Saturday, June 16, 2012

No escape from Taif

The National Dialogue sessions are to resume later this month, and the March 14 coalition hopes to bring to the table the matter of Hezbollah’s weapons. Will that undermine the ongoing discussions? Probably not, as there seems to be widespread support in Lebanon for the politicians and political parties to keep channels open.

Yet how might March 14 best address the issue of weapons? One idea that I have long advocated is to shift the parameters of debate with the Shia community and put on the table a quid pro quo: In exchange for implementing Taif, which, by deconfessionalizing parliament, would give Shia greater representation commensurate with their numbers, Hezbollah would be asked to approve a verifiable mechanism to place its weapons under the authority of the state.

Moreover, an open forum on constitutional reform could be proposed to raise a wide variety of additional outstanding issues between the communities. This would include addressing Christian worries about deconfessionalization, establishment of a Senate, formulation of a fairer parliamentary election law and more.

March 14 understandably hesitates when it comes to such proposals. In early June, Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, called for the convening of a constituent assembly that would be tasked with studying ways to build “a true state” capable of providing its citizens with security and economic stability. Whenever Hezbollah talks about security, you know that its overriding objective is to impose a means to legitimize the party’s retention of its weapons.

There are two other fears that March 14 has, and they are equally reasonable. When Nasrallah mentions a constituent assembly, he is, plainly, talking about constitutional changes outside the parameters of the Taif Accord. What would that entail? Most likely, some suggest, a three-way division of seats in parliament between Shia, Sunnis, and Christians (with adjustments for the smaller communities), an idea that has also been floated by Michel Aoun. March 14 believes that Nasrallah and Aoun regard this as a means of installing a structural two-thirds to one-third majority over the Sunni community.

A second worry is that if one begins to talk about integrating Hezbollah’s weapons into the Lebanese state, this will not mean very much if the party comes to control the army and the state. Indeed, Hezbollah’s ambition is to do precisely that, as its strategy today is focused on winning parliamentary elections next year, and following that a year later with the election of a president it favors.

However, Nasrallah is facing a more complicated situation than he imagines. Let us examine the three-way division of power idea. The reality is that a majority of Christians will never endorse such a mad scheme, because it would only formalize their numerical decline by overhauling the current 50-50 ratio of Christians to Muslims in parliament, while handing them nothing tangible in return.

The notion that Christians view their long-term salvation in an alliance with Shia is also absurd—or, for that matter, with the Sunnis. Communal politics is about shifting alliances and interests, not about ganging up on a single community. As ludicrous is the assumption that Aoun influences most Christians in making such choices. Maronites in particular are divided over the fundamental challenges of Lebanese political life, so that prospects for a consensus over a three-way division of parliament seem remote.

But if Christians aren’t willing to see their parliamentary representation cut down in a three-way scheme, some might respond, why would they go along with Taif, which mandates the abolition of sectarian quotas entirely? That’s not an easy question to answer, but Taif has two things going for it: First, it outlines the creation of a Senate, in which the 50-50 communal ratio is preserved, reassuring the Christians; and second, the deconfessionalization of parliament would apply to all communities, meaning Christians would be part of a larger process that offers advantages and disadvantages to all.

In other words, officializing a three-way communal split in parliament introduces rigidity into the system: Christians could never aspire to more than a third of seats, and may find themselves hopelessly outvoted if Sunnis and Shia unite. In contrast, Taif has a sectarian safety net, through a Senate, while imposing no caps on communal representation. And it is not a momentary pastime, the product of a short-term interpretation of political circumstances today as defined by Nasrallah and Aoun.

What of the argument that if Hezbollah controls the state and the army, any plan to place the party’s weapons under the authority of the state and army becomes meaningless? In fact, the state and army are houses of many mansions, mirroring the impossible complexities and contradictions of Lebanese society. It would be hubris on the part of Hezbollah to assume that it could put an indefinite lock on state institutions, especially on an army that has substantial numbers of Sunnis in its ranks. If the party were to accept any measure of state control over its weapons, this would be a valuable wedge to exploit.

March 14 should direct an arms-versus-expanded-political-representation proposition at Shia in general, not just at Hezbollah. This may seem unimportant, even counterproductive, since Hezbollah remains so influential among its coreligionists. However, it is necessary to underline that, ultimately, any negotiations over reform should transcend specific politicians and organizations, and aim toward a broader social contract within and between communities. There is no reason to restrict participation in a national reform project to the major representatives of the communities.

We shouldn’t expect breakthroughs when it comes to Hezbollah’s arms. But March 14 must reaffirm the importance of Taif as the framework for any future negotiations over power-sharing. If that means tying Taif into a debate over weapons, all the better. Nasrallah and Aoun are trying to run away from Taif. We mustn’t let them.

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