The invisible occupation of Lebanon

By Ghassan Rubeiz

Syrian’s withdrawal from Lebanon has increased freedom there, but Lebanon still faces internal threats: self-serving political leaders, a strange power-sharing formula that divides up power among religious sects, and a scary national debt.

Sectarian politics is the most fundamental structural problem in Lebanon.  Political representation and government positions are apportioned to 17 sects, in three religious communities: Christian, Muslim and Druze. The exuberant energy and phenomenal organization of popular demonstrations after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Harari brought people across the religious divides to the street to demand Syrian withdrawal and democratic reforms.

Three months after the demonstrations, this energy may be starting to dissipate in the face of the challenges of nation building — including national elections.

Voting for a new parliament starts May 29. The parliament will elect a new president who is expected (according to the Taif Accord, a legal document that ended the civil war) to be a Maronite Christian. The President will assign a prime minister from the Sunni community. The parliament will elect a Shiite speaker of the house.

The Taif Accord was written in an ambiguous style making it difficult to create a working democracy. Taif assigns political representation to sects according to Lebanon’s demography. Demography changes rapidly, and as a result, the representatives become more preoccupied with numbers than with problem solving.

Regrettably, the traditional leaders who led Lebanon into its current quandary are back in command of politics, organizing lists of candidacy for the new parliament. Ideology is secondary to money and social status in the contest for political power. Among the Sunnis, the Harari family is enlisting candidates from the various sects and forming hard-to-beat electoral lists for the election. Rafik Harari’s son and his sister have emerged as powerful national politicians.

Hezbollah leads the Shiites, which are an estimated 35 percent of the Lebanese population. The group is likely to score well in the elections, given its significant demographic representation and its popularity as a “resistance” force. Walid Jumblat, a master of rhetoric and theatrical politics, leads the Druze minority community in the electoral campaign.

General Michael Aoun is the most popular politician in the Christian community, which has shrunk demographically over the last few decades. Aoun’s popularity is not easy to explain. He has a large following among the educated youth, who dream of radical change. He is a former army commander, secular and non-sectarian. He recently returned to Lebanon after a period of exile in France.

Aoun’s popularity, however, makes him a threat to many traditional politicians within the Christian establishment. And his bloody factional fighting in the civil war and his sudden emergence on the scene, as a strong presidential figure, scare many people who worry that he made had made too many questionable deals for support, such as from groups like Hizbullah.

Political observers do not expect much from the new parliament. Christians complain bitterly about the current election law. They claim that the law is structured to disqualify the best representatives.

They argue that leading Muslim candidates are likely to carry too many co-opted Christian candidates on their lists, thus depriving Christians of an independent voice. The Shiites, for their part, complain (covertly) that their share of 20 percent of the parliamentary quota is not fair, given that every third Lebanese is a Shiite.

The Lebanese abroad, who are as a whole, rich, educated and influential, are not allowed to vote in the Lebanese elections. The majority of the Lebanese diaspora is Christian.

The international diaspora is vital to Lebanon’s future. There are as many Lebanese outside the country as there are in it, if you consider the last number of Lebanese who have emigrated over the past three or four generations. Expatriate Lebanese are hesitant to invest heavily in their country as long as its future is in great doubt.

The Lebanese reform movement of the winter and early spring has weakened. There has been a rapid softening of political demands of nation building: elimination of militias, control on the escalating national debt, dealing with corruption and communal reconciliation. The approaching elections are fueling sectarian tension rather than serving as an opportunity for the empowerment of the state.

There are no easy ways to deal with sectarian power sharing since religious and family loyalty rival interests of the state in Lebanon and the entire Middle East. But there are ways to make representation of the various religious communities fair and communal rather than a zero-sum destructive game.

Creating a rotating formula for a ‘cabinet of presidents’ (a smaller group that would take turns as president) representing the major religious communities may reduce sectarian rivalry. Allowing the diaspora to vote would reduce demographic tension within Lebanon itself.

A gradual formula of secularization of the country through popular education, civil marriage, and party-based representation are some long-term measures that the Lebanese should discuss to free their country from structural and attitudinal barriers to nation building. Finally, Lebanese politicians would do well to listen to the voices of the youth, who are determined to change the nature of current tribal politics.