Friday, August 28, 2015

My brother, my enemy - Christian ambiguity toward Sunnis is real and risky

Amid reports that Hezbollah may seek to impose Michel Aoun’s presidency on Lebanon’s political class, a subtext of this is the Christians’ relationship with the Sunni community in Lebanon and the Middle East.

The reason is that Aoun’s election, if indeed it happens, is not an end in itself. For Hezbollah, the general’s election would put him in a position to drive a process of constitutional revision. With his large Christian bloc, and in alliance with the Shiite blocs, Aoun could announce that Taif needs to be modified. For Hezbollah, a new constitution is needed to protect the party’s interests at a time when Sunnis feel increasingly empowered by the declining fortunes of Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria.

The party understands that if Assad were to go, Lebanon’s Sunnis would be electrified, making it all but impossible for Hezbollah to pursue an independent agenda on behalf of Iran. At the least demands for the party’s disarmament would rise, posing an existential threat that Hezbollah will not allow.

That is why the party seeks a constitutional transformation and abandonment of Taif. The often-mentioned solution is for a change in sectarian representation in parliament, the government, and the civil service from a 50-50 breakdown of Christians to Muslims to one of thirds — with roughly a third of positions reserved for Maronites, a third for Sunnis, and a third for Shiites, with smaller sects distributed within this framework.

The rationale is that Shiites and Christians would form a structural majority of two-thirds over Sunnis, retaining control over the political system and ensuring that any backlash from events in Syria will not seriously affect Hezbollah’s fortunes.

From the Christians’ perspective, however, what is there to gain from seeing their representation decrease from half the shares in the state to a third? On its own, nothing. But proponents of a division of thirds see things differently. In addition to the purported long-term security such a deal would bring Christians, they would also endorse in exchange for being granted greater decentralization, a clause in Taif that was never implemented.

In fact, in their recent joint declaration, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces both denounced the “incomplete” implementation of Taif and, in Article 14, stated their commitment to “administrative decentralization.” In a key clause they also endorsed financial decentralization, which Taif does not mention, declaring their support for the “transfer of a large share of the prerogatives of the central administration, in particular those related to development, to elected decentralized authorities in accord with the rules, and the securing of [self-generated] revenues necessary for this.”

Christian fear and resentment of the Sunnis is very disturbing, but is linked to regional developments as well as past frustrations. The progress of Sunni extremists in Syria has alarmed Lebanon’s Christians, and the fate of their brethren in Iraq and Syria has only increased their anxieties. This reaction, however, has been without nuance. Rarely do Christians pause to see the extent to which opponents of the Sunnis have been been responsible for the rise in extremism.

Then there is the longstanding antipathy directed against the Future Movement and Rafiq Hariri’s legacy. To Christians, Taif replaced a system in which Christians were dominant with one in which they became marginalized. The embodiment of this, as many Christians see it, was Hariri himself, who dominated the postwar scene and, with regional and international backing, consolidated a system in which Christians felt they were being shunted aside. Again, this reading, along with the whitewash of the Syrian role in the sidelining of Christians, is crude, but it has resonance among quite a few in the community.

Part of the problem is that these views have been grafted onto past attitudes towards the Sunnis — always perceived as the dominant sect in the region with little tolerance for minorities. To Christians the Ottoman Empire was an instrument of Sunni domination. Similarly, Arab nationalism was later regarded as a mechanism for Sunni ascendancy in the guise of a secular ideology, while support for the Palestinian cause was a byword for a Sunni yearning to control Lebanon before the Civil War.

That’s not to say there were no Christian Ottomanists, Arab nationalists, or pro-Palestinians. But to many Christians all these ideologies or political positions were mainly a facade for Sunni sectarian ambitions and solidarity. And while it’s easy to mock Christian paranoia, Ottomanism, Arab nationalism and support for the Palestinians did frequently reflect, even personify, the attitudes of the Sunni majority in the region.

That is why many Christians regarded Hariri’s political promotion in 1992 as a further stage in this process — the consequence of a political arrangement between the Assad regime in Syria and Saudi Arabia. When the Christian boycott of parliamentary elections in 1992 was ignored, it brought home to many in the community how inconsequential they had become.

Their bitterness, which Aoun has spent the last decade exploiting, never quite left, even if it is difficult to generalize. But Aoun’s success in mobilizing voters against Saad Hariri and the Future Movement in two elections, like Samir Geagea’s great sensitivity to seeing several of his parliamentarians brought into parliament thanks to Sunni votes, shows that the uneasiness with Sunnis is more widespread than we imagined.  

However, what Christians must not do is fall into the trap of imagining that an alliance with Shiites against the Sunnis is the solution. Other than the fact that it may undermine the principles of the Lebanese system of power-sharing and coexistence, it also implicitly means aligning with Hezbollah and Iran against a majority in the Arab world. The costs of such a foolish position are potentially very high, when Christians would do far better by maintaining close ties to all.

Between 1975 and 1984, Christians, by fighting the Palestinians and aligning with Israel, also found themselves isolated, against a Sunni majority in the region. The results were catastrophic and by 1990 they paid the heaviest price for peace in Lebanon. History teaches us a lot. Christians would do best to read it.

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