Across the Bay

Monday, May 30, 2005

Lebanon's System and the Elections

The WaPo published Michael Young's response to Annia Ciezadlo's horrible article on Lebanon (see below). I thought that this bit was particularly important:

The logic was that all religious groups would have a role in a system of set-asides and that they would be reassured enough to remain a part of Lebanon. When the formula was agreed upon at independence in 1943, it was enlightened: By positing a weak central authority and strong sects, it allowed Lebanon to avoid the authoritarianism prevalent in the Arab world.

And he ended with this statement, which, as you know, I've been repeating on this blog: "Despite its flaws, the Lebanese system merits more sympathy than many in the West accord it."

That is very true, and has a long pedigree in academic and Arabist circles in the West. You could see it in the writings of Michael Hudson (who wrote two essays, one in '76 and another '88 on why Lebanon's consociationalism "failed") and in a lot of the writings on Lebanon. A brief overview can be found in Farid el-Khazen's Breakdown of the State. As Farid points out, these criticisms usually are based on a "modernist" premise, whereby the Lebanese system is seen as in need of "evolution" towards an essentially Westminster European model. Of course there were others who didn't share this view, and most of them, though by no means all, were theorists of consociation.

The reasons for this are diverse. One is the modernist approach. But there are also other reasons, as pointed out by Michael in that review of Douglas Little's book (see quote below). And of course there were the bizarre fusions of Third Worldism, Arab nationalism, Marxism, etc. I think the finest synthesis of these "-isms" is the following quote by Michael Hudson:

"There was the Lebanon of the poor, the Lebanon of Islam, the Lebanon of true nationalism," he said, referring to the largely Shiite rallies often organized by Hizbullah.
Hudson described the other Lebanon as "people who are cosmopolitan, well off, who really like America, who really don't like Syria, who would like to be done with the whole Israeli business."

Notice the parallelism between "poor," "Islam," and "true nationalism." In opposition stand the "cosmopolitan" (which assumes a "rural" opposite), "well off," and those who like America and don't mind Israel (i.e., those who don't define themselves in opposition to the West, and who are not true [Arab] nationalists because they may want peace with Israel.)

I don't think there's a clearer fusion of Third Worldism, Arab nationalism, and proletarianism than that statement. But if you've read my previous posts on Hudson ("Michael Hudson Aflaq" and "Michael Hudson Joins the Baath"), you'd know that he's been channeling Nasser, talking about Syria as the last Arab nationalist fortress against Israel and the US, and predicting the rebirth of Arab nationalism.

As such, it's quite funny to see him pour all that on Hizbullah, a Khomeinist Islamist group! But this is another indication how fluid the lines are between Islamism and Arab nationalism, especially when it comes to the issues that "count most," the "anti" part, i.e., anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism. Of course, these are also the elements that fuse best with anti-colonialist Third Worldism (and besides, they are the "poor" "authentic Islamic" voices of "true nationalism"). But there's also a history involved here. Hudson never got over his first love: Nasser. Take a look at this quote, found in Kramer's Ivory Towers on Sand:

Anyone introduced to Arab politics at that particular moment [the late 50's], as I was, carries a lasting image of nationalist enthusiasm that seemed destined to erase "artificial" borders and unify a national community too long and wrongly divided.

But there's another piece of recycled history at work as well. You've read here how people like Helena Cobban and Mark LeVine have spoken about Hizbullah as Lebanon's "only true democratic force." Well, the same honor was first bestowed on the PLO back in the day! The PLO was seen as the vanguard of revolutionary Arab nationalism, which was destined to shake the old order (which had become "puppets of the West" of course), and to revive all the dead promises of Arab nationalism ("unity, socialism, and freedom [from the West]"). So, Edward Said, among others, dubbed the PLO a democratic organization. Now the same is being said of Hizbullah.

The common denominator of course is that attachement to Arab nationalism (fused with the residues of Third Worldism and other more recent ideologies, like anti-globalization, etc.). In that sense, it matters little if the agent is an Islamist group. Arab nationalism was always subordinate to Islam anyway, and Hudson's juxtaposition of "Islam" and "true nationalism" mirrors Hizbullah's own "Islamic Pan-Arabism" which it recently cultivated to maintain its waning prestige and to garner legitimacy in the Sunni Arab world (its favorite line was that they were the only movement that defeated Israel. Read: we, the Shi'a Islamist group, defeated Israel while you, Sunni states, did nothing.) Witness this poster, which has been popping around Beirut lately. It reads "May 25, the gift of the Lebanese to the free sons of the Umma." (Notice also how it portrays Nasrallah carrying a rifle. This is new, and it's a response to the demands for disarmament.)

Needless to say, Hudson is so taken by the fantasy of Arab nationalism and its rhetoric that he (along with Cobban et al.) is unable to realize, as a friend put it to me, that "Syria's and Hizbullah's Israel policies are actually Lebanon policies -- policies designed, that is, to secure power and influence in Lebanon. For Hudson and his ilk it is always the other way around. They accept the confrontation rhetoric at face value. I doubt that there is any other political rhetoric in the world that Hudson would take at face value. But with Hizballah, what you see is what you get: true nationalism and opposition to Zionism."

But the characterization of Hizbullah and Lebanon's system aren't totally monolithic, even if there are a few clichés that you simply cannot escape. For instance, take this piece by Anthony Shadid in the Post. It's good for the most part, but with its share of clichés (and incomplete pictures, like Shadid talking about religious fault lines, and ignoring alliances and counter alliances -- sometimes contradictory in certain areas-- that cross religious fault lines). Although, Shadid, to his credit, did mention towards the end the "consociationalism vs. control" dichotomy (in Lustick's terms. "Control," the domination of one group, being the alternative to Lebanon's consociationalism, as seen all around in the ME), where the Lebanese system ensures representation and helps prevent autocracy.

Also, I think his characterization of Hizbullah as a neo-za'imism is correct, and it's something I've tried to explain as well (see Michael Young's note in the addendum to my "Hizbullah and Hariri" post below). Lee Smith also said something similar once about how everyone provides services in Lebanon, with a small caveat: they're not armed to their teeth and unwilling to relinquish their weapons!

This piece by Manuela Paraipan is also decent, the clichés notwithstanding. The final bit about Hizbullah is worth looking at:

Their political platform is non-existent, except the resistance and liberation part and their goal to see Lebanon transformed into a Muslim country. In this context, they can remain viable only if they are in a state of continuous vigilance and if they play the card of liberation and resistance. Nonetheless, what may really scare them is not pressure from the United States or Israel, but rather the fact that once the Shebaa Farms problem is resolved there is no other reason for them to exist as an armed force. The fact that Hezbollah receives huge financial funds and weapons from Iran, via Syria, is another matter of concern. Who are they loyal to? To the ones who are paying them, or to the Lebanese people who are their fellow citizens?

She then somewhat contradicts her own assessment with the following conclusion:

If they liberate themselves from regional interference, then their political profile will be further raised. Having a pragmatic leader such as Sheikh Nasrallah, eventually Hezbollah will disarm for the right price, but Lebanese society as a whole should be the one to find a solution to this problem.

For one, if their prestige, size, and standing is contingent on their arms, then what would be the right price!?

And although you'll hear denials that their agenda is an Islamic state, they routinely use that as a threat. This good briefing from the Economist Intelligence Unit provides an example:

Hizbullah is standing firm against any moves to force it to give up its weapons or integrate its guerrilla forces into the regular army. The Jumblatt/Hariri alliance has agreed to go along with this so as to prevent Hizbullah from throwing in its lot with Mr Aoun, who might be open to backing political reforms that would increase Shia political quotas at the expense of Mr Hariri’s Sunni Muslim sect and Mr Jumblatt’s Druze. However, Hizbullah’s chief political asset—its role in forcing an Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000 (the fifth anniversary of which was marked in a May 26th rally)—is not as powerful as it once was, and the extent of the group’s control over Lebanon’s Shias is open to question.

Hizbullah has made clear its disdain for the political system, because no Islamic Republic is feasible in Lebanon as long as the current system is in place. People talk about how eliminating the sectarian system and adopting a Westminster model is the solution to Lebanon's ills, but I've yet to be convinced (see also Farid el-Khazen) that this will somehow erase sectarian identifications or interests (the modernist premise). But more importantly, most people who talk about such an overhaul usually advocate a particular group, which they see as representative. Which brings us back to our first point about groups seen as the vanguards of a "progressive revolution." That's why Cobban sees Hizbullah as not only representative of the Shia (which is not true), but as representative of modernization and, as Hudson put it, "true nationalism." Of course Aoun sees himself in the same light, and his followers agree. But what this advocacy boils down to is the promotion of one particular group to take control of the entire country, and viewing the rest as some sort of annoying opposition of sorts. It's best exemplified in this quote from a Hizbullah spokesperson that Cobban interviewed for her piece of garbage essay on the Party:

We feel that a party that's in the government should influence its whole program… But in Lebanon, you can't pursue your own party's program in government because governments are always formed through coalitions. Elsewhere, you can have one party in government, with one program. And then, it's easier to hold the party accountable. Then, there are the expectations of the people. We represent a great proportion of the people. Well, if you are in such an impotent government, then you sully your reputation with the people. In Lebanon, corruption is everywhere. The institutions need to be completely renewed. This is very difficult, and will take time.
Also, the political structure here is still sectarian. In this system people are led not by reason but by emotions and tribalism. We feel that most of the other politicians are leading people as tribe-members, by appealing to their sectional interests, rather than as citizens.
So altogether, it seems hard for us to go into government at the present time and just reap all the disadvantages from the way things are done there.

Rich Anderson, who took the time to demolish Cobban's crappy essay, had this to say about the quote:

Let me see if I get this right. Hizbullah faults the Lebanese system not just for being "corrupt" (not just some people within it), but for the necessity within that system of the building of coalitions and pandering to the requirements of a multifarious political system. Within the confines of such a system, Hizbullah is not able to advance its single-prong agenda, to "influence [the government's] whole program." Z.H. claims that "elsewhere, you can have one party in government, with one program." Which democratic countries are these? we ask. Perhaps these kinds of democracies are the "People's Democratic" varieties that have always been so successful in the past. The very mention of this kind of challenge to the Lebanese polity is a direct challenge to democracy itself. It seems to me that Hizbullah is upset not at the "corruption" found within some sectors of the system, but with the party's inability so far to hijack the whole process altogether and turn the Lebanese government into its own sock puppet.
A rationally-functioning Lebanese government can afford to exclude a major clan, tribe, religious group, or political bloc about as much as the U.S. government can afford to exclude any of its states. And here is the point - democracy is about participation, not agendas. The fact that Hizbullah appears so hesitant to join coalitions says something about the acceptability of its political program in the eyes of the Lebanese people, and Hizbullah itself appears fully cognizant of this reality. Hence, we see Hizbullah nearly unable to hide the fact that unless they control the entire political process in Lebanon, its agenda is going nowhere. The fact that some American academics have bought Hizbullah's democracy gimmick hook-line-and-sinker only exacerbates the concern of this critical observer.

Which brings us to this piece by Bret Stephens in the WSJ. Stephens quotes Nizar Hamzeh, an expert on the Lebanese Shi'a, who gave his assessment of Hizbullah's nationalism and their agenda: "Nationalism for them is some sort of transitional moment. They continue to believe in an Islamic state." Hamzeh continues to say that he "is persuaded that, sooner or later, Hezbollah will become the country's dominant faction, entirely through democratic means. "They're in no rush," he says.

But what democratic means? He never says. "Democratic" here means some sort of majoritarianism. The second assumption of course (which I alluded to above) is that Hizbullah is not only numerically superior (and representative of all the Shi'a), but that it's also the most attractive. Both those assumptions are false, as noted above. Hamzeh's talk about "democracy" fits into what I said earlier about always having in mind a certain group that would dominate a "democratic" non-sectarian Lebanon.

None of Hamzeh's predictions are likely to materialize any time soon, and Stephens' conclusion is sound in that regard: "Wherever I go here, the impression is of a people intent on making up for lost time, and determined never again to be dragged down by extremism. It is these Lebanese, one senses, and not Hezbollah, who are making the country anew, and who are doing so, at long last, in the absence of fear."

This is why I think the consociational system will last in Lebanon, albeit with key modifications and reforms. (One such modification is the creation of a second house of representatives. The whole point is to create space alongside the political elite, in order to create more dynamism. The elitism has been a primary criticism of the system.) And as I said before, the end goal ought not be an elimination of the consociational system, but an enhancement thereof, through key modifications, that might lead to a mixed system of sorts, similar to the one in the US. But the key underlining principle of consociation in Lebanon needs to be preserved, and it is that principle, as Michael has pointed out, is what has kept authoritarianism at bay.

Addendum: I forgot to include this useful overview by Stacey Yadav (hat tip, Praktike). Also, take a look at this interesting discussion over at the Lebanese Bloggers.

Update: Josh Landis has a new post on the subject. I will try to come back to it later when I have time.

Update 2: I remembered this quote from Theodor Hanf's excellent Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon. It's a great response to Hudson's garbage, even though it was written 12 years ago:

"The lack of census figures stimulated not only political, but also social fantasies. And the products usually correlated with the analyst's political convictions. From the mid-1970s onwards, a number of authors more or less equated social class and community in Lebanon, and interpreted conflicts between these communities as class struggles. Of course, this thesis was an effective mobilizer. It also satisfied the desire of some media for simple explanations of complex situations. The cliché of 'rich Christians' and 'poor Muslims', has had a brilliant journalistic career -- and it may not be over yet." [p. 97]