political system

As expected, there has been a lot of discussion on the topic of secularism following the Laique Pride March on April 25. I hope to find the time to post more on this shortly. For the time being, here is a translation of an op-ed piece I wrote, published in the May 7 print edition of the left-of-center Norwegian weekly, Ny Tid. A scan of the original Norwegian version can be found here:

On Sunday the 25th, more than 3000 people marched for secularism in Beirut. Civil society groups, feminists, student clubs, and LGBTQ- and cultural activist were brought together in protest of the current Lebanese political system. The atmosphere was festive and spirits were high. The question is can slogans ranging from “Queers for secularism” to “Civil marriage, not civil war” succeed in giving birth to a movement for political and social change?

[some paragraphs on the Lebanese political system and the main demands of the march]

The march on April 25th exceeded expectations. Organized solely at the initiative of civil society organizations and young cultural activists, it was a political rarity in Lebanon. The organizers did not have access to the usual media outlets, mostly reigned in by predetermined loyalties when it comes to political mobilization. The organization and recruitment took place primarily on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter.
It remains to be seen whether this colorful blend of activists can develop into a more concrete political program. And if it does, the question remains whether it will find wider support in a country all too often driven to violence in the name of sect and religion.
Lebanon’s political system has grave shortcomings and can at best be described as a stunted parliamentary democracy. But in contrast to most countries in the Middle East, Lebanon does not have an official state-religion. At the same time, the majority of Lebanese are protective of their religious identities. For the ideas behind the march to find broader support, the greatest challenge is to shape a vision of secularism which embraces both Lebanon’s religious and non-religious identities.
As participants in the protest march were shouting: “Neither Turkish, nor Western – Lebanese secularism”. Such a secularism would entail something so rich as to transform the country’s pluralism from weakness to strength. In many ways this problematic resembles the difficulties faced by several European countries trying to reconcile themselves with growing religious divides. The difference is that in Lebanon, it is the secularists who constitute a minority.
One of the popular criticisms leveled at the Laique Pride – and secularism in general –  is that whereas sect is an integral part of Lebanese identity, secularism is a foreign import. My problem with this reasoning is that it somehow assumes that sect is the most “authentic” form of political identity, whereas in fact it crystallized as a modern phenomenon in the course of the 19th century. Both Waddah Sharara (Fi usul Lubnan al-ta’ifi) and Usama Makdisi (The Culture of Sectarianism) have made convincing arguments on this point. The collapse of the quasi-feudal system in Mount Lebanon around the mid-19th century left a political gap. The language of religious equality that characterized Ottoman reforms and a European production of knowledge that understood our region in terms of sects, tribes, and clans intersected with local political aspirations to produce sect as a modern political identity.
The “sect is an integral part of Lebanese identity” argument overlooks the other narratives that emerged in parallel. In the aftermath of the 1860 war, Butrus al-Bustani published Nafir Suriyya where – in an explicit reference to sect as political identity – he called upon people to forgo religious solidarity. At the same time, there were various ideals for society that could be labelled “secular.” The founders of al-Muqtataf scientific journal and graduates of the Syrian Protestant College (today, American University of Beirut), Ya`qub al-Sarruf and Faris al-Nimr are one example. They and the clique around them embraced Darwinism, much to the chagrin of the missionary men who ran the College, and the conflict ended with al-Muqtataf and its founders leaving for Egypt in 1884. While Sarruf and Nimr were more concerned with free scientific inquiry, Shibli Shumayyil tied these views more explicitly to politics, preaching the separation of religion from political life. All these individuals and others like them were as much a product of their environment as any of their adversaries, be they Christian and Muslim.
To imply somehow that sect is a more “authentic” basis for a political system is a gross simplification of the vibrant currents of thought that constituted and continue to constitute the political and public identities of Lebanese citizens. The idea of a national community with a non-sectarian basis has run parallel to sect as political identity and has had considerable appeal at various junctures. In the 1943 elections, for example, pro-Communist candidates won 12% of the vote based on a class-based political program – unthinkable in today’s Lebanon. That none of these narratives ever became hegemonic or acquired a clear political articulation does not make them any less authentic. And until the writing of Lebanon’s history manages to integrate these narratives,  sect – a political fiction like any other – will continue to perpetuate itself as the only admissible political identity (for a history that does other political identities justice, see the recently published The Eastern Mediterranean and the Making of Global Radicalism, 1860-1914 by Ilham Khuri-Makdisi).
There are criticisms leveled at the Laique Pride that I agree with, primarily its lack of clarity and the confused and uninformed nature of its early demands. There is also the assumption that “secularism” is a self-explanatory concept. Although Norway, France, and the United States have all been called secular countries, they are based on different political systems and different relations between state and church rooted in their respective histories. I doubt any of them will work for Lebanon.
Despite these reservations, if I were in Lebanon, I would have participated in tomorrow’s march pretty much for the same reasons Elias Muhanna gives in his excellent piece for the Guardian. The current political system in Lebanon is not working and the lack of an alternative to sect as political identity is one reason, though not the only one. Lebanon is in dire need of a vision, one that incorporates the other identities it engenders. Such a vision cannot simply drop from the sky, full-formed and ready for implementation. Nor will it be handed on a silver platter by a self-preserving political elite. It needs to be formed. And no matter what the criticism leveled at the Laique Pride initiative, one has to grant it at least this: it has managed to renew the debate on these issues.

Walid Junblat’s defection from the March 14 camp has attracted the attention of many friends and sympathizers outside Lebanon. From a wide-ranging history that moves from freedom fighter to war criminal to garbage man in New York to neo-con and back, people as different as Lebanon “expert” Lee Smith and UN’s Michael Williams have decided to freeze Junblat into how they like to see him and how they have seen him over the past four years. Smith and Williams have more in common when it comes to Junblat, as both refer to him as “Walid Beik.” After embracing his quasi-feudal status, both men also excuse Walid Beik’s move as a political exigency necessitated by the special position of his clan in Lebanon. And are not all Lebanese clans “special,” I wonder?

But I agree with Lee Smith on one thing: Walid Junblat is no weather vane. He is no cynical know-it-all who coldly calculates his every move and strikes without others knowing what hit them. After all, March 14 has been deadwood for more than a year now. And Walid Junblat did not complete his turn suddenly; he has been preparing his people for it since early this year. Nor was he the only one to soften up over the last year. The heat before the elections was a necessary sectarian galvanization to capture the vote. But apart from that, the rhetoric has gone down a few decibels over the past year.

No, Junblat is no weather vane. The composition of the government (15-10-5 by most accounts) has already been agreed on by Saudi Arabi and Syria. Some say as early as late June/early July. The “S-S,” as the two are referred to these days, have smoothed many ripples lately and the mutual  flirtation between Saad al-Hariri and the Syrian regime right after the elections was evidence of that. So much flirtation, in fact, that there was a hue and cry among Hariri’s Christian allies when the idea that he might visit Damascus before the government was formed was floated around.

With the outcry against Junblat’s “betrayal” fading away, perhaps it can now be assessed more calmly. Saadallah Mazraani has done exactly that in an overview of the Beiks historical turns. But a short term effect of Junblat’s latest turn has not received much attention: With Junblat’s daramturgy, Saad al-Hariri’s task suddenly became easier. Hariri’s visit to Damascus is no longer discussed in terms of “if,” but rather in terms of “when.” That is not the function of a weather vane. I would venture and say that, as far as the relationship between Damascus and Hariri goes, Walid Junblat is, in fact, a bottle of champagne. Cheers!

"Shit on you and on these elections. Banana republic. A decent citizen." (Source: al-Akhbar)

An "invalid" ballot: "Shit on you and on these elections. 'Banana republic.' Signed: A decent citizen." (Source: http://www.al-akhbar.com/ar/node/140198)

Since I have nothing to do but write a dissertation, I spent last night trying to make some sense of the numerical aspects of the elections. This year, thanks to Minister of Interior Ziad Baroud, blank votes were counted separately and not together with invalid votes. This went down well with eleven thousand one hundred and ninety-seven voters, or 0.82% of cast ballots (Sean has a table with the breakdown of blank votes per district). It might not seem much, but one has to keep in mind the voting conditions at various polling stations and that this is the first time a distinction between “blank” and “invalid” votes is implemented. Given that in Lebanese elections no one is ever sure how many of the eligible voters are actually alive or around, abstaining from the vote in protest might be misinterpreted as, well, death. That is why I think the blank vote is important — it not only protests the lack of choices, but it also asserts a presence, both physical and political.

My other perfect excuse for procrastination was “the popular vote.” Hassan Nasrallah brought it up in his speech last night when commenting on the election results and Al of Ex Oriente Lux picks up on this issue. Nasrallah said the opposition probably has the popular vote and that he will leave it to the professionals to figure it out. According to a study cited by al-Akhbar (bottom of the page), the opposition received 54.5% of the popular vote, whereas the ruling coalition received 45.5%. I find it funny that the total adds up to 100%. As far as I know, we have not succumbed to the two-party system yet and there was a visible amount of votes cast for people not running on either lists, especially in Hizballah and Amal’s backyards.

Now I am no professional, but here are the numbers I got when, instead of taking the voters as blocks of with or against, I added the total number of votes cast for the total number of candidates in three categories: opposition 50.4%, ruling coalition 46%, and other 3.6%. I only did the numbers once and I might have missed an affiliated independent or two, but not any with a considerable number of votes attached.

These numbers are, of course, distorted on many levels, one of the main distortions being the opposition within Sunni and Shia turfs. This is particularly significant in majority Shia areas where the ruling coalition presence is weak, the “existential” confrontation is low priority, and the challenge comes from friendly quarters. Such was the case in Baalbak-Hermel and Hasbayya-Marji`yun where opposition competitors received some 10% of the vote.

As Ibrahim al-Amin points out in the al-Akhbar article linked to above, had there been a system of proportional representation, a bloc representing a substantial number of the Shia would most likely emerge. Which is why, all calls to the contrary notwithstanding, Hizballah has no interest in improving Shia representation — and I have posted on this before. That is why I find that Hassan Nasrallah’s passing comment on the popular vote has little to do with rights or justice. I see it instead as a performative utterance that indulges the feelings of underrepresentation that the Shia (rightfully) have and tickles the demographic fear the rest suffer from. All the while papering over the more complex realities that assure the indefinite continuation of the status quo.

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”.

I have been swamped with teaching, so I have not been really paying attention to the news lately. So when I learned that I now have the option to actually remove my sect from my personal status register (Nufus) I had to rub my eyes and pinch myself. How did that happen?

Apart from increasing my respect for minister of interior, Ziad Baroud, even more, this is probably the only piece of news coming from Lebanon over the past few years that I find worth celebrating. As the atheist product of a mixed marriage, I take this personally. As a student of late Ottoman and modern history, I find it phenomenal.

Over the past 150+ years, the tendency in proto-Lebanon and Lebanon has been towards increasing institutionalization of sectarianism and the increasing intertwinement of the idea of citizenship with sect. This can be traced back to the contradictory 1856 Islahat Fermani, which, in the same breath, affirmed the sameness of the citizens of the Ottoman Empire while addressing them as nations/sects (millet). The various stops on the way — the 1860 Mount Lebanon war, the French Mandate reforms, the national pact, Taef, Hizballah’s political turn, etc — all in a long term perspective served to further entrench and institutionalize this intertwinement between citizen and sect.

Now this comes, a counter intuitive surprise considering the overall trend. It is, of course, nothing like a magical wave of the wand which undoes sect. Clearly, the parliament, voting system, and our “representative” “democracy” can continue along the same lines even if the very last citizen were to remove his sect from the register. Particularly when they are all based on a census whose population no longer exists.

But that is precisely why the option to remove one’s sect from the register is so phenomenal: the burden of responsiblity rests with me, as a person and citizen, to go tomorrow early morning and remove my sect from the Nufus register. And therein lies the challenge. What will become of it will only be a viable discussion once the widespread rejection of sectarian citizenship becomes fact. So, I find myself wondering, how many will do it? And how many will ask themselves: who am I if not my sect?

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.

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