Michael Young had an excellent op-ed in yesterday’s Daily Star about the dangerous course charted by Lebanon’s Christian leaders, particularly the young Sami Gemayel. I’ve disagreed with some of Young’s writings before in these pages, but I think that he is consistently among the most astute observers of Christian politics in Lebanon. Those who airily dismiss his articles as M14 propaganda would do well to read this critique of Gemayel’s isolationist politics. Here are the key paragraphs:
“An alarming number of Maronites today appear to have lost any sense of the collective nature of the Lebanese state. The Aounists, Sami Gemayel, Nadim Gemayel, even Sleiman Franjieh, have shown an inability to come to grips with the sectarian contract of 1943, the National Pact, and its successor, the Taif Accord. Taif is the real culprit to them, documentary proof of Christian decline – a decline they have all received with bitterness, even if their responses have differed.
“For the Aounists, Taif handed Maronite power to the Sunnis, hence their effort to reverse this by allying themselves with another rural community, the Shiites, to regain what was lost. For people like Sami Gemayel, the solution lies in greater Christian unanimity against the outside, which when you peel away the layers is really just a strategy bound to enhance Christian isolation. For Franjieh and not a few Aounists, the way out is through an alliance of minorities, with the Alawites in Syria and the Shiites in Lebanon, against the Sunni majority in the Middle East. Each of these notions is foolish in itself, an avenue toward communal suicide, and all have one thing in common: antagonism toward the Sunni community.
“There is no small amount of historical irony, and hypocrisy, here. For decades the Maronites took pride in saying that they were the true defenders of “Lebanon first.” Now that the Sunnis have adopted the slogan as their own, too many Maronites have reacted as if this were a threat to the Lebanese entity because Sunnis are extensions of an Arab majority. Ultimately, the message this sends is that the Maronites only defended a “Lebanon first” option when the Lebanon in question was one they dominated. Now that the community feels it is losing ground, the preference is for Christians to envelope themselves in a tight defensive shell.
“When Sami Gemayel speaks about the Christians “being stepped upon,” what does he mean? This is the language of demagoguery, and in some respects of war. Who has stepped on the Christians? Judging by Gemayel’s actions and statements, the simple answer is “the Muslims” whoever that may be. Yet being stepped upon is a very different concept than accepting the reality of Christian numerical regression. It is very different than grasping that Taif, the hated Taif, hands Christians representation well beyond their real numbers. When one feels stepped upon, the world looks like the bottom of a shoe, and it becomes very difficult to follow a sensible path away from one’s resentments.”
I agree with Young’s analysis. Listening to some of these Christian leaders — on both sides of the political divide — I often catch myself thinking: “What chutzpah!” Is it arrogance or naïveté (or a blend of both) that permits one to complain about the weakened powers of the presidency after Ta’if? In what sense is it reasonable to imagine that Lebanon could be governed today solely by a powerful Maronite president, when the Christians, as a whole, represent a minority of the population?
I recall meeting with Alain Aoun (Michel’s nephew) a few months ago, and discussing different potential electoral laws. He was a little bit cagey about what kind of law would be the FPM’s ideal formula, and when I pointed this out to him, he replied: “Well, obviously, we feel strongly about a law that maximizes the number of Christian politicans voted in by Christian voters.” I replied by asking him how this squared with the FPM’s purported desire to dismantle political confessionalism. His answer was revealing, particularly because of its subtle self-contradiction: “Yes of course the FPM’s goal is to bring about a nonconfessional state. By why not try to do this from a position of strength?”
The notion of a “Third Republic” is not, in and of itself, a bad idea. But the problem with the FPM’s Third Republic was that it did not address the most crucial part of it — deconfessionalism — in a detailed enough fashion. March 14’s Christian leaders, on the other hand, have offered no meaningful discourse on this issue whatsoever, beyond support for administrative decentralization.
The current historical moment represents a rare window of opportunity for Lebanon. With the various foreign “sponsor” states seemingly recalibrating their relationships with the country as a result of a larger geopolitical reshuffling of power relations, a space has been opened up for a new grand bargain to be struck, or an old grand bargain to have its vows renewed (and fulfilled). However, the shared strategy of Lebanon’s Christian leaders — circling the wagons only to fight one another within a self-imposed confessional corral — does not inspire confidence in the future.