Thursday, August 14, 2014

Pity Lebanon’s reckless Christians

Michel Aoun might want to learn a lesson from Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s ousted prime minister. It is that the longer you cling to a tenuous position, the more apt are others to decide for you.

In fact, Lebanon’s Christians in general should be careful. It has been months since a president was scheduled to be elected, yet Aoun’s ambitions and Christian rivalries have helped make agreement over a candidate impossible. Worse, the Christian parties have pursued the thoroughly idiotic tactic of boycotting legislative sessions in Parliament until a president is elected, as if blocking passage of needed legislation can in any way help their cause.

Aoun, of course, deserves some blame. Like Maliki, he obstinately seeks power, the negative repercussions for the state be damned. And Hezbollah, as their Iranian patrons did in Baghdad with Maliki, seeks only to avoid a direct confrontation with the general, preferring to let others undermine his position. That Hezbollah wants Aoun as president is nonsense and hides that the party wants to allow the situation to fester so Aoun can fall off the branch on his own.

The irony is that Aoun rarely misses an opportunity to lament Christian misfortunes in the Middle East, and to focus on those groups that pose a threat to the Christian presence. Yet his unwillingness to help fill the presidential vacuum, and the damage this has caused for the state and for the Christians’ position in Lebanon, has been ignored by him and his partisans.

But in the end Aoun is not the main factor today. His fault is to act as a convenient foil, a dupe, for Hezbollah. The party is caught up in an unwinnable conflict in Syria, sees Iran struggling in Iraq, and so its aim is to delay any decisive decisions in Lebanon before it can be sure of manipulating the outcomes in its favor. That’s why it it appears to back an extension of Parliament’s mandate, despite public statements suggesting the contrary, and it’s why it has done nothing to push Aoun to be more flexible over the presidency.

But if the void in the presidency leads to a further breakdown in the state that harms Lebanon’s stability and risks exacerbating Sunni-Shiite tensions, there is a very real possibility that the Maronites will find themselves circumvented. The Muslim leaderships could very easily, and quite understandably, decide to back a compromise candidate who does not have much communal credibility, but who at least satisfies their needs.

We’re not there yet, to an extent because Saad Hariri and Hezbollah, and above them Saudi Arabia and Iran, have not reached a compromise. However, there is nothing permanent in this situation, especially when Tehran and Riyadh appear to have a shared interest, both in Lebanon and elsewhere, in neutralizing the Sunni drift toward greater extremism.

At a time when Christians in the Arab world are in serious danger, with communities in Syria and Iraq not likely to return home, Lebanon’s Christians still have the luxury of engaging in petty disputes. Aoun may really care whether he becomes president, but most people do not. What they worry about is the dysfunctional state, with infrastructure disintegrating and the economy at serious risk of bankruptcy.

There was a time when Christians were associated with the state and its amelioration. Lebanon’s great administrative, infrastructural and educational reforms were driven by the likes of Presidents Fouad Chehab and Camille Chamoun. When the Civil War began in 1975, Christians portrayed themselves, rightly or wrongly, as defenders of the state in confronting the Palestinian armed presence. And during the postwar years of Syrian hegemony, it was the Christians – the Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, most prominently – who were especially active in opposing the protectorate that Syria had imposed on Lebanon and that undermined its sovereignty.

To a great extent that legacy appears to be dissipating. Many Christians are simply opting to leave Lebanon or to send their children abroad. In their internecine struggles for comparative advantage, Christian politicians have facilitated deadlock in state institutions, even if they are by no means the only ones. The Lebanese system has become rotten to the core, and the great problem is that the young simply no longer have any incentive to stay and contribute to the country’s development.

This is as great a menace to the Christians’ future in the Middle East as is the barbarity of the extreme jihadist groups or the Arab regimes who will slaughter their populations to remain in power. What is most worrisome is that what we are witnessing today is not likely to be transitory; it is permanent. As an example, many of the Christians who left during the years of Lebanon’s Civil War have not returned, and will not return.

So amid the sterile disputes between Christians over the presidency, there is a more profound and implicit message: The divided Christians are incapable of collectively considering, and most importantly preparing for, the broader regional transformations menacing their existence in the Arab world.

On the contrary, their small-mindedness is only guaranteeing that as regional crises grow, Christian marginalization will be assured. Already in Lebanon, between Aoun’s obstruction over the presidency and Samir Geagea’s support last year for the suicidal Orthodox proposal, the Christians’ inane choices are paving the way toward their complete irrelevance.

It is sad to see what is happening to Christians in the Middle East. Threatened with extinction, they are yet a vital part of the region’s cultural wealth and vitality. An Arab world without Christians will only sink further into debilitating unanimity and intolerance. There have been some statements denouncing this, but most Arabs have failed to grasp its true implications. And Christian behavior, alas, has not helped them to do so.

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