Friday, January 18, 2013

The Orthodox proposal defended

Christian leaders who support the so-called Greek Orthodox plan for an election law have been defiant in the face of attacks directed against them for their choice. That’s to be expected, since part of their strategy is to show their coreligionists that they are willing to pay a price for the law, even if it means being criticized by their allies.

What is worrisome is that all this will only make the law more appealing to Christians, who believe that a proposal that creates sectarian outposts in Lebanon is actually good for their community. Unfortunately, this only confirms what many have long suspected: Psychologically, many Christians favor a federation of communities in Lebanon, where they can feel less of a minority than they do today in an officially unified state. Sadly, many of their leaders agree.

Take the Gemayel family and the Kataeb Party. In the Metn, where their political power is concentrated, there are very few Muslims, and yet Sami Gemayel has been at the vanguard of efforts to push the Orthodox proposal. Amin Gemayel declared to Hezbollah’s Al-Manar this week, “I am committed to the Orthodox Gathering law” before adding that he would accept a “better one” if it were suggested.

This notion of accepting a “better law” is interesting, and has also been a leitmotif in Samir Geagea’s comments on the Orthodox proposal. As Geagea recently remarked at a press conference: “No doubt the Orthodox Gathering’s proposal has many gaps, but criticizing a draft law without presenting another proposal that can be approved in the parliament is unacceptable.” The implication was that, offered an improved law, the Lebanese Forces would reconsider their endorsement of the Orthodox project.

How odd it is to see Christians turning against the 1960 law. After all, during the 1990s, that law was seen as a desirable alternative to those imposed by Syria and its local allies. Syria’s aims were to ensure that its Lebanese allies won parliamentary seats and to stifle Christian aspirations, through laws that would either water down Christian electorates (except in the north, where the pro-Franjieh Christians dominated) or hand the advantage to pro-Syrian Christian politicians.

Indeed, former Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir repeatedly defended the 1960 law in the past. What he liked was the fact that it mandated voting at the level of the qada, or small electoral district. The thinking then was not very different from today: Christians would benefit from a law that allowed them to vote among themselves. Ironically, the 1960 law has come to embody Christian fears, when less than two decades ago it was regarded as an antidote to communal anxiety.

But the Christians have been devoured by new anxieties since the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. Christians have remained divided, and elections have become periods in which these divisions are used against the community by Sunni, Shiite and Druze politicians. It’s understandable that Christians are not pleased, but the remedy is not to cure the symptoms of the illness, but the illness itself.

Yet what we are witnessing today is hardly an effort to cure the illness of Christian fractiousness. When Geagea backs the Orthodox law it is not any more a sign that he is seeking a reconciliation with Michel Aoun than that Aoun’s support for the law indicates that he wants to make friends with Geagea. The consensus around the Orthodox project from the Lebanese Forces, the Kataeb, the Aounists and Marada is an effort to increase their appeal at the expense of their Christian rivals, so that each political group can tell Christians it supported a law perceived as good for the community.

To say that the 1960 law is there to please Druze leader Walid Jumblatt in Aley and the Shouf is over-simplification. Jumblatt recently denounced the “isolationist” discourse of Christians, and the unfortunate reality is that he was correct. What will the Orthodox plan do but reinforce Christian isolation? Jumblatt benefits from the 1960 law, but so too does Saad Hariri, and the law allows him to help Lebanese Forces candidates in several electoral districts. Geagea sees this, but doesn’t want anyone to say that he is Hariri’s lapdog.

Several politicians have looked at the current debate without a sectarian eye. They have questioned how the Orthodox proposal benefits Lebanon as a whole. In what way does it ensure that elections, an instance of national institutional rejuvenation, are either national or rejuvenating? All the Orthodox idea does is to create the framework for a Lebanon broken up into separate sectarian islands, which have no incentive to deal with one another.

This is the last thing that Christians need. Geagea gained in stature during the past seven years thanks to his voicing, specifically, of Sunni Muslim concerns. One reason he was obligated to open up to Sunnis is that electoral calculations required it. By the same token, Hezbollah has had to appeal to Christians in mixed areas, as Christians have appealed to Shiites, so they could win seats together, for instance in Jezzine. What’s wrong with that? Cross-sectarian cooperation is a saving grace that the Lebanese system still offers.

Let’s forget for a moment who wins according to what law. The moment one factors short-term expectations of gain into an election law proposal, everyone suffers. That was, of course, what characterized Syria’s many previous election laws in Lebanon, and yet we now see Lebanese Christians pining for the same standard. The future of the Christian community lies in a united Lebanon, not a communal ghetto. The Orthodox law delays realization of this.

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