Like everyone else, I have seen this year’s elaborate electoral programs being waved in opponents’ faces on TV and I have heard candidates calling them “civilized,” but I have not seen them widen the debate. There has been another less advertised move towards issue- rather than identity-politics this year: Lebanese Parliamentary Monitor (LPM). In its “A`mal al-nuwwab” section (from the main menu to the right) you can research MP’s to find out what they have been up to in parliament since 2005. The idea is that as a citizen, I can use this resource to hold politicians accountable for their performance. A wonderful idea, no doubt.
But there is another insidious aspect to this project that turns it into little more than an exercise in futility. The NGO behind the project, “Towards Citizenship” (Nahwa al-muwatiniyah), starts with a mistaken premise: that it is lack of political education and awareness that generates the system we have in Lebanon today. Taking “enlightenment” as a starting point, the NGO has several projects pursuing education, dialogue, and advocacy as means towards convincing Lebanese (with a focus on youth) that citizenship — rather than religion, clan, etc — should be the primary principle of identity in Lebanon.
The envisioned end product — a parliamentary democracy with all its trappings — has yielded positive results in some countries. But to pinpoint ignorance as the root cause of this product’s failure in Lebanon is misguided at best. People I know who make their political decisions based on sect are fully “aware” of what a parliamentary democracy is. Their sectarian politics is a choice and an ordering of priorities, not the result of some false consciousness. Moreover, pursuing the path of “enlightening the masses” dismisses the resilience of sectarian identity as the primary principle of modern identity in Lebanon. Temporally and institutionally, its roots in Lebanon go at least as far back as “citizenship.”
We have seen how political programs were easily transformed in the hands of sectarian politics into a charade of sorts. Any ambitions of moving beyond the stagnant instability of current politics and of taking alternatives beyond a fringe group of dissatisfied members of the middle classes needs to begin by taking sectarian identity seriously rather than relegating it to ignorance or historical residues. Otherwise, we might very well end up with the trappings without the democracy. In the mean time, the LPM is an invaluable source and it remains to be seen whether the statistics will be shaken up over the next four years. I, for one, do not have to make any difficult decisions this Sunday: the results in my electoral district are a foregone conclusion.
* Borrowing “العصفورية المذهبية” from journalist Ali Hamadah and Omar Karami. I am not sure who coined it, but it has a nice ring to it and it evokes the “gilded cage”.