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Overcoming Sectarianism in Lebanon: Recommendations for a Stronger State
Neil Hilton PSPA 256 Professor Hassan Krayem June 4, 2009 Overcoming Sectarianism in Lebanon: Recommendations for a Stronger State
Much has been said about the need for a stable, secular Lebanese state. In a country plagued by conflict since its inception, much of it driven by sectarian divisions, eliminating governance based on religious compositions and quotas is a very logical goal. Unfortunately, a myriad of obstacles oppose real and lasting secularism in this country. With that in mind, any reform must be incremental and exceptionally well-implemented. This paper seeks to provide some recommendations for potential changes that could be undertaken through constitutional amendments and policy changes to be taken on by the government. To do so, it will first examine the historical precedent set between the French Mandate period and the Taif Agreement of 1990. Special attention shall be given to the Civil War and the implications of Taif, as they especially embody Lebanon’s sectarian nature and the fallout from both must be overcome in order to secularize the nation. It is important to note that full or speedy implementation of all the subsequent suggestions is highly unlikely—rather, they represent potential ideals for a future Lebanon that could perhaps be gradually changed, and how the country would benefit from a more secular composition. To understand the deep-seated roots of sectarianism in the Lebanese national consciousness, a good starting point is the beginning of the French Mandate in 1920. Greater Lebanon was created as a state specifically with the interests of the Maronite Christian community in mind. Though this group represented a very small minority in Greater Syria, the borders of the new, smaller mandate were intentionally drawn to include their stronghold of Mount Lebanon as well as the economic center and port of Beirut and the breadbasket of the Beqaa Valley, and still leave the Christians with a demographic 2
majority. This decision was influenced by crippling famines that occurred in the late 19th century and during World War I, leading to the conclusion that the Maronite community depended on agriculture from the Beqaa and surrounding areas. The League of Nations simultaneously annexed Shia, Sunni, and Greek Orthodox communities into the mandate, regardless of the majority’s desire for unity with Syria. The Muslim groups especially were under the impression that they would be autonomous, mostly because of the Hussein-McMahon correspondence in 1915 and 1916 that promised independence for Arab lands, including the Levant. However, the Sykes-Picot agreement between the French and British over how to divide the territory into “zones of influence” abrogated Sharif Hussein’s contract with Henry McMahon. Instead, they found themselves locked into minority status in a mandate where the French High Commissioner held ultimate power. At the same time, the indirect governance of France led to a reinforcement of the clientalist zuama system already in place. Under this arrangement, community leaders emerged as patrons for the populace in their locality. These traditional, feudal rulers provided local, individual services on a personal level in exchange for the allegiance and loyalty of the masses. Often, the tight-knit communities that centered on an individual zaim were based on confession, or of clans that all adhered to the same religious doctrine (Hottinger 85).. This family-based dynamic weakened the civil society of the fledgling nation, as no real relationship developed between the citizens and the central government. Because selfdetermination was essentially nonexistent, all political activities had a confessional overtone. The constitution written in 1926 did little to alleviate the situation, and instead included Michel Chiha’s prescription for instituting a confessional system. This state of affairs continued until Lebanese independence was granted in during World War II— at which point it only got worse. The National Pact of 1943 was a form of reconciliation between the Christian and Muslim communities that increased the country’s stability but further institutionalized confessionalism. Though they improved the status of Muslims, it is generally believed that the terms of the agreement gave the Maronites an upper hand, as they succeeded in forbidding the Muslims (who now likely constituted a majority of the population) from any designs of Syrian unity. The National Pact didn’t 3
explicitly mention the issue of representation, but led to the implementation of the “formula,” which cemented Christian dominance by continuing the traditions started by Article 95 of the constitution. They were given six members of parliament for every five Muslims, as well as preferable government positions. Executive power was handed to the Maronite community in the form of a guarantee of holding the presidency, as well as positions such as Intelligence Chief, Central Bank Chief, and Commander in Chief. The formula also guaranteed government representation of confessional minorities, further splitting the population into competing religious groups. The first breath of secularism came nine years later, in the White Revolution of 1952. This was a general strike protesting the first post-independence president, Bechara al-Khoury, as he attempted to manipulate his term limit. The public outcry was very popular, uniting people of all confessions against his blatant corruption as well as economic ineptitude in the wake of the 1948 creation of Israel and subsequent Palestinian exodus. Pressure came particularly from Camille Chamoun’s Socialist and National Front, a relatively small organization compared to Khoury’s Constitutional Bloc and Emile Eddé’s competing National Bloc. Chamoun and his allies, including Kamal Jumblatt, were able to overcome the sectarian differences within parliament to compel Khoury to resign, and Chamoun was elected almost unanimously to fulfill the presidency (Tuéni). This episode represents a short-lived popular call for unity, not based on any particular sect. Unfortunately, it did not last long, as Chamoun fell into the same trap as his predecessor. Lebanon’s next flashpoint, the civil strife of 1958, was also largely secular in nature. Chamoun was initially very popular, but had his own problems with corruption. He violated the National Pact, which guaranteed an Arab nature for Lebanon, by failing to even verbally support Nasser during the Suez Crisis of 1956 (and in fact said that he would have preferred that the US not intervene on the behalf of the Arabs for another few weeks). The economy remained imbalanced, and there was general dissatisfaction with the government. After an anti-Chamoun (but still Maronite) journalist was assassinated and heavy suspicion was placed on the government, there was again popular outcry against the president. The revolt “brought together groups that had never before joined in common action: Sunnis, Druses, Shi’as, and 4
Christians” (Petran 50). The ’58 Crisis, a mini-civil war, erupted. During the conflict, a new player rose to prominence—General Fouad Shehab. Shehab attempted to keep the army out of the factional conflict as much as possible, only intervening where most necessary and often on in support of one side and then the other. At this point, Chamoun pushed a more sectarian coloring onto the conflict, seeking to incite the Maronite community with threats that their Christian independence was at stake. Finally, Shehab intervened to halt the fighting entirely when it got too intense, and the United States Marine Corps sent troops to further defuse the situation. In the aftermath of the war, the level-headed general was seen as acceptable to all parties and was popularly elected. This was the first real chance at secularism for Lebanon. Shehab’s school of thought was characterized by change from the inside, which for the most part left a very positive and more egalitarian legacy. He was committed to building institutions, reforming the political system, and bettering education within Lebanon, which he did to benefit all religious communities. Indeed, after a French mission concluded that the poor Muslims in the country were most at need, he increased his efforts to lessen the social inequalities that had been building for generations. An example of this policy was that Shehab greatly increased the size of the governmental bureaucracy, which was traditionally small and dominated by Christians, in order to provide equal employment for both groups. While surely this was a welcome change for the Muslim community, it should be noted that this policy institutionalized sectarianism by making the status quo system more agreeable to all parties, but not changing its fundamental nature. Still, Shehab hated the feudal power structure of zuama alliances, and envisioned a Lebanon that could mature beyond the traditional, backwards system (Petran 51). Unfortunately, his principles hamstrung his efforts to change the country on a more permanent basis— Shehab refused to allow the constitution to be amended to give him a second term, despite widespread pressure for him to remain in office. Instead, he supported Charles Helou in his 1964 bid for election, which succeeded. Later, Shehab expressed displeasure at Helou’s performance as president, refused again to run for reelection in 1970, and stated that the Lebanese people were not ready to put aside their feudal structure in favor of a better system. Though the former president supported another Shehabist, Elias 5
Sarkis, in that presidential election, Sarkis narrowly lost to a Suleiman Frangieh. Though Frangieh’s supporters were not united communally, they all supported the maintenance of the zuama system— essentially, they elected him because they feared that Shehabist policies would take away their nepotistic guarantees of clan-based power over the masses. The victory assured the maintenance of this shortsighted system, and directly contributed to the Civil War that would break out five years later. A brief review of sectarianism and secularism during the Civil War should be offered to help put the current situation in perspective. The first phase of the war, from April 1975 to June 1976, was mostly secular in nature, consisting of the battle between the Lebanese National Movement (LNM) and the Lebanese Front (LF). These two blocs were organized more towards political viewpoints than religious differences—one side supported the Palestinians, an Arab identity for Lebanon, and widespread political and social reforms, and the other side opposed each of these things. Arab Nationalists, communists, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, communists, Druze chieftain Kamal Jumblatt, and various pro-Palestinian groups made up the LNM, squaring off against the LF coalition consisting of the Lebanese army, the Kataeb party, and the Maronite League. The LNM had the upper hand in the beginning, but stalled out especially after the Syrian military intervened in 1976 and Jumblatt was assassinated the following year. After this turning point, the movement became more Islamic in nature, seeking a reformed confessional system that accurately represented the demographics of Lebanon (which would favor them). When Israel invaded in June of 1982, it vastly strengthened the Lebanese Front, and fighting continued. Syrian and Israeli policies regulated the country until the United States entered the fray as well in August. With so many outside parties sending troops to Beirut, it is no wonder that many analysts classify this phase of the war as one dominated by foreign intervention (Krayem). In 1983, Israel withdrew to the southern buffer zone, leaving a power vacuum in Beirut, Mount Lebanon, and the Chouf. Meanwhile, American troops and diplomatic personnel found themselves victims of a series of devastating suicide bombings in 1983-84, and President Reagan ordered them to withdraw. With the IDF and US Marines no longer acting as barriers between neighborhoods and towns of different religious leanings, the Lebanese militias began killing each other in greater numbers. The 6
final phase of the war is thus most distinguished by sectarian fighting within the Lebanese population. The War of the Camps in 1985-86 between Shia Amal fighters and Sunni Palestinian militants was particularly devastating, with thousands dying in bloody urban battles. Then, after Prime Minister Rashid Karami was assassinated in 1987, outgoing President Amin Gemayel sought to replace him with General Michel Aoun—another Maronite Christian. This blatant violation of the National Pact further enraged the Muslim community, who supported the Sunni Selim al-Hoss as a civilian alternative in West Beirut to Aoun’s military government in East Beirut. Both claimed exclusive legitimacy, and no consensus was reached over who was really in charge. Fighting between the two intensified. Aoun started a “War of Liberation” in 1989 against the continued Syrian occupation. His effort failed when Syrian troop numbers increased by about 10,000 in response. The next year, Aoun’s army came into conflict with the Lebanese Forces, now led by Samir Geagea. Simultaneously, Amal and Hezbollah were fighting in the South and southern suburbs of Beirut. This was sectarian warfare at its worst—Marionites vs. Marionites, Shias vs. Shias, and Muslims vs. Christians. As the conflict reached its bloody crescendo, the general public called for moderation and an end to the violence. Though efforts had failed so far to resolve the competing interests of the various concerned parties, salvation of sorts finally arrived in 1989 when the surviving Lebanese deputies that were elected in 1972 met in Taif, Saudi Arabia, to discuss reconciliation. By this time, between 150 and 200,000 people had lost their lives. The Document of National Accord, or Taif Agreement, was a package deal of various declarations and documents proposed over the course of the Civil War, the majority of which became constitutional amendments in 1990. It reflected both the National Movement’s and Lebanese Army’s desires for reforms and sovereignty. The document was comprehensive in that it offered solutions to a myriad of problems, some of which were successfully resolved—adding a degree of unity, disarming militias, and limiting the power of the president as executive are excellent examples. Unfortunately, Taif further institutionalized other problems and made it much more difficult to change the basis of the system—in essence, the writers of Taif treated the symptoms, but not the cause, of Lebanon’s instability. It sent very mixed messages on some issues. For example, it reformed political sectarianism by guaranteeing parity in Christian and 7
Muslim representation, rather than the previous 6:5 ratio, and balanced out the powers of the chief “troika” seats—president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament—to provide more sectarian equity. This essentially made the confessionalist system more acceptable to the population and thus more sustainable, without resolving any underlying problems (Krayem). At the same time, however, Article 1.2.7 makes a commitment of overcoming confessionalism, calling for the creation of a “council” to be created that would “examine and propose the means capable of abolishing sectarianism” (Middle East Information Network). The document’s language here is clearly not strong enough, as little to no progress has been made since Taif towards that end.
Clearly, Lebanon’s history of sectarianism is far-reaching, and its efforts at secularism in the past have never been maintained for long. The historical precedent set for the old way of business will be incredibly different to overcome, but it is a necessary goal. Sectarianism does nothing for Lebanon but create more conflict, and more sustainable solutions are needed. To alleviate the sectarianism that has plagued Lebanon since its inception, a wide range of reforms are necessary. Unfortunately, that is easier said than done—as most go against the interests of those in power, recommendations for change are inherently unlikely to occur. The following reform proposals are intended as ideal goals, with potential for gradual and/or partial implementation. It would be naïve and unrealistic to expect radical, overnight change from a country that has been incapable of overcoming sectarianism for almost a century already. However, sustained calls for such reform and policy adjustments are vital if such changes are ever going to come about. There are several obstacles to reforming the system, which will be addressed after the recommendations themselves. The largest and most obvious change that can be made is removing the egalitarian confessional quota for Christian and Muslim members of parliament, and the sectarian quota within that division of seats. This is vital for several reasons, including justice in representation as well as reducing sectarian tensions over time. It is very obvious that due to disparate birth and emigration rates, the Muslim population today is far higher than the Christian one. The CIA World Factbook estimated in December 8
2008 that Muslims now account for at least 59.7% of the population of Lebanon, and Christians only 39% (United States), and other estimates claim that the gap is even wider, up to 70-30%. With at most 65% of the Muslim population, Christians can no longer legitimately claim that 1:1 representation accurately reflects the character of the Lebanese people. Additionally, it is highly probable that the Shia population now outnumbers the Sunni population, meaning that the inter-sect demographics are no longer accurately represented in the present system. With that in mind, it is imperative that a simple one person, one vote system be implemented if the country ever hopes to overcome sectarianism. Clearly, this would come at the disadvantage of the Christian minority, and could potentially cause strife as their standing is reduced. However, as the population gap continues to widen, it is important to note that the sooner change is implemented the better. The longer that supposedly temporary Taif-based amendments define the nature of the government, the harder reform will be in the end. Any who fear conflict born of change would do well to keep in mind that change is inevitable, and that by postponing it they are only ensuring that the conflict will be larger as well. Indeed, it seems likely that conflict created by reforms to the system would balance out and eventually create more stability over time. Guaranteed seats for Christian and Muslim members of parliament guarantee that the two communities are set up in opposition to each other, and any problem in the country can be blamed on the opposite group. By reducing the role of religion in politics, statesmen will have to distinguish themselves based on their individual merit. They will have to moderate in order to appeal to a wider audience and garner more votes. This will reduce competition between the confessional communities, and simultaneously lead to a better class of leader. A great deal of cynicism exists amongst the populace regarding elected officials—they are seen as embarrassingly corrupt, nepotistic, shortsighted, and unconcerned with the needs of their constituents. One reason they can get away with representing the populace so poorly is that they are also remarkably adept at diverting blame onto their political enemies, with such alliances frequently (though certainly not always) drawn on sectarian lines. Without this excuse, parliamentarians will ideally be held more accountable for their actions in office. 9
Another benefit of the elimination of confessional quotas would be that Lebanon could finally, after over 75 years, hold a national census. Preferably, censuses would be undertaken regularly, perhaps on a decennial schedule. An updated national roster is necessary to adequately reflect the character of the country—holding onto far outdated information is an attempt by the political elite to maintain traditional power roles favorable to themselves, without fairly representing their constituents. With regular censuses at last being held, the government can better determine just tax burdens and distribution of resources across the country. This would help to lessen the great disparity of wealth that exists (eliminating another cause of conflict amongst the Lebanese people), and ease the lives of poverty-stricken citizens in poor Beirut suburbs or rural areas. This recommendation is, of course, fairly extreme. One concern is that a full elimination of quotas could hurt minorities a disproportionate amount. For that reason, perhaps maintaining a small number of dedicated seats based on sect is necessary. It is an often-quoted fact that 30 individuals can proportionately represent every confessional group present in the country, including the smallest of the minorities. This number would undoubtedly change with the first census held. However, once the new proportional ratio is determined and thus a new minimum number of individual representatives is established, this figure could be incorporated into the new system. To ensure that every community at the very least gets a voice, if not any real decision-making power, conceivably there could be that many out of the 128 seats in parliament set aside to guarantee a place for Alawites and Assyrians and the rest. An additional electoral law reform that should be implemented is the creation of a quota for female representation on voting lists. This has been suggested many times, most notably by the 2006 National Commission’s recommendations (often referred to as the Fouad Boutros law), but is yet to be put into practice despite claimed support from all major political parties and movements. The arguments in favor of it are quite clear—forcing parties to field female MP candidates will gradually lead to a social change and increase their standing and representation even without a quota in place in the future. This is much needed, as out of the 587 candidates running for office in the June 2009 election, only 12 are women. It is unlikely that many will be elected. Those who likely will fare well are blood or marriage 10
relations to the major political families—Bahia Hariri and Strida Geagea among them. A quota, however, would mandate that a significant percentage (Boutros suggested 30%) of all candidates put forward by each party be female, which would logically lead to more being elected from more diverse backgrounds. An additional benefit of this reform would be that it would discourage clan-based ruling, which is inherently sectarian. Lebanon’s female population is exceptionally well-educated in comparison to those of other Arab states, and opening up the field for more women would encourage qualified candidates to run against the often widows, sisters, and daughters of deceased male politicians who win on merit of their last names. Regarding how egalitarian this quota-based requirement would be, the executive director of the Lebanese Collective for Research and Training on Development Action succinctly stated in May that she was “pro-quota because unless you shake the system, it can’t be changed. It may not be democratic, but nothing else in the system is” (Ali). Civil law as well needs to be updated. With issues like marriage and inheritance, which are generally left up to the religious preferences and beliefs one of the 18 sects represented, a stronger separation needs to be drawn between secular and communal law. This partition would be another way to strengthen the government, simultaneously freeing it from a few more sectarian obligations. For example, a couple can still get married according to their native Maronite, Shia, Druze, or whatever other custom, but their civil marriage certificate issued by the government is what should be recognized for legal purposes. This could also help young people branch out away from old family traditions, which would also contribute to secularism by deemphasizing the role of clans in the lives of younger generations. Other recommendations aren’t constitution or law-based reforms as much as policy changes that could and should be undertaken by the government to overcome sectarianism. For example, the Lebanese Armed Forces are woefully outmatched by Hezbollah’s military strength, which greatly reduces the authority of the central government. A resistance organization’s ability to take over the capital city of a nation in a few days, as it did in May 2008, greatly damages the credibility of a united Lebanon, and instead encourages a return to the clientalist thinking of an older age. In light of this, the government would do well to strengthen its defense capabilities against domestic unrest, against which it seems far 11
more likely to need to combat than Israel. Article 2.3.3 of the Taif Agreement explicitly calls for strengthening the armed forces to defend the country from Israel, but today this should not be a priority. As much as Lebanese authorities use rhetoric against the Israeli state to maintain their own legitimacy, this is not where the real threat to stability lies. There has never been a declaration of war between the two governments, and there is no reason to believe that one is imminent. Instead, more focus should be put on reigning in non-state power as much as possible. Of course, it is important to not abrogate agreements on Hezbollah’s status as a resistance organization (as opposed to “militia”), or to push too hard and risk retaliation. Rather, the government should reinstate itself as a central authority with a monopoly of the legitimate use of violence within its borders, as per Max Weber’s widely-accepted definition of statehood, by refocusing its defense strategy and integrating with other Lebanese forces as much as possible. This is also another way that the government can further reduce the influence held by zuama. It can provide itself as an alternative to security that is based around communal groupings that may or may not go on to become wider militias or resistance movements with conflicting ideologies. The state, as a centralized, secular, and strong mediator, can resolve conflict and defend order. But is it that simple? Many arguments exist against any sort of reform. The first is likely the most difficult to overcome—the simple weight of historical precedent and inertia in the system. Those in power benefit from the status quo, and can simply oppose change, which is much easier to do than championing it. However, the status quo has created a weak, inept government that cannot effectively provide for the welfare of security of its people. As much as it may go against the personal self interests of leaders to limit their own power, or to upset the delicate balance now rather than putting it off until someone else is in charge, change is needed to overcome the challenges that Lebanon faces. Business as usual isn’t working well for the country, and anyone advocating for reform must strongly emphasize the fact that the country should adapt and evolve, rather than stagnating with failed policies. The next obstacle is the prevalence of militias and non-state organizations that influence Lebanese decision-making because they hold so much influence. The majority of these exist for a very simple reason—they fulfill the needs that the government fails to. In essence, if the government can act as 12
a social mechanism that provides for its legal constituents, the people will no longer need Hezbollah or the Jumblatt clan for their water or medical supplies. In other words, the state should fulfill its obligations to its constituents, eliminating the need for the non-state actors to step in for it. If those organizations are no longer needed, they will lose influence and the government can further reassert itself as the sole authority. This is a beneficial cycle for Lebanese authority, as it consequently will increase the positive role of a secular state in the daily lives of the populace. Of course, one must also address Lebanon’s unique status as a proxy for seemingly every interested party in Middle Eastern politics. Outside pressures from Iran and Syria, as well as from the United States, Europe, and Saudi Arabia strongly influence what occurs within the borders of a supposedly sovereign state. Those who interfere on the side of the opposition benefit from Islamist thinking and prey on the weakness of the government. They would, of course, oppose any sort of change to the amount of power that they currently hold. However, Syria has significantly less influence in Lebanon today than it did half a decade ago, and Iran seems to be in the midst of its own slow-motion cultural revolution. Now is the time for Lebanon to assert itself as a legitimate, stable, viable nation, regardless of the wishes of those that attempt to destabilize it or manipulate it against the West. Whatever strings the anti-Western forces pull to influence Lebanon, it must resist their agenda. At the same time, the country has to keep a balance and not allow its sovereignty to be threatened by Western interests. A stronger government will make it less dependent on American and European aid. As it reigns in Hezbollah and other militant organizations, the government will be rewarded for its internal actions and reforms that are in its own best interests, rather than given handouts with strings of cooperation attached. A final consideration that must be taken into account is the influence of the Palestinian community. As their population continues to grow, it seems that the refugee community is becoming more of a wild card that could greatly affect the country. However, almost any change to status quo is in their favor, including a de-secularization of the government. As Muslim representation in the government grows as a result of simple one person, one vote elections, more attention will be given to easing the plight of the largely Sunni refugee population. Also, as the government becomes more capable as a 13
military authority, perhaps security restrictions on Palestinians can be reduced slightly to allow them more freedoms. The reforms recommended here will certainly not solve all of their problems, but they pave the way for new reforms that will eventually benefit them. Changing the Lebanese system will be difficult. By examining the long historical precedent for confessional relations in the country, it is very clear that a more secular state will not come easily. Many obstacles exist, first amongst them the leadership itself. However, if the country ever hopes to overcome sectarianism, it must start enacting sweeping reforms sooner rather than later. It is not serving its own interests by further institutionalizing a system that has led to so much conflict in the past, and would do well to work towards a future built on secular governance. Many articles in the Taif Agreement were absolutely correct, though not properly implemented—“Abolishing political sectarianism is a fundamental national objective” first amongst them. Hopefully, 20 years after the agreement, goals like overcoming sectarianism can finally be realized.
Works Cited Ali, Maysam. "Where are our women MPs?," NOW Lebanon 11 May 2009. 25 May 2009. <http://www.nowlebanon.com/NewsArticleDetails.aspx?ID=92875>. Hottinger, Arnold. "Zu’ama’ in Historical Perspective." Politics in Lebanon. Ed. Leonard Binder. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1966. Krayem, Hassan. "The Lebanese Civil War and the Taif Agreement." American University of Beirut. 3 Jun 2009 <http://ddc.aub.edu.lb/projects/pspa/conflict-resolution.html>. Petran, Tabitha. The Struggle Over Lebanon. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987. "The Taif Agreement." The Document Room. The Middle East Information Network. 3 Jun 2009. <http://www.mideastinfo.com/documents/taif.htm> Tuéni, Ghassan. "Democracy in Lebanon: Anatomy of a Crisis." 24 May 2009 <http://www.lcpslebanon.org/pub/breview/br6/tuenibr6.html>. United States. CIA. The World Factbook--Lebanon. 2008. <https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/theworld-factbook/geos/le.html>.
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