Across the Bay

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Lebanon and Za‛ama

There's an excellent debate going on over at Syria Comment between Joshua Landis and a Lebanese commentator over the Lebanese political system. I recommend you take a look. I will make a quick comment on it as well in the comments section.

Here's a chunk of the post by the Lebanese commentator, Rami, for the sake of convenience:

Hottinger’s definition nails post-feudal 19-20th Lebanese leaders indeed but it cannot be used to define the Assads for example, who do not represent the aspirations of the Alawite community nor do they exploit the cleavages of their society to legitimize political office, at least not openly. Their unitary approach is the offspring of nationalism.

Edward Shils, Identities, and Confessionalism

Regarding the second piece; that of Edward Shils, it repeats clichés that are very well known about the shortcomings of the Lebanese political system and the national pact. In fact you are preaching to the choir. I’m more inclined to reference Georges Naccache’s adage “Deux negations ne font pas une nation” “two negations do not make a nation”. For the record Naccache is one of those pesky agents of political Maronitism; isn’t it ironic that we all agree about the failures of the Lebanese formula? But I’m yet to hear anyone come forward with an appropriate alternative. I guess one alternative might be to nullify communal differences under one supranational narrative that harks back thousands of year to a dead culture and impose that culture forcefully on everyone. Now to do so we would destroy civil society by emasculating professional unions, stifling the press and other liberties, persecuting minorities, building a huge army and flank it by a ubiquitous intelligence network. Is that what you propose? But in Lebanon it can go both ways, we can have Phoenicians instead of Arabs and Moaronitism instead of Sunnism. Is that the alternative?

But going back to Shills points, he is placing all of the failures of the system on the indigenous players of that system and not the system itself. He is making it seem that it is the Lebanese fabric of the system that caused it to fail. What he fails to note is the vulnerability of consociational democracies and the absolute need for such a system in Lebanon for modernism and democracy to develop. Dr. Salim Talhuq a Druze chieftain asserted as much when he states:

“Lebanon is currently composed of communities which replace the political parties of other countries. Any community, which does not have a share in the power, considers itself wronged. We must take all possible steps to attain unity between the communities, none of which should be sacrificed. It was with this intention that article 95 was included… I repeat we want to attain unity gradually, not by force.” (Lebanon’s Quest by Meir Zamir)

John Entelis also commented on this in his book Pluralism and Party Transformation in Lebanon.

“This implies that political unity and cultural diversity can simultaneously be established as the foundation of a modern state. This is possible in a society where no single sectarian or ethnic group dominates.”

The system however does not alleviate communal distrust nor does it bring national consensus nor does it offer turnover in leadership whether it is applied, in Lebanon, Belgium or South Africa. However it does offer “recognition of its (speaking of an ethnic group) political and other rights, and responsiveness on the part of the government to the community’s needs” (Illya Harik - The Ethnic Revolution and Political Integration in the Middle East) Also, as assessed by Arthur Lewis in Politics in West Africa he states that the core problem of pluralistic societies is “to create political institutions which give all the various groups the opportunity to participate in decision making”. Lebanese post independence democracy did that; it did it in an imperfect way but it did it and it contained the aspirations of the various groups as long as foreign interference was minimal. Of course this gets complicated when arms and guerillas are smuggled across the borders via Syria (from Syria and countless other Arab countries), when the PLO opens up shop and when Syria and Israel invade. I’m not one to claim that the Lebanese are “brothers” but without the primer you have no explosion. But going back to the original point, identities matter, identities in Lebanon matter as described by Hourani himself he states that ethnic groups are “communities of which the members have shared a historical experience long and profound enough to give them a significant degree of identity, in language and all that is bound up with it in modes of thought and feeling” (A Vision of History: Near Eastern and Other Essays).

My contention is that Lebanese consociational democracy although vulnerable was not inflammatory. In every conflict there were outside players. The system although flawed worked for everyone and worked as it was intended to work spawning unbelievable cross sectarian alliances (most notable of which is Musa Namur’s cooperation with Emille Edde) but sometimes it failed to push for the common good as you have demonstrated with stalling the actions of the government but guess what this also happened pre-national pact with Emille Edde’s government and its inability to achieve the reform it set out to achieve. As Lijphart asserts though: “non-decisions are preferable to bad decisions”.

What is the alternative to confessionalism? “Formal abolition of confessionalism without supplanting it by a higher social order would lay the state open to abuses by communities bound to be strengthened from outside in undermining the foundations of the state” (Moshe Zeltzer, Aspects of Near East Society).


It is insane to justify one evil by referencing another. In effect you are not engaged in the debate to discover a viable solution of the Lebanon problem you are merely attempting to justify the current Syrian hegemony. I’m not implying that you should care about a long-term Lebanese solution but given the fact that you lament and denigrate Lebanon’s past you must engage in the discourse to remedy the reasons of this past. The current injustice inflicted on segments of Lebanese society has no equal in its history, even before independence. Riadh el Solh is a national hero even though he openly campaigned towards the dissolution of the Lebanese Syrian borders, even after independence. Antoun Saadeh’s party was licensed at different stages in history even though it advocated the destruction of the Lebanese state, (he was only arrested and executed when he forcefully and illegally tried to overturn the government, heck if he did constitutionally, like Chamoun in 1952, I don’t think he would have been stopped), and the examples are countless. At no point were agitators imprisoned, exiled, killed or persecuted as systematically and consistently as during the Syrian era. There is no room for opposition in the current axiom. All of this fails to mirror the importance of communal memory, traditions, cultures and way of life. That has been under assault since 1990. This is the real crime what Bat Ye’or calls the “Exclusion and Concealment of History”. This has never happened before, at the height of Maronite supremacy no such efforts were undertaken. National narratives supplemented existing narratives but never sought to replace them. When the Shiites were not allowed to publish one newspaper in the Arab world, al ‘Irfan was vibrant in Lebanon. The Arab nationalist ideologues operated freely in the heart of Lebanon. The same spirit is not there anymore.

You might argue that stability was sacrificed for such a system but it is with great confidence that I assert that the Lebanese would prefer instability over Syrian or Iraqi stability. Isn’t that why Syrians to this day continue to migrate to Lebanon for work, this also happened during the war.

Update: Here are my two short replies on Josh's site.

1- I think that the key factor in all of this is the Ottoman legacy. I touch on it in a post I'm preparing on Phoenicianism for "Across the Bay" that'll be posted imminently. Here's the quote:

"In my opinion, and this is not something I've pursued, I think the common denominator for in the above is the Ottoman experience and the millet system. I remind you that the term millet meant "nation" and only later came to be associated with what we call "confessional groups." Of course, the millet system is based on the concept ofdhimma, and is a direct continuation of it in terms of who was recognized by the millet system. A good essay on this subject is Kemal Karpat's "The Ottoman Ethnic and Confessional Legacy in the Middle East," in Milton J. Esman and Itamar Rabinovich (eds.), Ethnicity, Pluralism, and the State in the Middle East (Ithaca and London, 1988), pp. 35-53.

Given that the millet system provided considerable autonomy, despite the discriminatory laws of dhimma, it's little wonder that many Christians, especially the non-Arabist Lebanese Christians, hearken back to it with nostalgia (esp. the mutasarrifiya system of the late 19th c.). Needless to say, this drives Arabists crazy, but as Martin Kramer recently noted in Sandbox (entry "Clio Abuse," Wed, Aug 4 2004 8:41 am), quoting the great Elie Kedourie:

"Christians and Jews, he wrote, "were considered Iraqis first—that is, as far as their duties went. When it came to their rights, they were still the second-class subject of Ottoman times—but they had, in the meanwhile, lost all the advantages of the Ottoman arrangement: communal standing and self-government." Precisely. (From Kedourie's essay "Minorities.")"

The picture that emerges is that what's postulated is a mixture of what Arabists hate most: Sykes-Picot and Ottomanism. I.e., the autonomy granted by the Ottomans within a new polity, outlined by Sykes-Picot, along with the constitutional rights that it gives. In other words, what's sought is the elimination of the entire Arabist project! This in a nutshell is the definition of the Maronite project in Lebanon, and the Kurdish project today."

Another great essay in that collection by Esman and Rabinovich is the one by Gabriel Ben-Dor entitled "Ethnopolitics and the Middle Eastern State." Its outline and conclusion are very similar to your views Josh. I just disagree with the solution you provide. I believe a version of Republican politics is the key for Lebanon: a central state yes, but not an overbearing one. Rather, a federal system or some form of political decentralization, with a lot more autonomy on the local level. Chihabism or any quasi-Arab order is not the way forward. It was the tensions of Arab nationalism that broke the system not allowing it to naturally and gradually evolve and offer better solutions. See Farid El-Khazen's The Breakdown of the State in Lebanon for a more elaborate analysis.

It's not only political subcommunities that challenge the state, it's also supranational abstract ideologies like Arabism. In fact, as Michael Young, myself, and now Rami, have argued, the latter are far more destructive, while the former can be an asset, as long as a balance is struck between state and communities.

2- "Lebanese society revolves around an empty center."

This quote, I believe, is the center (no pun intended) of your piece.

I do agree there has to be a slightly stronger state, one that can sustain pressure from the outside, like the pressure of Arabism, which the pre-75 Lebanon didn't have. However, I still think that the key to success in Lebanon, is a balance between center and communities, in the same vein as what's sought after in Iraq. I.e., the center needs to be limited.

Since Hegel we tend to think of the state as an end in itself. Elman Service has enshrined that evolutionary approach: Tribe-Chiefdom-State. I think that this needs to be reviewed in our case. A new dialectic between "center" and "periphery" needs to be laid out. It's not a relationship emanating from the center outward.

Also, in Lebanon, entrepreneurship was always key, you can't stifle it with an overly centralized system. How all that is supposed to take place, I don't have an answer yet, because it has not been put to test. Obviously decentralization and federalism need to be considered. Possibly, one needs to consider bicameralism as a buffer to the tyranny of the majority. I believe that that was the essence of the Maronite supremacy earlier on in Lebanon. Their fears can be appeased through bicameralism and such measures as those found in Belgium for instance. Lijphart explains those things well in his books (Democraciesand Democracy in Plural Societies).

I also agree with you that education is the solution in the end. You can't police that. It doesn't work that way. It has been policed in Lebanon now since 1990, and it's useless as anything. People still feel about each other as they did in 75 and worse. Syria is a facade Josh. Your paper on Islamic education demonstrates that.

I maintain my Republican analogy. Small government, more local autonomy.