Friday, July 22, 2011

Sami Gemayel and Christian insecurity

The “false witnesses” controversy is back on the table. According to news reports, the justice minister has devised a formula to transfer the matter of alleged false witnesses in the investigation of Rafik al-Hariri’s murder to the Justice Council, long a Hezbollah demand.

Maybe this was a consequence of the ridicule Sami Gemayel heaped on the government recently during the parliamentary debate prior to a vote of confidence; or maybe it was not. However, when Gemayel accused the new cabinet of hypocrisy for failing to mention false witnesses in its policy statement, even though Saad al-Hariri’s government had been brought down because the prime minister had resisted transferring the matter to the Justice Council, he hit a nerve.

In fact, go back to Gemayel’s speech, and you will notice that he hit quite a few nerves. For some time, I’ve been uneasy about the young parliamentarian’s exclusivist Christian nationalism. It’s fair to say, and his speech and previous remarks have implied this, that Gemayel aspires to a Lebanon where Christians live largely among Christians; where they remain as shielded as possible from the political zephyrs affecting their Muslim countrymen. This may mean creating a federal structure, a confederal one, or what have you. But Gemayel plainly believes that the Lebanon of 1943, based on a centralized system of power-sharing between religious communities, can no longer work.

The problem with this is that Gemayel’s views are almost certainly shared by a majority of Christians. Return to that parliamentary session a second time. Recall that as Gemayel was orating, the Hezbollah parliamentarians looked on in stony silence, while the Aounist representatives were equally subdued. I will wager that Hezbollah’s bloc knew very well that it was listening to views widely held by the followers of its own Aounist allies—and that includes Gemayel’s references to the double standards enjoyed by the party and the Shia community when it comes to abiding by the law.

This is a reality Hezbollah should heed. Despite five years of political collaboration between Michel Aoun and Hezbollah, the partnership has not percolated down in any significant way to influence social relations. The supporters of Aoun and Hezbollah still live in separate worlds. The party has benefited from Christian, particularly Maronite, fears when it comes to the Sunni community, but this has not translated into a long-term embrace of Shia aspirations, let alone a willingness to pay a heavy national price for Hezbollah’s pursuit of an armed struggle.

Never have Lebanon’s Christians been as closed in upon themselves as they are today. In light of this, the future of the community may be determined much more by exclusivists such as Sami Gemayel than by defenders of the 1943 formula. This would be a pity and would show the Christians at their worst in terms of self-confidence. However, it’s also true that Lebanon’s Muslim communities have a responsibility to show that they respect the institutions of Lebanese coexistence.

Hezbollah has consciously exacerbated Shia misgivings about Lebanon. As Hezbollah’s parliamentarians heard Gemayel speak, they must have sensed a double irony. On one level, here was a great skeptic when it comes to the traditional Lebanese power-sharing arrangement, yet he was badgering Hezbollah for refusing to bend to a more equitable power-sharing arrangement. And on another level, Gemayel, otherwise a member of the March 14 coalition, was voicing reservations about Hezbollah that the Christian partisans of Michel Aoun haven’t dared voice because their movement’s leadership is in bed with the party.

One can challenge Gemayel, but it’s rather difficult to point to anything in Lebanon today that would prove how wrong he in pursuing, effectively, greater Christian isolation. Take the false witnesses dispute. Hezbollah wants to force down everybody’s throat that the party is the victim of an Israeli and American conspiracy. This will only further enrage Sunnis, who are being asked to adopt under duress an entirely spurious hypothesis to explain the murder of their onetime communal champion. In that context, and most unfortunately, it’s not difficult to see why someone like Gemayel will affirm that Christians are better off distancing themselves from Sunnis and Shia.

The Lebanon of 1943 is certainly in need of profound reform. However, greater communal segregation cannot be in the country’s best interest. When people like Sami Gemayel condemn, quite rightly, the perils of a Hezbollah-dominated state within a state, they should also be aware that their own doubts about Lebanon as it is today will encourage many of their coreligionists to aspire to a Christian state within a state—even if Gemayel personally has no desire to go that far.

Gemayel’s speech before parliament was an important moment both in the budding politician’s own career and in bringing to light Christian insecurity in a Lebanon shaped mainly by the interaction between Sunnis and Shia. This will not go away. Muslim representatives should be conscious that whatever the Christians choose will have a significant impact on Sunni-Shia relations. It may be easy to dismiss Sami Gemayel and those like him as inexperienced diehards, but in times of uncertainty they are the kind of people who set the agenda.

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