Lebanon, My articles, Reform

The End of Political Confessionalism in Lebanon?

Many thanks to everyone for all of their kind words and well wishes about the new baby: both mother and daughter are doing very well. As noted yesterday, I will not be at the Safadi/POMED event in Washington tomorrow, but you should still plan on going to hear Mona Yacoubian and Jared Cohen speak about political reform in Lebanon.

If you’d like to know what I was going to talk about, you could do worse than to read this article in The Review, which, as it happens, I managed to finish just in the nick of time.

Here’s are the first couple of paragraphs and a link to the rest of the story. Come back over here to comment.


The End of Political Confessionalism in Lebanon?

Elias Muhanna | March 4 2010

Last month, Lebanon’s Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, called for the creation of a committee. Across the land of the cedars, eyebrows rose and pulses quickened.

For this was to be no ordinary committee. Its task, Berri explained, would be to explore the notion of abolishing Lebanon’s system of political confessionalism, in which government posts are divided among the country’s 18 officially recognised religious communities, according to a decades-old formula. Calling the current system a source of corruption and instability, Berri – who heads the Shiite political party Amal – insisted that abolishing it was a “national duty” mandated by the Lebanese Constitution.

Berri’s rather modest proposal immediately provoked a display of unctuous outrage from Lebanon’s Christian politicians. Under the existing framework, seats in parliament are divided equally between Christians and Muslims, despite the fact that the Christian population of Lebanon has fallen well below 50 per cent over the past half-century. Replacing confessionalism with a more democratic system would almost certainly erode the number of Christian elected officials, which is why even Berri’s Christian allies wasted no time in quietly distancing themselves from the idea. Meanwhile, his opponents were outspoken in their rejection of the proposal, many pointing out the irony of a man they consider a corrupt, dyed-in-the-wool confessional leader and former warlord portraying himself as a born-again democrat. Even Lebanon’s active civil society, for whom deconfessionalism is a perennial cause célèbre, sniffed condescendingly at the initiative, leaving it to die a quiet death in a handful of newspaper editorials.

Moves to eliminate political confessionalism in Lebanon have a long history of failure, dating back to the earliest days of the republic. Leftist political parties and secularists advocated for the abolition of the system in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Taif Agreement (which ended the country’s 15-year civil war) called explicitly for the establishment of a non-confessional bicameral legislature, a demand that has gone unheeded for two decades.

(Keep reading)

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15 thoughts on “The End of Political Confessionalism in Lebanon?

  1. It’s time for the U.S. to give its Senate to Lebanon… Yes Qifa, we know.

    Though I don’t think the Lebanese want the Senators… hell, Americans don’t want them either!

    Posted by Col. Aiz | March 4, 2010, 7:41 pm
  2. Great article, gave me a good basic understanding of the arguments for and against.

    Posted by Nasser | March 4, 2010, 9:47 pm
  3. Elias,
    I strongly believe, as you probably expect, that you are applying the wrong metric by insisting to measure the effects of deconfessionalism in the terms that it is supposed to abolish. As a result your point that “Replacing confessionalism with a more democratic system would almost certainly erode the number of Christian elected officials,” is utterly meaningless.
    Deconfessionalism would be a meaningless empty gesture if it is going to be measured in terms of the metrics that it wants to abolish. Under a decofessional system ones religious practices becomes irrelevant. Those running for office will be judged only by their ideas. Iknow that this will not take place from the first day but then it might. Who knows maybe a purely Maronite district will vote for a smart Lebanese Shiite and a Shiite district will elect an eloquent Lebanese female who happens to be a Maronite.
    The simple fact of the matter is that the state is not supposed to discriminate against anyone. Individuals are free to act as bigots but the state must preach and practice equality.
    Abolish political confessionalism and may the most qualified woman win.

    Posted by ghassan karam | March 4, 2010, 11:12 pm
  4. QN,

    Good article

    I think to be really credible as a deconfessionalist a party needs to be non confessional itself, receiving most of its votes for its ideology/platform rather then for their confessional representation.

    Even if a new system is legislate you are still left with a form of the same thing as long as votes continue along confessional lines. It may correspond more accurately to the actual demographics of the country, but it will be more similar to Lebanon’s current system then most party democracies. Crudely, an election would be a census not a referendum. I think this is more or less what ghassan karam argues above.

    On the other hand, Lebanon’s democracy could be deconfessionalised from the ground up by voters even if confessionalism remains on the books. Once a large enough portion of Lebanon’s politics opposition to deconfessionalism erode, it would look silly and it’s end would be almost guaranteed.

    These two elements, legislation & voting patterns are both eventually necessary. The latter organically leads to the former. The reverse is not necessarily true.

    Please correct me if I’m missing something. I am far from fluent in Lebanese politics.

    If you ever get around to it, it would be interesting to read a tracing of the history of Lebanese confessionalism back to Ottoman influences where I think it shares ancestry with many Middle Eastern political cultures including, pertinently, Iraqi & Israeli.

    Congratulations on you new daughter. Best Wishes.

    Posted by netsp | March 5, 2010, 12:51 am
  5. Ghassan,

    Did you read the whole article before you critiqued it on the basis of something in the third paragraph? 🙂

    My purpose was clearly not to “measure the effects of deconfessionalism in the terms that it is supposed to abolish.” The reason for bringing up the matter of Christian representation in Parliament was to explain opposition to the proposal by Christians today, not to assess its merits.

    However, let me ask you something. You wrote:

    “Under a deconfessional system one’s religious practices becomes irrelevant. Those running for office will be judged only by their ideas.”

    Do you really believe that a deconfessional system is going to suddenly erase sectarian feelings among people and allow those running for office to be judged only by their ideas? Eliminating a political system is not the same thing as eliminating a mindset. This process could take generations.

    After all, what is stopping people from voting for politicians today on the basis of their ideas? The system itself does not prevent you from choosing a candidate on the basis of their ideas. The reason the best candidates are not being elected is NOT because, in most cases, they come from the wrong sects but because they are not affiliated with the right hegemonic political party (whether it is Future or Amal or Hizbullah or the PSP or any of the Christian parties that have a certain dominance in certain areas).

    Abolishing confessionalism will shake things up and allow more competition, to be sure, but it’s not going to change things overnight. You are fond of quoting Martin Luther King in discussions about deconfessionalism. Surely you must realize that the racism remains a deep problem in the US, despite the civil rights movement, desegregation, increased opportunities, etc.

    This was one of the points of my article. Secularists, liberals, and advocates for deconfessionalism need to be sensitive to this reality and stop imagining that this is going to be a quick fix. It will surely solve some problems but it will take a long time to do so, and it won’t solve other problems at all… it may even exacerbate them. So we need to approach this as a game of chess, not checkers.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 5, 2010, 9:50 am
  6. QN,

    Maybe it should start by a political reform and then you can take confessionalism out of the equation. It would take one or two generations at most to open up people’s mind.
    Direct vote for president; no closed candidate list; a deputy chamber elected by direct vote based on distrital representation; empowerment of the municipal executive and of the civil society.

    When I think of someone that represents it Baroud comes to my mind, I may be wrong but most of lebanese think of him as a good lebanese politician not as a maronite quota.

    Posted by Alberto | March 5, 2010, 11:40 am
  7. QN,
    You really don’t think that I will respond to an article without reading it do you?:-)
    BTW, it is ironic that you bring this thing up since it is very clear based on your above response that you have either not read what I have said either in my brief response or any of the other posts on this matter:-)
    I have never ever claimed that deconfessionalism is a panacea. Nothing is. Deconfessionalism is a moral obligation for those who claim to have democratic beliefs. Whether the people will stop behaving as idiots /bigots/reactionaries etc.. is not the aim of deconfessionalism. The state has a duty to set an example that ALL are equal. The final choice is up to the individual citizens as it has always been and as it will always be provided there we are presented with a level field. A level field cannot exist when the state prevents to allow a nonChristian to stand for election in a Christian district. The mere existence of such a law is an insult to democracy and to my ability to choose.
    Yes, I have used before the example of MLK and I will use it again. The funny thing is that it supports my case and not the idea that before deconfessionalism is abolished from the laws it ought to be abolished from the mind. I am not in the business of abolishing anything from the mind and neither should the state. It couldn’t even if it wanted to. The right thing to do was to say that racial discrimination will not to tolerated by the law and in any outward practice. Those who refuse to abide by it will be prosecuted. This is a far cry from saying that we will pass the law only once people stop acting or even thinking in racial discriminatory terms. If they did then the law would have been a silly redundancy.
    The Lebanese case of having the state act as an enforcer of discriminatory practices makes the Lebanese case even more abhorrent than what racial discrimination was in the Us fifty years ago. Under the current system the state actually prevents me from acting as the moral agent that I want to be. They will simply not allow me from voting for my candidateof choice. The state is the institution that is enfringing on my ability to choose by acting as an enforcer in a gang.
    Let me repeat. IMHO an argument that removing deconfessionalism would not create model citizens overnight is stating the obvious and is even helping distract from the major issue of whether a confessional system of elections is compatible with democracy and individual rights.
    If you wish to argue that deconfessionalism might create a high level of sectarian tensions by depriving some communities of a perceived fair level of representation then that can be addressed separately and without violating the individual right to choose by limiting the field of those that are allowed to run for elections. Hust as an example, the state can adopt single representative districts which will allow communities to act as bigots if that is what they choose to do.

    Posted by ghassan karam | March 5, 2010, 11:47 am
  8. Ok. So we agree. Good. 🙂

    More later.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 5, 2010, 11:56 am
  9. According to this analysis, deconfessionalism has no hope in cedar land:


    Again, realism (or Realpolitiks as some would like to call it) seems to over rule over idealism.


    Posted by Ijlisa Nabki | March 6, 2010, 12:41 am
  10. Surely top down isn’t going to help matters in this scenario. Removing confessionalism from the system isn’t going to work if all I can choice at the voting booth are confessional parties.

    The only way I can see this happening without the expected stresses and tribulations is for there to be a growth of non-secterian political parties with wide non-exclusive membership.

    If these parties can put forward attractive, Lebanese manifestos and people start voting for them then the sectarian confessional system will disappear naturally.

    In fact if we get a few with attractive but opposing view points that would be better and probably cause the process to move quicker.

    Posted by mo | March 6, 2010, 9:16 am
  11. Amending the constitution to eliminate confessionalism is not the total answer, but a step in the right direction. As it shows that the state is supportive of the goal.

    Obviously, the difficult part is changing the hearts and minds. This is where the heavy lifting is required, but I think it is doable long-term. Many efforts/projects in this regards can be made to get there. But first and foremost, it should start in the education system.

    Civic classes should be included in the curriculum for all grades, where a common national indentity is nourished.

    Summer programs can also help, where students from different areas/sects can spend time to learn about the others. Similar to the sister cities programs.

    Of course NGOs can also play a contructive role in this process, as well as the creation of a ministry devoted for these efforts.

    Posted by Ras Beirut | March 6, 2010, 11:38 am
  12. Pocket book matters dominate elections in civil society since they form one of the most obvious barometers of the performance of those in power. Except in Lebanon.
    The whole world is abuzz with the news about Greece and its sovereign debt followed by those of Spain, Portugal , Italy and Ireland, the so called PIIGS. But not many Lebanese seem to know or care that the sovereign debt rating of Lebanon is below that of Greece even after the latest upgrade awarded to Lebanon by Standard and Poors. Lebanon sells its Eurobonds with a larger premium than that of Greece and the Lebanese sovereign issues experience a lower subscription multiple. Where is the Lebanese press to educate the public about the precarious position of the Lebanese economy whose metrics fall short even of the standard that are being applied to Greece.
    One so called indicator of strength of the Lebanese economy is the level of deposits in its commercial banking system. That is a double edged sord since most of these deposits can be withdrwan by their foreign natiuonals just as easily as when they were deposited. Our so called strength depends on the willingness of other Arab countries and individuals to make deposits in our banking system. What strength is that? Is that why most Lebanese official , The President, the PM and the Speaker never miss an opportunity to visit the Gulf and Saudi Arabia in an effort to assure that the deposits will stay in our already over bloated banking system?

    Another item that does not speak well of the culture of government in Lebanon is the relationship beteen the Lebanese government and the UNDP. It looks like Lebanon funds 25% of total annual UNDP expenditures in Lebanon. That might not be totally illegal but it sure is very close to being so.
    The Lebanese government that is bound by the restrictions of pay regarding civil service is freed from these restrictions by asking the UNDP to perform these tasks for it. And yes the UNDP does pay its drivers $30,000 per annum and many of its employees over a $100,000 per year.
    For exact figures go to a short post of mine on YaLibnan.com or to my personal aggregator: http://rationalrepublic.blogspot.com/

    I will be interested in your views on the above.

    Posted by ghassan karam | March 7, 2010, 12:21 pm
  13. Ghassan. Would be interesting for you to post the total expenditures of UNDP in Lebanon to see if the return on investment to the Lebanese govt is worth the return. And a un drivwilford not make 30000. National officers make that kind of salary not general service staff. That’s an exxageration. And exxagerating is not a good basis for a debate.

    I am with supporting the idea of voting for parties which support it as Mo suggests. Right now we aren’t ready for it. Read professor pascal monin’s article in al balad for a great opinion.

    Posted by Edgard | March 7, 2010, 4:15 pm


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