Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Christian parties in Lebanon can mitigate sectarianism

Recent developments in Lebanon’s Maronite Christian community suggest that, despite political rifts, there is a good sense of the existential threats faced by Christians in the region. This reality requires a spirit of compromise and unity.

The most important event was the reconciliation between Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement and Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces. The two principal Christian political organisations have long been at odds, and Mr Aoun and Mr Geagea remain rival candidates for the Lebanese presidency.

That’s why they agreed a document that sidestepped political disagreements and outlined agreed positions of principle. They implicitly expressed the view that Christians have been marginalised in the political system since the Taif Accord of 1989 and the period of the Syrian presence.

The document mentioned that Taif had been implemented in an incomplete way, requiring rectification through a “return to the pillars of the National Pact and the provisions of the Lebanese constitution, based on a genuine 50-50 breakdown [in Muslim-Christian representation] and the soundness of effective parliamentary representation.”

The coded wording aside, the Christian parties have felt acutely dependent in recent years on major Muslim political actors to win parliamentary seats. For example in three major districts – Baabda, Jbeil and Zahleh – Aounist candidates have benefited from a sold pro-Hizbollah Shia vote in their favour.

While this has not overly troubled Mr Aoun, it has created unease among many Christian voters who feel their candidates are being brought in by a non-Christian electorate. This has forced Mr Aoun to go along with Mr Geagea in calling for a change in the electoral law, even if he doesn’t quite mean it.

Mr Geagea’s frustrations are more palpable. In the last two elections, in 2005 and 2009, the Lebanese Forces earned just over half a dozen parliamentary seats because the election law does not benefit them. Mr Geagea believes that more such mediocre results could permanently sideline his party.

So the Aounist-Lebanese Forces agreement is, in part, a self-serving attempt by both sides to reaffirm that they and they alone represent most Christians.

Perhaps that reality helped precipitate a second recent development in the Maronite community: the election last weekend of Sami Gemayel as president of the Kataeb (Phalange) Party, replacing his father, Amine, a former Lebanese president. At 35, Mr Gemayel will aim to attract more young people to the party, which is particularly important in light of the dominance of the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces.

It was Mr Gemayel’s late brother Pierre who began that endeavour after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. He was killed by gunmen in November 2006 and several politicians linked the killing to his ability to rejuvenate the Kataeb, which was viewed as a threat by Syria and its allies.

Parochial Christian politics aside, it is the backdrop of the Christian parties’ efforts to revitalise themselves and improve mutual relations that is important. As Christian communities in Iraq and Syria have been displaced, perhaps permanently, Lebanon’s Christians – Maronites in particular – have felt vulnerable about what the future holds for them.

The war in Syria has only heightened their anxieties. The disappearance of Syria’s Christians thanks to an Islamist-led insurgency would only reinforce the sense that Christians have no prospects in the Middle East. President Bashar Al Assad’s regime has exploited this to garner minority support, but as it begins to lose ground, he may well take down all minorities, including his own Alawites, with him.

The mistake of the Christian minorities in Iraq and Syria is that they played the card of an “alliance of minorities”. They linked their fortunes with ruling minorities against majorities in each country and they accepted the repressive policies of these minority regimes to perpetuate control. The 2003 war in Iraq and the Syrian uprising undermined this, and now Christians are facing the predictable backlash.

The Christian parties in Lebanon must consider a different path. Rather than a suicidal alliance of minorities, they must exploit the singular role they can play as a balancing force between the divided Sunnis and Shia. But to do so they need to reaffirm their belief in the system of sectarian coexistence that governs Lebanon.

This the Aounists and Lebanese Forces have done. But they now have to persuade their base. There is still a deep conviction among many Christians that the region will never tolerate minorities, and that Islamists are bound to govern. That may be true in some places, but in Lebanon it hasn’t been, with the most serious blows to Christians often being self-inflicted.

That is why the Aounist-Lebanese Forces reconciliation is a good first step. But it must lead beyond that to a redefinition of the Christians’ role as a moderating force working to reduce Lebanon’s sectarian polarisation. That means embracing Lebanon and the region rather than being alienated from it. With many Christians looking to leave Lebanon, this will not be easy.

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