Thursday, September 22, 2011

Maronites pray to a dispiriting trinity

This week the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Anbaa, citing sources at the Maronite patriarchate in Bkirki, reported that relations between France and Patriarch Beshara Rai had deteriorated. Rai apparently sought an apology from the French ambassador, Denis Pietton, for having declared last week that his government was “disappointed” with Rai’s recent comments in Paris, and would seek clarification.

If Pietton is spared a surplus of patriarchal masses, he may come out of the dispute a happy man. However, on Wednesday the ambassador visited Rai, suggesting that their disagreement had been contained. Yet it is extraordinary how Rai has made a splendid mess of things in just a few weeks, damaging his own reputation, and with it that of his church. The patriarch gains nothing by picking fights with foreign envoys who represent countries rather important for Lebanon.

Someone should remind Rai that France has a large contingent in UNIFIL, the United Nations force in southern Lebanon. It is well within Paris’ remit to ask for clarifications from the patriarch when the position he has taken on Hezbollah’s weapons – indicating that the party should hold on to them until the Arab-Israeli conflict ends – directly contradicts Security Council Resolutions 1559 and 1701.

Rai’s gaffes are a manifestation of a larger problem among Maronites. The community, through what is traditionally regarded as its three senior representatives – Rai, but also President Michel Sleiman and the army commander, Jean Kahwagi – has had pitifully little to add to the intellectual, spiritual, political, and communal revitalization of a state that Maronites played so large a role in creating and sustaining. The community is not alone in this shortcoming, but it can offer considerably more for holding the crucial balance between Sunnis and Shiites, who find themselves at profound odds over Lebanon’s future.

Ironically, the one individual who once tried his best to define a particular idea of Lebanon is former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir. Today, he finds himself routinely abused by followers of Michael Aoun and those pleased with Rai’s political innovations.

That Sfeir made his share of mistakes is undeniable. In the end he presided over a divided community, which sullied his reputation. However, he was always a reluctant political actor, unlike his successor, and it was inevitable that he would be sucked under by his fragmented flock. In the years when he stood alone against Syrian hegemony, with Samir Geagea in prison and Aoun in exile, Sfeir never wavered from a simple message: After a devastating 15-year war, Lebanon was entitled to genuine sovereignty – meaning that Syria had to withdraw its army from the country. And such a Lebanon could only survive through coexistence between its religious communities.

Sfeir’s critics would do well to recall that this vision ended up informing theirs. In the early postwar years when Aoun’s partisans were being beaten and arrested, they sought Sfeir’s protection and sanction – though they had humiliated the patriarch during their general’s failed campaign against the Lebanese Forces. Aoun and Geagea, who contributed more than anyone to the Christians’ ruin, still retain the loyalty of a majority in the community. But the old man who echoed an earlier generation of Maronites, for whom Lebanon personified communal self-confidence, achievement, and an often idealized form of transcendental appeal, now finds himself compared unfavorably to the careerist who followed him.

Rai has long tied his fate closely to that of Michel Sleiman, which should be a cause for nervousness. To borrow from Vernon Walters’ remarks about former U.N. Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Sleiman is a man who couldn’t make waves if he fell out of a boat. There was high promise the day he was inaugurated, and that’s where the promise stayed. No one can say with a straight face that Sleiman has turned himself into a credible alternative to Aoun or Geagea. His influence among Maronites is anemic, and yet he has not succeeded in incarnating the state either – particularly for those in the Muslim communities. When confronted, he has consistently backed down, playing it safe and preserving his measured gains. As a friend once put it, Sleiman came to office with the ambition of being an ex-president, and it’s difficult to disagree with so decapitating a phrase.

As for Kahwagi, he is now in the throes of that great malady of army commanders: an expectation that he will become Lebanon’s next president. The stark measure of the Maronites’ political poverty these days is that when it is not their clergymen fiddling with politics, it is their soldiers. Since Emile Lahoud was selected in 1998, it seems the presidency is reserved for anyone wearing a cocked beret. And so we Lebanese for years have had to endure army commanders who have meticulously, almost seismographically, assessed prevailing power relationships in the country before taking their every decision – and who have relatively frequently faced the dilemma of having to choose between their own welfare and that of the institution they lead.

Absent from this triumvirate is any farsightedness as to the destiny of the Maronites. Rai still seeks to unify the community, with a meeting planned for this Friday in Bkirki, even as he has provoked the greatest internal upheaval that Maronites have experienced since Aoun and Geagea fought each other more than two decades ago. Sleiman is marching stalwartly toward a legacy whose greater part threatens to be inconsequence. And Kahwagi will remain a hostage to the house of many mansions that is Lebanon’s army – over which Hezbollah has inordinate influence, arousing the suspicion of Sunnis – incapable of transforming its battalions into the valid basis of a national project.

Maronites have the institutions, talent, and memory to reverse their community’s steady mediocrization. What they don’t have is the self-assurance required to reinvent themselves in the shadow of their demographic decline. Rai, Aoun, Sleiman, perhaps even Kahwagi, have adjusted to this decline by accommodating the view that their minority has a stake in allying itself with other minorities, no matter how repressive these may be. Such is the path to communal suicide.

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