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.