Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Forget coexistence, try liberty

Lebanese marching to demand an end to the confessional system.

Lebanon's 2013 election law has stirred some debate, which has so far focused on different scenarios of gerrymandering. Each sectarian bloc has tried to pitch the draft it deems most favorable for its reelection chances. Debaters have not gone beyond talking numbers and have certainly not touched on the idea of reconsidering the founding philosophy of the state. If justice is everybody's goal, why not consider dropping the archaic millet coexistence system and replacing it with a non-sectarian democracy?


Lebanon's founding fathers endorsed coexistence as a way to prevent what is called the "tyranny of the majority." As the "rule of the majority," it was feared democracy would become a tool in the hands of whichever sect had the biggest number of voters.


Minorities, mainly Christians, reasoned that without constitutional barriers, the Muslims could eventually reconfigure the tenets of the state and transform it into an Islamic one in which Christians would be treated as second-class citizens, or dhimmis.


Christian fears were partially justified. They had lived five centuries as dhimmi subjects of the Ottoman Sultanate, during which time they were kept out of government jobs and could not run for office. At times, the Druze – then Christians – of Mount Lebanon leaned on world powers to win autonomy from the Ottomans. The Christians feared that in an independent Lebanon with a possible Muslim majority, they would be downgraded back to second-class subjects.


Thus was born the idea of Christian-Muslim coexistence, wherein Muslims agreed to concede their numerical superiority and share governance with the Christians. First formulated in 1943 with a slight advantage for Christians and later amended in the 1989 Taif Accord to make power-sharing even, coexistence was enshrined in the constitution.


But coexistence, as the basis of Lebanese democracy, can be scrapped if the Lebanese can cultivate the concept of liberty, which in a democracy protects the inalienable rights of the individual, regardless of faith, gender or sexual orientation, to free speech, freedom of worship and running for office.


Liberty stops any possible overarching role that the democratically elected majority government might play. With liberty, equality between the Lebanese is guaranteed before the law, and Christians, or whatever minority, will not be haunted by demographics.


Liberty also scraps the oxymoronic "consensus democracy." While consensus requires the approval of everyone, democracy is the rule of the majority. How some Lebanese think that consensus and democracy can go together is incomprehensible.


Finally, when majority and minority are based on dynamic political platforms rather than fixed demographic ratios, an elected majority can be held accountable for its performance and might lose its majority support among the population.


Liberty is an essential component of any successful democracy and is the antidote of the "tyranny of the majority." It strikes a delicate balance, and should be used carefully.


Too much liberty, as advocated by Libertarians, might shrink the government to the extent that people might find themselves fighting for their survival and policing their neighborhoods. Too little liberty – like in most Arab countries, democratic and autocratic – and citizens will find the government intruding on their private space, dictating their belief systems, making their financial choices, and perhaps deciding who can marry whom.


If coexistence is scrapped and replaced with liberty, the Lebanese will become equal in rights and responsibilities, and there will be no need for sectarian constitutional quotas, or the never-ending fight over adjusting these quotas every decade or so.


In 2013 parliamentary elections, Lebanon – whose population of four million can fit into half of Cairo – can become one district. This will kill gerrymandering. Then to guarantee that most voices are heard in parliament, proportional representation can be adopted. The biggest bloc will form a cabinet that will govern as long as it maintains a simple majority coalition in parliament or until the end of its four-year term.


Minorities who think such a scenario is far-fetched and that they can rest their fears only when they see their coreligionists in parliament and government, should note that Lebanon's long-praised coexistence has yet to show its merits.


In 70 years since independence, coexistence has failed to stop two civil wars, in 1958 and 1975, and various smaller scale sectarian rounds of violence like in May 2008.


In fact, coexistence has been such a failure that over the past decade, the biggest Christian bloc in parliament, which belongs to Free Patriotic Movement leader Michel Aoun, has grappled with laws that would supposedly guarantee "Christian rights," but with little success.


Despite his 10 ministers and two dozen MPs, Aoun still complains of Christian fear and under-representation, and so do other sects, including the most militarily powerful, the Shiites, and the one the controls the biggest parliamentary bloc, the Sunnis.


Coexistence never allayed the fears of the various Lebanese sects, and never will. Perhaps it is time to forget coexistence and try liberty, which might put Lebanon in front – again – as the leading state in Arab democracy.


Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington Bureau Chief of Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Rai. He tweets at @hahussain


Lebanese marching to demand an end to the confessional system. Lebanon can only have a democracy once sect is not an issue. (AFP photo)

n 70 years since independence, coexistence has failed to stop two civil wars, in 1958 and 1975, and various smaller-scale sectarian rounds of violence like in May 2008.

  • Beiruti

    الى مغوار@ As I wrote, it is the leadership who is insistent on the ascendency of sectarianism over liberty. Among the people of Lebanon there is a Brotherhood, not an Islamic Brotherhood but a national Lebanese Brotherhood. It is born of all of our people having been subjected first to invasion by outsiders and then subjegation by a pseudo political class that has been more beholden and representative of foreign patron sponsors than to the people of Lebanon. When the people finally through off the yoke of this political class, maybe freedom will have a chance. But only look south to Egypt. The Egyptian people revolted against their ancient regime only to get a more ancient regime as the Islamic Brotherhood has usurped the Tareer Square Revolution. Christianity was not reformed by the Pope in Rome deciding to give up temporal powers. No, it was a lowly monk in Germany who started the Protestant Reformation that lifted the heavy temporal hand of the Catholic Church off of the affairs of State. So to with Islam, do not expect reform to be top down, it will have to be from the people up to the leaders and they will have to be made to read the writing on the wall. The civil marriage issue in Lebanon is, I think the earthquake that may finally take Lebanon out of the dark and murkey past of secularism and into the 21st Century of being a modern self governing representative state living under the Rule of Law.

    January 31, 2013

  • الى مغوار

    Dear BEIRUTI, Liberty will never be served. It has to be earned. It starts with inter-sectarian trust, and the small circle then expands. Look at the civil marriage group on FB. It won more than 15,000 members of Lebanese who have married the civil way in less than two days. Mufti and his fatwa are old news, and I'm not the only one writing against sectarianism and in favor of liberty and equality. Many voices are rising. If the Arab Spring sends Lebanon a whiff, let it be secularism, liberty and a civil state.

    January 30, 2013

  • Beiruti

    As a Christian, and a Westerner, what Mr. Abdul-Hussain has to say makes perfect sense, but only in a perfect world. Unless the Moslem people of Lebanon have broken the gravitational force of their religion and are ready to accord everyone equal rights on the basis of their being an individual human being and not of any particular religious persuasion, which is a very Western concept, then sure. But one only has to look at Qabbani's reaction to the civil marriage proposal to see that, at least with the leadership, we are not yet in a perfect world where liberty will reign over the doctrines of the majority confessional group, whose leadership, anyway, views the faith's holy scripture, the Koran, as not only the inspired word of Allah, but as a political manifesto as well. For liberty to rein in Lebanon, Islam will have to undergo the transformation that Christiandom did to separate out Church from State, to get the clergy out of the affairs of State and thus to insure that governments by the consent of the govern arise and are responsive to the people. Then liberty can be assured and serve as the basis for the Lebanese state. Until then, there will be the necessity for guarantying the rights of the people of the minority confessional groups with the Taif formula expressed in a Lebanese Senate.

    January 29, 2013