Across the Bay

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Lebanon: Communalism and Democracy

My colleague Raja over at the The Lebanese Bloggers recently posted on Lebanese democracy and the effects of Communalism (also referred to as "sectarianism" or "confessionalism") on that democracy.

It's a topic that's been hotly debated for years in Lebanon, and among people writing on Lebanon. I myself have made my position clear on this blog. I am for the system for the foreseeable future. But I am also for amending it in ways that would make it more dynamic, and curtail some of its most unsavory aspects, as well as create new institutional spaces in the system.

The latter point was addressed by Michael Young in his latest op-ed. Michael's piece, by the way, should be read by my Lebanese colleagues who are screaming foul in disillusionment. In fact, he is addressing them directly, drawing back on Lebanon's history since 1943:

In other words, the recurrent Lebanese desire for harmony - the very same that followed the March 14 demonstration - has more often than not been frustrated in our recent history, leading to widespread disillusionment based on an unwillingness of Lebanese to grasp that their system rests on the insistent articulation of differences.

Two things can be said about this: a system of negations can be far more resilient and steady than people imagine, so that the absence of unity that followed the parliamentary elections last year was regrettable, but par for the course with respect to national stability. The sectarian system, precisely because of its acknowledged shortcomings and the anxiety it produces among Lebanese, is one also one where, in moments of crisis, sectarian representatives fall into line and play their allotted roles in re-establishing an equilibrium. That's what happened after the recent rioting in Christian areas, and it's what happened after every random bomb blast last year, all of which occurred in predominantly Christian areas, so that the political costs to the perpetrators soon surpassed the advantages.

A second aspect of the general disappointment with national disunity is that it shows there is a platform on which to build unity - if only politicians displayed audacity. Sectarianism won't dissipate in a night, or a decade, but more can be done to weaken its worst aspects. If March 14 showed anything, it was that that the death of someone like Rafik Hariri could alter age-old sectarian reflexes. Other developments, short of death, might too. Everything from introducing civil marriage to creating a civil category where citizens are identified not by their religious sect, but as members of an officially recognized secular community, must be tried.

The mechanisms of the sectarian state are cumbersome, and demoralizing when the political murder that the Lebanese are commemorating today seems to radiate much discord amid the concord. But Lebanon's "arrangement" has its assets, which we should bear in mind while mentally reviewing the past year. Hariri and all the others surely didn't deserve to die, but the system remains greater than the sum of its parts, and the sum of its deaths.

In other words, Michael's position is similar to mine, and I would say similar to Raja's. The system has its faults, some of which can perhaps be amended and improved, but overall, it is not only a resilient reality, it is, or can be, a good arrangement. Here I quote my friend and fellow blogger Stacey Yadav, who recently wrote the following:

The most compelling argument I've encountered this year about consociational institutions in Lebanon is Samir Khalaf's "Civil and Uncivil Violence in Lebanon." In this book (Princeton, 2002), he argues that institutional power sharing did not cause the war, and that those who claim that it did (and thus disparage Taif for only modifying the principle of power-sharing without full deconfessionalization) are taking a short view of history. Instead, he presents what I found to be considerably compelling evidence of at least 5 different institutional agreements (each with a different confessional balance) that were applied to CONTAIN conflict. In effect, for Khalaf, skewed representation (at one point, Muslim overrepresentation, then Christian overrepresentation, etc...) is the required cost of civil peace.
I guess this means that what I would say, were I asked, would be something like, "we can adjust ratios and we can deconfessionalize much of the civil service, but the core confessional agreement is there to protect us all."

The last paragraph resonates with what Michael proposed, regarding civil marriage or establishing a quota in Parliament for independents not wishing to run according to Communal categories. This is certainly not uncommon, as my other friend (and ace, when it comes to these comparative institutional arrangements) Jonathan Edelstein has shown on his blog:

The models to which Lebanon might look in representing the secular population include not only Fiji but New Zealand. The New Zealand political system has consociational elements in that the Maori are entitled to separate electoral representation, but individual Maori can choose for themselves whether to register on the communal roll or the general roll. The number of Maori electorates is, in turn, determined by the number of voters who register on the communal roll. In Lebanon, voters could likewise be permitted to choose whether to register as members of a confessional group or simply as Lebanese, with open parliamentary seats being distributed in proportion to those who make the latter choice. This would enable the Lebanese to choose the pace at which to implement non-sectarian politics, which is itself a long-term goal of Taif.

I could go on and talk more about mechanisms of consociationalism (esp. as they relate to conflict resolution or post-conflict societies. See on that the excellent essay [pdf] by Helga Binningsbo, and what it says about grand coalitions, for instance.) or deal more in depth with power-sharing (on which I'm currently reading several items), but I think the way it was presented by Michael and Stacey sums it up rather well.

But I will point to a recent article by Barry Rubin in the Journal of Democracy (17.1 [2006] 51-62). The article is entitled "Dealing with Communalism." Although the section on Lebanon is rather poor, especially when it comes to statistics, Rubin raises some of the points we've been discussing:

But the communal factor can also act as a force that makes democracy more viable. The parties and groups that communities organize to represent their interests within the arena of democratic political competition are likely to be far larger and stronger than the existing tiny nongovernmental organizations and individual intellectuals who currently serve as the most visible advocates of reform within Middle Eastern societies. If and when these large parties and groups begin to grasp that they will need to make deals among themselves in order for each to have the best chance of securing its own interests, the temptation to grasp after total power will become less intense and the pluralism and tolerance that representative government requires will take root.

Although of course, what Michael has proposed is to create an opening and safeguard a space for these organizations and individuals within the communal system.

Essentially, Rubin acknowleges reality on the ground, which is what I try to do. My point has always been that Communalism need not be mutually exclusive with a strong overarching Lebanese identity. In fact, we have seen this quite clearly in Lebanon especially now with the slogan of "Lebanon first" which is dominating the political discourse, even as communalism remains strong.

This is one of my main points of contention with contemptuous Lebanon bashers. Their notion of nationhood, I argue, is actually a throwback to 19th c. European "volkish" organic states. Thus, the Lebanese are doomed, because their primary identities are communal, and the national identity is interpreted through that lens. My point is that the understanding of the Lebanese state should follow a different model. It should be seen as more "contractual." Lebanon as a state is the sum of its communities. That is why Lebanonist narratives such as the "haven of minorities" are actually quite true and insightful in their explanation of the notion of Lebanon as a homeland.

At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding: Lebanon, despite the disaparaging attacks on its openly communal system, has provided an overarching Lebanese identity which crystallized in the demonstrations on March 14 (alongside its communalism) and again on February 14, 2006 (and even in the March 8 rally, where a point was made by brandishing only Lebanese flags). Meanwhile, when it comes to the control model of Syria, which is supposedly non-sectarian (a laughable falsehood if there ever was one), we are hearing apologists telling us that if Assad should fall, the communities would massacre each other. (On the engineering and manipulation of Syrian national identity and pride by the regime, see this piece by Hazem Saghieh.)

For more (not fully thought out) musings on the issue of "Lebanon first," and the emerging "patriotisms," see Jihad el-Zein's latest piece.

Ghassan Tueni also seems to be thinking about these matters in his latest op-ed. He proposes seriously thinking about implementing the two clauses in the Taef Accord dealing with the establishment of an Upper House (bicameralism) and a committee to look into the possibilities of phasing out the communal system altogether. The first point is something I have proposed before (and don't bother looking for a real argument about it in Tueni's piece). I think such an institutional arrangement could address some of our outstanding issues. However, beyond readjusting ratios, the power of each Chamber needs to be discussed (I may post a brief note on this shortly). As for the second point raised by Tueni, I think we can establish whatever we want, I don't think it would lead anywhere anytime soon. No one in Lebanon is challenging the power-sharing formula at this stage, even if there are complaints about certain aspects that seem to paralyze the government (which, by the way, is not necessarily because of Communalism in the strict sense. We see this in all coalition-based systems. Raja points out Germany for instance. Interestingly, the rationale behind the system in Germany is similar to the one in Lebanon: preventing the rise of a dictatorship. See Marcus Walker and David Crawford, "Germany's Political Crisis Has U.S. Roots; State Governors Wield Veto Power in Post-World War II System to Prevent Rise of Dictator." Wall Street Journal. Sep 21, 2005. pg. A.10).

This leads me to another issue. Rubin writes in his article:

Yet a pluralist jostle of communalist groups, each seeking to promote each its own vision of life and set of interests, could become not an impediment but actually an avenue toward the growth of democratic modes and orders in the Arab world.

Two points: 1) I would like to focus on the "vision of life and set of interests" part. And 2) I want to strongly dispell the notion that the "communalist groups" are monolithic, and have a single vision or a single set of interests, or a single representative party.

One thing we're seeing today in Lebanon is that despite the communal aspects, the debate is really about policy. Furthermore, the parties are not fully representatives of their respective sects. So there is no full identification between a certain policy and sect. Although, that danger exists, and it is inherent in the perilous call for a cabinet of "poles" (advocated by Hizbullah and Aoun). Remarking on the latter approach, and the behavior of HA in the cabinet at the time, Rafiq Khoury, in an op-ed in the Lebanese daily Al-Anwar on 12/2/05, wrote:

The most dangerous kind of political pluralism is the collection of closed, complete "units" [i.e., unitary poles]. And the worst kind of consensual democracy is "consensus" on what is imposed by a strong party. What we are implementing today is the most dangerous and the worst, in a very critical stage.

Perhaps the following remarks by Ghassan Tueni are also relevant and shed more light on the limits of some consociational provisions, especially the grand coalition (see Jonathan's remarks here):

National dialogue, for it to be democratic, does not mean "everyone agreeing on everything." This is impossible humanly and systemically. Besides, it almost paves the way to estbalishing a totalitarian, i.e., dictatorial, system.

This brings back to mind Michael's note on "difference" in the Lebanese system. It also recalls something found in another approach to pluralist societies: the Integrative Approach, advocated by Donald Horowitz (author of Ethnic Groups in Conflict, [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985]).

The most intriguing aspect of the Integrative Approach is its reliance on inter-group cooperation, fostering political organization that cross-cuts communal loyalties. I think we do see that now in Lebanon. More important in my view, is the encouragement of intra-communal competition. I believe this is key for Lebanon, and it is the reason I strongly oppose a cabinet of "poles" whereby each sect would be represented by one party. It is also why I think the situation in the Shiite community, encouraged by the 2000 electoral law, is a travesty.

Ironically, the champion of this approach in Lebanon has been MP Dr. Farid el-Khazen. It is ironic because he is a member of the Aounist parliamentary bloc! He recently reiterated his position:

Each Christian party has its position and role, and this kind of diversity is normal. The domination by one faction of a whole confessional community would be an abnormal situation. The communities are today lacking in equilibrium.

This political diversity needs to be replicated and encouraged in Lebanon. Ideally, it would lead to inter-group cooperation based on views and programs. It would also prevent the paralysis brought on by grand coalitions, if these coalitions represented communities by one party per community, whereby one party monopolizes the community's representation. Under those circumstances, any disagreement or non-cooperation with that particular party would translate into an isolation of an entire community, and increase communal tensions.

As you can see, my inclination (based on closer observation of Lebanese political practice) is towards a complex power-sharing formula that essentially combines elements of both approaches. I believe that, and not the complete abolition of the communal system, is the option we should be exploring. And so I join Michael in telling my Lebanese colleagues: Lebanon's "arrangement" has its assets, and the system remains greater than the sum of its parts.

Better still, let me end with a verse from a song by Ziad Rahbani: "Oh Generation whose heart aches for its country, trying to fix the hell out of it. The country works as is; it is what it is!"

(يا جيل قلبه على بلده قاعد يظبط بسماه بلد ظابط مثل ما هو هيدا هو هيدا اياه)

It is time for us to "grasp," as Michael put it, that our system "rests on the insistent articulation of differences." It's one of the basic premises of identity. Differences, if properly managed, don't necessarily negate a nation.