Lebanon, Reform

The Turnstile Executive

Michael Young’s op-ed over at the Daily Star makes sense on the following point, I find:

But right after shattering the jar of complacency on Hizbullah, Sfeir was asked about the abolition of political confessionalism. And here the patriarch fell back into a disposition that showed why, for all his qualities, he is no innovator. He, quite correctly, stated, “What is the advantage of abolishing political confessionalism in [national] texts before doing so in [people’s] minds, if everyone says ‘I’m a Maronite, or a Druze?’” And when asked about Walid Jumblatt’s proposal for a communal rotation of the three presidencies, Sfeir responded that he did not understand it.

Jumblatt’s proposal was intentionally ambiguous. Did the Druze leader mean that all communities would benefit from being rotated into the three top posts in the state, or that the rotation would occur between the Maronites, Sunnis, and Shiites, who already hold those posts? The Taif Accord outlines the abolition of confessionalism, but it does so in parallel with the establishment of a Senate which would retain a sectarian breakdown, and which Jumblatt would like to see led by a Druze.

Sfeir is not a politician, so his evasiveness was defensible. However, his uneasy response showed he was still thinking, in a most conventional way, that the Maronites’ final protection remains the presidency. It’s true, confessionalism cannot be abolished in law before the outlook of the Lebanese is transformed. However, that line of reasoning is self-reinforcing. Unless you abolish confessionalism institutionally somewhere, unless you change laws somewhere, nothing will ever alter the confessional mindset. But what is needed is a gradual, self-sustaining process of change, where you modify texts to help modify minds, in a way that those who feel most threatened by such change find simultaneous compensations, institutional or otherwise, elsewhere.

Take the Senate. Regardless of whether it is headed by a Druze or not, such a body would be a valuable corresponding institution to a deconfessionalized Parliament, and according to Article 22 of the Constitution should address “major national issues.” The aim of a Senate would be to reassure those expected to lose most from deconfessionalization, namely the Christians, who continue to benefit from a 50-50 ratio in the legislature even though they make up less than that in the population. Sooner or later Christians will face challenges to the ratio. Better for them to negotiate a new formula from a position of strength than to obstinately defend a system that, if Sunnis and Shiites ever reach agreement, may be forcibly overturned in their disfavor.

What of Jumblatt’s rotation plan? Sfeir’s mistake, and that of many Christians, is to read too much into a Maronite presidency, whose powers have been depleted. In fact, the presidency has brought only woe to the community. Competition for the post has divided Maronites in a way the prime ministership and speakership of Parliament have not Sunnis and Shiites. The powers of the president are by and large less proactive than those of his Muslim partners. Therefore, why remain so unyielding toward a plan that would give Maronites a taste of political positions often more effective than the presidency, thereby offering them a chance to transcend their sense of communal decline; a plan, also, that might rejuvenate the political order by creating more frequent openings for fresh leaders?

The symbolism of being head of state is important to Maronites, but it is also an illusion. The presidency has power, but on a day-to-day basis, in the formulation of long-term policy, its latitude is more limited. Instead of resisting this, the patriarch, like all Christians, should consider new ways his community can reinvent itself in a Lebanon that is changing rapidly, where Christian irrelevance is, alas, becoming ever more flagrant.

I think Young is exactly right on this point, and frankly have never understood why the Christians are so attached to the Presidency and yet simultaneously so aware of its limited powers.

To my mind, rotating the three posts would not really amount to a legitimate confessional re-balancing act. It would simply represent a confidence-building measure, in advance of taking more dramatic steps. But confidence is surely what is most needed, no?
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16 thoughts on “The Turnstile Executive

  1. I think this is a great analysis.
    I completely agree with the author.

    This has been a good read.

    Posted by CR Bauman | December 10, 2009, 11:36 am
  2. QN says:
    “But confidence is surely what is most needed, no?”

    No baby steps please. What is needed is the courage to act according to ones conviction. Just abolish sectarianism/confessionalism. Upset this wobbly apple cart because evolution has run its course in this rotten system. Nothing short of a revolution will work. No linear thinking please. Either quantum jumps or nothing.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | December 10, 2009, 12:58 pm
  3. Ghassan,

    Let’s say that we abolished the entire system tomorrow and replaced it with whatever you think would be the optimal alternative (what is that, by the way?) And then we held an election in six months. What do you think would happen?

    My guess: Lebanon’s parties would raise the sectarian rhetoric and fear-mongering to a fever pitch, goading their supporters to come out and try to grab as much of the pie as possible, now that the quotas had been removed.

    I don’t believe in overnight revolutions in this day and age.

    As H.L. Mencken once said: “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.”

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 10, 2009, 1:04 pm
  4. QN says :
    “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution. And it’s always wrong.”
    If you are posting the above in response to my posts then I am afraid that we are talking completely different languages since it is apparent that there is a major failure in communication LOL
    The proposal for a paradigm shift , for a revolutionary way of thinking , for daring to do what is right can be described as many things but simple is not one of them.
    (BTW, the broad outlines of a paradigm shift or a proposed change is much more essential than the micro details. In all discplines the Macro view is what will ultimately determine and shape the micro. Once the macro is decided upon the the micro always falls in place but the reverse is not true.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | December 10, 2009, 2:16 pm
  5. Ghassan,

    I don’t there’s a miscommunication. My statement about simple solutions was in response to your call for us to “Just abolish sectarianism / confessionalism.”

    My argument is that since this is a complex problem, it requires a complex solution, and complex solutions usually require multiple steps to implement. A multi-step solution does not have to be construed as “baby steps”.

    That’s my point.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 10, 2009, 2:40 pm
  6. QN,

    If the abolishment has been done in a thought out way instead of an overnight move…that is a Charter of Rights and freedoms as well as an overhaul of the whole constitution whereas all minority rights are protected…Then I would have no problem going into an election say in two years and let them rachet up the rhetoric! As far as the minority has its rights protected; what’s the damage?
    To achieve this quantum shift all issues have to addressed simultaneously ESPECIALLY that of the HA statelet and guns in Palestinian hands! If it takes a year to develop the system then we are a year too late!

    Posted by danny | December 10, 2009, 3:14 pm
  7. Not to get in between the discussion between you and Ghassan, but how would

    Lebanon’s parties would raise the sectarian rhetoric and fear-mongering to a fever pitch

    be any different than what is happening today?

    I could of course quote Occam’s razor to counter Mencken’s quote, but I won’t 😛

    Posted by M. | December 10, 2009, 3:28 pm
  8. M.

    I think that it would be worse than it is today because today we at least have these quotas that seem to provide some measure of reassurance to the more paranoid sects.

    As for Occam, his principle of parsimony applied to explanations, not solutions. 😉

    Speaking of Occam, have you read Richard Russo’s Straight Man? It’s one of my favorite books in the world.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | December 10, 2009, 3:31 pm
  9. What are the chances of M14 ministers quitting this ****** up dead on arrival gov’t that is essentially legalizing a foreign occupation? Also, who among us will ever feel any respect towards Saad Hariri if he shakes the hand of his fathers killer? If you’re one of those who respects Walid Jumblatt, pls refrain from commenting on this point.

    Posted by SL | December 10, 2009, 4:10 pm
  10. As the President is commander in chief of the army, perhaps this is what Sfeir is worried about. Do you really want some Nasrallah puppet leading the army? Do you want the Lebanese Army shooting rockets at Israel on Iran’s behalf? Do you want an anti-American commander in chief?

    The same line of argument applies to the PM position. Do you really want a Hizballah puppet to be the one responsible for getting loans from the international community? Or asking Saudi for an emergency loan to stabilize the currency? Would the Gulf tourists come to a country led by a Shia?

    Posted by AIG | December 10, 2009, 7:01 pm
  11. Speaking of Occam, have you read Richard Russo’s Straight Man? It’s one of my favorite books in the world.

    Haha, blast from the past. Think I should read it again when I head back to Beirut.

    I’ll admit, I was being somewhat facetious in my comment 🙂 Whenever solutions for confessionalism in the motherland are discussed, I am somewhat reminded of a Simpsons episode in which the town is ruled by some Mensa members.

    we at least have these quotas that seem to provide some measure of reassurance

    I think “seem” is an important word. It may or may not be true, but the thing is, I don’t know. We have no evidence of things being otherwise.

    A system that has been abruptly deconfessionalised may break immediately. I agree, there is a tangible risk of that happening. People will still use religion as fault-lines. But that happens in almost every country I am aware of – the most recent of which is Switzerland.

    The question I think about is whether it will be less or more broken than the current system. And will easing into a less confessional system result in a less broken system then an immediate change? I don’t know. I think arguments for both ends can be made, using historical examples.

    I know that example from science don’t map directly into those of human relations, but sometimes all it takes to create a simpler problem from the perceived complex problem is to reframe the issue. What are the fundamental reasons behind the desire to deconfessionalise Lebanon? Maybe the natural conclusion of those reasons isn’t actually to abolish sectarianism (let’s call this X). Maybe it is to accomplish Y, whatever Y is. And maybe the path to Y is a much simpler path than that to X. Maybe the only reason we keep thinking of X is that we currently don’t have it. And maybe if we have Y, not having X is OK.

    And maybe I’ve just made no sense whatsoever 😉

    Posted by M. | December 10, 2009, 9:03 pm
  12. M,
    I have discussed this idea before but since it keeps croping up I feel that it desreves a few lines.
    Taef and Suleiman -Berri are not operating under the illusion that once the law is changed then bigtery will disappear and we will have an ideal citizenry. All what we can hope for is to take the government out of the business of allocating parliamentary and civil service jobs. Peole are free to reelect the same clowns but then they would have chosen their representatives without any restrictions placed upon their choice.
    Please allow me to use one illustration from the US experience. The US passed the civil rights bill over 40 years ago and many people are as closed minded and practice discrimination as if nothing has changed. That is their privilege. But the playing field has been leveled and the government led by doing its moral duty. I am not a big fan of utilitarians especially when unequal and unjust treatment is sanctioned by government policies. Dare I suggest that at times, and i believe that this is such a time, we have to do the right thing irrespective of the empirical factual data. I would not be paraphrasing Kant a lot to suggest that a policy guided purely by facts without any regard to morality is a blind one.
    Governemt has a duty to treat its citizens equally and to give them the opportunity to become beither bigots or saints. Changing the laws is not about changing what is in our hearts. That will have to evolve in its own way.

    Posted by Ghassan Karam | December 10, 2009, 9:45 pm
  13. Yeah, Ghassan, I don’t disagree with most of what you have said.

    I will admit, though, my perspective has changed somewhat over the past few years. The “right” thing doesn’t interest me as much as it used to. What does interest me is that “peaceful and honest people have the right to be left alone.”

    In some situations, the “right” things is quite clear. In others, it isn’t. Whereas, to me, the statement above has basically always led to a consistent conclusion. But, that is off topic from the original post.

    Posted by M. | December 11, 2009, 12:26 am
  14. Michael Young must be one of the world’s great idiots:

    “Therefore, why remain so unyielding toward a plan that would give Maronites a taste of political positions often more effective than the presidency, thereby offering them a chance to transcend their sense of communal decline; a plan, also, that might rejuvenate the political order by creating more frequent openings for fresh leaders?”

    Basically this moron is making a call for of confessionalism in the name of ending confessionalism? Good point Mr. Young, sounds like the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction to me.

    if you want to deconfessionalize, it’s just plain going to have to come from some deconfessionalized party/force. And it’s mostly likely going to have to come from the shia, because, currently they are both the largest, most organized and most powerful political block in the country.

    So what if you change a law here or there. I mean, it might not hurt, and might help a little bit, but there’s a greater need involved. Like, you can’t call a country a “democracy” just because they have “elections”…

    At some point, the people of different sects are just going to have to trust each other. My hope is that the Hizbullah/FPM alliance is helping to significantly break down confessionalism. When you see voting blocks voting AGAINST their confessions, but for parties that bring other types of reform or results, then i think the laws will follow.

    Posted by Joe M. | December 11, 2009, 12:47 am
  15. The funny thing about confessionalism is, I have to say I don’t feel that the MPs from my sect are doing any better than those from other sects.

    Sectarianism works because it works for politicians… if there were to be parties that either transcended an identity firmly within a single sect, or various parties competed for the allegiance of a single sect, I think then the system would begin to end. Or how about a party which internally was set up on a proportional basis?

    That, or a Hobbesian leviathan has to come along.

    Posted by PB | December 11, 2009, 11:49 am
  16. You’re PB. When you see (for example) the FPM and Hizbullah join into a single party, not just an alliance, then you will see the beginning of the end to confessionalism. of course, the military aspect poses a problem for an alliance like this today, but Aoun is a general, isn’t he?

    Posted by Joe M. | December 11, 2009, 4:36 pm

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