Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lebanon can parry regional fragmentation

There has been much talk lately of the possibility that the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East will lead to a redrawing of the region’s borders.

While these borders have lasted for almost a century, in the last decade Sunni-Shiite antagonism has escalated, bringing into doubt the survivability of states with mixed sectarian or ethnic populations.

At the end of World War I, when the borders of the modern Middle East were drawn by the Western powers, a principle defended by the League of Nations was the protection of minority rights. Yet after World War II the situation changed. By then minority treaties had been scrapped and the victorious powers sanctioned vast population transfers in Eastern Europe.

The historian Mark Mazower has written, “Minorities were now seen as sources of destabilization, and liberals and socialists were as passionate in demanding their eradication as fascists ... Ethnic homogeneity [was regarded] as a desirable feature of national self-determination and international stability.”

Such a tendency now seems evident in the Middle East, where religious pluralism and coexistence are increasingly viewed as unrealistic and threatening. This attitude was kept in check for a long period by Arab nationalism, which imagined an Arab identity transcending religious and sectarian affiliation. As Arab nationalism lost all credibility in the 1970s and 1980s, the space it left was filled by religion and the emergence of religious-political forces that would gain ground in many Arab countries.

The utter discredit of modern Arab states, with their brutal regimes, corruption and undemocratic social contracts, only pushed people to abandon all hope in the state and fall back on primary identities such as sect or tribe in times of crisis. From there to a recognition that people of different sectarian or ethnic origins could not live together the distance was not very large. In Iraq and Syria this mood has been reinforced in the past three years, while in Lebanon it has remained latent, though real.

As the Lebanese look toward the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, there is no reason to be reassured. Lebanon’s sectarian makeup is similar, while the presence of over 1 million mostly Sunni Syrian refugees who are not likely to soon return home may emerge as a major source of instability. That is why Hezbollah and Iran have an interest in ensuring that President Bashar Assad allows the refugees to come home, so they do not reverse Sunni-Shiite demographics in Lebanon to their disadvantage.

Lost in the sectarian free-for-all are Lebanon’s Christians. Already, they can sense, national dynamics are being largely driven by Sunni-Shiite relations. This has led some Christians to discuss the introduction of alternative political systems for the country, above all federalism. The only problem with federalism is that there are no truly homogenous areas in the country: Lebanon is not Switzerland, and minorities in federal districts dominated by other sects will never feel secure.

If, as some are predicting, the states of the region break down into separate entities, the impetus to follow suit will likely reach Lebanon. The country was created in 1920 against the aspirations of many of its Muslims to be part of a larger Arab nation. One of the principal motives of the Maronite supporters of the Lebanon project was to avoid becoming citizens of a state in which they would be swallowed up by a Muslim majority.

The fragmentation of Lebanon would represent a complete reversal of such tendencies. Muslims, who once aspired to an Arab state of which geographical Lebanon would be only a part, would effectively be abandoning coexistence and a common destiny to embrace the antithesis of the Arab nationalist ideal.

While this is not comforting, it’s usually the way separation is achieved that makes all the difference. As in Bosnia during the 1990s, divorces can be violent as everyone tries to grab as much land as possible, expelling or killing those from other communities in the areas conquered. We are seeing such impulses in Iraq and Syria, and they are very worrisome. But against this, as Mazower observed, there is also a pervasive sense that sectarian or ethnic purity ultimately bring stability.

The Lebanese went through a similar experience between 1975 and 1990, but they never went all the way in formalizing new entities. Perhaps the country is, quite simply, too small. But more effort is required to ensure that Lebanon can weather the storms gathering on the horizon. Unfortunately, very little in the behavior of Lebanon’s political actors generates optimism.

That is why the continued bickering over a new president seems so out of place at this time. Hezbollah, clearly, sees things in a different light, viewing the choice of president as vital in its effort to protect its weapons in Lebanon, therefore maintain a role in Iran’s regional strategy. And that is why Michel Aoun seems so petty in his refusal to accept that he cannot be elected as a consensual candidate. Constitutionally, the president is the symbol of the nation’s unity, yet neither Hezbollah nor Aoun appears to have given this much thought, while the decision of March 14 to stick to Samir Geagea shows a similar obstinacy.

But beyond Hezbollah, Aoun and March 14, Lebanon must better prepare for the riptide that is coming. If the communities opt for coexistence, as they must in so diminutive a country, then there are underlying prerequisites for it to succeed. And if coexistence becomes impossible, then peaceful change of the political system must be discussed. But war must at all costs be averted. Lebanon has already been there, and Iraq and Syria offer models that no one has any desire to follow.

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