practice. A socio-political culture. When it's time, we'll know. These kinds of debates are the beginning.

Anton Efendi said...

By the way, and this is a propos the earlier post on Hizbullah and my comments there, Hazem Saghieh and I are very much on the same page in some of the issues we both raise.

Viva Palestine said...

Lebanese people:
U'd better keep some contacts with Syria, cuz when your so-called country burns; you'll have only an exit to Syria to escape your hand-made ethnic cleansing.
History will repeat itself. History will win.
I didn't want to go into what you called "hate mail", this is not hate, believe me. Your aggressiveness against Syria is unbelievable, and against us, Palestinians as well. You should have mentioned the "hate answers" as well.
Be realistic and admit it: The Assad family has saved your ass once from ethnic cleansing – you’d better keep them as friends.
History will win.
Viva Palestine

Raja said...

Viva Palestine. Here's some advice:

1. Create a blog.
2. Start a discussion amongst your fellow Palestinians
3. Try to answer the following questions: a) why has the Palestinian political elite lead its people to calamity after calamity since the early 1920s? b) what can the best and brightest of Palestine do now so that "history doesn't win" in your case?
4. Try not to blame Israel, the Arabs, the Lebanese, the United States or Mozambique. I'm sure there's enough blame to go around, but self-criticism is one of the most rewarding exercizes known to man.

Maybe... just maybe... once you start this discussion amongst Palestinians who browse the net, you might make a small contribution to realizing the Dream of an independent Palestinian state.

Viva Lebanon! and Good luck to Palestine and the Palestinians. You all need it.

Anonymous said...

And I wonder who'll save YOUR ass when Hamas and Fateh blow up in an all out civil war? Maybe you should start kissing up to the Israelis from now.

Husam T. said...

"And I wonder who'll save YOUR ass when Hamas and Fateh blow up in an all out civil war? "

Israel... Cause from what I understood from his previous comments the guy's an Arab Israeli.

Anton Efendi said...

أخطر أنواع التعددية السياسية هو جمع (احاديات) مغلقة كاملة الأوصاف. وأسوأ أشكال الديمقراطية التوافقية هو (التوافق) على ما يفرضه طرف قوي. وليس ما نمارسه سوى الأخطر والأسوأ في مرحلة دقيقة جداً.

رفيق خوري


Anton Efendi said...

Another related quote. From Naseer Asaad's piece today:

إن "حزب الله" محقّ في اعتبار أن الحكومة المتشكّلة بعد الانتخابات، هي شراكة، وأن للشراكة أصولاً مِن النقاش والحوار وصولاً الى إنتاج القرار. بيدَ أن الشراكة ـ الوطنية ـ لا يمكن أن تتحوّل على "الطالع والنازل" الى تهديد بـ"الفيتو" الذي يحجز في هذه الحالة القرار. والواقع هنا أنه إذا جرى افتراض انّ من حقّ طرفَي التمثيل السياسي الشيعي أن يستخدما حقّ "النقض" باسم الوفاق، فإن هذا سيعطي كل قوى التمثيل الطائفي حقّ النقض أيضاً، وهذا ما سيسري على أمور عدّة تخصّ الحزب والحركة والمقاومة. ومن المصلحة تالياً ألاّ تعطى المواقف صبغةً مذهبيّة. كذلك، فإن هذا سيعني ليس تحويل مجلس الوزراء الى فدرالية تمثيل طائفي، فدرالية صافية، بل سيعني أن تقرر قوى التمثيل الطائفي ما يحجز القرار العام أو تنفيذ ما تريد.

Anton Efendi said...

This is related to how HA conceives of government in Lebanon, and they're on the record saying it. You have one party in government, with their agenda, and the opposition sits and watches. They have carried that same view into a consensual cabinet!!!