Saturday, March 12, 2011

Lebanon's revolution waylaid by the old sectarian demons

Last weekend, thousands of people gathered in Beirut to demand an end to Lebanon's sectarian system. The groups backing the campaign are poorly organised, their agendas diverge, but the greatest difficulty they face is more fundamental: most Lebanese, for better or worst, are used to functioning within a sectarian framework, and have always bestowed legitimacy on their sectarian leaders.

If you have any doubts, let me draw your attention to what is likely to be a very large rally this coming Sunday held at Martyrs Square by the March 14 coalition, whose leading figure is Saad Hariri, Lebanon's caretaker prime minister. The gathering will celebrate the sixth anniversary of a March 14, 2005 demonstration, when close to a million Lebanese protested against Syria's hegemony over Lebanon following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. If anything heralded what we are witnessing today in Arab streets, it was that peculiarly Lebanese moment when all fears and inhibitions fell.

So enthralling was that day that the subsequent governing majority in Beirut took March 14 for its name. Many idealistic Lebanese deemed the occasion revolutionary, the dawn of a new era of a unified Lebanon in which one's religion would be secondary. In retrospect, however, what happened was precisely the opposite. The idealists had mistakenly identified their laudable aspirations as what was really a quintessential manifestation of Lebanese sectarianism.

How so? After Hariri's killing, a majority in Lebanon's Sunni community turned against Syria, accusing it of being behind the crime. In that way they joined the substantial numbers of Christians who had long opposed the Syrian presence in Lebanon, as well as the Druze community that had earlier followed its leader, Walid Jumblatt, into opposition against the pro-Syrian government in Beirut. While there were quite a few Lebanese, many from the educated middle class who supported the protest movement as individuals, a far larger number came out obeying the calls of political leaders or parties who played on their sectarian allegiances.

Something pragmatic also took place on March 14. While all those who participated had distinct political objectives and came from a multitude of political and religious backgrounds or rejected religious affiliations altogether, they found common ground in advocating a Syrian military withdrawal. Lebanon's sectarianism triggers such behaviour, deriving from a medley of separate interests - defined substantially, but not exclusively, through sectarian calculations. And when the dials are in alignment and a majority reaches accord over specific goals, sectarianism can pack a tremendous wallop.

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