Lebanon: Taking on the Sectarian System

Monday’s protest at the parliament building could have been mistaken for a small group of people queuing up outside a government office. (Photo: Haytham Al-Moussawi)
Published Wednesday, February 20, 2013
The parliamentary majority’s grand electoral maneuver could turn into a fait accompli for the Future Movement and its allies if they continue refusing to recognize the need for a real change in Lebanon’s election law.

It would be hard to impose a law that could provoke a boycott by a majority of a certain sect, thus jeopardizing the popular legitimacy of the elections. It is highly likely, therefore, that the actual effect of proposing the Orthodox Gathering law will be to kill the 1960 winner-takes-all law and clear the way for new legislation that introduces proportional representation.

Lebanon makes for a puzzling spectacle these days.

We see the political class that has continued to rule the country for decades being compelled to produce an alternative to the winner-takes-all voting system. This class is currently engaged in a tough battle, which will lead to the adoption of some form of proportional representation, even if only partially at first.

It is thereby responding to accumulated pressures for the mechanisms of political representation to be altered. In other words, the political class is implicitly conceding to the demands of those sectors of Lebanese society that have been marginalized by the winner-takes-all-law and the alliances that accompany it.

But things do not look good on the other side. The forces that presumably stand to gain from a fundamental change to the election law have been behaving as though they either don’t believe what they are seeing with their own eyes, or are in too poor a shape to seize on the opportunity to gain representation in the state’s institutions.

This state of affairs raises serious questions in light of the low rate of participation in all the activities organized by non-sectarian groups in support of proportional representation. Monday’s protest at the parliament building could have been mistaken for a small group of people queuing up outside a government office.

There could be two reasons for such a meager turnout. Either the supporters of non-sectarianism or the civil state lack confidence in their self-proclaimed spokespersons, or they do not favor using such methods to advance their cause.

Both explanations make sense. Many Lebanese took part in the demonstrations held more than a year ago calling for the downfall of the sectarian system, but they soon lost heart in the absence of a leadership that appreciated their numbers. Yet also, only a minority of the groups demanding the abolition of the sectarian system played an active part in the struggle for civil marriage, ostensibly because it is not currently a top priority of Lebanon’s reformists. Nevertheless, they made an extremely powerful media impact, imposing the issue on everyone’s agenda.

A visitor to Lebanon could be excused for imagining, from following the various media outlets, that the Lebanese are in the process of establishing fully civil institutions in their country, an impression that clearly does not correspond to reality.

This all calls for a reconsideration of some contentious questions.

Proportional representation would make real change possible in the political representation of the active forces in the country. The forces disadvantaged by the sectarian system would be able to exploit any law incorporating proportional representation to form a united front capable of gaining sufficient votes to elect a bloc in parliament. Even if small, it would be able to unsettle the sectarians entrenched in the state’s institutions, and to fight for the adoption of civil laws.

The battle for proportional representation is therefore more serious and far-reaching than the struggle for civil marriage. There would appear to be a very strong incentive to engage in it, especially after the breakthrough achieved by the tentative adopt of the Orthodox Gathering law, bad as it is.

But why do we see no preparations being made for such a battle?

The political forces that claim a monopoly on slogans about the civil state think the idea of civil society is the same as the one-person organizations that operate in its name. These organizations reflect the bankruptcy of party-political life but also reinforce it, and with time have become sources of direct financial gain.
Moreover, the forces of secularism as represented by the remnants of the Lebanese Left and other ideological non-sectarian parties – such as the Arab nationalists, Baathists, and Nasserists – have serious problems with their political discourse, their overall outlook, and their decrepit organizational structures. This in itself is sufficient reason for people to turn their backs to them.

But the worst mistake stems from the belief of some that they can turn the battle to bring down Lebanon’s sectarian system into a battle to add a new sect to Lebanon’s sectarian line-up, even if it is called the non-sectarian sect. That means adding to the country’s divisions, when what is needed is for everyone to be subject to the same civil laws, which allow individuals to express their beliefs freely and oblige them only to respect the freedom of others.

Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

River to Sea Uprooted Palestinian  
 The views expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of this Blog!

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