Friday, January 27, 2012

A gesture Lebanon must not ignore

On Wednesday the Syrian National Council, which is leading the opposition to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad from abroad, made a significant gesture toward Lebanon.

In a statement the council promised, if it took power in Syria, to turn a “new page” with Lebanon. The rapport between the two countries would be built on a foundation of respect for sovereignty and parity, as well as support for ethnic and religious diversity and pluralism. The council promised to review bilateral agreements between Beirut and Damascus—above all the Syrian-Lebanese Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation, and Coordination, signed in 1991—and abolish the Higher Council that was set up through the treaty.

The Syrian National Council also undertook to terminate the role that Syria’s security services have played in Lebanon, and more broadly to end Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs. It said that it would demarcate the Lebanese-Syrian border, especially in the Shebaa Farms area, and affirmed that it would create a committee to investigate the matter of Lebanese held in Syrian prisons.

It would be easy to interpret the move as born of necessity, while the Syrian National Council garners Arab support to topple the Assad regime. The council did indeed speak to potentially damaging ambiguities in its public image, not least the fact that many Lebanese Christians fear an Islamist takeover in Syria. The guarantee of ethnic and religious pluralism was designed to reassure on that front.

However, the statement also represented, potentially, a highly significant moment in the uneasy Syrian-Lebanese relationship. There continues to be a perception in Lebanon, perhaps justified, perhaps not, that whoever controls Syria will pursue some form of hegemony over its smaller western neighbor. Long before the Baathists came to power in Damascus, defenders of this thesis argue, Syria had designs on Lebanon, and that won’t soon change.

Whatever the real answer, don’t take anyone’s word for it. At some stage, perhaps even before the Assad regime falls, Lebanese and Syrian democrats must sit together and clarify what the future holds for their two countries. This may not have an immediate impact on official policy, but stated principles, preferably written down in a consensual document, have a way of filling vacuums; and given the direction in which Syria is going today, a vacuum is likely in the country before a post-Assad order can take hold.

The relationship between Syria and Lebanon has been an orphan of the public debate over the Syrian uprising, indeed over Arab uprisings in general. The narrative of emancipation throughout the region has been focused internally, as one of populations rejecting authoritarian leaderships. There has been little room for a consideration of another type of subjugation, namely of one Arab state by another.

That is a reason, perhaps, why the Lebanese Independence Intifada of 2005 seemed to provoke so little interest last year among those taking to the streets against their regimes. And yet so much in that revolt against Syria was replicated elsewhere in the Arab world—from the way public space was used to stage protests, to the discussion of how to place instruments of state repression under democratic control, to the optimal way of approaching international intervention.

Anyone observing the barbarity of the Syrian leadership today cannot help but spare a thought for the Lebanese, who spent 29 years in one way or another under the Assads’ thumb. There were many in Lebanon who sided with Syria during that time; the violence inflicted by Lebanese on fellow Lebanese during the civil war was appalling. But a large number of those suffering during that period—the tens of thousands killed, injured, maimed, kidnapped or humiliated by Syria or its epigones—did not merit their fate, nor were they ever consulted about what Lebanon’s affiliation with Syria should be like.

That is why the initiative of the Syrian National Council is so necessary. There is baggage to clear away, as well as myriad misperceptions on both sides. Lebanese and Syrians must overcome the insufferable sense of contempt they still frequently display when talking about each other. Syria risks today what Lebanon faced three and a half decades ago, so destructive sectarianism is not solely a Lebanese curse. Yet as more Syrians suffer and become refugees, the Lebanese should recall how greatly they welcomed the empathy, and indulgence, of outsiders in their times of need.

One aspect of Arab uprisings today that require more attention is the way the emergence of more representative governments in certain countries will affect relations with countries next door. One can expect that Egypt will no longer deal with Israel or Gaza in quite the same way as it did under President Hosni Mubarak. Tunisia may not have particularly effective sway over developments in Libya or Algeria, but with time a more open society there may deploy democratic “soft power,” to the irritation of autocrats in the Maghreb.

The nature of Syria’s relations with the Lebanese, Palestinians, Iraqis, Jordanians and Turks will be essential for assessing the success of the Syrian uprising. Syria’s opposition still must triumph and then establish a democratic government. Yet given the Assads’ proclivity for destabilizing those around them, a new order in Damascus must make it a priority to place regional relationships back on an even keel.

To its credit, the Syrian National Council has taken the first step. Now it’s up to Lebanese democrats to push in the same direction from their end, to ensure the rapid start of a dialogue between governments once that becomes possible. Beirut and Damascus are intertwined. It’s a about time that both sides benefit in equal measure.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

How the Assads won the West over

As the regime of President Bashar Assad pursues its campaign of repression against its own population, how do those Western officials who once saw Syria as a serious partner in the Middle East feel?

The Assads, father and son, benefited from a profound misunderstanding of the nature of their leadership. None of Damascus’ many interlocutors ever doubted that they were dealing with a fetid dictatorship, but they pursued their flirtations anyway. Somehow, they repeatedly persuaded themselves that Syria was a key to unlocking closed regional doors. That the doors usually stayed closed failed to discourage further advances.

Bashar Assad cheerfully exploited this obstinacy, as he did the supremely idiotic insight that someone who doesn’t look, dress and talk like a thug cannot possibly be a thug. Whatever his deeper proclivities, Bashar has internalized a system that is, essentially, a vast criminal enterprise, one that has entirely absorbed him.

What are some of the misperceptions that have sustained Syria’s autocrats for so long? The most resilient was that Syria under the Assads was reformable. The masks are down, so that when the Syrian president brings up his purported reform program these days, he is greeted with contempt. But for more than a decade the unqualified worthlessness of this proposition was plain to those bothering to look.

There is no great mystery in the way Syria is run. True reform in the country would mean undermining the delicately balanced structure that Hafez Assad set up to protect his rule, and that of his family. Like any good architectural work, Hafez built institutions of governance and subjugation propped up by neutralizing contrary forces. Security bodies and military units proliferated, but also cancelled each other out; governments were eternal, but were counter-balanced by the Baath Party, while both were dominated by the security services, themselves arbitrated by the president. The political arrangement rested on Alawite solidarity and advancement, but Sunnis were integrated into it, even as they were denied substantial authority. The regime was allegedly secular, but as of the mid-1980s it expanded the numbers of schools and mosques to earn religious legitimacy (no doubt facilitating infiltration of Islamist groups as well). And so on.

Even Hafez Assad himself occasionally had trouble maneuvering such a bulky machine. Bashar, less skillful an operator, could only play at the margins. He opened Syria up to foreign banks and investment. But this primarily benefited the ruling clique, above all the president’s cousin Rami Makhlouf, who expanded his stake in the Syrian economy, becoming a conduit for major transactions. You could now sit at trendy new sidewalk cafes in Damascus, Assad’s promoters crowed. But most Syrians couldn’t afford a latte, and this veneer of modernism was somehow confused with political openness.

The inability to reform impacted on many fronts. Much has been made of Hafez Assad’s willingness to sign a peace treaty with Israel during the 1990s. Yes, the Syrians appeared genuinely willing to go quite far, while the Israelis backtracked at the Shepherdstown talks in December 1999, refusing to return the entire area of the Golan Heights to Syria’s sovereignty. However, it was never clear how the Syrian order would have adjusted to a settlement. This would have imposed a substantial overhaul and demobilization of the military and security edifice, shaking the very foundations of Assad rule. It seems apparent that Bashar Assad, despite welcoming a process of negotiations with Israel, knew that he did not have the latitude that his father enjoyed to manage the aftermath of a successful outcome.

If Bashar couldn’t reform domestically and had limited room to conclude a peace settlement with Israel, Syria during most of the past 10 years nevertheless took on the role of an ardent spoiler. In Iraq after 2003, on the Palestinian-Israeli track after the death of Yasser Arafat in 2004, and in Lebanon after the Syrian pullout of 2005, Damascus was a compulsive fire-starter. But here, too, the behavior of the Assads generated a new misunderstanding: If Syria could start fires, then presumably it could also help extinguish them.

Except for one thing. Under Bashar Assad, Syria was a second-rate Arab power. There was no “peace process” to lend it regional relevance; Assad soon lost Lebanon; and the Bush administration’s objectives in Iraq ran against those of Syria, so engagement became futile. Damascus could siphon jihadists into Iraq; it could, with Iran, turn Hamas against Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestine Liberation Organization; and it could cooperate with Hezbollah to reverse the shaky independence that Lebanon gained in 2005.

But what Assad could not do was surrender any of the cards he had accumulated. By doing so, Syria would have lost its leverage, with little to compensate for this. The Americans and Europeans did begin returning to Damascus to ask Assad to facilitate solutions all around him. The French mainly pleaded on behalf of Lebanon; the Americans requested help to break the Palestinian deadlock. President Barack Obama followed with a promise of “engagement.”

And Assad budged on not a single request of the foreign envoys. He deduced, quite reasonably, that if he did so, no one would knock at his door any more. Even Arab foes were coming around. Saudi Arabia reconciled with Assad, despite his alliance with Iran, and compelled its recalcitrant Lebanese allies to do the same. But at some stage, all shell games backfire. By never delivering, Assad was seen increasingly as a time-waster, and a liar to boot.

Today, everyone from French President Nicholas Sarkozy to Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, friends of Bashar past, as well as Barack Obama, realize whom they were pampering. They have recoiled in disgust. But for too long they eagerly bought into Bashar Assad’s scam, and people are still dying because of their error.

Arab states show their mettle by calling for regime change

After ignoring the situation in Syria for months, Arab states, it now seems, cannot float enough plans for the country. Two weeks ago the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, called for the deployment of Arab troops to Syria. And last weekend, Arab League foreign ministers asked President Bashar Al Assad to leave office.

The latest Arab scheme is modelled on the plan that the Gulf Cooperation Council presented to resolve the Yemeni crisis. Mr Al Assad would hand over power to his first vice president, leading to the formation of a government of national unity within two months.

This government would implement a broad Arab League plan that, among other things, seeks to end the violence through the withdrawal of the army from cities and the release of prisoners. The transition proposal also outlines a process to elect a constituent assembly to draft a new constitution and hold parliamentary elections within six months.

On Tuesday, the Assad regime rejected the transition plan. The opposition Syrian National Council, in turn, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, welcomed it, not least the clause about Mr Al Assad's removal. However, the SNC said there could be no negotiations with the regime until the Syrian president stepped down.

Saudi Arabia played a significant role in formulating the proposal, in its capacity as a member, with Oman, of a committee tasked with following up on the Syrian crisis. The Saudis brought the Gulf states on board and collaborated with their occasional rival Qatar, which chairs the Arab League until March. In another sign of its hardening position, the kingdom pulled its nationals out of the Arab League observer mission to Syria, a measure soon followed by its Gulf partners.

Like Sheikh Hamad's demand that Arab forces be deployed to Syria, the transition project represents a radically new dimension in Arab diplomacy. Neither may prevent a further escalation in Syria. Yet for practical purposes, the Arabs have just advocated regime change there, pushed firmly by the Gulf countries, which have the Yemen experience to borrow from. Mr Al Assad's ouster now has an Arab imprimatur, therefore legitimacy, and this cannot be underestimated.

The Arabs also somehow managed to put together a road map towards what they claimed would be a more democratic Syria. This was inevitable, perhaps, in light of developments in Egypt and Tunisia, where constituent assemblies are preparing to undo constitutions that gave considerable latitude to authoritarian leaders. Yet it also represented an innovation for a regional organisation habitually committed to the narrowest interpretation of state sovereignty.

The foreign ministers extended the Arab League monitoring mission. It would have been difficult to do otherwise. The observers symbolise the continued Arab stake in Syria, even as any expectation that they will succeed in their mission, or perhaps even pursue it, is negligible, especially after Saudi Arabia and its Gulf partners pulled out.

The novelty in the Arab position aside, where does one go from here? We can now speak of armed conflict in Syria, with what appears to be a considerable swathe of territory outside the effective control of the regime. This explains the Arab sense of urgency, but it also highlights the dangers of ambiguity within the Arab League or discord within the United Nations Security Council. The Arab foreign ministers agreed that the Arab League would inform the Security Council of its support for the transition plan, a potentially far-reaching initiative.

Now that the Arab states have endorsed Mr Al Assad's exit in the name of stability and ending bloodshed, a good case can be made that Syria has become a threat to regional peace and security - therefore in some ways to international peace and security. By informing the Security Council, the Arabs will implicitly request that the world body take matters in hand. Recall that Russia and China affirmed in mid-2011 that Syria did not mandate Security Council consideration, because the tension there was no threat to international peace and security. Now the Arab states are suggesting the contrary.

As the fighting intensifies, the stakes are becoming much more dangerous. No Arab official has mentioned it publicly yet, but there is real anxiety that Mr Al Assad's stubbornness may lead to the de facto break-up of the Syrian state, even if temporarily. Once the leaders of the ruling Alawite community sense that their situation is hopeless, they may conceivably implement a mad venture to pull back to the Alawite heartland and consolidate there. That would not be easy and an Alawite statelet would in all probability not be permanent. But Mr Al Assad and his acolytes are adept at making bad calls. An Alawite fallback strategy could unleash other centrifugal forces, particularly involving the Kurds, alarming Syria's neighbours.

How long Russia can resist Security Council action on Syria is anybody's guess. The Arab decision is not one that Moscow can ignore lightly, nor will a post-Assad Syria quickly forgive the actions of the Russian government. Mr Al Assad is on the way out and even close Syrian allies such as Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas may have reached that conclusion. The merit of the Arab plan is that the Arabs have finally grasped the inevitability of a transformation in Damascus.

The Security Council must take up the Arab proposal, even if that means tightening some of its clauses. Things will get worse before they get better. But only when Mr Al Assad and those around him realise that they're finished, will they act in ways that widen the cracks in Alawite ranks. Few in the community relish dying for the ruling family.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

More on God and man in Lebanon

An article I recently wrote on rising religiosity in Lebanon has provoked the ire of some readers. Fortuitously, after its publication I was sent the results of a fascinating survey adding substance to my unempirical observations.

Among the reactions of outrage was that of writer William Peter Blatty, who did not like the argument that when Lebanese youths bury themselves in the depths of a creed, this is in one measure because they are unwilling, or more likely unable, to have a say in the world outside – in the republic. Blatty found the statement “logically unsupported, if not absurd.”

Running to the rescue is Professor Theodor Hanf, who since 1982 has carried out six surveys on the attitudes and opinions of economically active Lebanese. The latest of these, conducted in early 2006, was published in 2007 by UNESCO’s International Center for Human Sciences. Hanf, a German social scientist, also happens to be the author of the highly regarded “Co-existence in Wartime Lebanon: Death of a State and Birth of a Nation,” which came out in 1993.

If linking religious belief to politicization is logically unsupported, then I’m guilty of an error made by everyone from Karl Marx to scholars of the Middle East who have studied that connection in the context of authoritarian Arab countries. Turning to religious practice so that it gives central meaning to life is a way individuals have, and there are others, to compensate for a perceived inability to influence their environment, especially their political environment.

This is not to affirm that all Lebanese believers are depoliticized. Indeed, religious identity can be a highly potent instrument of political mobilization. However, my topic was, and is, religiosity – the outward manifestations of religion. Lebanese have developed a powerful personal bond with their religion, and are increasingly flaunting this bond in their daily life. Somewhere, this tells us something about their outlook toward the world around them.

Readers deserve better than my gut feeling, so to Professor Hanf. His survey covers a range of opinions. For our purposes I will focus on just three, not in the same order as Hanf. The first examines Lebanese views of religion. Hanf writes, “Secularizing moderation of religious convictions and less observance of religious practice is not part of the Lebanese agenda, not 20 years ago, and today even less so.”

Whereas in 1987, 71 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative when asked “I believe in a life after death, in which the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished,” in 2006 the figure was 94 percent. To the question “I try to live by the teachings of my religion,” 75 percent said yes in 1987, while in 2006 the figure was 90 percent. In 1987, 38 percent of respondents said they often visited a place of worship, whereas 63 percent replied in the affirmative in 2006. And in 1987 and 2006, only 11 percent agreed that “I can be happy and enjoy life even if I don’t believe in God.”

While I have cited 1987 and 2006, Hanf also did a survey in 2002. The results show upward trends in answers to the first three questions in the periods covered, excepting the last question. In other words the percentage of respondents answering affirmatively rose between 1987 and 2002, then again between 2002 and 2006. Nothing in current daily life suggests that these trends have been reversed.

A second category of attitudes Hanf examined pertained to political orientation and how the Lebanese viewed their political system. Here, Hanf found that depoliticization was widespread. In response to the question “If you keep out of politics you have peace and quiet and a clear conscience,” 62 percent agreed with the statement in 1987, while 69 percent agreed in 2002 and 67 percent agreed in 2006.

Hanf qualified this, however, by noting that almost a third disagreed in 2006, articulating their political involvement by naming the political organization to which they belonged. A new survey is needed to determine perspectives today. However, again based on what I see around me, I predict the figure has risen beyond 67 percent.

Finally, Hanf asked respondents about their fear of the future, their cautiousness and powerlessness. In response to the question “When I think of the future, I feel uncertain and afraid,” he found rather alarming results. In his four wartime surveys, about 60 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative; in the 2002 survey 81 percent did so, and in 2006 no less than 84 percent did. In other words, 16 years after the war ended, a significantly larger number of Lebanese were more anxious about the future than during wartime.

As disturbing were the responses to the question “You should always be careful. You cannot trust the people you live or work with.” In 2002, 78 percent agreed, while 84 percent did so in 2006. Who did respondents trust, according to the survey? In 2006, 95 percent pointed to “relatives,” 71 percent to “friends,” and 41 percent to “members of one’s religious community,” to name the top three categories. This represented upward trends over 1987 and 2002.

What does this partial reading of Hanf’s survey show? Those like Blatty may repeat that nothing in the results proves that higher religiosity is linked to higher depoliticization. Indeed, but there is a definite correlation between the two, even if multiple factors enter the mix. The Lebanese in 2006 were uncertain about the future; more than two-thirds had negative attitudes toward political participation – and we can safely assume a reason for this was a sense of political futility; and religion was ever more important to an overwhelming majority of Lebanese, to the extent that only 11 percent admitted to being able to live happily and enjoy life without believing in God.

Here we must return to the notion of a republic as, literally, the common wealth of its citizens. In Lebanon it is, plainly, under great stress. A republic is built on trust between citizens, their confidence in the future and the ability to collectively shape that future. When happiness is so strongly associated with religion rather than matters related to life in the polity, we can legitimately ask whether burying oneself in religious creed reflects an unwillingness, or an inability, to have a say in the republic.

In a final section, outside the confines of the relationship between political action and religious practice, Hanf addresses the issue of national coexistence. He finds intriguing results, allowing him to conclude that Lebanese want to live together, but in ways indicating they have also drifted apart; they seek unity in pluralism.

Has Professor Hanf made my case? Perhaps not enough for some. But his studies are invaluable for casting light on the intersection between personal belief, political participation and public confidence in the Lebanese state. Address any further protests to him.

History of Arab interventions argues against role in Syria

Last Saturday, in an interview on US television, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, threw a rock in the very still pond of Arab bewilderment over Syria. He recommended that Arab troops be sent to the country "to stop the killing". If previous Arab military interventions in fellow Arab countries are anything to go by, the bewilderment will not soon dissipate.

It's still unclear what Sheikh Hamad had in mind. His statement could have been a tactical manoeuvre, to place the onus for the carnage in Syria on other Arab countries, at a time when Qatar finds itself virtually alone in aggressively opposing the regime of President Bashar Al Assad. Or the emir could have been thinking of something more specific, namely Arab military protection of so-called humanitarian corridors, to safeguard Syrian civilians.

The idea may not be as far-fetched as it appears, even though Damascus has rejected any kind of foreign military involvement in its affairs. The French government has supported establishing humanitarian corridors, which presumably would be sustained from Turkish territory. The Turkish leadership, itself at a loss over quite what to do in Syria, may welcome such a scheme if it enjoys Arab approval, and if the boots on the ground are Arab.

Moreover, humanitarian corridors defended by Arabs, rather than by Turks, would be a way to avoid alarming Syria's Kurds. It is difficult to see how Russia and China, let alone the United States or the United Kingdom, could actively oppose an Arab consensus on an initiative that circumvents the United Nations Security Council.

At this stage, we can only speculate over what Sheikh Hamad meant by his cryptic comments. Yet those Arab governments reluctant to go along with his project, and they doubtless are many, can point to the dubious record of Arab military operations during the past half-century to chill any ambient enthusiasm.

In the most relevant case, in 1976 the Arab League deployed what was known as the Arab Deterrent Force to Lebanon, to end the civil war in the country. When formed, the force included soldiers from a variety of Arab nations, although the vast majority were Syrian.

Creation of the force effectively legitimised the prior Syrian military presence in Lebanon, and ultimately Syrian domination, even if Arab states initially sought to contain Syria within an Arab framework. The other Arab contingents did not remain beyond 1979, leaving the Syrians in control on the ground. This lasted until April 2005, when Damascus withdrew its army after it was accused of being behind the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, a former prime minister.

The Syrians were rarely unchallenged. In the months before the ADF was formally set up, their soldiers had entered Lebanon to fight an alliance of Palestinians and leftists, in collaboration with Christian militias. Subsequently, they would engage in a series of vicious armed confrontations with the Christians, exacting a very high civilian death toll in the subsequent decade and a half.

The Syrian entry into Lebanon was a relatively uncommon occurrence. Only the debilitating Egyptian campaign in Yemen between 1962 and 1968 or the Moroccan takeover of Western Sahara in 1979 were on a comparable scale, and they did not aim to end a domestic conflict. The entry of Gulf troops into Bahrain last year proved decisive in bolstering the monarchy against those favouring reform, but was of a much smaller magnitude.

Syria did dispatch military units to Jordan in September 1970, to defend Palestinian organisations then fighting the regime of King Hussein. However, the Syrians were beaten back amid splits in their leadership. The head of the air force (and later president of Syria), Hafez Al Assad, did not make use of his aircraft, handing the Jordanians a decisive advantage.

More recently, Arab states participated in two other major military interventions in Arab countries. However, in the war over Kuwait in 1991 and again last year in Libya, Arab governments were enlisted in initiatives led by the United States or by France and the United Kingdom. While these operations were relatively successful, the Arab participants went along because they assumed the western governments were pursuing limited objectives.

What are the messages for Syria today? The first is that Mr Al Assad will depict any Arab military role in Syria as part of a hegemonic foreign conspiracy. His speech last week, in which he declared that Syria was the victim of a plot, set the stage for this. How ironic for a regime that maintained an army in Lebanon for three decades. But the reality is that the Arab world has no successful, entirely Arab military accomplishment to look back upon as a model for Syria.

A second message is that where there is no Arab consensus, military interventions tend mainly to exacerbate inter-Arab discord. Brute force alone allowed Syria to impose its will in Lebanon for so long, over opposition from certain Arab countries. Egypt's war in Yemen was in large part a consequence of its bitter rivalry with Saudi Arabia. The Western Sahara remains a source of profound tension between Morocco and Algeria. And so on. As desirable as Arab harmony over Syria would be, it is unlikely to be forthcoming.

On Sunday, the Arab League is scheduled to discuss Sheikh Hamad's suggestion. Mr Al Assad will play on Arab differences to keep a military option at bay. He may succeed. However, Arab states may have to reinvent themselves militarily in Syria, for it is principally they who would bear the brunt of a Syrian civil war, if one begins.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Voters, expect no change!

Here’s a bet I will make with anyone. The law governing Lebanon’s 2013 parliamentary elections will essentially be the 2009 law.

It’s an easy prediction to make, you say. You would be right. But judging from all the noise this week, as Interior Minister Marwan Charbel organized a conference at the Phoenicia Hotel to discuss his draft proposal for a new law, in coordination with the United Nations Development Program, you would imagine the contrary.

Last October, Charbel presented the outline of a draft law that would allocate seats on the basis of proportional representation. The size of electoral districts has yet to be decided and Charbel’s proposal offers several options. Ultimately, the government and parliament will decide. However, a vast majority of parliamentarians are members of blocs with absolutely no interest in altering the status quo. And the last thing they will endorse is proportional representation, which would allow minorities in the districts they dominate to win seats.

Let’s take as a given that they will find a way to derail proportional representation. The best way to do so is to simply avoid reaching agreement over it. This the blocs will do indirectly, not by rejecting proportionality, as this may be unpopular, but by failing to settle over the size of electoral districts, or some other aspect of the draft law. We saw hints of this direction at the Phoenicia conference, where considerable criticism was leveled at Charbel’s scheme.    

Having undermined proportional representation, the leading political forces will then reimpose the current electoral districts. While it’s true that some parties would prevail under different districting, others would not. For a broad consensus to be reached in parliament, everyone needs to be satisfied. That’s why there is a better than even chance that the districts will not change.

Let’s see why. Start with Baabda, Jezzine, Bint Jbeil, Nabatiyeh, Zahrani, Tyre, Marjayoun-Hasbayya, and Baalbek-Hermel. In all these districts, Hezbollah, Amal, the Aounists, or some combination thereof, have a headlock on seats. Michel Aoun has no impetus to agree to a district larger than the qada, since it ensures that he will do well in Jezzine and Baabda; Hezbollah will not challenge this, even if it can fare just as well in a larger constituency. Amal will go along with both, since it has no latitude to compete with Hezbollah.

Walid Jumblatt, too, approves of the current law. He accepts that Hezbollah and Aoun will select the Druze candidate in Baabda, but the 2009 law still means he can control Aley and the Shouf. Jumblatt’s Druze candidate in the West Beqaa, Wael Abu Faour, and in Beirut, Ghazi Aridi, rely on Sunni votes, while Sunnis make up a third of the Shouf electorate. That means that between now and election time the Druze leader must reconcile with Saad Hariri, who in all probability will form leading lists in the West Beqaa and Beirut.

That reconciliation will have electoral implications. Because Jumblatt cannot afford to be at odds with Hariri before the polls, expect the Druze leader to block all efforts by Aoun or Hezbollah to redraw district lines in Beirut to the former prime minister’s disadvantage.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati and President Michel Sleiman, who together with Jumblatt hold veto power in the government, would also likely oppose such steps, each for his own reasons: Mikati, because he, too, cannot allow his conflict with Hariri to fester, as he must protect his Sunni bona fides and seeks to avoid a bruising electoral contest in Tripoli; and Sleiman, because he doesn’t want Michel Aoun to benefit from gerrymandering in Beirut, which would aim to unify the Christian and Shia electorates.

Aoun as well cannot wish for better than the 2009 law. He still remains the most powerful Christian in Baabda, the Metn, Kisirwan, and Jbeil. Even if he has lost ground in the popular vote, his March 14 adversaries have arguably lost more, given the recent incoherence of the previous majority and Aoun’s ability to discredit the allies of Saad Hariri by playing on Christian fears of the Sunnis.

Michel al-Murr is not the powerhouse that he once was in the Metn, and has made overtures to the new majority. Aoun’s reliance on the Armenian vote in the district, as well as his support among Shia in Jbeil and Baabda provide him with decisive advantages. In the Kisirwan, a unified opposition to Aoun has yet to emerge, and would have less access to funding than the Aounists.

Finally, Saad Hariri will not abandon the 2009 law either. He should do very well in Beirut, if the districting stays the same, as well as in Tripoli, Akkar, Dinniyeh, Zahleh, and the West Beqaa. In Saida, he may have to deal with that new Salafist emanation, Sheikh Ahmad Assir, which raises numerous questions about how dynamics in the Sunni community will play out, given Hariri’s long absence and the conflict in Syria above all. Will the former prime minister have to include more Islamists on his lists? Will his influence remain intact if his financial woes continue? All interesting questions, but none will make him reconsider the kind of election law that he favors.

A final verdict on an election law will be shaped by events in Syria. That’s why we are unlikely to see consensus on a new law soon. But assume the 2013 election law will be a case of back to the future.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Do discard the ‘resistance axis’ hoax

This past week several British parliamentarians were in Beirut to learn more about the situation in Lebanon and Syria. They met with politicians, academics and journalists, and an argument they took home with them was particularly intriguing. It pertains to what has become known in the West as the “resistance axis.”

As a parliamentarian put it to me, they had heard from one of those with whom they chatted not to underestimate the solidarity between members of the “resistance axis” – mainly Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas – and the intensity of the ideological principles uniting them. With Syrian President Bashar Assad facing an existential threat to his rule, his fellow “resisters” would ride forcefully to his aid.

So, what did I think of this view?

Certainly, I replied, Iran and Hezbollah have bolstered Assad and his acolytes, and will continue to do so as they slaughter their own population. They may be preparing for the possibility of Assad’s downfall, but they are also doing everything to ensure that repression succeeds. Yet rather than representing a common culture of “resistance,” this team spirit merely reflects parallel interests. At the leadership level, the alleged moral underpinning defining “resistance” is secondary.

The notion of a “resistance axis” has been a casualty of the revolts in the Arab world. Using the term displays willful blindness to what has taken place during the past year. Resistance, the way the word is currently understood in the Arab world, implies resistance to injustice and hegemony, principally imposed by the United States and Israel. Yet when Iran and Syria, pillars of the axis, have been at the vanguard in violently and unjustly suppressing freedoms at home, the term “resistance axis” elicits only laughter. And yet there are people who need to keep the term alive, with its moral implications, because their professional agenda is invested in its being taken seriously.

The most prominent of these is Alastair Crooke. He is a former MI6 agent who heads Conflicts Forum in Beirut, which promotes dialogue between the West and Islamist groups. However, Crooke has become less a mediator between the two sides than an interpreter, advocate and relayer of the Islamists’ messages to the West, above all those of Hezbollah. This drift into partisanship has pushed Crooke to take positions in defense of the Assad regime that have exposed him to ridicule, as when he wrote in Asia Times last July that “Syrians also believe that President Bashar al-Assad shares their conviction for reform” and that there is “no credible ‘other’ that could bring reform.”

Lebanon has also attracted inferior knock-offs of Crooke, but their message is similar and their attitude toward the carnage in Syria as mercenary and inexcusable. They realize that with Assad facing a popular uprising, the conceptual edifice that they have spent years building up is about to collapse. The only thing that can save them is for the Syrian leader to prevail. That is why they have hemmed and hawed on Syria, when they have mentioned it at all, admitting to the regime’s brutality before tossing in caveats playing down such behavior, showing how unnerved they are with the prospect that they may lose a rationale to fund their enterprises.

Why is the conceptual edifice of Crooke and his imitators in danger? The Arab revolts have already brought Islamists to power through democratic means in Egypt and Tunisia. If Assad goes, two things risk happening in Syria: the Muslim Brotherhood will enter the political mainstream, even if it is unlikely to replicate the successes of its brethren in Egypt; and Hezbollah’s regional star will rapidly dim, as a majority of Syrians turn against the party for supporting Assad.

Both dynamics are problematic for would-be mediators like Crooke. The legitimization of Islamist parties through elections has forced Western governments to seriously contemplate dealing with them directly, without passing through non-governmental organizations. And if Hezbollah is perceived in the West as being weaker, there will be far less of an impetus to sponsor dialogue initiatives with the party, and far more to push for Hezbollah’s marginalization. That won’t happen quickly, so those like Crooke will still hold a job for awhile; but it will be principally a cleaning up job, because the profitable nexus that they have hitherto depended upon, that of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas – the “resistance axis” – will be no more.

How odd that proponents of the “resistance axis” have failed lately to feed Hamas into their equation. Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, has found it tricky to stand with Assad against the Syrian Brotherhood. From the moment the prominent cleric Sheikh Yusif al-Qaradawi declared last March that the train of revolution had reached Syria, it was apparent that Hamas would one day have to make a choice. It has delayed doing so, but with Assad calling the Syrian Brotherhood “brothers of Satan” in a speech on Tuesday, a pillar of the resistance coalition may be nearing disintegration.

The template of those peddling a “resistance axis” line is the same as the one highlighting the perils of Western neo-imperialism in the Middle East, with its Arab nationalist pedigree. In the name of the struggle against Israel and neo-imperialism, Arab societies were turned into leviathans of subjugation. Yet the overriding message in the Arab revolts is that Arab populations, whatever their outlook toward the outside, now want their domestic tribulations to be given priority.

No fantasy of a “resistance axis” can survive in such an atmosphere. Resistance against whom? On whose behalf? Arabs want to resist the cruelty of their own leaders, to secure their future as free citizens and that of their children. Opportunists flogging schemes that ultimately benefit the tyrants will not convince the Arabs otherwise.

Arab League's indecision is fuelling Assad's belligerence

When lost, continue walking around in circles. That is the motto of the Arab League in dealing with the crisis in Syria. And judging from the wavering in Arab capitals over what to do next with the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, little is likely to soon change.

Sensing the confusion among Arab governments over an Arab League plan to end the Syrian violence, Mr Al Assad counterattacked in a speech on Tuesday, rebuking them for not standing by his government. He hopes to profit from their mood to regain the initiative at home.

When Mr Al Assad accepted the Arab plan, he widened the cracks in Arab ranks over how to resolve his country's problems. The plan calls for a withdrawal of the army from Syrian cities, the release of prisoners, and a dialogue between the regime and opposition, as well as the deployment of Arab monitors to implement the scheme.

Each of these conditions is a minefield. The Syrian army has not withdrawn from cities, with some 400 people estimated to have been killed since the monitors arrived last month. Yet there are too few of them to verify compliance. Some prisoners have been released, but without accurate figures for how many have been detained, and without a mandate for monitors to freely enter detention facilities, it will be impossible to ascertain the actual number. And while the Assad regime says it welcomes dialogue, it wants to choose its interlocutor, and sees talks as a way of splitting the opposition further.

Last November, Arab states seemed more decisive. They suspended Syria's Arab League membership when it refused to sign the protocol formalising the Arab plan. They also imposed sanctions and a travel ban on Syrian officials. The impact was limited, in there being no mechanism compelling Arab League members to enforce sanctions. While they went further than expected, Arab officials said the decisions were necessary to avoid "internationalisation" of the crisis through the United Nations Security Council.

Mr Al Assad's foes now describe the execution of the Arab plan as a fiasco. In a report last Sunday, the monitors hardly dispelled the unease. Killings and arrests have continued, though Arab divisions meant the Arab League could agree only on pursuing the mission for now. The arrival of new monitors is being delayed by Syria, their movement is controlled by the security forces, and Mr Al Assad feels confident.

Arab dynamics are revealing in this regard. Other than Qatar, which has played a vanguard role in opposing the leadership in Damascus, there is a profound disconnect between the Arab regimes and the Syrian opposition, whose minimal demand is Mr Al Assad's removal. That explains the opposition's mistrust of the Arab League, itself a mirror of the Arab consensus - or rather the lack thereof.

The two traditional Arab powerhouses, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, remain deeply ambiguous on Syria. The Egyptian military council is focused on managing its domestic affairs and is avoiding taking risks abroad, despite the potential strategic advantage to Cairo of a breakdown in the Syrian-Iranian alliance. More cynically, the generals, keen to consolidate their authority at home, favour the status quo regionally. They fear that new convulsions, above all Mr Al Assad's fall, would further embolden their Egyptian detractors.

The disposition of the Egyptian military can be read in the actions of the Arab League secretary general, Nabil Al Arabi, an Egyptian who like most of his predecessors is close to the power centres in Cairo. Mr Al Arabi has been indecisive and behind the curve on Syria, and has not used his pulpit to advance his organisation's plan. Instead, he has obtained agreement over lowest common denominators among the Arab states, effectively neutralising the Arab mission.

Saudi Arabia has also been strikingly hazy on Mr Al Assad's repression. The kingdom has condemned the actions of the Syrian regime, but it has also shied away from shaping Arab agreement on events in Syria. Riyadh has played a largely passive role, in contrast to its interventions in Bahrain and Yemen. That could be because the Saudi plate is full and the royal family is going through a transition; perhaps, too, the Saudis prefer a slow corrosion of Syria's regime. That said, the prospect of ensuring that Iran loses a vital ally in the Levant has appeared not to galvanise Saudi decision-makers.

The Saudis' response on Monday to the Arab League monitor's report showed that they still prefer to have it both ways. The council of ministers issued a statement calling on the Syrian government to carry out the Arab plan and protect civilians. Yet it also implicitly supported pursuing the plan, affirming that it has been "partially" implemented - which the opposition rejects.

Other Arab states have also shown no enthusiasm for aggressively applying Arab decisions. Iraq, Algeria, Sudan, Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon have either been openly sympathetic to Mr Al Assad or have gone with the flow. Most of the Gulf states will follow the Saudi lead, which has been to step back. Qatar has stood out as the exception, but in March it relinquishes the rotating presidency of the Arab League to Iraq, which has defended Mr Al Assad.

There is no Arab momentum to side with the Syrian population against their leaders. This risks dangerously alienating the Syrian opposition, leading to radicalisation of the uprising. That may be precisely what Mr Al Assad wants, but it is also what the Arab states claim they want to avert. Syria is now an urgent matter for the UN Security Council, and has been for months. Arab indecision shows why.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Is Hezbollah losing control?

The cacophony in the government this past week, while hardly surprising, tells us much about the nature of the Lebanese system. And the party best absorbing the lesson is Hezbollah.

Last month, the defense minister, Fayez Ghosn, declared that Al-Qaeda was present in Lebanon, in that way echoing accusations that Syrian officials have made. He was soon contradicted by Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Interior Minister Marwan Charbel. This prompted Ghosn’s political patron, Sleiman Franjieh, to publicly back the defense minister, even as Walid Jumblatt, the Druze leader, called on Russia and Iran to persuade President Bashar al-Assad that a change of regime in Damascus was necessary.

And this from the government “of one color” we’ve heard so much about. That such a government can continue to survive is less a miracle than a sign of Syria’s and Hezbollah’s desire not to allow a vacuum in Beirut that could turn to their disadvantage. But outside the boundaries of that general condition, anything goes. Franjieh does the bidding of the Syrian regime, Jumblatt recommends its departure, and Mikati tries to steer a middle course between the icebergs.

Hezbollah controls the commanding heights of the Lebanese state. It has considerable sway over the army and the intelligence apparatus, not to mention over Beirut airport and port. It has an independent telecommunications network, which it has been able to install throughout large parts of the country. And it has access to numerous ministries through its political partners and clients. The list goes on. But one thing Hezbollah cannot do is impose harmony on a litigious political environment to advance its interests. The ensuing pluralism poses the greatest threat to Hezbollah’s wellbeing.

It’s difficult to say how Hezbollah judges the situation in Syria. It continues to staunchly support the Assad regime, but the party is too lucid not to have a backup plan. And such a plan almost certainly involves a measure of self-protection through Hezbollah’s continued participation in and supremacy over the government and state. That’s why it doesn’t want a governmental void in the country, since this might hinder its ability to shape the political environment in its favor.

However, things may not be so clear-cut. The dispute over Al-Qaeda as well as Jumblatt’s remarks led in directions that Hezbollah would prefer to avoid. The party cannot be particularly comfortable with the implications of Ghosn’s declarations. If Lebanon has become an Al-Qaeda base, with members allegedly present in Aarsal, a Sunni town in the northeastern Bekaa Valley, near Hezbollah strongholds, this can only heighten hostility between Sunni and Shia. Hezbollah, which must know that the Al-Qaeda accusation is bogus, today prefers to sidestep sectarian antagonism, let alone confrontation, that would further isolate it if the Syrian leadership were to collapse. Syria’s priorities and Hezbollah’s are not invariably the same in Lebanon.

The same holds for Jumblatt’s bombshell. The party perhaps understands that the Druze leader must also plan ahead for the exit of the Assads, given that there are some 300,000 Druze in Syria. It cannot approve of Jumblatt’s call for regime change in Damascus, but nor can it intimidate him in quite the way that it previously could. Jumblatt makes the parliamentary majority a majority; and Hezbollah knows that in a world without the Assads, it will need to be on cordial terms with many of those whom it finds unsavory.

Things will not get easier for the party. Last October the inhabitants of Tarshish stopped excavation work which they warned was being carried out by Hezbollah to extend its telecommunications network. While the episode was relatively limited in scope, that kind of reaction can only increase in the future, as the perception spreads that the party is increasingly vulnerable because of the Syrian crisis.

What we have today is a Hezbollah whose constraints oblige it to be in league with a politician bluntly wagering on the end of Assad rule, as well as a prime minister who has pushed hard to finance an international tribunal that has indicted Hezbollah members. The party is finding it difficult to manage a dysfunctional cabinet to its advantage. Lebanon’s Sunnis feel emboldened because of events in Syria, at the very moment when Hezbollah is eager to avert sectarian animosities. And if Bashar al-Assad is ousted, the party will lose its strategic depth in case of war with Israel, greatly limiting its ability to engage in such a war and diluting its deterrence capability.

All this is the natural consequence of a complex, unruly Lebanese political order that no party can hope to dominate for long. Hezbollah has engaged in hubris by believing the contrary. Lebanon’s sectarian order sooner or later pushes back against attempts at hegemony by one party or a coalition of parties. The “politics of alleyways” that Hassan Nasrallah once dismissed in describing the conduct of Lebanese domestic affairs, is slowly overcoming Hezbollah.

But the party won’t disappear once the Assads do. For Lebanon to peacefully navigate a post-Assad era in Syria, negotiations between the Lebanese communities are necessary. Sunnis need to speak to Shia. Hezbollah will become more modest as the system grinds the party down. But nothing will have been gained if the party’s foes become overconfident. That would be a recipe for civil conflict.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

It's always difficult to reach post-revolutionary closure

As Arab revolts began last year, it was inevitable that people would compare them to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.

And that comparison suggests that the emancipation of Arab societies will likely stumble on the matter of memory, as did the former communist societies.

A useful keyhole into that recent past is a Pulitzer Prize-winning 1995 book by Tina Rosenberg, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe's Ghosts After Communism.Ms Rosenberg focused on three countries; Czechoslovakia (before its break-up into two states), Poland, and the German Democratic Republic. She examined how each came to terms with its oppressive communist legacy, and concluded that the process in each country was wanting, causing discord rather than the desirable closure initially anticipated.

In Czechoslovakia, the post-communist establishment introduced what came to be called "lustrace", a mechanism to uncover who had collaborated with the secret service, the StB, while barring those who had from certain types of positions. The difficulty was that the names of alleged collaborators were taken from the StB registry that indexed folders on the individuals. Being named in the registry automatically implied guilt, although there were myriad other reasons why someone might be listed. Over time, lustrace came to be regarded as indiscriminate, provoking growing condemnation.

In Poland the situation was different. There was no broad organised purge of communists. Rather, the focus was on whether the former Polish leader, Wojciech Jaruzelski, and members of his Council of State, had committed treason by introducing martial law under Soviet duress in December 1981. The inquiry, by a parliamentary committee, debated whether Mr Jaruzelski and his ministers should be referred to the State Tribunal. Ultimately, the committee decided not.

The process was undermined by its haphazard nature. Mr Jaruzelski argued that he had been forced to impose martial law to avert a Soviet invasion. That was not quite true, but there was also no agreement in Poland over how to deal with the communist legacy. Even Adam Michnik, a dissident targeted by the communists, defended Mr Jaruzelski, arguing that reconciliation was necessary.

In East Germany, a third approach was tried; opening the files of the secret police, the Stasi, to the victims. This way individuals could determine who had informed on them, and what had been known of their activities.

The post-unification German authorities also tried East German officials, as well as some border guards who had killed people trying to escape. This proved less successful, partly because it required proving that the accused had acted illegally under East German law, no easy task.

Each experience reaffirmed that societies going through momentous change often reach no consensus over settling past accounts.

This will prove even more challenging in the Arab world, where political transitions have tended to be violent and divisive.

In Egypt, for instance, the military allowed Hosni Mubarak to be put on trial. However, the potential benefits of the decision were soon neutralised by conflict, as supporters and enemies of the former president fought around the courtroom. Instead of being turned into an institutional means to dismantle the old order, the trial was closed to the public, amid a clear lack of enthusiasm by the military. After all, Mr Mubarak's trial is also that of the security institutions that bolstered his rule, led by the army.

In Libya, the post-war divisions render unlikely a harmonious consideration of the Qaddafi regime's ills. Muammar Qaddafi's killing eliminated prospects for a trial that could have united Libyans against the old leadership. Seif Al Islam Qaddafi is in custody, but pervasive factionalism may mean he becomes a political football rather than an instrument to wash away a sordid past.

In Yemen, the regime that brutally repressed dissent may enjoy impunity, because the Gulf plan to remove President Ali Abdullah Saleh effectively exonerates him. That may be reversed one day, but dissension in the country and the breakdown of government authority, which was never strong in the first place, makes a concerted reckoning with the past almost impossible.

And in Syria, too much remains indeterminate to contemplate the issue of memory. Syrians would find much to deconstruct, literally, after 40 years of Assad rule, but the society is complex. A desire to avert disputes may favour a comprehensive reconciliation, once a handful of individuals are punished.

Two Arab countries that did have an opportunity to engage memory are Lebanon and Iraq. After the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990, the government issued a blanket pardon for wartime crimes. Post-war reconstruction was advanced on a foundation of officially-sanctioned amnesia. Few Lebanese challenged this because most communal leaders, therefore their leaders, were culpable.

In Iraq, the trial of Saddam Hussein was widely interpreted as a last opportunity to part the curtain on Baath-era crimes. Sunnis saw the trial merely as another facet of their communal marginalisation, while many Shiites viewed it as an expedient occasion to get rid of a once-feared man.

In times like this, it's worth rereading Ms Rosenberg. There are no easy paths to national self-reflection, especially when this involves confronting one's own misdeeds, which only rarely can be fully separated from the misdeeds of overthrown rulers. Guilt has a way of touching everything. That is why societies in democratic or peaceful transitions will often prefer to forget, and to forgive the unforgivable.

Finding God everywhere in Lebanon

Readers will forgive me if I use a personal milestone as the premise for what follows. The year 2012 marks 20 years since my return to Lebanon, after an interregnum abroad. On the occasion, what change has struck me most during this period? Without a doubt, that affecting religion.

By this I don’t mean the primacy of sectarianism, though that is certainly part of it. What I’m referring to is the pervasiveness of the outwardly devotional, of public manifestations of faith, a belief in miracles, and the compulsive recourse to God or other sacred figures in all varieties of day-to-day situations. Moreover, such religiosity seems everywhere present physically – on trinkets, lockets, wristbands, key rings, bumpers, pocket flashlights, lighters, and wherever else one can affix the image of a saint or a Quranic verse.

Religion is, or should be, a private matter. Yet what is so startling is that the Lebanese today routinely wear it on their sleeve, literally and figuratively. They mechanically assume that if they mutter a religious invocation, that their interlocutors will respond in kind. And many do. Stranger still, it is the young who are the most dedicated. Where one would assume that youths are impatient to cut loose from religious tradition, in Lebanon they are the ones holding the trenches.

The phenomenon is disturbing. To believe in God is one thing, and it is a right no less meriting of protection than the right to religious unbelief. However, it often appears that the rise in overt Lebanese religiosity, like the rise in sectarian polarization, is one consequence of the breakdown of confidence in the state and its social contract.

If so, the issue we’re addressing perhaps has less to do with religion as such than with the particulars of identity. Among Christians, for instance, there is a palpable connection between explicit examples of religiosity and a sense of communal decline. When you feel yourself to be on the ropes, the natural reflex is to reaffirm your presence by whatever means possible, even if it means overdoing things.

I still recall walking into a bank one day and watching a young trainee teller as she went through the steps of verifying my check. The girl, she must have been 22 at most, was a movable reliquary. She wore a large rosary around her neck and religious strings around her wrist, alongside a smaller rosary doubling as an elastic bracelet. I may have caught sight of the Immaculate Conception on a chain as well.

The teller was hardly to be blamed for her convictions. Yet I wondered at how developed must have been the inner sanctum inhabited by this girl, and how this somehow represented a loss for Lebanon as a whole. When youths of any sect bury themselves in the depths of a creed, that is in one measure because they are unwilling, or more likely unable, to have a say in the world outside – in the republic.

This contrasts sharply with attitudes among an older generation of Lebanese, those who were in their 20s during the 1970s. In that first decade of the Civil War, secular ideologies still held meaning. Sect was important and militiamen flaunted their religious artifacts. But back then they still seemed to be fighting over the state, over something tangible: their version of what they regarded as an ideal polity. For many Lebanese in their 20s nowadays, once they manage to transcend their cynicism, the ideal polity, typically, is abroad.

Not surprisingly, political and religious leaders have facilitated the Lebanese retreat to religion. On the one hand, religion provides sectarian leaderships with a fine instrument to impose unanimity behind their authority; on the other, the alienation Lebanese feel from public matters means politicians are left unchallenged.

The clergy has been no better. More religion makes them more relevant, but also bolsters their much-inflated influence. Priests and sheikhs can only applaud when their flocks fall back on the outer trappings and paraphernalia of the faith, as opposed to the spirituality purportedly at its core. For it is the churches and the mosques that administer the public facets of devotion, lending them legitimacy. Yet there is an irony. Few Lebanese are naïve about the corruptions of their religious institutions. Rarely have clerics been as mistrusted, as blatantly enslaved to the worldly. And yet they still enjoy obedience.

If the Lebanese aspire to a better future, they will have to break out of their sectarian islands and closeted religious mindsets. Religion will remain a defining feature of Lebanon, the secular notwithstanding. But whatever the rewards of religion, when religiosity is emphasized in a mixed sectarian society, it becomes a medium of demarcation or separation. Identity politics can be divisive politics, just as a surfeit of religious ostentation conceals deeper insecurities. In the framework of unstable states, these hinder a consensus over coexistence.

Many will disagree with this assessment, so essential to their life is religion, precisely because the Lebanese state has let them down. It’s a vicious circle, no doubt. However, then we might refer back to that phrase about the necessity of rendering to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. On this earth, let’s attend to what is Caesar’s, and those who want to deal with God will have an eternity to do so.