Parliamentary deliberations over what became known as the Orthodox Law proposal have consumed much of the political and media scene recently. Proponents and opponents of the proposal exchanged accusations that exposed the fragile nature of current political alliances and reinstated the sociological premise that defines our Middle Eastern context. Absent a viable secular formula, ultimate identity remains religious and ultimate loyalty sub-national or communal.
Irrespective of the motives of those advocating for the Orthodox proposal and whether it is an absolute good or evil, what follows is corrective to some of the excesses and stereotypes that were attributed to it.
1- The law had been proposed long before the Orthodox Gathering. While former deputy parliament speaker Elie Ferzli gave public traction to the proposal by introducing it based on his political leverage under the Orthodox Gathering (al-Liqa’ al-Orthodoxi), a thorough archival search points elsewhere. Back in September of 1997, An-Nahar published the proposal under the signature of the Lebanese Orthodox Assembly (al-Tajamo’ al-Lubnani al-Orthodoxi) presided by Lutfallah Khlat. In 2005, the assembly handed its proposal to the Fouad Boutros Commission and republished it in An-Nahar in March of 2008. Even well before that date, it was reported that the late jurist Edmond Naim raised the principles of the proposal in the 1960s. The Maronite League then brought it back to the fore in the 1980s.
2- As presented by the Lebanese Orthodox Assembly, the proposal respected the rights of those wishing to identify outside religious boundaries by setting up “register 19” to which secular voters would subscribe and eventually elect their candidates based on the allotted number of secular seats. Human rights are not only about freedom of religion but also freedom of belief for the secular or atheist. That is an important milestone that was missed in Ferzli’s Orthodox Gathering proposal. Pending the implementation of articles 22 and 95 of the constitution that call for the formation of a senate after the election of the first assembly on a national non-confessional basis and exploring measures toward deconfessionalization, register 19 sets the stage for efficiently computing the secular pulse in the country.
3- While the Orthodox proposal limits the free expression of the will of voters by restricting their voting to their own confession, elsewhere, by treating Lebanon as a single electoral district, it offers them an equal weight in voting irrespective of their geographical presence. As such, not only can an Orthodox from Koura run in North Metn (as with the current system), he may additionally vote for another Orthodox running in North Metn.
4- The Orthodox proposal consecrates the tripartite repartition of power (al-Mouthalatha). This is an unfounded claim. If anything, the proposal respects Article 24 of the constitution that allots seats on a 5:5 ratio between Christians and Muslims until parliament puts forth a non-confessional electoral law. Tripartite repartition of power happens under PM Miqati’s cabinet proposal where proportionality would offer confessions a share concurrent to their size. Meaning, based on 2011 voter registration data, Christians would get 38.2% of the seats (around 46 MPs). Under the Orthodox proposal, Christians would claim 50% of the seats (64 MPs) and proportionality assumes a political nature, not confessional. Hence, the proportionality of the Orthodox proposal would ensure that no one sizable Christian party for instance, would engulf his constituency exclusively. It remains to be seen how many seats independent liberal Shiites would grab from the Amal-Hezbollah partnership under a proportional Orthodox Law.
5- Since the end of the war in 1990, electoral laws have practically resulted in misrepresentation among the confessions. While the constitution divided parliamentary seats equally between Christians and Muslims, in practical terms, Christians were underrepresented and Muslims were overrepresented, taking into account the Christian MPs beholden to Muslim constituencies. While misrepresentation affected Muslim and Christian seats alike, its impact on the latter was more profound than on the former. Short of a constitutional amendment that would revisit the 5:5 ratio, it is not an “isolationist” measure for Christians to claim what is rightfully theirs.
6- The Orthodox proposal contradicts the pact of conviviality (Mithaq al-Aysh al-Moushtarak) and leads to inter-Christian fighting. What undermines coexistence among communities most, equality or misrepresentation? Does it serve the pact and national stability if one community feels disadvantaged with respect to others? Electoral determination predominates within communities, not across them. Otherwise, minorities would succumb to the tyranny of the majority or armed minorities would dictate the fate of majorities.
Similarly, the logic of inter-Christian fighting stands no more. During the war, Christians, like non-Christians, were heavily armed. Political disagreement often evolved into military confrontation between and within the warring parties.
Today, the war is no more, and Christians, if not the majority of Lebanese, have proven mature enough in conducting two rounds of elections in 2005 and 2009 with no major security incidents accompanying them, notwithstanding the acute polarization and assassinations that preceded and ensued.
7- The Orthodox proposal is a “backward” measure reminiscent of the Mutasarrifiyya (the Governorate of Mount Lebanon under the Ottoman Empire, 1861-1920). If an analogy with that epoch is to be made, the result would not be as bleak as one imagines. According to Turkish Historian Engin Akarli, the Mutasarrifiyya “emerge[d] as a tranquil period that deserves to be called the longest span of internal peace in modern Lebanese history. This was also a period of reconciliation and sociopolitical integration.” One can argue that under an Orthodox Law tension between communities would be transformed to competition within them, ending decades of legislative impunity (for MPs beholden to other communities) and ushering in a new era of cross-communal cooperation on pressing national issues.
8- Under the Orthodox proposal, MPs will entrench themselves within their respective communities and cease to be “deputies of the nation” as the constitution stipulates. This is another unfounded assertion. Under the current system, are the Maronite MPs of Becharre that are elected by an absolute Maronite constituency, not regarded as deputies of the nation, just like they are representatives of their Maronite sect in that district? The same logic applies to the Shiite MPs of Nabatiyeh. So how would the Orthodox proposal be any different?
Ultimately, the debate over the Orthodox proposal has pointed to inherent and structural problems in our political system and the need for its development. The system has repeatedly failed in addressing communal grievances and invited and nurtured regional problems, from pan-Arabism under Nasser to Iran’s Wilayet al-Faqih. In due course, one would hope that a constituent assembly undertaking the arduous task of developing the system is truly representative of each community’s fears and concerns. That is why a fair electoral law is always warranted. Yet, with an Iranian-backed Hezbollah armed to the teeth and a ravaging war in Syria that is shrinking Bashar al-Assad’s influence by the day, such a task should await a Sunni-Shiite settlement that is regionally formulated, internationally coordinated and domestically approved. In the meantime, and short of an agreement on an electoral law that satisfies all communities, the Lebanese should anticipate the risk of adjourning elections in June while avoiding the slip into the suicidal cauldron of civil strife.
Jean-Pierre Katrib is a Beirut-based university lecturer and human rights activist.
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