Thursday, March 19, 2009

A Christian path to assisted suicide

In 2007, Marcel Ghanem hosted a program commemorating the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, the late Lebanese Forces leader who in 1982 was the president-elect for a mere three weeks. Invited on the show was Nadim, Bashir's son and today a candidate for the Achrafieh constituency. Ghanem asked Nadim what the Taif Accord meant to him, and his answer told us a great deal about the mindset in the Maronite community. "Taif means Christian surrender," he replied.

That helps explain why Michel Aoun, though his popularity has doubtless gone down since 2005, has managed in recent years to make so much headway among Christians, and Maronites in particular. Even those who politically oppose him, like Nadim Gemayel, but no less the family's other candidate in the Metn, Sami Gemayel, think in much the same way as he does; or rather, Aoun and the Gemayels, and they're not alone in the Maronite community, derive their popularity from the fact that they express a Maronite fear of decline, but also manipulate this fear and transform it into a caustic and disturbing form of sectarian paranoia.

The obligatory target of their efforts is Taif. More than a surrender, the accord is viewed as an instrument for the redistribution of Maronite power to the Sunni community, in that the Maronite president's prerogatives were handed over to the council of ministers under a Sunni prime minister. However, this conviction is not only flawed, it ignores the lessons of recent Lebanese history. The problem with Taif is not that it hands power over to the Sunnis; it's that it establishes a triumvirate at the top of the state between a president, a prime minister, and a speaker of parliament in which authority is ill-defined and shifts depending on who is in office. Taif is a mechanism for equilibrium, not for effective government.

Rafik Hariri was indeed a powerful Sunni prime minister, and it's on that basis that many Christians judge Taif's outcome. However, between 1998 and 2000 the head of the government was Salim al-Hoss, who was rightly seen by most Lebanese, and by his own community in particular, as weak in the face of a more dominant Maronite, Emile Lahoud. That was one reason why Hoss was easily defeated in the elections of 2000. However, the irony is that Lahoud was so unpopular among his coreligionists for being Syria's man, and for using the army and intelligence services to impose his writ, that few Maronites took satisfaction in his ascendancy.
Meanwhile, the senior official who has lasted longest in the post-Taif system is neither a Maronite nor a Sunni; it is Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of Parliament, who came to power in 1992 and, in all likelihood, will be given a fifth mandate after the June elections.

In seeking to undermine Taif, many Christians display inexcusable shortsightedness. Reversing the accord, which for now guarantees a 50-50 distribution of power between Christians and Muslims in Parliament, will not alter the reality of the Christians' demographic decline. Yet an absurd notion is circulating among Aounists that Christians can do better by replacing Taif with a system of thirds, whereby Christians, Sunnis and Shiites would each get a third of parliamentary seats. Michel Aoun himself has floated the idea on occasion. Yet how is the formal recognition of depleted Christian numbers an improvement over Taif? Aounists reply that it could work better because, in exchange, the Maronites would demand that the president regain the power Taif took away from him.

The logic is impeccable. The Christians, for starters, would admit that their numbers have dropped, therefore that the Sunnis and Shiites are entitled to have greater representation in Parliament; and then, based on that admission, the same Christians would persuade the Muslims to give them more clout at the top of the state by returning to the Maronite president the powers he lost in Taif - powers which greatly subordinated the Sunni prime minister and Shiite speaker to the president.

Taif remains the only realistic passage to a new Christian relationship with the state. Defective or not, it is a reality, and whether it is Aoun, the Gemayels, or anyone else, Maronites in general should understand that they are far better protected by a formal written document than by personal reveries for alternative paths to a Christian revival. Aoun talks about thirds; Sami Gemayel has floated a federalist scheme; Nadim Gemayel's thoughts are likely fragmentary. Everything should be on the table, but only in the context of an agreement that everyone has signed on to, therefore must respect. For better or worse, that agreement is Taif.

In Paris on Tuesday, President Michel Sleiman was asked about the establishment of a Senate, which Taif reinstitutes. His answer was interesting, and in some ways courageous: "The Lebanese Constitution establishes a Senate, and the Senate is the basic and salutary resolution to creating a balance in states." Sleiman said he hoped that the Lebanese would begin the process "after setting up the national committee to abolish political confessionalism, which will naturally take a long time."

In the post-Taif Constitution, the idea is for Parliament to abandon sectarian quotas after deliberations between communal representatives in the committee to which Sleiman referred. As a counterweight to this, the Constitution installs a Senate in which Christians and Muslims would be evenly represented, to address "major national issues." Sleiman took a risk in mentioning the abolition of political confessionalism, which is unpopular among Christians, and no doubt in the coming days his critics, many of whom would otherwise advocate setting up a system of thirds, will bellow that the president is selling the Christians out.

However, Sleiman is right in taking the Christians back to Taif, and his anodyne phrase was, in reality, quite a significant shot across the bow of Michel Aoun and all those Maronites who deem Taif an act of Christian surrender. The president is being sensible. He knows that Taif is one of the few instruments that Christians in general still have to protect their rights in a system with a Muslim majority. He knows, too, that all those who rail against Taif offer no realistic alternative, and that their strategy is to jump off one ledge to another, only to notice halfway that the other ledge doesn't exist. The result is bound to be a resounding crash.

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