Twenty years later, little has changed

lebanese_unityBy Maurice Obeid, Special to Ya Libnan

Twenty years ago this month, on November 4 1989, the civil war ended with the ratification of the Taif Accord. This reconciliation agreement identified the elimination of confessionalism as a national priority.The constitution was amended to uphold “the abolition of political confessionalism” as “a basic national goal.” It did not, however, provide a timeframe or framework to go about substituting this system of governance. Today, Lebanon remains a confessional state.

Whether seeking to marry or applying for a job, the first question is always what religious confession you belong to. To the untrained ear, this may sound jarring, but that is the reality of our society, a reality that is reinforced by the current political framework. Despite the Taif Accord, the country remains mired in political inertia and suffers from an inability to institute much needed reforms in its political structure.

Lebanon naturally converged to confessionalism in the 1926 constitution as a means to protect the identity of its diverse communities and provide a balance of power. In theory, the confessional system enables the peaceful co-existence of religious communities by distributing political posts “proportionally” according to each community’s demographic weight. Proponents insist that with no group constituting a majority in Lebanon, representation of every confession should be guaranteed.

I beg to differ.

The case against confessionalism

One of the fathers of the Lebanese constitution, Michel Chiha, once wrote:

“[Confessionalism] is not perfect but it is the most suitable…solution for all of us as minorities in the country. But we should be very careful: confessional politics must remain inside the Parliament for if one decides to resign, then the confessional tensions will be taken over to the streets, which can …result in destabilization.”

Chiha understood the theoretical strength of confessionalism—the protection of the country’s 18 disparate minorities—but underestimated the disruptive incentives that are bred by its politics. More than 70 years ago, Chiha further stipulated that a secular solution could be found once the Lebanese are “mature” enough. This begs the question: when will the Lebanese be mature enough? Isn’t a 15-year civil war a strong enough indicator that it is time to turn the page on sectarianism?

What about the vicious cycle perpetuated by a confessional framework? The more entrenched the Lebanese are in a confessional society, the more solidified their prejudices become, and the harder it is to foment national unity that transcends ethnic communities. Confessionalism deepens sectarian differences by encouraging allegiance to one’s ethnic group over the state. Dependencies within one’s confession are emphasized: religious institutions exercise control over many facets of life, such as marriage and inheritance. Indirect controls and clannish clientelism are also plentiful: jobs, housing, and education are often obtained through appeals to confessional political representatives. This incubates “states” within the state.

The delicate confessional balance makes the state extremely sensitive to internal and external stressors. Minor changes in the political environment from demographic or foreign manipulation trigger instability. There have been several attempts at artificially bloating population numbers of specific communities to gain greater political representation. For instance, in the 1950s, President Chamoun naturalized Christian Palestinians, seeking to boost the number of Lebanese Christians. Similarly, in 1994, a naturalization decree attempted to bolster the Sunni population.

Demographic changes further exacerbate the situation. The proportional share of power, a central tenet of confessionalism, has to reflect the demographic reality in the country. As demographics change, power held by a particular confession no longer reflects the relative size of that group. A Christian majority in the 1932 census was the underpinning of a structure that gave Christians greater representation. As the century progressed and as the Sunni and Shiite populations increased relative to Christians, the latter were wielding a disproportionate amount of power. Sectarian rifts exploded. The Taif recalibrated representation, primarily in favor of Sunnis. Twenty years on, Christians and Shiites feel bitterly underrepresented, and the emerging regional Sunni-Shiite divide further aggravates the dangers of the frail system. How long before the eruption of a new calibrating war?

The path forward

A sustainable nation depends on the development of common interests across its communities. Much of life in Lebanon, however, is still organized according to religious affiliation, and sectarian rivalries run deep. Though the Green Line no longer exists as a physical demarcation in Beirut, it is engrained in the minds of the Lebanese. Many wonder: could civil war return? The crisis in May of 2008, when Hezbollah overpowered government forces, is a testimony that much work is needed in turning the page. Confessionalism should be abandoned.

There are challenges nonetheless. Public opinion is expectedly divided along sectarian lines. With changing demographics, former critics of confessionalism have become its protagonists, while its former advocates are now its opponents. Shiite Muslims, with their plurality of the population, view their powers diminished compared to what they would exercise under a majority rule. Previously secularized Christians, on the other hand, are now fearful of the rising power of the Shiites and, as a result, are more willing to accept the confessionalized status quo. Given the nature of the system, there will probably never be unanimous agreement on the issue.

It is clear however that the Lebanese are not ready for a swift riddance. A recent survey by the Lebanese Opinion Advisory Committee (LOAC) found that more than 50% of Lebanese across the board agreed that political confessionalism is rooted in Lebanese culture and cannot be removed. The secularization process should therefore be gradual and inclusive. Parliament should put forth a transition plan. Under its oversight, a national taskforce comprising of leading political, intellectual, and religious figures would be created to examine the situation. The taskforce would then present proposals for a sustainable, secular framework that upholds meritocracy and purges religious discrimination. Article 12 of the Constitution stipulates that, “no preference [should be] made except on the basis of merit and competence.” Indeed, merit should be the only criterion for political office.

A bicameral transition government would then be formed—one chamber based on the current confessional framework, the other elected without confessional quotas. The relationship between the two chambers would be defined by the taskforce recommendation. They would work jointly—and serve as a check-and-balance for each other—on a strategy for national reconciliation to reaffirm the Lebanese identity. The education system would be reformed to promote national unity. Horizontal interests and a secular electoral law would be espoused. If needed, the interim government could serve multiple terms for substantial legislative reforms to be instituted.

The path to a sustainable Lebanon is long, but possible. Ironically, Michel Chiha once wrote: “a nation is a guarantee for confessions, but confessions are not a guarantee to the nation.” These words could not ring more loudly today.

Maurice Obeid, a graduate from MIT and formerly with McKinsey & Company, is currently pursuing graduate studies in Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government.