Talisman Gate

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Democracy for Lebanon

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

June 22, 2005 Wednesday


LENGTH: 1789 words

HEADLINE: Democracy for Lebanon

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


'Lebanon has plenty of freedom, but very little democracy," the adage goes, suggesting that no one should mistake the holding of parliamentary elections in that country as a democratic exercise. But still, there are hopes for better, democratic days to come.

And here's why: Two seismic developments occurred in the last two staggered phases of the Lebanese elections during late May and early this month that will eventually set that battered country up for a real functioning democracy. The first occurred when a maverick ex-general by the name of Michel Aoun unexpectedly took over the leadership of the Maronite Christian minority by trouncing his political contenders in the Maronite bible bubble of Kisrawan, and putting up a good fight elsewhere in mixed Christian-Muslim constituencies. The other happened when the traditional and powerful feudalists lost in the north of the country. Both are indicators that the Lebanese people are ready to change the old established political routine.

In Lebanon, the individual is beholden to the luggage of sectarian identity and history. Individual ambitions have no room for expression beyond the stringent and narrow categories of what god one prays to, and who's your grandfather. Even the grand equalizer of striking it big in the realm of finance translates into communal leadership rather than national leadership. This system was set in place by traditional power elites that milked the country - and its entrepreneurial spirit - for all it had. However, as long as you don't question the setup, you are free to do as you please.

The French colonial administration that drew up Lebanon as an enlargement of the Maronite enclave, and gave the Maronites the reins of power, created a very curious mistake. Those borders also included Sunnis, Shias, Greek and Catholic Orthodox Christians, Druze, and a smattering of other minorities. Lebanon became the incubator of a Middle Eastern contradiction: how to reconcile several thousand years of history and a multitude of identities that constitute the larger picture of the Middle East with modern, homogenizing ideologies. Not one single Middle Eastern country (all drawn up in one way or another by 20th-century colonial powers) can claim to have a homogenous ethnic or religious make-up. In such a country, and in such a region, can all the intricacies of history be dismissed in the face of a dominant, uniform Arab Islamic identity?

Lebanon paid a price tag of 150,000 dead in its 15-year civil war to come up with an answer: No. The tension leading up to the civil war, and still pervading the political atmosphere to this day, was how to reconcile on-the-ground diversity in the face of the pan-Arab nationalism sweeping the Middle East in the 20th century. In the wake of nationalism's decline, a new all encompassing ideology has emerged in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, increasingly led by Al Qaeda-type Salafi-Wahhabists and a sympathetic and well-funded religious establishment in Saudi Arabia. But would such an ideology succeed where nationalism failed, and where would that leave a country with the heterodox makeup of Lebanon?

Just north of the heart of Beirut, which is traditionally the bastion of affluent Sunnis and Greek Orthodox, is the Armenian neighborhood of Bourj Hammoud that is populated by the descendants of victims of Turkey's first round of experimenting with nationalism in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire. Their forefathers and mothers had escaped the wrath engendered in response to Armenian nationalism that sought to create a homeland in eastern Anatolia during the First World War. They ended in slums then situated on the outskirts of Beirut's coastline. Today, in that neighborhood, there is a very curious sight: the local branch of the Arab Bank has its marquee up in Arabic, English, and Armenian.

A little farther north of Bourj Hammoud, the steep ridges of mountain ranges interrupt the coastline and abruptly descend into the sea at the Dog River. Over the millennia, many visitors to Lebanon have remarked on this geographical statement, and conquering armies, from the Babylonians through the Crusaders and down to the French, have left markers to show that they had passed through this point. Beyond it lies Kisrawan, where the visitor is immediately welcomed by a giant, arms-outstretched statue of Jesus Christ.

Southward along Beirut's coast, one runs into the Shia shantytowns teeming with those that escaped the fighting between the Israelis and the Palestinians three decades ago in their southernmost heartland of Jebel Amil, where Shi'ism had been holding on against many oppressive odds since the schism that divided the early Muslims into Sunni and Shia some 1,400 years ago. Keep going along the coast, and then take a sharp turn left up the Shouf Mountains, where the Druze, a secretive sect of Muslims that went beyond the accepted bounds of orthodoxy a thousand years ago, hide out among enchanted forests of pine and a few surviving cedars, the latter needing a couple of thousand years to reach maturity.

There has to be a different kind of ideology that makes sense of a country like Lebanon, and provides a workable model for the rest of the Middle East, and that can only be democracy. One indigenous Lebanese model, called the National Covenant of 1943, was a verbal agreement among the traditional leaders of the various communities to share power: the presidency for the Maronites, the premiership of the cabinet to the Sunnis, and the speaker's post of the parliament to the Shias. And what goes for the top posts devolves down the chain of bureaucratic hierarchy; even the 30 jobs at the fire department of Beirut International Airport are divided up along similar sectarian patterns. Should one need a job in government, and even if a remote village needed asphalt for a road leading to it, then the only place to go is to the respective leader of one's community, which suited the traditionalists just fine and cemented the power that they sought to inherit to their sons.

But this model is a farce and is continually challenged and reformulated when the demographic trends of the various populations change. There are fewer Maronites as a proportion of the population than there were 60 years ago, and more Shias. The Lebanese need to come up with something different or they will always be beholden to the legacy of strife and civil war, something that turns incredibly messy and bloody within its natural and historical patchwork of communities.

The journey toward democracy involves moving away from disparate sectarian identities into a unifying Lebanese one. The language for that is oddly encapsulated in the Ta'if Accords of 1989 that brought an end to the civil war. It calls for the annulment of sectarian politics and power-sharing and provides the first step: a new electoral law that allows the Lebanese to vote on nonsectarian lines for the parliament. The signatories of the Ta'if Accords were the ossified icons of the old way of doing business, the traditional leaders, and they conveniently kept this clause on ice. Now is the time to bring it forth and use it to cajole the Lebanese into taking their first steps toward both freedom and democracy.

President Bush could help by appointing a special presidential envoy for democracy in Lebanon. He should pick someone of Lebanese descent (there are an estimated 1.5 million Americans who fill this category) and untainted by the past "status quo" policy of dealing with the Middle East. General John Abizaid of Centcom would be the ideal candidate, or otherwise the yardstick. The task of this envoy would be to sit down with the new parliament and get them to pass laws that facilitate the emergence of a new Lebanese identity. For example, there are about 150,000 households in Lebanon of mixed marriages between sects. In order to get a marriage license, a mixed-marriage couple needs to go to Cyprus or Europe. They are prevented from doing so in their own country. Legalizing same-citizenship marriages should not be such a hurdle and would find a supportive constituency.

A new electoral law needs to be cobbled together that takes into mind the sensitivities of the traditionalists but charts the path forward. The Ta'if Accords suggest the formation of a House of Lords where all the sectarian chieftains can hold court and put on airs but not disrupt or corrupt the functions of government. New electoral districting can be drawn to map out enclaves of sectarian uniformity, thereby ensuring that those who get elected actually represent their sectarian communities, which is not the case under the current law. In order to get the ultra-insecure Maronites on board, the Lebanese Diaspora still holding on to Lebanese citizenship - overwhelmingly Christian - should be allowed to vote, and that costly logistical process could be underwritten by American financial aid. The Shias who are increasingly transforming themselves from a dispossessed and marginal sect into the comforts of the bourgeoisie, and who are closely watching the Shia-American alliance in Iraq, must be encouraged to give up their support for Hezbollah by allaying their fears of armed Palestinians, usually seen as the shock troops of the Sunnis. Saad Hariri, now leading the Sunnis, should be tasked with getting the U.N.-mandated disarmament of the Palestinian militias done as a prelude to disarming the Lebanese Hezbollah.

General Aoun has illusions and aspirations of being a national leader and can deliver the Maronites at this stage. In an effort to dismantle the sectarian edifice of government, he can be allied to the smattering of democrats who defeated the traditionalists in the north. This is a golden opportunity coming out of a creaking and unsustainable structure, and the beginning of a grassroots challenge to the arcane traditional idea of a "free yet undemocratic" Lebanon.

There is a lot more to be done, but only America can re-enter the Lebanese scene to push democracy forward. If democracy succeeds in Lebanon, then the rest of the Middle East has an answer as to what form of government and spirit of governance would suit their multidimensional and confusing region. Otherwise, Islamic fundamentalism becomes the only contender for a future vision. America would have to attempt to intervene on behalf of all the Lebanese, rather than following the model of the French, Saudi, Syrian, and Iranian interventions and getting involved on behalf of one Lebanese client community. If America can help make a success story of a thriving democracy out of a contradictory and wounded country, then the rest of the people of the Middle East will take notice as they grapple with similar questions.