Across the Bay

Friday, March 25, 2005

The Head Heeb Nails It

I've already mentioned Jonathan Edelstein's series on Lebanese politics. At the time, he had only done two parts, and he and I and a couple of other readers had a discussion about the Lebanese system in the comments section of those posts. I learned a lot from him about various models and constitutions in other consociational or quasi-consociational systems. He has incorporated all that into the fifth part of his series. The result is I think the best thing that's been written about Lebanon's system since it became a hot topic after Hariri's assassination.

It's a great antidote to the kind of garbage penned by Helena Cobban and that clown As'ad AbuKhalil (and even some stuff by Juan Cole on Lebanon) which passes as "veteran" analysis or as "expertise." The reason why is that Edelstein starts with the right premise, whereas the others don't. Cobban and AbuKhalil are working with Third Worldist and Arabist models and are stuck in the '70s (viewed through that lens of course). You can get a sense of that from Helena's comment to Jonathan's post. As for Angry Hair, he has recently said that he doesn't believe that "Lebanon is viable as a nation," and that "once Palestine and Syria are free, all these entities should integrate." I'm not kidding! And to add insult to injury, this idiot is said to be writing a book on Lebanese identities!

Jonathan is in a different league than these poseurs. His post includes four "predictions" for the future of Lebanon:

1- [T]he status quo will not endure for long. Even if the government succeeds in turning back the opposition's challenge or the opposition becomes a victim of its own disunity, the artificial stasis of the Pax Syriana is on its way out. Syria will continue to have influence in Lebanon, through political and financial alliances if nothing else, but that influence will no longer be backed by armed force or have the capacity to override indigenous political currents.

For the past fifteen years, Lebanon has been a state where political competition was possible (evidenced not least by Rafik Hariri's successful electoral comeback in 2000) but ideological competition was muted. Now, real ideological competition has reopened, and the debate over the country's future will increasingly move from the media and political salons into the electoral arena. Once that happens, stasis becomes difficult if not impossible to maintain.

This is very sober. Syria will always have some allies with seats in parliament, but what I called the "coercive influence" will diminish greatly, if not cease altogether (given how the entire world is watching). Therefore, Syria won't be able to impose its will and override the Lebanese political system nearly as much as it used to. Furthermore, once Lahoud and the security chiefs are booted out (and the UN report, and the possible new UN resolution calling for an international investigation is sure to assist in that regard) Syria's foothold will be that much smaller.

Jonathan's point about the Syrian imposed stasis is also refreshing, and contrasts with the heavily apologetic nonsense that we hear left and right, especially from Syria's embassadors in the West. Samir Qassir and Ghassan Tueni have recently both written about how the myth of Syria being a force of peace and stability was not only false, but insulting, as Syria actively took part in the "civil" war, and randomly bombarded Christian and Muslim areas alike. Also, Farid el-Khazen has written on the Syrian interference in the parliamentary elections in the post-Taef era, and how Syria basically stifled political life in the country. This is not to mention how they slowly but surely were turning the country into a police state in their image.

2- [A] doomsday scenario involving a renewed civil war or the breakup of the country is unlikely. There will be political violence - indeed, there already has been - but political violence occurs even in democracies and must reach a certain critical mass in order to destabilize a country. Lebanon is in a much better position to resist destabilization now than in 1975; there is a broad consensus on the framework of the political system, all the major factions are committed to nonviolent resolution of their differences, the national army is stronger and relatively non-sectarian, and the organized militias (with the single exception of Hizbullah) have disappeared. The political violence that occurs in Lebanon during the short to medium term will likely involve covert agencies, ideologically motivated freelancers or settling of local feuds, all of which are relatively controllable and limited in scale. The center will, in all likelihood, hold.

That's in fact what Marwan Hamade and Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah have both said. What they said was that there were no "ingredients" for a civil war, either locally, regionally, or internationally.

Jonathan did well to differentiate actual civil strife from terrorist intimidation (unlike Angry Hair, or even Cobban, who spuriously jumped at any sign of violence as "proof" of 1975-like tensions.) The point about the center holding is especially apt, and is in direct contrast to 1975.

3- it appears that Lebanon is in the process of developing a national consciousness that will roughly approximate the Qornet Shehwan manifesto: i.e., a sense of Lebanon and the Lebanese as a distinct nation within the Arab cultural sphere. One of the side effects of the Pax Syriana has been the coalescing of a Lebanese national identity among the Sunnis, who were historically resistant to it, and even to some extent among the Shi'ites. Such an identity will reject both ideologies that include only part of the population, like Maronite nationalism and Islamism, and those like pan-Syrian and pan-Arab nationalism that subsume Lebanon into a larger entity. At the same time, however, this emerging identity will be an Arab identity, grounded in Arabic cultural heritage, language and history. The "Phoenician" particularity that existed among elements of the pre-Taif right wing, or other ideologies that reject Arabic heritage, aren't likely to play a part in the emerging Lebanese consensus.

I've made similar comments on this blog, especially with regard to the Sunnis, but also with regard to the "Lebanonist" nature of the phenomenon, despite the Arabist rhetoric (see my post on the "Irrelevance of Political Arabism" below). So in that sense I differ slightly from Jonathan. Arabism, I think, is now little more than a loose regional identity, where Lebanon fits in (i.e., again similar to the QS manifesto that Jonathan quotes). However, I'll add that even this regional identity is likely to be diluted and changed even further in the mid-term future. Turkey and Israel will soon be integrated into this regional order, and the Euro-Med treaties will help in that regard, further redefining, and "globalizing" the regional identity. Perhaps we might see a resurgence of the old "Mediterraneanism" as a result. But the regional identity matters little, as it mattered little in the past (that's why Lebanon, and the Maronites, had no problem being part of the Arab League) as long as the uniqueness of Lebanon is acknowledged and preserved, which is common wisdom today even among Arab states.

Furthermore, considering how Iraq has moved away from the Arab order (and also adopted consociationalism), how Jordan needs a specific Jordanian identity (to counter Palestinian nationalism), etc., Arabism will be a very loosely defined cultural Oberbegriff, and one among several at that. (Again, don't read this with old eyes).

4- Finally, and perhaps most controversially, I believe that the Lebanese political system will continue to be consociational for as long as the development of a national consciousness is incomplete, and probably for some time after. Consociationalism is the default in countries, like Lebanon, where the primary focuses of identity and loyalty are subgroups within the nation-state rather than the nation itself. Such focuses, moreover, can exist even alongside an emerging national overlay, in much the same way as European nationalisms continue to exist despite the growing role of the EU as a focus of identity. (Emphasis mine.)

This is the most important thing that Jonathan said, and the reason why his analysis is sober. He doesn't attack the consociational system like Seale, Cobban and AbuKhalil, and even Cole, who all said that the Lebanese system wasn't a "real" democracy, because it wasn't a Westminster majoritarian model. Following Lijphart, Jonathan goes on to explain why in a plural society, majoritarianism can be "undemocratic":

Consociationalism is often regarded as flawed because it runs counter to the Enlightenment ideals of rule by the majority and the individual as the fundamental bearer of rights within the nation, but in countries with strong group identities, simple majority rule can be an oppressive rather than a democratic concept. Where majorities are formed around ethnic, religious or other social groups rather than cross-sectorial ideological factions, majority rule without constraints translates to rule for the benefit of the dominant group. One has only to look to the theoretically unitary states of post-colonial Africa and Asia, many of which are effectively controlled by the majority ethnic group or a politically dominant minority, to see how the Enlightenment ideal can break down in practice.

Jonathan has a very realistic view of consociationalism which is very refreshing indeed (I would say a bit more on the concrete and separate sense of Lebanonness that definitely counts as a national identity, even as it coexists with the sub-national identities). He also holds a non-static view of Lebanon, as I do. He goes on to offer various options and scenarios that might be adopted in Lebanon in the future, as part of the new Third Republic. I won't comment in detail on each of the options as that would take forever. But I find many of them very intriguing (which why I restate how much I've learned from my discussion with Jonathan). I should add that some of them have already been floated around in Lebanon (bicameralism, proportional representation, rotation of the top three offices, federalism, etc.)

Jonathan's comment (in the comments section) about Hizbullah being possibly interested in federalism as a trade-off for disarming is an interesting point. However, so far Hizbullah's rhetoric has been against this as a thinly masked "partition." Fadlallah's comment (linked above) might also be interpreted as emphasizing the Taef promise of the abolition of the sectarian system. Fadlallah and several Shiite figures have long wanted that option of a single district, one-man-one-vote system (and some believe, this harkens back to Hizbullah's and Fadlallah's dreams of an Islamic state). That is unlikely to happen anytime in the forseeable future.

The point about "gatherings"/alliances is very interesting and I think, as I told Jonathan in my comments to his earlier posts, it will play a positive role in the future, as he himself lays out. Whether this will lead to holding open parliamentary seats for "independent" non-sectarian voters, I can't say. But like I said, so many of the alternatives are interesting, but that's because all work within or from the consociational system, so they don't raise red flags for the communities.

Jonathan's conclusion is equally sober:

But all that will be decided in the future. In the coming months, Lebanon will begin to make the transition to its third republic. It will have to find a method of mediating inter-confessional relations that avoids the rigidity of the first republic and doesn't depend on the artificial stasis of the second. The method it will choose is beyond prediction, and will be the product not only of the current crisis and the past five years' political evolution but other factors that will emerge only as the post-Syrian order takes shape. This time, it seems that the Lebanese factions have both the experience and the will to find such a method. The path will be long and difficult, and there will be setbacks, but I'm optimistic about Lebanon's new dawn.

Very well said. Finally, a level-headed article about Lebanon without the ideological bias, the venom, the contempt, the apologetics for Syria, and the thinly-veiled defense of authoritarianism. An excellent post all around.