Monday, May 01, 2006

Are the Hiwar sessions the beginnings of a Lebanese Senate?

A comment by an anonymous commenter on my last entry regarding the impotence of the Lebanese Parliament raised the very interesting prospect that the Hiwar sessions may be the impetus needed to finally create the Lebanese Senate. In her or his own words,

The Taif Agreement called for the creation of a Senate, and the de-confessionalisation of the chamber of deputies.

I think this hiwar would make an excellent Senate, if properly implemented. Not only will it give the religious communities some participation in politics, it will also eliminate the resistance to de-confessionalising the Parliament.

I agree with this assessment, but I do have some worries - especially considering the way the Hiwar sessions have played out.

A lot of Lebanese (some even on this blog) openly question the benefits of a Confessional Senate and a Deconfessional Chamber of Deputies because they argue that the Chamber will simply revert to a rubber-stamp body. The real politics, they argue, will play out in the Senate, and the Chamber's significance will be parallel to that of the AUB student government.

The Hiwar sessions have reinforced that fear. Not only have they completely overshadowed Parliament, but the sessions have replaced Parliament and its institutions altogether. Ask yourselves: when was the last time you heard of MP Mosbah el Ahdab? This despite his relatively prominent role in the March 14 movement. What about Samir Franjieh?

If their fate is what awaits a parliament that shares political space with the Lebanese Senate, then to hell with the Senate. We may as well live with one legislative body without the distraction created by another rubber stamp body.

On the other hand, the potential of a Senate simply cannot be ignored. The following are some words of advice that need to be taken to heart especially considering the way politics have played out over the past year.

"If implemented correctly," unanimity will not be the prerequisite to passing laws or voting for Presidents in the Senate. This ridiculous notion that we all have to come to agreement on certain "strategic," "life or death" issues is ridiculous!

Minorities can be protected by laws, not by manipulating, or altogether disposing of Democratic institutions. The Senate must work on a majority-minority basis, as opposed to unanimity, which merely leads to the grid-lock we have become all-to-familiar with today.

In fact, this notion that we need unanimity is one of the most significant successes of Hizballah over the past year.
...The majority can go ahead and excercise its rights, but it will have to deal with the consequences...

I wonder what they mean by "consequences!" This type of behavior cannot continue in Lebanon.

In fact, the dilemma of "who is Lebanese or what constitutes Lebanese interests" can be answered in a very simple fashion. A politician behaves in Lebanon's interests when she or he accepts the output of its political institutions. In other words, if you loose a political battle you fought (fair and square) under existing rules, you must accept defeat and move on. If you win, good for you.

No cause ought to be "holier" than the institutions because it is the institutions that manifest the idea of Lebanon in the realm of reality! Only then will a Senate work.


Doha said...

I do agree that a Senate, the likes of the national dialogue table, is bad news for the Parliament, because as the Parliament stands now, it is almost dysfunctional.

An Annahar editor, Edmond Saib, wrote a couple of days back about the political system followed in UAE. It's based on having a "Tribal Sheikh" acting as a broker between heads of groups, and usually problems are arrived at through dialogue and consensus.

What is missing in this national dialogue, was a "referee" of sorts, a judge-figure, to listen to the two sides and try to bring two divergent views closer. And Jumblatt did talk about this important missing ingredient on the eve of this national dialogue.

Of how much the Lebanese think that they can think for themselves, we must concede that we need a "referee". The question then is, who would be this impartial referee if he or she should be Lebanese, if being Lebanese is part of the criteria of selection? Who would that person be, if we are not to resort to "outsiders"?

Anonymous said...

Maybe I'm missing the more substantive part of this debate. But how is it that a deconfessionalized Parliament would end up playing second fiddle to a "traditional" (read, confessional) Senate! I thought that a Senate, not unlike the one in the US, would give equal representation and equal authority to all Lebanese ethno-religious communities, regardless of their numbers. The wheeling and dealing would take place in the "deconfessionalized" Parliament, where representation would reflect the country's internal political and social groupings and alliances based on proportionality etc... The Senate would then simply act as arbiter, where every single community, regardless of whether or not it's a majority or a minority, would have the same weight and political clout as every other community. Hence, the Jew, or the representative of the Jewish community (presumably the smallest community in Lebanon) in the Lebanese Senate would have the same influence and authority as the Chiite (presumably the largest community in Lebanon.)
Do I have this wrong??

Doha said...


No, you have the idea right. But check out the National Dialogue (if we are to assume that it's acting like a Senate): it has been deadlocked for long on pertinent political issues, and has de facto stolen the wind from the Parliament, where as you said, the real wheeling and dealing should occur.

We can have ideas straight or written on paper, but in Lebanon we should always watch out for how things play out on the ground.

Anonymous said...


this idea of referee has been bugging me lately, and I think that the answer is: a popularly elected president.

A popular election of the president has enormous advantages:
1. it empowers the people, who are the source of all power
2. it forbids future Syrias and Israels of subverting a democratic system
3. it gives the president the needed legitimacy to arbitrate among the sects
4. the president's legitimacy would reflect favorably on state institutions and strenghten them
5. it is the right step towards deconfessionalization. At first the president can still be a Christian. But as the institutions gain strengh, the confessional system becomes irrelevent.

Just my two (theoretical) cents...

Doha said...


I agree with you and I did in fact mention it on this blog several times that I believe the President should be an elected position. It just bothers me that a select few get to chose who the next President is, and not even the popularly-elected Parliament we see right now.

Anonymous said...

Raja, thanks for this timely and thought provoking post. I believe that the Berri sponsored "hiwar" has set a very dangerous precedent by stripping the elected parliament of its power and legitimacy. I think the majority should pull out of these talks immediately, and continue working within the framework of the constitution.


Mustapha said...

A senate is supposed to be acting against the marginalization of a certain community.

The biggest problem with our system will not go away with the creation of a senate: People with enough power to stall, but not enough power to govern.

Sarj, Doha
The reason why the president is elected from MPs and not directly is not arbitrary. Our "founding fathers" (a.k.a rijalat al istiqlal) learned something very important about the lebanese people: we are a volatile lot that can be carried away by populist, and even worse, confessional demagogy.
This is why we vote for the president "by proxy", because, arguably, MPs would be more level-headed and responsible than the people who elected them.

Even in the US, In the Iowa Democratic primaries, The grassroot would have voted for the fiery Howard Dean, but the Democratic establishment opted instead for a caucus, where a selection of senior and responsible people picked up John Kerry.