A couple of weeks ago, I was at a seminar where Geir O. Pedersen was main speaker. Pedersen is shifting from UN special envoy to Norwegian foreign ministry employee, which is why I suppose he felt more comfortable talking freely about the situation in the Middle East (although he did categorically refuse to comment on the suspected nuclear activity in Syria). I was pleasantly surprised to hear the man speak, elegantly and intelligently, on Lebanon and its various players.

He said what many understand by now: that the tension in Lebanon can only be resolved through diplomatic efforts on the Israeli-Syrian front and the Iranian-American front. His opinion was that Obama should strike the weakest link — Syria-Israel — and things will have a better chance to unfold. As far as Hizballah is concerned, he said two things. One, that they really did not expect Israel’s reaction in 2006 and, two, that Hizballah are the only ones who mean something in Lebanon (from the international politics point of view, as I understand).

Notwithstanding, I thought his analysis had a severe limitation that primarily had to do with where he comes from: a UN and a “statist” perspective. At one point, he characterized Lebanon as a place of contradictions between, for example, a modern democracy and a clanish/feudal system. My historical understanding of the clanish/feudal system is that it is part and parcel of our form of modern democracy and that is precisely why it is so difficult to get rid off.

Then, discussing Hizballah’s weapons, he explained that he had said to Hizballah (waving a disciplinary finger): you cannot decide in matters of peace and war, it is the government who should (not verbatim). The main question here is: is it possible to talk about “government” as if it was a neutral arbitrator of the affairs of the people? When sectarianism is so ingrained in the system, is the government not a sectarian player or conglomeration of players? Is this not at the heart of the problem of why the only “appellation” (to crudely use the already crude Althusser) that people collectively respond to is sect? Is it even possible to speak of politics in Lebanon without speaking of sects?

I see the two problems — of seeing sectarianism as a historic residue and of thinking of the government as neutral arbitrator — as related. Pedersen indirectly acknowledged that when he went through the different players in Lebanon: the Christians, the Sunni, the Shia. No government there. That he then moved to speak of “the government” in the case of Hizballah’s weapons is an indication that he does not grasp the depths to which sectarianism is rooted in our so-called democracy and that the two forms — of sectarianism and democracy — comfortably inhabit the same space.