Two things should be considered here: firstly the historical context/pace of social and political change and secondly that the desperation of the political class is itself a reason for optimism. Advocates of the ‘Lebanon will never change’ theory need to look more closely at the fast pace of change in Western Europe, particularly from the 60s onwards. Much of that change was driven from the bottom up, through both active struggles and changing social attitudes. The Dutch example above will resonate with the Lebanese in light of the Orthodox electoral law and its demands of communal allegiance. But those demands can and will be challenged, much as what happened in Europe and elsewhere.
The second aspect, the desperation of the ruling confessional class, signals the existence of real opportunity for change. The Orthodox Law, the preposterous idea of making members of every sect vote for candidates from their sects only, is a real manifestation of this moment of loss of nerve among confessional leaders and their lack of inhibition about being explicitly sectarian. This applies both to the Christian parties like the FPM who campaigned for it, and their Muslim allies who went along with it in order to preserve their political alliances. (There’s no distinction between March 8 and 14 here, the Future Movement’s objections are circumstantial, if it stood to gain from the law it would have supported it.)
To understand this point, we need to reflect on the history of the confessional system in Lebanon. (Confessional is a better word for it than sectarian, ‘sectarian’ confuses between the system and the social manifestation of bigotry.) Historically, this was always masked with a certain politeness that repressed the sectarian character of its political discourse. That’s why the system operated according to unwritten rules that weren’t included in the constitution for the most part.
This reflected the self-confidence of confessional leaders in their ability to control their ‘street’, and refer to the workings of the system through metaphorical allusions. (An aspect that is also reflected in drama where all the characters used to have ‘neutral’ names, nobody was ever called Ali or Tony on television.)
The Orthodox Law is a precedent in that respect. Not only is the logic behind is clearly declared as restoring ‘proper Christian representation’, (i.e. Christians that are not voted into parliament by Muslim votes), but it also formalises hitherto informal arrangements that relied on more subtle forms of orchestration in the past; such as redrawing constituency boundaries to guarantee this ‘proper representation’. On paper, the Lebanese state could conceal the inner sectarian workings of the system in the past, as if it was signalling that it is aware of how inappropriate they were. The Orthodox Law now dispenses with that pretence.
This is nothing short of a sign of a major crisis within the confessional system. Changing demographics in Lebanon are part of the story, but there are wider reasons. For one, since 2005 the confessional arrangement has been experiencing a perpetual crisis that has completely paralysed state institutions. Hence the need for the National Dialogue, the council of elders that takes over from parliament when constitutional mechanism become paralysed. Not that it fares any better, but the need for a more explicit non-state confessional body highlights this sense of institutional paralysis.
Advocates of the confessional system argued that it allows Lebanon to avoid Arab-style dictatorships and protect its pluralism. Their argument may have had some credibility when the system worked, (and even then it was unjust and led to periodic explosions), but now that it has clearly become dysfunctional, delivering neither stability nor prosperity, that argument rings hollow.
The Orthodox Law is a desperate measure to salvage the wreckage of the confessional system. It represents two admission by the political class: firstly that they don’t have any more confidence of the malleability of the system in its current form to guarantee their share of power, and secondly that all the alliances they formed after 2005 are transient. This applies to the Aoun-Hezbollah pact as much as it does to the Hariri-Geagea alliance. For Aoun in particular, it represents the abandonment of the myth that he created about his aspiration to become a national not just a Maronite leader.
Where does this leave us? The confessional system won’t die of its own accord. It will continue to deteriorate, requiring more tinkering and compromises that further erode the state and place unreasonable demands on its institutions, and repeated violation of constitutional principles. But there is an opportunity.
This paralysis isn’t happening in a vacuum, it has serious adverse consequences on the administration of the country, the management of the economy, the provision of services and perhaps most seriously on the state’s ability to contain civil strife. The wide discontent all of this has created is bubbling under the surface, but is yet to be transformed into a coherent and organised movement for change.
For that, we need new political ideas. There’s too much dead weight carried by campaigning movements representing the legacy of obsolete political ideas. (Manifesting itself in the strong whiff of nostalgia in political slogans, demands and even the clichéd attire of the activist type.) Moreover, any new movement should aspire to replace the political class, not coexist alongside it. For example, civil marriage might soon become a reality, but it would be a victory by the backdoor, not through confrontation with the system.
Nevertheless, there are real social changes that have taken place over the past two decades and they will in time manifest themselves in a new political reality. The deference to religious institutions is beginning to wane, consider the recent reactions to Mufti Qabbani’s ill-considered fatwa, and there are on-going active struggles for equality, individual liberties and rights that represent the nucleus for change.
The process will be difficult and there are no guarantees that a new movement will succeed in challenging the confessional system. It will depend on mobilisation, grassroots action and new political ideas. The consolation is that the political class is running out of ideas. The next step down from the Orthodox Law is threatening people with excommunications and fatwas if they don’t behave as perfect Maronites, Sunnis, etc. But they are ultimately fighting a read-guard action against time. Let them enjoy their celebratory champagne, for now.
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