Thursday, May 14, 2009

Christian confusion is Lebanon's loss

It is a sign of the confusion in Lebanon's Christian community today, particularly the Maronite community, that the outcome of the parliamentary elections will probably not be determined until the very last minute, when indecision is no longer an option. On a range of vital issues, the Christians seem lost. They disagree over the meaning of what would constitute a Third Republic; they cannot reach a consensus over relations with Lebanon's Muslim communities; their leaders are fighting over who will be best placed to be the interlocutor with regional powers; and as they contemplate their communal decline, the reaction is either to quixotically seek to recover their past power, or to imagine scenarios of renewal in schemes of self-isolation.

As a pro-Hariri Christian parliamentarian observed recently, the elections are turning into a battle between the "two Michels" - Michel Sleiman and Michel Aoun. However, their rivalry is likely to endure afterward, when it comes time to discuss more fundamental matters related to Lebanon's future, particularly political reform. Here's a prediction: Discussion of reform will go nowhere, in part because such a conversation cannot conceivably progress while the representatives of one community, the Shiites, hold the heavy guns; but reform will also be derailed by Maronite infighting, further weakening Christians in general and alienating them from the country they were so instrumental in creating.

Take the matter of establishing a Third Republic. What does it mean, let's say, for the Aounists? They insist that their ambition is to create a state embodying change and reform. Perhaps, but you don't need a new republic for that. What Aoun and his acolytes are getting across is that their republic will constitutionally grant Christians more power ("Will return to Christians their rights," as Aounist spokesman tirelessly tell us).

The notion is bizarre, even absurd. If there was one thing the Sunni and Shiite communities agreed upon throughout our 15-year Civil War, it was that Christian, particularly Maronite, power needed to be curtailed. This is why Aoun has mentioned the idea of creating "thirds" in Parliament, so that Christians, Sunnis and Shiites each get a third of representation. His assumption is that once that happens, the Christians would be in a better position to leverage this in exchange for enhancing the Maronite president's prerogatives, while using the Shiites to compel the Sunnis to accept an amendment of the Taif Accord, which, as Aoun (mistakenly) believes, handed executive power to the Sunni prime minister.

What about Sleiman? The president has been more ambiguous. He has made statements saying the president's prerogatives have to be increased, but always framing his arguments in practical terms. The post-Taif system is inefficient, he says, and one reason is that the presidency's powers are ill-defined. However, Sleiman is sending a double message, trying to rally Christians to his side and positioning himself as the main Maronite actor in any eventual implementation or amendment of Taif.

Neither Aoun nor Sleiman has articulated how Christians might benefit from the full implementation of Taif. The president has gone furthest in showing the accord to be beneficial to Lebanon (in contrast to Aoun and an alarming number of March 14 Christians, who see it as, quoting Nadim Gemayel, "a Christian surrender"); however Sleiman is afraid of crossing a line that might cost him communal backing. This continued discord over what is the foundation of Lebanon's current social contract will prove to be the undoing of the Christians unless they soon reverse the situation.

The Maronites are also proving incapable of taking a united position on Syria, but also other regional states having influence in Lebanon, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Aoun's visit to Syria several months ago brought him a margin of maneuver in Damascus, and a free trip for the family, but it won't mean he will replace Sleiman as the main contact with the Assad regime. The Syrians like cacophony, and are more than delighted to use Aoun against Sleiman and Sleiman against Aoun, even if they accept that it's important to keep Sleiman on their side, as his approval will provide whatever they do in Lebanon with a sheen of official legitimacy.

Where does that leave Aoun? The general's ties to Hizbullah have morphed into some sort of relationship with Iran. Yet for Christian leaders to use their foreign ties largely as a means of propping themselves up domestically, and communally, cannot bring any benefit to Lebanon. Sleiman is justified in wanting to be the main Christian intermediary with Syria, after all he is the president, but only if his primary reason for doing so is to bolster Lebanese sovereignty, or what remains of it. Instead, there is a risk that the president may be tempted to use his Syrian ties to better contain the sway Aoun enjoys through his alliance with Hizbullah, and therefore Iran. The Christians would, thus, transform themselves, not for the first time, into a regional football, to the national detriment.

By the same token, Aoun's continued broadsides against Saudi Arabia as a way of attacking the Future Movement and the Sunnis, like his closeness to Qatar, ensure that if the opposition wins the elections, Saudi funding to Lebanon will dwindle. Aoun is not alone responsible for the country's fragmentation between different regional patrons. However, he, like most other Christian leaders, needs to be especially sensitive to how the regional balance of power affects his community's fate, because no one in the Middle East is overly committed to its political survival.
The most fundamental transformation the Christians must engage in is a psychological one.

Lebanon's Muslim communities, in contrast to the regimes of the region, are very keen to avoid a Christian collapse. The imbalance this would create in Sunni-Shiite relations, the negative way this would affect the country's openness and diversity, the weight of perennially pessimistic Christians trying to find an exit from Lebanon through emigration or voluntary seclusion, are all things the Muslims fear, and rightly so. Yet they cannot seem to find a credible, dominant Maronite partner, or partners, to help lay the groundwork for a more durable contract between Christians and Muslims.

The problem is that the Christians, or a majority of them, need to reconcile with Taif first. In their zeal to discredit the accord, they find themselves on a high-wire without a net. The Muslims don't want the Christians to fall, but if they do no one will pick them up again.

No comments: