Last month, I reviewed The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, Michael Young’s new book, for The Nation. Shortly after the review appeared, I got in touch with Mr. Young and invited him to expand upon certain themes from his book in the form of a QN interview.
Very much looking forward to the discussion that follows.
Q: You ended your book by saying that sectarianism, at best, can be “a way station on the path toward a Lebanon that is a common concern for all its citizens.” Elsewhere, you have spoken of the need for a new “social contract” in Lebanese political life. Could you describe what you think that social contract might look like, in broad terms?
MY: In Lebanon’s post-Independence history, there have been two broad agreements to define sectarian relations: the National Pact of 1943 and the Taif Accord of 1989. Both were the culmination of previous political developments, traditions, proposed reforms, interferences by outside powers, and so forth. For better or worse, they came to define political relations in Lebanon, at least in a formal way, though often, as during the years of the Syrian military presence, Lebanese political life was shaped by Syrian interests and by Syria’s ability to exploit Lebanese divisions and power relations.
The result was a further degradation of our constitutional institutions, adding to their already considerable degradation during the 15-year war. In that context, what remained of our social contract as something positive disintegrated. Left in its place was a negative understanding of social relations, whereby Lebanese society was no longer there as a common concern for its citizens, but as a place defined largely by a minimalist sense of self-preservation, usually communal self-preservation, with Syria serving as able manipulator of this very negative notion of statehood. Communal leaders calculated largely in terms of how their decisions might play out with respect to Damascus. When the Syrians left, the Lebanese were too divided to develop a new social contract, as well as being prevented from doing so, a reality infinitely complicated by the fact that Hezbollah has no interest in a social contract that offers it anything less than full autonomy to retain its weapons, mainly on Iran’s behalf.
What social contract would I welcome? We can go into the details later, but in general, and ideally, one in which sectarianism has been transcended, but also where the liberal impulses that sectarianism has created spaces for–paradoxical spaces, for sectarianism is often based on illiberal institutions–are preserved. What preoccupies me in Lebanon above all is liberty, and the ability of the society to block or avert the rise of a single party or coalition of forces that may seek to impose its will on all. The confessional system has, for better or worse, been the prime mechanism preventing this. But as you noted quite correctly, I see it only as a way station toward a system where the Lebanese define themselves not by their differences, but by their common desire to defend a pluralistic, democratic system.
To achieve this, and I’m speaking in very broad terms here, the Lebanese need to find mechanisms to gradually break down bastions of sectarianism, albeit within a sectarian context at first, because this bargain alone can offer the tradeoffs allowing the communities to accept change. Otherwise, nothing will be achieved; society will not suddenly agree to jump from sectarianism to a system shorn of sectarianism, nor is this even sociologically realizable. Resistance to such an endeavor would undermine reform from the start.
I must add, however, that I don’t see that any progress will be possible until a solution can be found to Hezbollah’s arms. No community, least of all the Sunnis, will engage in national negotiation on reform in the face of a militia that has made amply clear, above all in May 2008, that it will resort to violence against its fellow Lebanese to defend its autonomy. Hezbollah is an anti-state, in many respects, and it would block any efforts to surrender its weapons in return for greater power to the Shiite community–though, for what it’s worth, I have proposed such an exchange in several of my articles. My point was, let’s impose this choice on Hezbollah and follow the liar to his doorstep, as the Arab saying goes, and compel Hezbollah to admit that it views its partisan interests as more important than those of Lebanon’s Shiites. But Hezbollah knows one thing better than most: without its weapons the party would effectively cease being Hezbollah.
Q: You have frequently criticized various Maronite Christian political leaders (from Michel Aoun to the Gemayel clan and Suleiman Frangieh) for their “inability to come to grips with the sectarian contract of 1943… [and] the Taif Accord,” and you’ve characterized many of their proposals as leading towards “communal suicide.” To what extent are these leaders merely pandering to public opinion on the “Christian street”, and is there any politically viable way to sell deconfessionalism to Lebanon’s Christians?
MY: Certainly, there is demagoguery involved in the way many Christian, particularly Maronite, leaders have opposed political reform as laid out in the Taif Accord. That said, a parliamentary majority in 1989, as well as Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir, were defenders of Taif, so I think we need to be careful when we say this.
The problem today is that it is very difficult to persuade the Maronites in particular that their surrendering sectarian quotas in parliament and the presidency may be the only way for the community to extract itself from an often debilitating sense of decline. To an extent I can understand this fear. The state the Maronites will surrender power to is hardly one inspiring confidence. What is necessary for such a reform process to work is a national dialogue that can address fears on all sides, but particularly on the side of the Christians, who have the most to lose from a termination of the 50-50 ratio in parliament.
On the other hand, I feel, perhaps idealistically, that only when the Christians liberate themselves from the belief that their role in Lebanon is intimately tied into the number of seats they hold in parliament and Maronite control of the presidency, will they begin to examine more carefully the vital role they play, or can play, in Lebanese society; and only then will Christians gain in confidence. If everything is reduced to numbers and shares, the Christians, naturally, will feel perennially weak, because the numbers and shares are not in their favor. But when we talk about the intangibles—the fact that Christians add a dimension to Lebanon not found in most other Arab societies, that they tend to form a cosmopolitan community with great depth in the diaspora, hence are more powerful than they know, that educationally and historically Christians have brought a lot to Lebanon—then the Christian self-image can change.
Alas, I see very little impetus for change among Christians today. The community, which is in most respects my own, for I’m half-Maronite by birth, is characterized by a lack of political vigor and imagination, of economic innovation and daring, and of intellectual dynamism when it comes to the community and its role in Lebanon.
I think that Muslim leaders, at least those concerned with Lebanon’s future as a pluralistic, open society, would much prefer a confident Christian community to a depressed one. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not sensible to view Lebanon in a mechanistic, static way as either a Christian or Muslim country. This is a place with infinite and invigorating fault lines, but if we want to focus on sect, than the least we can say is that it is a country of Sunnis, Shiites, and Christians, each with their very different priorities, worldviews, histories, and so on. The dynamics between these three large groups (and granted the internal divisions within each community) are complex, and to me have rendered anachronistic the simplistic Christian-Muslim dichotomy of the past. In this context, self-isolation is disastrous.
But let me add one final thought, and a key one. The Christians are better off embracing political reforms now, voluntarily, and I mean by this the Taif reform process, than finding themselves one day forced to surrender sectarian quotas because the Muslims are in agreement that the time has come for them to do so–because after all that is what Taif mandated. Better to negotiate reform from a position of strength, rather than to clutch on to eroding powers, behaving as an increasingly isolated irritant to the other Lebanese communities.
Q: How would a peace agreement between Syria and Israel impact Lebanon, in your view?
MY: That depends on what basis it is agreed. During the 1990s, the principle according to which the Syrians, the Israelis, but also the Americans and the Europeans, conducted negotiations, was that Syria would recover the Golan Heights, and only then would a discussion be opened relating to Syria’s presence in Lebanon. In specific terms this meant delaying all discussion of Resolution 425 (1978), which called for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Lebanese territory, until the parties could resolve the Israeli occupation of the Golan under Resolution 242 (1967). Needless to say, this was effectively a way of saying that no one would challenge Syrian hegemony over Lebanon while peace negotiations were taking place.
This equation broke down in May 2000, when the Israelis withdrew from Lebanon, even though Syria and Hezbollah tried to keep the southern front open by literally inventing the Shebaa Farms pretext. I believe it was Nabih Berri who managed to dig the issue up from some dark recess. Hardly a soul at the time could find the farms on a map.
But until the Israeli withdrawal, when negotiations were still ongoing, the Syrian president, Hafiz al-Assad, believed that once an agreement was reached between Syria and Israel, no one would really challenge the Syrian role in Lebanon afterward, particularly if Damascus offered to guarantee the Lebanese side of a peace agreement with Israel and compel Hezbollah to go along with any final settlement.
In other words, Assad had managed to lock himself into a negotiation where he would be handed back the Golan, but then would receive Lebanon as an additional incentive, or should I say endowment. It was very cynical, a clever move on Assad’s part, and I am persuaded that that is still Bashar al-Assad’s aim–of course assuming that negotiations resume one day. Certainly, Bashar’s interest in re-imposing Syrian domination over Lebanon would indicate it is.
I don’t see a peace treaty between Lebanon and Israel before one that takes place between Syria and Israel. Nor am I persuaded that Syria will enter into talks with Israel without the Lebanese card in hand first as leverage for a favorable deal. Going even further, I don’t see that the Syrians really regard the Golan Heights as a priority; their priority is to win back Lebanon, which politically and economically reaps much more, even as they are far more interested in a process of negotiation than a settlement, which would force the regime to dismantle a substantial part of its security apparatus—which it doesn’t want to do, because it protects the minority Alawite regime.
By the same token, I don’t see that there is much interest in Israel to hand over the Golan, particularly in the absence of a comprehensive settlement that includes the Palestinians as well. And since Israel does not seem willing to give up anything on that front either, I think we can safely say that no serious peace negotiations are in store for the foreseeable future. I’m not sure if I answered your question, but perhaps in the grimmest way possible I have.
Q: What kinds of reform mechanisms might actually bring about real institutional change in Lebanese politics? When Nabih Berri proposed the creation of a national commission to explore the possibility of implementing the Taif Accord, the response from the Christians was instantly hostile, and they were abetted in their rejection of his proposal by their allies in the Future Movement (and to a lesser extent in Hizbullah). Similarly, the Boutros Commission’s draft law and subsequent electoral reform proposals from Interior Minister Ziad Baroud have been summarily dismissed. How does one move forward without a strong executive pushing reform through?
MY: I think you’re addressing several issues here: the nature of reform, the fear of the Christians, who will lose the most in any reform effort, and implementation of reform. I’ll look at the first and third, as we’ve already discussed the Christians.
On the nature of reform, I believe that Taif has outlined a mechanism that is specific enough to be a road map toward change, but also vague enough that it allows flexibility. Taif, as I said earlier, was an accumulation of ideas on political reform that had been circulating since the mid-1970s. I agree that ultimately Lebanon should move toward a deconfessionalized parliament, though I believe it necessary to establish, at least for an initial period, a Senate where all the communities can be represented, to reassure the groups who will be expected to lose the most power, above all the Maronites.
I think a rotation of senior posts between all communities, or even between the Maronites, Sunnis, Shiites, and Druze (if a Senate is created), if that is the best we can hope for, would be a step in the right direction. Yes, the proposal is sectarian in many ways, but it would also break the unhealthy bond that communities have tended to create with particular leadership posts. In this way it could widen the horizons for all the communities, particularly the Maronites, who cannot see that their insistence on retaining the presidency, the weakest of the top three posts, is marginalizing them.
Alongside this, I am also in favor of deeply changing social relations. Civil marriage has to be permitted, and the establishment of a non-sectarian sect is something to be considered. The religious establishments in Lebanon are stifling, and that is the problem. They will resist this, and the politicians as well as a substantial portion of the population that falls for the canard that greater secularization is somehow an abuse of morality will side with them. However, that doesn’t prevent Lebanese society from gradually striving to create secular spaces. Reforms aiming at deconfessionalizing the society may create the momentum needed to introduce significant changes in society, though we should not underestimate the difficulties.
Ultimately, will Lebanon be able to shed the confessional system? I think such a process will take much time, as it’s in our DNA, and it would be naïve to insist, in the name of political correctness, that this can and should be done rapidly. Nor do I believe it’s a good idea to enforce deconfessionalization by writ, since it simply would not work.
I will address only briefly the issue of executive power as mechanism for pushing reform. Which executive power do you mean? The president’s? The prime minister’s? The cabinet’s? Each institution reflects Lebanon’s sectarian contradictions. Either everyone must agree, which requires tradeoffs, or nothing gets done. Is this the definition of a dysfunctional system? Of course it is. But when you speak of a “strong executive”, what you’re really doing is creating a vicious circle: You need a strong executive to impose reform, but you need reform to create a strong executive… And the sectarian nature of the system has a tendency to neutralize both sides of that equation.
You mentioned the Boutros Commission. With all due respect for its work, and for many of those participating in its meetings, among whom I count several friends, that project was a pie in the sky. In no way would the political class have ever accepted such a scheme, nor did the Lebanese even understand it, so complicated were its proposals. It was the work of intellectuals and academics, individuals of high intelligence doubtless, but it went against the sordid grain of how Lebanese politics are generally conducted. It was never going to get very far among the politicians who had the final say on it.
It was a gamble, I suppose, to at least introduce new ideas into political practice, to get the ball rolling, such as allowing expatriate Lebanese to vote, which I think is necessary. However, beyond that it was dead on arrival. I agree with you that electoral reforms, particularly things like proportional representation or the direct election of the president, have the capacity to fundamentally alter the Lebanese political system. Yet that is precisely why the political class will undermine such measures at every turn.
Q: In your book and in various other writings, you’ve criticized the figure of the “statist”: the politician who has no regard for the sectarian system and tries to break it in favor of a more consolidated central hierarchy. Statists include figures such as Fouad Chehab and Bashir Gemayel, but also Michel Aoun and Hassan Nasrallah. In your view, was Rafiq al-Hariri not a statist? What about March 14th’s politicians today, with their calls for “building the state”? And is statism necessarily a vice?
MY: I would certainly not include Nasrallah in the category of “statist”, as I consider Hezbollah to be, almost by definition, a personification of an anti-state. Bashir Gemayel wanted to strengthen the state, certainly, but I believe he saw the state very much in sectarian terms, as the life raft of the declining Maronites, so I would greatly hesitate to place him in the same sentence as Fouad Chehab.
As for Aoun, he is no more than an opportunist when it comes to the state—a man who will fight the Lebanese Forces in 1989 and 1990 because allegedly he could not accept an armed militia, this in a time of generalized civil war; but who now advocates Hezbollah’s right to retain its weapons, at a time when there is a state, or some semblance of one. I believe that Aoun’s driving ambition always was to join the ranks of the traditional political class, and he saw the state as his ticket. Now that he’s succeeded, all he really wants to do is preserve a dynasty by handing the political and economic power of the Aounist movement off to his sons in law, because he doesn’t have a son of his own. Meanwhile he will say and do anything for or against the state to maintain his power, and keep this semi-filial venture alive.
What about Hariri? Hariri was a statist, but he also very much became a traditional politician. When he began his reconstruction effort in the early 1990s, he did two contradictory things: he revived those state bureaucracies he needed to advance his agenda, and in some cases tied them more rigidly to the prime minister’s office. For example, he revived and streamlined the Finance Ministry and gave new impetus to the Council for Development and Reconstruction, whose budget was attached to his office.
But Hariri also sought ways to circumvent the ministries and administrations he could not control, and in that sense his project could not really be called a project of national administrative resurrection. In some ways perhaps this was understandable, as it allowed him to move his program forward. But the state wasn’t the better for it. He tried an administrative reform effort, but all it really turned into was an administrative purge, one he was forced to backtrack on. So in that sense Hariri was a paradoxical statist, at best.
But Hariri also became a quintessential traditional leader. He devastated the traditional families in Beirut in the 2000 elections, effectively replacing them, though he had already made major political inroads in the capital as of 1992. He became the leading Sunni, and succeeded through his wealth and patronage networks in expanding his reach to Sunnis around the country, even if the Syrians always made it a priority to contain or undercut him, particularly in the North and Beqaa where their means of intimidation was especially efficient. By the time he became prime minister in 2000, Hariri was the main enemy to a powerful part of the state, particularly its intelligence and security services, and that year’s election was the first major revolt of the traditional politicians against Emile Lahoud.
But after this long introduction, let me hasten to correct you. I’m not critical of the statist, as such, despite my libertarianism. Some level of state presence is always necessary. Fouad Chehab, for instance, merits considerable admiration. Lebanon’s first major post-Independence institutional reform program occurred mainly during his mandate (though Camille Chamoun was not idle on that front), and I’ve always had great respect for many of those who rose from Chehabist ranks, such as Fouad Boutros, Elias Sarkis, and so on. Rather, I’m critical of the abuse that has often accompanied statism in Lebanon.
To simplify, there have been two broad power structures in Lebanon, even if that has changed in the last decade and a half. There have been the traditional leaders, whose power derives from such things as family, money, or some other form of primary loyalty; and there have been those seeking to challenge the traditional leaders, and whose only available instrument has been the state, and specifically the sticks of the state, namely the security and intelligence services.
At the time of Chehab, as you well know, the political system drifted into a conflict between the traditional leaders and the Deuxième Bureau, or the military’s intelligence service. We saw a lesser replay of that under Emile Lahoud in 1998, when he tried to use the various security services against Rafiq al-Hariri. But Lahoud was no Chehab, and Hariri benefited from the collaboration on occasion of the Syrian intelligence chief in Lebanon, Ghazi Kanaan, who saw an opportunity to cut Lahoud down to size, play Hariri and Lahoud off against one another, and ensure that Lebanon remained under Syria’s thumb.
In the past 35 years, after the war started, state institutions have gradually deteriorated, and the Syrian presence, particularly after the war between 1990 and 2005, exacerbated this, even if there was improvement in certain sectors. The judiciary is in urgent need of reform; the state bureaucracy tends to be inefficient, bloated, and corrupt; the army is a house of many mansions; the electricity utility is a cancerous mess, and so on. For one to defend the state in Lebanon imposes a question: What state are you defending? Certainly, the traditional sectarian leaders have contributed to corrupting the state, but so too have those within state institutions.
We can’t hide behind a wall of theory here. What practical means can Lebanon adopt to ameliorate the state? Unfortunately, the answer has eluded generations of political leaders, and in the absence of an answer, the traditional leaders have benefited.
However, I wouldn’t want to suggest that I defend the traditional leaders. They do, in general, allow for a more pluralistic system by default, because they balance each other out; and such equilibrium, or call it gridlock, has, historically, created wider spaces for free expression. But beyond that the political leaders, from all persuasions, have tended to feed on the state and derail all reforms. But to righteously raise statism as one’s standard is meaningless if the state is as bad or worse than the traditional leaders.