21 Feb 2013

The Orthodox Law: Is this the beginning of the end of the sectarian system?

“Not until 1967 did a Dutch bishop dare suggest in public that Dutch Catholics might vote for a non-Catholic party without risking excommunication.” Tony Judt, Postwar 

People who hope to establish a secular system in Lebanon need optimism now more than ever. In the wake of the approval the Orthodox electoral law in a parliamentary committee and the continuing opposition to civil marriage it might seem that the ‘sectarian system’ is consolidating its control, but I think the opposite is happening. The increasing impertinence of the sectarian monopoly on politics and society is in fact a sign of weakness. It is an indication that political and religious leaders feel a rising threat to their power base and are pushing for ever more flagrant measures to protect it.

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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  1. Thanks for that insightful analysis. I have a couple of comments though.

    You mentioned in passing the demographics issue and called it “part of the story.” I think demographics are THE story. When the Orthodox law was first proposed in late 2011 (before Hezbollah reversed itself due worsening Shiite-Sunni tensions in the region), there was a clean Christian-Muslim split about that law. Most Christians supported it and Muslims almost unanimously opposed it. But how do we explain the near unanimous Muslim opposition? Aren’t there a few “sectarian” or “isolationist” Muslims in Lebanon? Of course there are. It’s just that the proposed law allows the Christians (38% of the population) to pick half the deputies and the Muslims (62%) to pick the other half. That’s all there is to it. If those proportions were reversed, the positions would be reversed as well.

    You also wrote: “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.”

    As revolutions have taught us, it’s very easy for a large and diverse group of people to agree that something is wrong. Getting them to agree on the alternative is the tricky part.


    1. Thanks for your comments Rani. I think demographics isn't the whole story because the political divide now isn't Muslim-Christian but between cross-sectarian groups. It's almost as if leaders are sabotaging those alliances for the sake of a law that won't really make much of a difference to their power.

      As for the second point, that's always the challenge. I'm not delusional, there's lots of work to be done and it will be hard, but there's hope.

  2. Great read! Few comments on bottom-up change.

    Despite harsh living conditions and self-serving politicians, it is unlikely that change will come from the bottom-up. The previous comment ends with a key point:

    "As revolutions have taught us, it’s very easy for a large and diverse group of people to agree that something is wrong. Getting them to agree on the alternative is the tricky part"

    Sectarian identification in Lebanon prevents any collective action from taking place (in contrary to other Arab revolutions were sectarian identity was not salient during the early stages). So long as the state remains incompetent, citizens will continue returning to their sect leaders -- a more reliable alternative.

    A top-down approach (i.e., applying a non-confessional electoral law will be followed by a decrease in sectarian attitudes) may be the only route to limit sectarian categorization from the social and political realm.

    Still, such an electoral law will be derided (to a greater extent than the civil marriage law) by religious and political leaders. Furthermore, taking into account developments in the Arab world (i.e., rise in sectarian inter-group threat, and the MB's perception of a civil state), one can only be pessimistic.

    Traditional leaders in Lebanon will exploit such developments (i.e., sectarian incitement) to ascribe sacredness to their casue, and in turn rally their supporters. The orthodox law is a case to this point!

    The current opposing views regarding which electoral law to adopt share one commonality: electoral districts will always consist of a prescribed allocation of seats to each sect. Bottom-up Change will be difficult in society divided along sectarian lines.

    Too pessimistic perhaps?

    1. I don't know whether it's pessimistic, it might be true, but I think that point of view is fatalistic. It's again the European example, with a caveat about the different context, but nothing is fixed. Sectarianism isn't a natural phenomenon, there are structures that keep it in place and produce it.

      In terms of the Arab world, we're looking at 2 years, these changes take decades. And change from the bottom up is more lasting.

    2. A good place to start would be to first define "sectarianism" in a way that everybody would at least agree on the definition. Some see it as pure evil. Other see it as simply a feeling of belonging to a group of people that share the same values, culture, and outlook. We need to get have a good understanding, and general agreement, of that abstract notion called "sectarianism" before you try to "eliminate it from people's heads"

      You also said something very interesting about the Orthodox law here: "it also formalises hitherto informal arrangements that relied on more subtle forms of orchestration in the past"

      Nicely put. But is that a step backward or a step forward? Did Western civilization become so powerful by formalizing or deformalizing societal arrangements? Something to think about.

    3. Good point, that's why I made the point about distinguishing between sectarianism and confessionalism. I'm personally not interested at all in eliminating it from people's heads, that's social engineering not politics and it implies a form of authoritarianism. I only care about changing the system.

      On the second point, the West formalised social arrangements based on individual freedom not primordial ties. In fact, secularism was a struggle against those types of pre-modern relationships. This has to be in context however, with the rise of multi-multiculturalism, secularism is being challenged both formally and informally in the west, a point that Lebanese secularists need to consider. If you're interested I wrote more about it here:


  3. D-Nay:

    The Turkish historian Engin Akarli defines Lebanese confessional power-sharing arrangements as a form of civility. The ills of the system, like clientellism, corruption, paralysis, sectarian anymosity etc.. can exist independently.

    There is a fundamental difference in mentality between what are called the March 8 and the March 14 coalitions.

    'March 14' were born out of transformations that took place in 2005 after the assassination of Hariri. Barriers between parties that had fought each other during the civil war dropped. Someone like Junblat spoke sense to people in Ashrafiyye and Kesrawan, while Geagea became the most popular Lebanese politician amongst the Sunnis in Akkar. Saad Hariri sounded like Pierre Gemayel of the 1960s. This collapse of 'boundaries' was not gradual or planned or top down or bottom up. It happened as a knee-jerk reaction to a shock.

    The March 8 coalition which developed later, and as a reaction to this, was more along the lines of an 'alliance of minorities' basically it was 'anti-Sunni'. In Aoun's logic, christians who were pro-Hariri were not 'authentic' and were like 'delivery boys' in the serail. The Orthodox law dispenses with this 'anomaly' and says to these page boys that they are not allowed to favour politicans of another sect. Hizballah would consider Shiites of March 14 in the same manner.

    The bottom line is also that you cannot ignore the fact that there was a genuine Christian grievance in the 1990's partly brought upon themseleves by their boycott of politics. So they ended up being represented by 'unrepresentative' Christians. So there was something to build on and it was a real and deep rooted feeling of marginalization at a time when many Christian leaders were in exile, in prison or dead. The Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces could not be seen to be against 'proper' Christian representation.

    So in a nutshell - the mentality of March 8 won and that of March 14 was a product of the moment and is now very obviously in crisis.

    1. excellent points Nadim, especially the story of how March 14 came into being and how it lost its sense of purpose. One comment I would make is that for me the problem of the confessional system is not the usual grievances that you point it which are not intrinsic to it, I would still be against even if it were a transparent political system. Primarily because it will always subjugate individuals to communal affiliations or else they will become marginalised.

      Having said that, let's admit that there is no secularist constituency in Lebanon now. There are authoritarian 'secularists' like the SSNP that have zero credibility. All other manifestations of secularism are mostly devoid of political content and tend to be formalistic, they're concerned more with the administrative aspects of secularism than its philosophical content. At a time when there is no appetite for secularism globally, so there's little to draw inspiration from.

  4. Very interesting thoughts indeed! So interesting that I was disappointed to see the end of the article near.
    Now, on with the serious stuff.

    The confessional system is indeed in crisis. Nidal & Khouloud's marriage is a blatant challenge to the established sectarian system. The [un]orthodox electoral law is then an attempt to pull confessionalism out of its ditch. I'm all for a secular state, but I'm not as optimistic as Mr. Sharro.

    Confessionalism is undeniably rooted in Lebanese people's brains; it is (unfortunately) a staple of our broken society. A secular movement is indeed alive, but it is not strong enough. The common man dismisses civil marriage as unholy and potentially leading to incest. The common man cannot fathom atheism, nor secularism for that matter, and the common man is so attached to his sect because the successive governments could not offer him the security and services his sect offered. In my opinion, confessionalism is a self-sustaining disease: it undermines the State, forcing people to take refuge in their respective sects.

    The previous comments discusses potential reforms and whether a bottom-up or a top-down approach would be most effective to bring about these reforms. I believe the top-down approach to be a definite no-go: you'd have to go Ataturk style, teach people how to think all over again and force secularism upon them. But then, you remember that Hezbollah is a militia and that you are an advocate of democracy, authoritarianism is hence against your principles. So the top-down approach becomes infeasible. Plus, as pointed out earlier, it won't last, just look at Turkey.
    The bottom down approach is consequently the only remaining alternative. But as I already stated, most of the Lebanese people are not what you'd call liberals. I believe that a reform in education is a key factor in toppling confessionalism, but that's impossible to implement.

    In a nutshell, I am not optimistic at all, to say the least. I can see no bright light at the end of the tunnel. So I am asking you to give me some hope. Is change really possible? How do you see it come about?


    1. I can understand why K is pessimistic. Maybe this will help:

      Three meanings of sectarianism in Lebanon:
      - One is when sectarianism is in the eye of the beholder, people who analyze everything in sectarian terms and where sectarianism or even diversity is seen as the disease that causes all evil.
      - Two is sectarianism on the ground, which is simply a variant of prejudice or xenophobia or racism. This will always exist and it is naive to think that it can be totally eradicated. This also need not be too negative. One can be aware of their identity and proud of it and one can also be aware of somebody else's identity and have preconceptions about it. The adverts that we saw in Lebanon shaming people for their affiliation were pathetic.
      - Three is the sectarian or confessional or power sharing system. Which is a system intended to manage diversity, protect boundaries and promote coexistence. If it works it decreases sectarian tensions, if it does not it creates paralysis and could intensify tension.

      All these three definitions and elements are independent from each other and it is difficult to define the interaction between them.

      Eye of the beholder analysis is probably incurable. The only way is to stop reading them or listening to them.

      Lebanon can be also be seen as a country in 'transition'. It is transiting from having been under the control of the Syrian regime more or less since 1976. The instruments of control are the same that were used in Syria and Lebanon. A paralell system or regime is created and every community, institution,political party or organisation penetrated, even the church and the mosque or Salafis.

      Violence was used but then there comes a time when it is not even necessary. From pounding cities into submission to targeted assassinations, violence is calibrated as it is needed to establish authority together with extortion, blackmail etc.. The formula is very simple: create problems that only you can resolve and can be found in any second hand copy of the 'KGB Manual for Idiots', the 1969 edition is the best.

      The system in Lebanon is now a 'stand-alone' one and is part of that legacy, the legacy of moukhabarat rule. It will take at least a generation to get rid of it. Blaming everyting on sectarianism or on Syria are now red herrings.

      What is even more serious in the anti-sectarianism in Lebanon is that there is an underlying stockholm syndrome or 'Syria Envy'. The yearning for secularism, a strong state, strong leadership, sovereignty, nationalism, a strong army, defense strategy even at the expense of some liberties are charachteristics of the Syrian regime and emulating the 'victors' is almost classic of the culture of defeat.

      France and Britain had the same relationship with Bismarck's Prussia after the fall of Paris and the Franco-Prussian war.

      I first met you Karl, at the London School of Economics and Political Science - which is a typical product of such a syndrome. It was felt that the model of the English amateur gentleman with a liberal 'greats' classics education had failed vis a vis the Prussian Herr Doctor type, organized, scientific, planned and regimented. The LSE and Imperial College together with many institutions that were meant to transform society and culture on our islands were the product of that impulse.

      The merits of the Lebanese power-sharing system are very much underestimated. In a way Lebanon skipped the 20th Century,and we are now therefore ahead of the game. We spent most of it arguing whether to enter it or not and never did. Now everybody else in the region is busy dismantling what they built in the 20th century. So if we are a failed state, it is because we failed to follow a 20th century model of a strong state with a homogenizing ideology, variants of Kemalism and Arab Nationalism.

      After 2011, our failure became a success :-)

    2. Excellent as usual Nadim.

      A couple of things though...

      The Syrians entered Lebanon because of the inability of the confessional system to deal with the pressure for what was after all very limited demands for change, that were ultimately resolved 15 years later with minimal change to the system itself. The inability to renegotiate the terms of power-sharing has become chronic, normally requiring an external intervention to resolve the impasse and usually following an explosion of some sort. (May 7, etc). The point I'm making is that Syrian hegemony wasn't an incidental external aspect but the grounds for it were produced by the dysfunction of the system itself.

      Second point: I personally don't agree that we need a strong state, especially not on the Arab nationalist model. My critique of the confessional system is because it's authoritarian, not because it's weak. And one of the harshest manifestations of that authoritarianism is the pressure it puts on individuals and the way it makes them an extension of communal bodies. So, I want a freer system, not the opposite.

      Also, as I said in a previous comment, I'm interested at all in 'eliminating sectarianism from people's minds'. That's an intrusive notion, it's social engineering not politics. I am only concerned with challenging the political arrangements of the confessional system.

      I wrote more in depth about that here, in reading Lebanon as the 'illogical end of multiculturalism':

  5. Maybe some people could invent a social metric to measure 'sectarianism'. We could start for example with football clubs. This would cerainly work in UK with Celtic-Rangers, Liverpool-Everton etc. It's also possible to count such things as faith schools and relative rates of child poverty in
    different localities. Another measure is the number of stones thrown at APCs (armoured Personnel Carriers).
    Once a measure of 'sectarianism' is invented it maybe possible to test out vote-balancing against poverty reduction programs in places like Lebanon, South Thailand, various states of India,

  6. To be honest Karl, i fait to grasp the difference between what you wrote and Nadim's comments. but, however, my 2 cents here is that in my views, the lebanese system of power sharing (in economic, power and symbolic levels)has to be changed, because inevitably it leads to wars and to requests for external interventions (on the big picture) and because it forces every lebanese to be integrated in a confession if he/she does not want to lose any rights in the country. Now is the system now in crisis? that was Ahmed Beydoun thesis in 2005, yet we see that the system is still capable of generating worse and worse situations and deals. The fact that the system can not function smoothly now is merely an incidental result of the Syrian withdrawal and the absence of another dominating regional deal(the system requires it and is built on this basis since XIX century). The system will not be in a crisis, really, unless Lebanese are left on their own for an important period of time, which is uncertain because of the Israeli borders! How long will we be left on our own (or be in this negative balance), and at which costs? I don't know, but that leads me to be much more pessimistic than you!


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