Monday, January 28, 2013

Self-destruction in the making

Suddenly, some are waking up to the dire implications of the Orthodox proposal for an election law. Even the Maronite patriarch, Beshara al-Rai has reportedly not embraced the proposal, though he rejects the 1960 law that will prevail if no alternative is found.

So, we may be heading toward another impossible Lebanese stalemate. We have problems with the new law, but will be damned if we accept the current law, while the proposal we do favor has no chance of gaining support. Now go resolve the problem.

If the Orthodox law is passed, and it is favored by most of the major Christian parties that have met in a parliamentary sub-committee—the Free Patriotic Movement, the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb Party and the Marada movement—it will be divisive and wreak havoc on the political scene. This is hardly advisable just months before elections are supposed to take place.

The law organizes Lebanon as a single electoral district, whereby each sect would elect its own parliamentarians under a proportional representation system. The system it outlines is archaic, divisive and, well, sectarian. It is built on dissatisfaction among Christians with seeing many of their representatives chosen by predominantly Muslim electorates. Therefore it cannot stand in any way as a model for national amity. Rather than uniting the Lebanese, it divides them hopelessly, which is perhaps one reason why Rai, despite having tried to sell himself as the prime defender of Maronite interests, appears today to hesitate to go along with the proposition.

Perhaps Rai’s reluctance has something to do with President Michel Suleiman’s views of the law. The president, with whom the patriarch is close, opposes the project and intends to challenge it on constitutional grounds. The thing is that all alternatives are equally problematical, above all the current 1960 law. Most Christians, Rai included, reject the 1960 law, since it means that many Christian parliamentarians will be brought into parliament by Muslim majority electorates.

But let’s pause for a moment and ask an obvious question. Given the demographic differences in Lebanon, and the fact that the country is perhaps two-thirds Muslim, is it realistic to bend laws out of shape to prevent non-Christians from bringing Christians into parliament? Some parties, principally Hezbollah, would say yes, because they realize that the Orthodox proposal is to their advantage. It helps their allies in the Christian community, it weakens those expected to win on the basis of alliances with Sunni electorates controlled by Saad Hariri, and it ensures that the party itself gets most Shiite votes.

Moreover, by favoring the Orthodox scheme, Hezbollah is heightening the contradictions between the March 14 parties and their own voters. Had March 14 been less hasty, it would have remained more ambiguous about the Orthodox proposal when it came out. Instead, many Christians in the opposition announced they favored the plan, to rally Christians who largely support the proposal. Yet, since the 1960 law is in the interest of March 14, this creates a dilemma. If March 14 Christians say no to the Orthodox project, they may lose their base; if they say yes, they may lose the election.

Many of the March 14 Christians are beginning to realize they are trapped. The aim of the Orthodox proposal—put forth by the ex-deputy parliament speaker, Elie Ferzli, a prominent ally of Syria and Hezbollah—was to deny March 14 Christian candidates support from sizable pro-Saad Hariri Sunni electorates. If the plan goes through, Sunni voters will not be able to help Christian candidates in key districts such as Zahle, Koura, the West Beqaa, Tripoli and Beirut III. Overall, Hariri would lose as a consequence.

The Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea apparently doesn’t sense that when he backed the Orthodox proposal, it was a maneuver too far. In order not to anger his Maronite base, he may now face a new election law that guarantees he wins fewer parliamentarians than he had hoped for. Yet Geagea also feels he has a growing Christian electorate and seeks to take on Michel Aoun among their coreligionists, while showing that he does not rely on Hariri’s backing.

No wonder this has strained ties between March 14 Christians, namely the Lebanese Forces and Kataeb Party, and the Future Movement. For Future, the Christians may be asserting their independence, but it means that as a whole March 14 loses. This would deny Saad Hariri a victory he needs to secure, at a time when the regime of Bashar al-Assad may be about to fall.

Beyond that, the Greek Orthodox law tells us something about the Christians in Lebanese society. As they struggle to define a role for themselves in a country where they have become a minority, some Christians are searching for all possible means, no matter how destructive, to reaffirm themselves against the Muslim majority. Some but not all. A meeting at Boutros Harb’s residence on Thursday strongly condemned the Greek Orthodox plan, saying that it would in time lead to the disintegration and disappearance of Lebanon.

Lebanon, as a unifying idea, risks being abandoned, as does the country’s social contract. From March 14 Christians, who once saw their alliance with Muslims as the cornerstone of a new Lebanon, this is worrisome. Christian insecurity is destroying the country, and not enough Christian leaders are admitting to this dramatic situation.

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