Thursday, January 17, 2013

Lebanon's Christian rivals unite only in their mutual decline

There seems to be no proposal too outlandish for many of Lebanon's Christians, as they contemplate a future in which their role in their country is bound to diminish.

Since the end of the war in 1990, Christians have had to deal with a Lebanon vastly changed by the 15 years of conflict. Christians were a major force in 1975, when the fighting began, but by the time it ended they were fighting themselves, in a destructive confrontation between the Lebanese Army, led by Michel Aoun, and the Lebanese Forces militia, led by Samir Geagea.

Both Mr Aoun and Mr Geagea are still around, leading lights in the Christian community. No wonder their followers remain apart. The split was reinforced by the decision of both men in 2006, after the Syrian withdrawal of 2005, to go their separate ways. Mr Aoun aspired to be president and allied himself with the Shia Hizbollah, while Mr Geagea stuck with the Sunni leader, Saad Hariri.

Mr Aoun's calculation was that a powerful Hizbollah would hoist him into the presidency, against the will of the parliamentary majority. This proved a mistake, as the party finally voted for the army commander, Michel Suleiman. Nor was Hizbollah persuaded by Mr Aoun. They backed him when pressed, knowing this would keep Christians divided, but when Mr Suleiman emerged as a consensus candidate, Hizbollah endorsed him.

The episode highlighted how secondary the Christians - particularly the largest Christian community, the Maronites - have become when facing the principal rivalry shaping Lebanese affairs, namely that between Sunnis and Shia. Electorally, Mr Aoun has done well because he can rely on Hizbollah voters. Similarly, in several districts Mr Geagea needs Sunni votes to send his candidates to parliament.

And yet, several months ago, both Mr Aoun and Mr Geagea reacted favourably to a proposal presented by a gathering of Greek Orthodox luminaries. Pushed mainly by the former deputy speaker of parliament, Elie Firzli, a close ally of Syria, the plan was for a law saying voters could cast ballots only for candidates from their sects. Under this system, Lebanon would be organised as a single electoral district with proportional representation deciding who entered parliament.

Many condemned the law for enhancing sectarianism and barring collaboration between Christians and Muslims. It was seen as signalling an end to a multi-confessional Lebanon. These accusations were alarmist, but the core of the warnings was true. If sects can no longer function together in the electoral system, then what is Lebanon coming to? What are the unifying factors for a country already divided along communal lines? Critics were distressed that an instrument of cross-sectarian partnership was being abandoned so Christians would feel more at ease.

Ironically, Mr Firzli's plan duped nobody. Many in the March 14 coalition, which opposes the current government, saw the scheme as an effort to undermine their alliances, particularly between Mr Geagea and Saad Hariri, the former prime minister. That was indeed the aim. But Mr Aoun and Mr Geagea were also aware of generalised displeasure among their co-religionists over the fact that many Christians were entering parliament thanks to non-Christian voters.

There were more prosaic reasons from Mr Aoun's backing of the proposal. It had the endorsement of his ally Hizbollah. Under the Orthodox law, Hizbollah and its comrades would be expected to do well in elections scheduled for this summer. The party would benefit from the majority of Shia votes, while Mr Aoun, even without Hizbollah's backing, would win a substantial share of Christian votes, and might defeat Mr Geagea in many districts.

However, Mr Geagea also felt a need to go along with the Orthodox proposal, because he realised that not doing so might cost him Christian loyalty. Recently, the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, created a parliamentary subcommittee to agree to a new election law. Mr Berri, an ally of Hizbollah, grandly announced in 2012 that he would approve of any law to which the Christians agreed, knowing full well that they would agree to nothing. The subcommittee was supposed to discuss a range of options, including a proportional representation bill approved by the government.

Recently the Christian parties - the Lebanese Forces, its allies in the Kataeb Party, the Aounists and the Marada movement, which is close to Mr Aoun and Syria - announced that they backed the Orthodox proposal. This was a tactical necessity, since all had to show they were for a plan permitting Christians to choose Christians. However, Mr Geagea's attitude, like that of the Kataeb, angered those in the mainly Sunni Future Movement of Mr Hariri, who see the Orthodox proposal as a means of weakening Mr Hariri and March 14.

Yet faced with growing hostility to the idea, from Future, from many of the major Muslim religious leaders, as well as from the Maronite Mr Suleiman and independent Christians in March 14, most of the Christians in the parliamentary subcommittee appeared to step back from the Orthodox proposal. Importantly, Maronite Patriarch Bishara Rai also seemed unenthusiastic. The scheme is not dead, but seems unlikely to be adopted.

Less remote is the prospect that the Christians will continue to adapt poorly to their decline in Lebanese society. As they rush to reaffirm themselves, Christians are easy prey for those benefiting from their divisions. One can understand their frustration, but the way to counter this is to have confidence in their future role in Lebanon. Yet a continued sense of doom seems inevitable for those Christians who fail to realise that influence is not just a matter of numbers.

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