Michael Young

My brother, my enemy

Christian ambiguity toward Sunnis is real and risky

Supporters of Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun

Amid reports that Hezbollah may seek to impose Michel Aoun’s presidency on Lebanon’s political class, a subtext of this is the Christians’ relationship with the Sunni community in Lebanon and the Middle East.


The reason is that Aoun’s election, if indeed it happens, is not an end in itself. For Hezbollah, the general’s election would put him in a position to drive a process of constitutional revision. With his large Christian bloc, and in alliance with the Shiite blocs, Aoun could announce that Taif needs to be modified. For Hezbollah, a new constitution is needed to protect the party’s interests at a time when Sunnis feel increasingly empowered by the declining fortunes of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.


The party understands that if Assad were to go, Lebanon’s Sunnis would be electrified, making it all but impossible for Hezbollah to pursue an independent agenda on behalf of Iran. At the least demands for the party’s disarmament would rise, posing an existential threat that Hezbollah will not allow.


That is why the party seeks a constitutional transformation and abandonment of Taif. The often-mentioned solution is for a change in sectarian representation in parliament, the government, and the civil service from a 50-50 breakdown of Christians to Muslims to one of thirds — with roughly a third of positions reserved for Maronites, a third for Sunnis, and a third for Shiites, with smaller sects distributed within this framework.


The rationale is that Shiites and Christians would form a structural majority of two-thirds over Sunnis, retaining control over the political system and ensuring that any backlash from events in Syria will not seriously affect Hezbollah’s fortunes.


From the Christians’ perspective, however, what is there to gain from seeing their representation decrease from half the shares in the state to a third? On its own, nothing. But proponents of a division of thirds see things differently. In addition to the purported long-term security such a deal would bring Christians, they would also endorse in exchange for being granted greater decentralization, a clause in Taif that was never implemented.


In fact, in their recent joint declaration, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces both denounced the “incomplete” implementation of Taif and, in Article 14, stated their commitment to “administrative decentralization.” In a key clause they also endorsed financial decentralization, which Taif does not mention, declaring their support for the “transfer of a large share of the prerogatives of the central administration, in particular those related to development, to elected decentralized authorities in accord with the rules, and the securing of [self-generated] revenues necessary for this.” 


Christian fear and resentment of the Sunnis is very disturbing, but is linked to regional developments as well as past frustrations. The progress of Sunni extremists in Syria has alarmed Lebanon’s Christians, and the fate of their brethren in Iraq and Syria has only increased their anxieties. This reaction, however, has been without nuance. Rarely do Christians pause to see the extent to which opponents of the Sunnis have been been responsible for the rise in extremism.


Then there is the longstanding antipathy directed against the Future Movement and Rafiq Hariri’s legacy. To Christians, Taif replaced a system in which Christians were dominant with one in which they became marginalized. The embodiment of this, as many Christians see it, was Hariri himself, who dominated the postwar scene and, with regional and international backing, consolidated a system in which Christians felt they were being shunted aside. Again, this reading, along with the whitewash of the Syrian role in the sidelining of Christians, is crude, but it has resonance among quite a few in the community.


Part of the problem is that these views have been grafted onto past attitudes towards the Sunnis — always perceived as the dominant sect in the region with little tolerance for minorities. To Christians the Ottoman Empire was an instrument of Sunni domination. Similarly, Arab nationalism was later regarded as a mechanism for Sunni ascendancy in the guise of a secular ideology, while support for the Palestinian cause was a byword for a Sunni yearning to control Lebanon before the Civil War.


That’s not to say there were no Christian Ottomanists, Arab nationalists, or pro-Palestinians. But to many Christians all these ideologies or political positions were mainly a facade for Sunni sectarian ambitions and solidarity. And while it’s easy to mock Christian paranoia, Ottomanism, Arab nationalism and support for the Palestinians did frequently reflect, even personify, the attitudes of the Sunni majority in the region. 


That is why many Christians regarded Hariri’s political promotion in 1992 as a further stage in this process — the consequence of a political arrangement between the Assad regime in Syria and Saudi Arabia. When the Christian boycott of parliamentary elections in 1992 was ignored, it brought home to many in the community how inconsequential they had become.


Their bitterness, which Aoun has spent the last decade exploiting, never quite left, even if it is difficult to generalize. But Aoun’s success in mobilizing voters against Saad Hariri and the Future Movement in two elections, like Samir Geagea’s great sensitivity to seeing several of his parliamentarians brought into parliament thanks to Sunni votes, shows that the uneasiness with Sunnis is more widespread than we imagined.    


However, what Christians must not do is fall into the trap of imagining that an alliance with Shiites against the Sunnis is the solution. Other than the fact that it may undermine the principles of the Lebanese system of power-sharing and coexistence, it also implicitly means aligning with Hezbollah and Iran against a majority in the Arab world. The costs of such a foolish position are potentially very high, when Christians would do far better by maintaining close ties to all.


Between 1975 and 1984, Christians, by fighting the Palestinians and aligning with Israel, also found themselves isolated, against a Sunni majority in the region. The results were catastrophic and by 1990 they paid the heaviest price for peace in Lebanon. History teaches us a lot. Christians would do best to read it.


Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling

Supporters of Lebanese Christian leader Michel Aoun's opposition Free Patriotic Movement hold a placard reading in Arabic "Lebanon as we see it"(R) "Lebanon how they wish it to be" during a demonstration in downtown Beirut on 12 August 2015. (AFP/STR)

Aoun’s success in mobilizing voters against Saad Hariri and the Future Movement in two elections, like Samir Geagea’s great sensitivity to seeing several of his parliamentarians brought into parliament thanks to Sunni votes, shows that the uneasiness with Sunnis is more widespread than we imagined."

  • Petrossou

    Both Islams are the two faces of the same coin. I am not stating this with bad intentions, but we all know that according to Islam, religion and politics goes together. Therefore, Lebanon will always be sectarian and instead of trying to pretend we are looking for a secular way of running the country, we should accept the facts and history and keep the system as is. We have a democracy. It is not a perfect one, but we have it. It only needs to have a few constitutional amendments on the existing and it will work like a Swiss clock to suit the contemporary era we are living in. This said, no matter who is doing friends with whom, in no case should the 50-50 parliamentary system change and a few of the President's powers should be modified to make sure the state will not be blocked as it is today. The same should be done to the Prime minister position and the one of the MP president. I would even suggest, in order to have consistent ruling, a President should be elected along with his team, i.e. with HIS chosen Prime minister and chief of parliament. It will create more cooperation between the parties and will allow who ever is in power to exercise without the issues we face today. Every party that would like to see its candidates and project pass should build such team and present candidacy based on their program. That could be Aoun/Mikati/Berry against Geagea/Hariri/Chamseddine for example. Who ever would have won the legislative elections would be able to run the country until next elections. I truly believe that the majority of Lebanese have learned the lesson and are longing to see things settled. They all need to be reassured. It is not that difficult to make it if they all agree to stop looking abroad but think about their kids and those of their neighbors. Only together we grow. We do not need help. To close, Christians didn't cooperate with Israel to get on the Muslims, but to save Lebanon and whether Muslims like it or not they did save our country.

    August 31, 2015

  • ZizouZeGreat

    @ Hanibaal: Mr. Young had responded in advance to your text, when he described how Mr. Aoun has been exploiting the bitterness in his community for over a decade now. It works, because, I guess, bitterness die hard. It doesn't matter to you that Sunni leadership has been sharing blood (spilt by Iran's axis) with Christian leadership within March 14th since 2005. What matters is the history going back to 400 years ago. Bravo, way to go!

    August 29, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    @Zizou... You must be really naive to believe that 10 years are a long time in historical terms. One hundred years ago, the Sunnis did NOT want to be Lebanese. They wanted to be Syrians. Then they changed, and by the 1940s they were, as you say, "sharing blood" with the Christians. But their "love" for the Christians did not last. By the mid-1960s, the Lebanese Sunnis preferred Palestine to Lebanon, and Yasser Arafat to Sleiman Frangiyeh. The Sunnis then embarked (1960s-1980s) with their Palestinian and Druze militias to sack the State and destroy its institutions and massacre tens of thousands of Christians in the process until they got the crumbs Taef gave them in 1989. They continued working as the Syrian occupation's top dogs until late 2004 - early 2005 when the Syrians killed their own Sunni puppet Rafik Hariri. Again, they changed and become the Christians best pals. How do I know that the Sunnis won't change course again soon and prefer Daesh and the Caliphate to Lebanon? You see, my naive friend, the only reason the Sunnis today "share blood" with the Christians is because they are afraid of the Shiites. The Sunnis cling to the Christians because the Christians are their best protection against the Shiites. The Sunnis have no love for the Christians and they will ditch them the moment they can. Live and learn, they say. I have lived and learned, while you Zizou are still learning.

    August 29, 2015

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Let me summarize your argument: 1- The Christians have no alternative but to play Dhimmis because they are a minority. 2- Now they must choose who to play Dhimmis to: the Sunnis or the Shiites? 3- Because the Shiites are themselves a minority, then it would be a mistake for the Christians to cavort to another minority. They should learn from their past mistake of frolicking with the Israelis, another minority in the region, and 4- Therefore, the Christians should be wise enough to play Dhimmis to the majority Sunnis, because they (the Christians) did survive as good Dhimmis 400 years of Ottoman Sunni occupation. Thank you for the clarity. But the question in my mind really is: Which should be the priority to people: Survival or dignity? Dhimmitude or liberty? In any case, if neither Shiite nor Sunni domination is likely to be a walk in the park, the question fundamentally for the Christians is not a zero-sum equation, but more a matter of extent, of degree. I think most reasonable people would agree, given what the Sunnis fundamentalists are doing all around us, that a Shiite minority domination of the Christians would be far less oppressive than a Sunni domination, simply because 1. The Christians never really tried Shiite rule in their recent history, and 2. All past Sunni dominations have been disastrous, from Mameluk through Ottoman times, and the last devastating ruin of Lebanon between the 1960s-1980s when the Sunnis wrecked the state (as you so eloquently describe) supposedly to liberate Palestine or create Arab unity etc. etc.. Remember, if Lebanon has today any claim to have been a jewel of a country, it is because the Christians made it so when they had the upper hand between the 1930s and the 1960s.

    August 29, 2015

  • Beiruti

    So we are at a critical point and that is with the direction that events will take with the protests. If there is a roadmap back to legitimacy and if that roadmap can be navigated by the leaders of this movement without being hijacked by or exploited by Hezbollah to force a new regime, then this is one outcome. On the other hand, if their is no roadmap, if there is infiltration, then Lebanon will fall into renewed conflict and chaos.

    August 29, 2015

  • Beiruti

    I do not believe that we have reached the tipping point that Mr. Young discusses. Though, if we ever did reach that point the consequences would be as Mr. Young has described. But for now, I do not believe that Hezbollah can impose an Aoun Presidency on Lebanon. Hezbollah is not that powerful and Aoun is not that competent. The #Youstink Movement is supposed to be the latest vehicle for bringing down the remnants of the Taif Regime to make way for the Hezbollah project, but the energy behind #YouStink is against the entire corrupted political class which is personified by Aoun and his rapacious appetite for patronage and feasting on the people and their government for himself and his family. I cannot see the Lebanese embrace this corrupted demented old man as their engine of change to something new and clean. Hezbollah would have to force this condition on Lebanon and it is in no position now for that. At most, Hezbollah can continue to induce paralysis on the system through the agency of the Aounists. And this paralysis is building pressure within the system as the government can to provide basic services.

    August 29, 2015