Friday, September 14, 2007

Learning compromise from the Lebanon of Europe

Learning compromise from the Lebanon of Europe
By Michael Young
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Recently, amid reports that Hizbullah was creating closed-off security zones north of the Litani River and establishing a system of telephone lines parallel to that of the state, some politicians and commentators began mentioning Lebanon's partition. The majority accused Hizbullah of working toward de facto partition; the party threw the accusation back at the majority; and in a disturbing number of living rooms the idea of divvying the country up was discussed as something desirable.

Partition is always a measure of last resort, a divorce, and like most divorces it usually is very messy. In Pakistan and India, Palestine, Cyprus, and the former Yugoslavia, partition, whether successful or not, was invariably a bloody process. The partition of Lebanon would be so horrific given the mixtures of populations, so absurd for being imposed on a society that even during the height of the 1975-1990 Civil War never seriously contemplated formal and complete separation, that the debate itself seems to have merit only as a substitute for something far different: a statement that Lebanon's current social contract does not resolve the many problems facing this unstable, multi-communal society.

Rejecting partition should not prevent pondering such a new social contract. Recently, the Swiss Foreign Ministry invited Lebanese journalists to visit Switzerland and learn about the political order there. The point was not to advance a federal project in Lebanon, nor is that realistic at present, but to show how a once-divided society found its equilibrium through a system of political compromise. For if Lebanon is not the Switzerland of the Middle East, despite what the brochures say, Switzerland was very much the Lebanon of Europe for centuries - a land torn apart by rivalries between Catholic and Protestant French-speaking, German-speaking, Italian-speaking, and Romansh-speaking populations, all of them manipulated by surrounding European powers.

In many respects Switzerland is like Arabic grammar: all complex rules made even more complex by countless exceptions. The canton of Grisons, for example, is organized differently than the others, with its intricacy making it look like a miniature Switzerland; the city of Basel forms a different canton than its nearby countryside because of past enmity between the urban and rural populations; in the midst of the Catholic, French-speaking bastion of Freiburg lies the German-speaking, Protestant commune of Morat, where a representative of the town can still complain that in the cantonal Parliament, parliamentarians speaking in German are likely to be ignored by their French-speaking colleagues.

Only the wearing down of history, the acceptance of a common interest in unification, could turn that infernal hodgepodge into a nation. Lebanon is not at that historical moment yet. Perhaps its culture makes the creation of a stable power-sharing mechanism impossible. However, several principles buttressing the Swiss system might have a place in Lebanon. We can identify four of them: decentralization; the dissolution of religious identity through recognition of religious diversity; institutional flexibility; and the de-personalization, even the "de-ideologization," of politics.

Lebanon has already toyed with decentralizing administrative authority, and the idea has been integrated into the Taif Accord. In Switzerland, however, the move was much more radical, so that at both the cantonal and communal levels, communities have substantial power with respect to the federal government, which essentially deals with such "national" issues as defense, federal finances, and foreign affairs. Cantonal powers are being reduced somewhat, but that doesn't alter the fact that at the level of the commune or the canton, there is a substantial margin to decide on such vital issues as education, taxation, local development, and the like. This makes decision-making much more efficient, while bringing choices much closer to the population. That philosophy can apply just as well in Lebanon, where few are the real advantages of maintaining a centralized, cumbersome, Jacobin bureaucracy in Beirut, which remains the final arbiter on decisions taken at the distant local and regional levels.

A second Swiss innovation is that reinforcing religious and cultural diversity in a given space paradoxically helps water down differences rather than exacerbate them. Obviously, this takes time, but rather than imposing a single national identity on its people, as centralized states do, the Swiss confederation did the precise opposite. As a result, identity in the country is now defined much less by religious differences than by linguistic ones. While this obliges all Swiss to learn a second or even a third language to communicate with their countrymen, the result is that religion as a basis of identification has been, happily, transcended.

Nothing so clear-cut is likely to occur in Lebanon, where religious institutions still hold suffocating sway over the society. However, it is worth considering that as decentralization takes hold, the prospects for political polarization nationally will diminish, so that religious communities will become more confident of their status. This could erode their reliance on religion as a primary source of identity, since the priorities of individuals would shift to the local and regional levels.

A third Swiss notion to consider is that only flexible institutions can systematically absorb the contending stakes in the population. Constitutional amendments are frequent, in some regions the system actively encourages the consolidation of municipal lines, and religious symbolism is allowed in some places and not in others. Only a system that is agile can adapt to ambient diversity. In Lebanon, the Constitution has too often been altered for political reasons, however institutions remain inflexible, obdurate, so that virtually all adjustments are regarded as existential threats to one side or the other. This stifles renewal, preventing the society from adapting to new circumstances.

Finally, the most remarkable aspect of the Swiss system is that national political power resides in institutions more than in individuals. Federalism already disseminates much power to the cantonal or communal levels, but even at the federal level the system prevents an accumulation of power. The country's executive authority is a seven-member government reflecting the distribution of power in the national Parliament, with each member holding portfolios. Its president is the first among equals, serves for a year, and all decisions are taken by majority vote. Because decisions require the building of coalitions within this executive committee, because a president is rotated out of office within a year and is not regarded as the representative of Switzerland (the committee is, collectively), politics are necessarily a product of constant compromises. Personalities are important, but never paramount.

Within such a system ideology takes a back seat, since measures require deal-making with committee members of different political persuasions. A party can advance specific agendas, especially if its minister stays in office for years. However, because there is no government and opposition split, this takes time. Programs can never be imposed through political writ.

The de-personalization of politics is probably the most difficult objective for the Lebanese to achieve. It would require that institutions be stronger than political leaders and informal communal social structures. The Lebanese live in an ideological country, in an ideological region, where political ideas tend to be absolutist in nature. Lebanon is no Switzerland, but like the Swiss, the Lebanese know that diffusing state power is the key to coexistence in a plural society. That's a good start.

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