Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, Lebanon, March 14, Reform

Picking on Berri

The only issue of real import in Lebanon these days — as far as political reform is concerned — is Nabih Berri’s controversial call to establish a committee to explore the ways and means to abolish political sectarianism.

Yes, you heard me right. Berri has called a meeting. A brown bag lunch. A coffee hour. And everybody — from Samir Geagea to Michel Aoun to Saad al-Hariri — has thrown a huge hissy fit.

Let’s pause for a moment and appreciate the irony of this situation. Abolishing political sectarianism — which is ostensibly a core component of Free Patriotic Movement and March 14 values — has now become the issue over which the likes of Aoun, Geagea, and Hariri find common ground to rail against.

Their excuse? It’s too much, too soon. “We have to eliminate sectarianism in our hearts before we eliminate it in our institutions,” says Patriarch Sfeir. Fair enough. But what harm will be done by establishing a commission and starting a national conversation? How else do these politicians propose to eliminate sectarianism in the hearts of the Lebanese? They can barely keep the electricity on 18 hours a day.

Most questionable, to my mind, are the “shoot the messenger” articles that one reads in the press by liberal-minded civil society types. The argument runs as follows: Abolishing sectarianism is important and necessary, but not if Nabih Berri is proposing it:

“Who is [Berri] fooling? The primary benefactors of the abolition of political sectarianism would be the Shia, demographically the largest community in Lebanon, who overwhelmingly side with Hezbollah and Amal. Despite the urgency of eliminating sectarianism from both Lebanese society and the country’s official texts, it would be hard to accept that the largest community, the one controlled by the Hezbollah-led opposition and its arsenal, would be then able to control the country, its institutions and decisions, including UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701.”

This strikes me as nothing but cynical fear-mongering. Let’s assume that Hanin Ghaddar is right, and that the primary benefactors would indeed be “the Shia”. What does that have to do with Nabih Berri “fooling” anyone? Would she be less perturbed if a Christian was calling for the commission? Let’s say Ziad Baroud or President Suleiman proposed the commission (as they actually have done on the record) would that mean that “the Shia” would not be the primary benefactors of abolishing sectarianism? Why is it ok if Baroud proposes it, but not if Berri does? She goes on:

“Berri’s timing is also questionable. He decided to launch his campaign, despite objections from other political leaders, right before preparations for the national dialogue, in which Lebanese leaders are to sit down to discuss Hezbollah’s arms and the national defense strategy. As more March 14 Christians raise the call to disarm Hezbollah, and despite the consensus on the ministerial statement, Berri – and by extension Hezbollah – thought it might be a good idea to warn the Christians with the anti-sectarian mantra, as it threatens them directly.”

Really? No one in Lebanon is under any illusion that any national dialogue talks are going to “disarm Hezbollah”. It’s not even on the table. There is absolutely no political willpower or military firepower to even make it worth raising. So why would Berri have to threaten “the Christians” with de-confessionalism? Which Christians? Does she think that Hezbollah is worried about the Lebanese Forces? And Aoun is Hezbollah’s ally, so why would Berri be trying to scare the FPM?

I interpret Berri’s call for deconfessionalism in a different way. The Speaker understands just as well as anyone that the process of abolishing the current system is going to be long and drawn out. It will involve several steps and will take years. Some of these steps will include the creation of a senate, the redistibution of powers between the different branches of government, administrative decentralization, electoral reform, etc. We’ve discussed these issues on this blog ad infinitum.

However, one of the most important elements of this process is going to have to be the eventual disarmament of Hezbollah. None of the other parties are going to accept a non-confessional system that allows one party to maintain a militia that is stronger than the Lebanese Army. And guess what? AMAL won’t either. This is the subtext of Berri’s strategy, in my opinion. By championing deconfessionalism, he is hitting two birds with one stone. Abolishing the current system would give his coreligionists a fair share in the government of their country, to be sure, but it would also clip the wings of his party’s biggest competitor.

Is Nabih Berri one of the most corrupt sectarian leaders in Lebanon? Yes. Is it farcical for him to be proposing abolishing sectarianism? Yes. Does he have ulterior motives? Probably. But who cares? Civil society should be calling his bluff (if that’s what it is), and trying to make the most out of an opportunity that may not come along again for years. That’s how political reform is achieved, like it or not.

Rather than getting on a high horse, Lebanese civil society should be getting into the trenches.
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Discussion

26 thoughts on “Picking on Berri

  1. I couldn’t agree more! I personally would be for freeing Lebanon from all/any residues of sectarian politics, including “elzo3ama” but right now, if one of them is proposing a civil Lebanon, I don’t understand how anyone pro-secularism would stand against him/her. This reminds me of the civil marriage and a7wal shakhssiyi madaniyi issue that happened under Hrawi… The whole thing just died with him…

    (Note: Isn’t it Sfeir who said “We have to eliminate sectarianism in our hearts before we eliminate it in our institutions” and not Aoun?)

    Posted by rouba | January 18, 2010, 5:23 pm
  2. Rouba,

    Yes! I think you’re right. I’ll change it.

    But Aoun said something more or less similar.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 18, 2010, 5:24 pm
  3. All the Lebanese politicians and all the commentators that are opposed to the Beri plan to set up a committee to study abolishing political sectarianism have shown how disingenuous their calls for deconfessionalism have been.
    I think that Patriarch Sfeir and his plan to remove sectarianism from the hearts before we pass a law bnning it is the most ridiculous have brain idea I have heard in a long time. If the general public can be convinced to remove an idea from their inner thoughts and hearts then there would be no need to pass a law against the concept in question.
    MLK would be turning in his grave for the suggestion that the US needed to remove racial discrimination fromits heart prior to passing the Civil Rights bill. What a farce. Score the fight so far Beri1, Sfeir et al).
    Beri has been at his best in this fight. He has “danced like a butterfly and stung like a bee” to borrow a phrase. No one has managed to lay a hand on him.
    And ,Elias, I have been making the same argument in regards to an ulterior motive. So he has an ulterior motive, How does that change the merit of the argument?
    Deconfessionalism is needed if the system is to survive. The future demands it especially a robust democracy built on equality and justice for all. Let all the high posts belong to Lebanese females who happen to be Shia, Greek Orthodox or whatever but elect them based on their qualifications and not on their religious association.

    (I have been a vocal critic of Beri on many other issues and I remain so. On this issue ,however, he desreves all the support that he can get and I hope that the Lebanese will move against their traditional leaders to back up the Beri plan).

    Posted by ghassan karam | January 18, 2010, 5:32 pm
  4. Ghassan

    Don’t be shy about posting links to your recent excellent posts on the subject. I didn’t link to them because I thought that I had enough links as it was in this piece.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 18, 2010, 5:38 pm
  5. Have you guys seen this? Pretty funny…

    http://bit.ly/65hKFR

    Apparently the Saudis turned down the appointment of Pakistan’s ambassador to Riyadh because his name is Akbar Zeb. :)

    Poor guy.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 18, 2010, 5:41 pm
  6. I love watching all those guys whose election campaign consists of yelling ‘Taef! Taef! Taef!’ suddenly find portions of it unimplementable.

    I don’t get why they are so openly against it. Why don’t they pretend to go along, but spend 50 years choosing the tablecloth for the committee? That’s the nice way to say ‘Thanks, but no thanks” in Lebanese politics.

    Interesting take on Berri’s ulterior motives QN, but I’m not convinced. My two theories:

    1. He’s actually thinking about his legacy. Deconfessionalism will take so long, he’ll be dead by then. But if he kicks start the process, he’ll get a good mention in that national history book they’ve started putting together.

    2. He’s trying to cultivate an image of a progressive secular leader with the Europeans. Berri sent written clarifications of his intentions to several embassies. He’s not just playing to a domestic audience on this one.

    Honestly, I’m not entirely convinced with my theories either.

    Posted by RedLeb | January 18, 2010, 7:55 pm
  7. We should keep in mind that Berri has nothing to lose, and everything to win from this move. He is very well aware of the fact that the other fear mongers of the Lebanese sectarian system will never go ahead with it. The ulterior motives cannot be summed up by one motive.

    There’s the media bubble that this created to deviate public attention from the current pressing issues such as the Appointments, the Municipal Elections, and the (failed yet existent) dialogue table looking into Hezbollah’s arsenal.

    There’s the image that Redleb mentioned. Berri has always been detested by the intellectual crowd; like it or not, today he’s becoming their champion.

    There’s also the possibility of reverse motives. If I remember correctly, civil society is organizing a “Secular Pride Parade” sometime in the coming months. Berri’s acrobats will definitely prevent a lot of people from coming, especially the sheeple. A dead parade, will show lack of support people have for the idea, and it will die again.

    There’s what QN mentioned about the disarmament of Hizbollah that will be a prerequisite to deconfessionalism. While I do hope you are right, but I dont think Berri is counting on either of those two points. Believing that they can be achieved with the same political class is pure Fantasia. If we ever achieve them, AMAL will not be there, niether will FM, FPM, or any of those parties.

    A call for deconfessionalism by Ziad Baroud or Michel Suleiman would be be supported more than Berri’s call, but that has nothing to do with the fact that their Christian. They have a clean slate, and their not backed by political parties that will melt with the melting of deconfessionalism.

    At the end of the day, Berri is not expecting anyone to call his bluff, but I agree with you, civil society should do just that.

    Posted by Purple Monkey | January 19, 2010, 2:55 am
  8. Well, this is something Hezbollah can go along with.

    Coupling, down the road, abolishment of political sectarianism with disarmament of Hezbollah and other groups. Hezbollah wouldn’t go along with that, however.

    Of course, the institutions of a liberal democracy must be in place for minority groups to want to go along with this. In a generation or so, when the shia make up the majority of the population, other groups must be persuaded that the shia don’t have any ulterior motives. And the christians know they are running out of time, as their birthrate is lower than both the sunnis and the shia. Any unnecessary stalling in this matter and larger groups will be asking themselves why they have 27 seats in parliament but make up fifty percent of the population, possibly leading to more unrest.

    The sunni stance I’m not sure of. Many probably see it in the greater sunni-shia struggle visible in many parts of the region, as well as in Lebanon, which is of course why the shia are asking for one man-one vote. It is all to the benefit of the shia. Ultimately it is to the benefit to the christians as well, if democracy were to prevail.

    Posted by Doc | January 19, 2010, 3:05 am
  9. Redleb has a point. Berry calling “the embassies” to explain his initiative got my attention too. The Head of Lebanese Parlementis in need of spotlights now and then. In addition of the possible reasons QN and others suggested, Is he trying to position himself for a future conjuncture he feels coming, the result of a gradual but major change in the position of his main political mentor? Who knows… One thing is sure; Berri has about the same to lose -maybe more?- as Sfeir with the real abolition of the confessional state. Isn’t his throne made of that same wicker? The only ones that are not afraid of dismantling the current confessional building are the ones, as QN said, that cannot propose it.
    Asking the ultimate or hidden reasons behind a political initiative in Lebanon is the same as killing it before it is born. But was there a pregnancy to start with? Be it abolishing political confessionalism, integrating Palestinian refugees, disarming armed factions outside the state, national dialogue, defense strategy, reform, corruption…any of the above are horses that the zu3ama ride one moment or another to be seen on them…but I think they are never really running the race they pretend to be running. Allow the Lebanese to be skeptical…They have heard some much talk about it, the question they ask is not “why is he asking THAT” but “why is he asking that NOW”?
    Is it extraordinary that Lebanese ask why is Berry sending a party invitation to people he knows are not going to attend and, since nobody has seen him doing the shopping anyway, nobody seems to believe is going to happen any time soon? And then, he makes sure the foreign authorities are aware of it? Question mark indeed.

    Posted by mj | January 19, 2010, 4:25 am
  10. GK said “Let all the high posts belong to Lebanese females who happen to be Shia, Greek Orthodox or whatever but elect them based on their qualifications and not on their religious association”. Yes, why wouldn’t Lebanese politicians ever champion the cause of equal rights for women, (westerners like that on paper too), not to say parliamentary gender quotas etc? Lebanese women being about half of the population of Lebanese, in all sects, and the ones who often stay in the country when the Lebanese male emigrants are gone, wouldn’t that be a way to end with the sectarian system with great expediency? Do I hear laughing?
    Putting aside the contradiction that GK is proposing quotas to fight quotas that I’m immediately and conveniently ready to ignore (lol), isn’t that THE only political race that could really happen in Lebanon without the hippodrome blowing in small pieces? Why isn’t it programmed? I’m afraid the reasons are the same as of the other horse races that different Lebanese parties keep announcing in cyclic waves: as much as they like to be seen riding the horse, they are not interested at all in the race taking place. The ultimate reason is, of course, that nothing will come from top to down in matters that challenge the current political system. It is their wicker; they don’t want to burn it. As you said, those are battles to be fought in trenches, not on high horses. It doesn’t happen fast and easy, and it doesn’t happen if people are hypnotized by parades on high horses instead of digging. It takes time, effort, focus, and patience…Unfortunately, of late, only strong faith (I mean religion) is being able to mobilize those virtues in people. So I guess the whole affair is simply screwed. And people know it, and that’s why they amuse themselves watching Berri (this time around, could be anyone else) caracoling on his high horse while never believing he is riding it for the race he is trumpeting.

    Posted by mj | January 19, 2010, 4:38 am
  11. And guess what, Super Zyad is for it!
    “Asked about the quota for women, he stressed: “We cannot elude the quota during a temporary phase. A Women’s quota is a positive segregation to move forward and we do not see any other way to encourage women to enter public life except through this quota.” (as quoted and translated by mideastwire’s team, who cite the source:

    http://www.nna-leb.gov.lb/phpfolder/loadpage_ar.php?page=17-01-2010/JOU62.html

    YES mister Zyad! And make that phase as temporary as all the other “temporary” things in Lebanese politics!

    Posted by mj | January 19, 2010, 5:11 am
  12. Scientific evidence suggests that altruism usually guides action only when it benefits our genes. What this means is that it is rare for an action to be undertaken purely on ethical and moral grounds even when the givers pretend that is the case. That is why receiving institutions give facilities the names of the major donors.
    Obviously the same is true in politics. Does Speaker Beri have an ulterior motive for his proposal to initiate the process to ban confessionalism from the Lebanese body politic? Of course he does. But that is not important, it never is. In the same sense that it is not important why individuals donate in the wake of a natural disaster as long as they donate then it should not matter what is the reason behind Nabih Beri’s proposal to reform the political structure.
    What is important though is to ask why should the traditional leaders support this proposal? They will not and they have not for the simple reason, or maybe not so simple, that political feudalism and the sectarian system are so entwined with each other that it is difficult to know where one starts and where the other ends.
    The bane of the Lebanese society is not only sectarianism but a two headed hydra of sectarianism and feudalism. Just like the hydra of the Greek mythology whenevr you attempt to cut off one head another two come out. The only way to kill this serpent is to cut off its blood supply, to starve it to death and make life very difficult for it.
    That is precisely what a deconfessional political structure will do. I am not naieve enough to suggest that as soon as sectarianism is banned that the political feudal lords will fade away. they will fight to survive but as time goes by so would the rationale for their base of power. There is no law that can ban Zama but we can accomplish the same goal through an indirect hit, through abolishing its rationale for a power base.
    Make no mistake about it, abolishing sectarianism is a radical change and like all such movements the old order will fight it every inch of the way. The Beri initiative is a call for revolutionary change, a call against the established interests of the status quo. It desrves everyones support, everyone who wants to free this bankrupt system of the rotten ideas that have been keeping it down. Civil society must give Speaker Beri all its support no matter what is his ulterior motive. This action is essential for our future as a people and as a state. Such windows of opportunities do not come by often and it will be a disaster if we fail to take advantage of this oppening.

    Posted by ghassan karam | January 19, 2010, 11:46 am
  13. Any debate about abolishing political sectarianism will be complex and long. We all know this. In my view, the following points need to be dealt with before any implementation of such a change, which I favour, by the way:
    1) Disarmament of all Lebanese factions, groups and political parties; and also an arms decomissioning process in the refugee camps (do not forget that);
    2) The neutrality of Lebanon in the regional and international arena – approved by all the Lebanese and supported and respected by the so-called “international community”, including Lebanon’s bully neighbours;
    3) A wide political and administrative reform that would include the creation of a Senate;
    4) Ways to assure an active political participation of the Lebanese diaspora;
    5) A comprehensive timetable to a gradual “deconfessionalization” of the country.

    Posted by Voice from Brazil | January 19, 2010, 1:11 pm
  14. i think berri is playing an either or game.

    he sees the issue of hezbollah’s weapons coming to the forefront soon (maybe another devastating war?)

    so it’s either or, weapons or numbers?

    “want me to drop this issue? well why don’t you drop the other one too? ab3refsh”

    Posted by babagannouj | January 19, 2010, 7:47 pm
  15. I do not understand why everyone and his/her mother in law are hung up on Beri’s ulterior motives.
    You either believe that this action is good for the country or you don’t. Let the ulterior motives of Geri or anybody else be damned. Is a neighbourhood is badly in need of a school then what is important is for the politicians to appropriate the funds and build the school inthrough a transprent , legal process. So some of them are trying to appeal to a particular group of the electorate, others want to pacify the teachers union, still others think that the construction contract will be awarded to their friends. It does not matter as long as the school is built and no laws have been broken.
    Just come out and state the obvious, you are either in favour of a process to eliminate political sectarianism or not. You do noy know what is in Beris mind and you will never be able to know. That is rather silly. And please do not forget that all what he is doing is forming a committee to study what to do. He is only starting a lengthy process without knowing where it is going to lead. For heavens sake he is not suggesting an actual plan but merely the discussions by all party that could lead to a plan.

    Posted by ghassan karam | January 19, 2010, 9:00 pm
  16. One question comes to my mind. How long would it take for this new generation of “sheeple” to actually understand and adapt to such a concept. And by the time (and if) Mr berri achieves his goal it will be the turn of this exact same generation to take over. Without education, especially civic education Lebanon will not be capable of embracing any kind of change.
    I sure hope that I will get to see a secular state in my time, but I very much doubt it; maybe if my son is lucky enough.

    Posted by marillionlb | January 20, 2010, 3:53 am
  17. great article guys !! totally agree with everything !
    so when are you guys running for elections ?? :D

    Posted by jihad beydoun | January 20, 2010, 7:07 am
  18. by the way you guys needd to add a facebook and twitter button so we can share your article easily !!

    m sharing this one !

    Posted by jihad beydoun | January 20, 2010, 7:08 am
  19. Marillionlb,
    My frustration exhibited in #16 not withstanding you r question is a legitimate one.
    I honestly believe that the conditions in Lebanon are not ripe for the revolution that the elimination of sectarianism will usher simply because a revolutionary change will not succeed from the top down. Where is the popular support for Beri? It is practically non existent. And your point about education needs not be qualified to obly civic., it goes way betond this, The last time that I checked the average # of years of schooling in Lebanon was around 4 years. We are proud of the relatively high literacy rate but we forget how low is the bar and how easy it is to clear it. If one was to apply the same standard that is applied to the developed countries that of “functional literacy” then our numbers will drop like a rock.
    I still believe that questioning the ulterior motive of Beri is not helpful. However to argue that the dialectical conditions are not ripe is a fair position which does not negate the need to commence the process of setting up a commission. That in itself might be the spark to ignite the popular support needed.

    Posted by ghassan karam | January 20, 2010, 8:30 am
  20. I would be interested in a post summarising what you see as the practical costs of confessionalism.

    Posted by netsp | January 20, 2010, 11:40 pm
  21. I agree with you Mr Karam when it comes to education. I have seen graduates for Egypt more apt than their Lebanese conterparts. Furthemore I don’t see any change taking place in Lebanon without bloodshed. My fellow countrymen are far from being able to grasp and value democracy let alone a secular state. Lebanese are in need of a dictatorship and nothing less, for most of them do not know how to think for themselves.

    Posted by marillionlb | January 21, 2010, 4:11 am
  22. http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/

    Bob Fisk thinks its gonna be a long summer

    Posted by DJT | January 21, 2010, 4:20 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Lebanon To March for Secularism « Qifa Nabki | A Lebanese Political Blog - April 21, 2010

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