Michael Young

Divided we stand

What communal popularity in Lebanon really means

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (L) speaks as Free Patriotic Movement Leader Michel Aoun listens during a new round of national dialogue at the parliament building in downtown Beirut on September 9, 2015.

It’s revealing that a common notion in Lebanese politics during the past two decades has been frequently ignored. The notion is that the most popular politician in each community is entitled to take over the highest post reserved for the community.


Yet when did that really apply? Presidents Elias Hrawi and Emile Lahoud could hardly claim to be popular in their communities—they didn’t even manage to win majorities in the municipal elections in their hometowns. Even Michel Sleiman, hardly a divisive figure, was never embraced by Maronites, so antipathetic was he to the supporters of Michel Aoun.


In the Muslim communities, things were different. Rafik Hariri was the preeminent Sunni figure when he was prime minister, and even when he wasn’t. After elections in 2005, the Shiite community made it clear in no uncertain terms that Nabih Berri was the communal choice for the speakership of parliament, and, therefore, that he was the man to elect.


Most Lebanese may not have heard of the principle of “Cuius regio, eius religio,” from the Peace of Augsburg, which put an end to a long period of conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the Holy Roman Empire. What it means, literally, is, “Whose realm, his religion.” In other words it was up to the prince to decide the religion of his principality. In Lebanon, we have this in reverse: If main posts in the state are principalities, it is for the communities to decide whom the prince should be.


But just as the Peace of Augsburg recognized the sovereignty of principalities, in Lebanon the belief that posts must be decided by communities for which they are reserved has reinforced communal sovereignty, at the expense of a unified Lebanese state. Increasingly, Lebanon is looking like a federalism of communities, generating the divisive reflexes that go with it.


Nowhere has that been more visible than in the continued disagreement over a presidential candidate. One of the major arguments against Sleiman Franjieh is that he does not enjoy the same communal backing as Michel Aoun, therefore he is not as legitimate a candidate. Indeed, that was the subject of disagreement in the dialogue session this week, when Franjieh and Gebran Bassil got into an altercation over representation.


Who was right? Franjieh insisted that he had communal representation, and could point to the fact that if an open election were held today, he would win a majority. In other words he had legitimacy within his own community, but also could appeal across confessional lines to non-Christians. Given that the president’s role, according to the constitution, is to be a “symbol of the nation’s unity,” Franjieh’s argument was strong.


However, Bassil could point to the fact that if a president symbolizes national unity, then a prerequisite of this is that he be able to speak for his own community, not simply satisfy the representatives of non-Christian communities. He could also recall that when Saad Hariri was ousted in 2011 by Hezbollah and Aoun, the Sunnis felt that this undermined a pillar of Lebanon’s consensual power-sharing system. That would not explain why the Aounists helped remove Hariri, but it would sustain their argument that Aoun merits to be president.


However, the record since the end of the war in 1990 is one of rank hypocrisy. Representation has invariably been a function of political power plays. When the Syrians turned against Rafik Hariri in 1998, he was removed from office. When they, the Aounists and Hezbollah did so against Saad Hariri in 2011, he too had to walk. For 26 years Christian preferences have been largely dismissed, because the community did not have the means, let alone the unity, to impose its choices.


Only Berri has time and again embodied the idea that the communal choice for a top post must be endorsed by other communities, and only because he was supported by Hezbollah.


There is no easy solution to this dilemma, because the three top posts in the state, by definition, must represent the whole nation, not merely their communities. And yet when some communities have backed candidates for reserved posts, they have usually justified their decision by insisting that their favorite enjoyed, above all, communal legitimacy.


Perhaps the dilemma comes from the fact that Lebanese have lost all sense of their nation’s meaning. When the National Pact was devised in 1943, it was understood that the sectarian system, at least in theory, would gradually be eased out as national unity became more predominant. This was often repeated by a noted ideologue of the Lebanese system, Michel Chiha. He wrote, “the Lebanese must govern in such a way as to alleviate the paradox of their situation; they must ‘last’ long enough to reach a state of ‘permanent’ equilibrium.”


This was a circular way of saying that the divided Lebanese system needed time for the factors pushing toward unification to anchor themselves. Yet the reality is that throughout the past decades, especially after the war began in 1975, the centrifugal forces in society have become stronger, so that today the state is more a loose alliance of communities, whose realities are defined by who has power, than a budding united system.  


Until the Lebanese better define the state they want, problems such as the disconnect between communal popularity and national legitimacy will continue. Chiha could just as easily have spoken of Lebanon’s schizophrenia in place of its paradoxes—that of a country that cannot decide to be one or many.   


Michael Young is a writer and editor in Beirut. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

Lebanese Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri (L) speaks as Free Patriotic Movement Leader Michel Aoun listens during a new round of national dialogue at the parliament building in downtown Beirut on September 9, 2015.

Perhaps the dilemma comes from the fact that Lebanese have lost all sense of their nation’s meaning.

  • Beiruti

    Yes, Hanibaal, there is some form of consensus to hold the Lebanese national territory together, both domestically and among her neighbors. The state and its institutions have failed, again. They failed before during the militia era 1975-1991. There was an attempt to revive the state while it remained under Syrian and Israeli Occupation, but the attempt failed when the occupations ended, the Israeli in 2000 and the Syrian in 2005. Hezbollah has since usurped the powers and prerogatives of state institutions. Yet, through it all, Lebanon has remained as a nation. The deaf to portion of Lebanon between Syria and Israel eventually failed of its own weight. But for a political class that has mortgaged the state to regional powers and international powers, selling the states sovereignty, the State may well have revived by now. But the State cannot now rise, since there is confrontation regionally and internationally between and among Lebanon's mortgages. It is now a zero sum game. Tje election of anyone means a win for one patron and an equal loss for the others, so things in the Presidency stay frozen, and with that, all State institutions stay frozen. Confessionalism is not the culprit here, it's merchantiism.

    March 14, 2016

  • Beiruti

    Lebanon as a state may have already failed, but somehow, there is a consensus that the failure not be acknowledged domestically, and that the parts of the carcass not be annexed by the neighbors. There is a de facto element to the federation that is Lebanon today as well as a de facto element to the fact that it holds together inside of its internationally recognized bounds. The regional power structure is such that no part of Lebanon can be assimilated into the neighbor's property. Israel wants Southern Lebanon?? Really, they tried that once and it was not to be had. Syria wants the Bekaa and the North?? With all of those Sunnis and all of the history of independence that the Lebanese have enjoyed for so long, what would Syria do with it? And will Syria hold together? What is Syria now days? There was a country that did away with religion so that its Alawite autocrat could rule. Did it do any better holding together than confessionalist Lebanon?? Actually, Lebanon has held together better than secularist Syria, as an artificial San Remo, Sykes-Pecot nation. So which model is the superior, confessionalist Lebanon or secularist Syria? Given the neighborhood it seems that the confessionalist model has stood the test of time better.

    March 12, 2016

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Wishful thinking... "Somehow, there is a consensus...."? Is this your argument? That the carcass is holding together does not change the fact that it is a carcass. You don't seem to have a coherent idea, as you contradict yourself within the same sentence. Holding on to a dead loved one will not revive the loved one. That Lebanon has held together is not because of a common will by the Lebanese themselves, but because this is what the puppeteers behind the Lebanese puppets want. As you say, Syria itself is likely to no longer exist as we know it, so don't push the argument of "why would Syria want the Sunnis of Lebanon?" As long as the majority of people in the streets of the Arab world do not understand how states function, the nature of their own individual relationship with their state, and how to manage and operate diversity, most states in the Arab world (and Africa for that matter) will continue to be cesspools of despotism, failure and dysfunctionality. Until then, perhaps entities with more homogeneous societies and/or clear majorities (> 80% of any one brand) will have a better chance at modernizing and exiting the cesspool. In Lebanon, if a reformer calls for reforms, people first ask "What religion is he?" before looking at his/her proposed reforms, which is then followed by 1- automatic hostility from all the other sects, AND WORSE 2- hostility from within his/her own community because he/she is challenging the status quo. On the other hand, if you have a homogeneous society, the bulk of the obstacles to reform and genuine modernization is eliminated. Just look around you in Lebanon: even the civil society movement is divided between Muslims and Christians; there are Muslim hiking clubs and Christian hiking clubs.... Christian scouts and Muslim scouts.... and this is in "enlightened Lebanon".

    March 14, 2016

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Lebanon, as we know it, cannot be put back together. It is an artificial creation which, for most of its 90 year-old history, has been a dysfunctional entity surviving mostly on inflows from emigrants and expats, and exploited Gulf Arabs. The religious sects-particularly the Muslim sects because of cultural under-development and historical reasons-have abrogated whatever power the State might have had during the brief interlude of the 1940s-1960s. Prior to the 1940s, the Muslims never wanted to be part of Lebanon but were forcibly dragged into it. After the 1960s, the Muslims leveraged the armed Palestinian movements to mount their uprising against the Lebanese State to which they never had any allegiance. Ninety years is a blip in the scheme of history, and what exists today is not immutable. As long as religion remains the primary definer of identity, a Lebanese identity is non-existent and a mere illusion. Today's Lebanon is an ephemeral byproduct of historical circumstances. I blame the Maronite Church for forcing the hands of the French in the 1920s to annex the Syrian provinces of Tripoli, Bekaa, Hermel and Jabal Amel into the autonomous Mount Lebanon province of the Ottoman Empire and create the fallacy of Greater Lebanon. Just as the Zionists were creating a viable (i.e. expansionist) Jewish homeland in Palestine by re-inventing lost myths from 2,000 years prior, the Maronite Church wanted to create a viable (i.e. expansionist) Christian homeland in Lebanon by resurrecting the myth of the Phoenicians who, ironically, were even more divided as independent city-states than the Lebanese clans and sects. Just as demographics are working against the Zionists, the demographics of Lebanon have already dismantled the Maronite Church's project, which explains why today's Lebanese Christians have to beg the Muslims for crumbs of political power. Israel is doomed to fail, but Greater Lebanon has already failed. Time to think of alternatives.

    March 12, 2016

  • Beiruti

    To say that there is a power vacuum in Lebanon is incorrect. There is a vacuum in the institutions of State which are supposed to be the vessels for the exercise of power in the Nation, but there is no power vacuum in the nation. Power abhors a vacuum and Lebanon is no exception. That there are no functioning institutions of State simply means that the power of the State lies elsewhere. The power lies in the religious communities and their respective political manifestations. For the Shia, with Hezbollah, for the Sunni with Mustaqbel, for the Druze with the PSP and for the Christians, it is with the four winds since the Christians have never unified behind one political party. Even during the war when Bashir Gemayel forced the union of the Christian militias under the Lebanese Forces, by strong arm tactics when necessary, the Marada of the Frangieh clan never joined. The Ahrar only by force and intimidation imposed by the Kataeb. So now, Christian political power is diffuse in the various parties and so the Christians have no strong personality like Hariri or Berri. In the short term, this is disabling, however, in the long run, the diversity within the Christian political camp is a strength. When Berri leaves the scene or Hariri, or Jumblatt, those communities will be in disarray as the issues of succession have always been the most difficult for Moslem leaders, just look at the Sunni-Shia divide and tell me that the core issue there was not one of succession to power. Putting the State back together is hampered by the fact that the religious communities have arrogated the powers of the state to their various communities and work though the "dialogue sessions" to coordinate what is a de facto federated entity. Putting Lebanon back together will be a more difficult task than putting Syria back together because Lebanon functions in its divided state whereas Syria does not.

    March 10, 2016