It's not perfect — but around here, variety is the spice of life

Suddenly, Lebanon does not look too bad. The running joke in Lebanon is that being a country that is divided into 18 different sects, it's not easy to get enough people to launch an uprising.

Suddenly, Lebanon does not look too bad. We have a democratic system that most of the revolutionaries de nos jours are demanding, one in which the outcome of elections is not known months in advance, and the results are not 99 per cent in favour of the incumbent.

We have had three presidents and seven different prime ministers in the past 20 years. We are positively fluid compared with the concrete systems currently crumbling across the region.

OK, nothing's perfect. It is true that we currently do not actually have a government and that the anticipated 6 per cent economic growth will have been achieved by a private sector that has honed the art of self-reliance.

And yes, there is also the small matter of Hizbollah, a political party that is armed to the teeth and chomping at the bit for another crack at Israel, and which has also developed a worrying habit of waving its weapons about when it wants to achieve domestic goals. But as people around here smugly love to point out, "it's a tough neighbourhood".

The running joke in Lebanon is that being a country that is divided into 18 different sects, it's not easy to get enough people to launch an uprising.

Yes, on March 14 2005, 1 million delirious flag-waving Lebanese flocked to the centre of Beirut to demand the withdrawal of Syrian troops after a 29-year "presence", but in reality it was a fluke.

It was a day of shared interests more than anything. Half the Christians showed up to support Samir Geagea, the jailed Lebanese forces leader, who was serving four life sentences for a murder they said he didn't commit, while the other half was there to show solidarity with Michel Aoun, the former army commander and interim prime minister, who had been in Parisian exile for 15 years.

The Sunnis? Well, they turned up because the Shia had shown up en masse a week earlier, and the Druze … they were there because Walid Jumblatt, their leader, told them to be there.

That coalition may have fragmented, but today - and here we have another gag that elicits many high-fives - Lebanon, government or no government, is among the most stable countries in the Middle East.

Still, the waves of anger surging across the region did momentarily break against our shore. On Sunday, thousands of people marched past my apartment demanding an end to the country's admittedly outdated confessional system. It was the third and certainly the biggest demonstration this month. The protesters want to abolish a political system that insists the president be a Maronite, the prime minister be a Sunni and speaker of parliament be a Shia, as well as prise away the religious authorities' grip on civil status.

The demands are not new. It is the timing that offers hope to Lebanon's small but vocal civil society activists.

They have a point. On many matters, Lebanon still lives in the dark ages.

Civil marriage is recognised but not practised; a woman still cannot open a bank account for her child without her husband's consent and cannot pass on her nationality to her child.

Meanwhile, all inheritance laws are governed by Lebanon's 18 official sects. It's all pretty pathetic really.

But one must distinguish between an outdated and insulting system and a sense of self. Social sectarianism, the sense of tribal identity, will never disappear, at least in our lifetime.

Because of this, Lebanon must embrace its vitality. And it has achieved this vitality because, as Michael Young, the Lebanese-American author and National columnist has argued, through sectarianism, Lebanon's religious parts have become greater, and more powerful, than the sum of the state, which is no bad thing given how some states treat their people.

There are downsides, but many see Lebanon's religious diversity as essential to its DNA.

This is how one Christian financier explained it: "Look, I'm going to be honest. The Muslims today make up 70 per cent of the population. Do they control the economy? Well, they control the banking sector, that's for sure. Any campaign to eradicate sectarianism is not going to change this. It is a fact of life.

"But what Lebanon needs is a visionary government that can deregulate sectors, embark upon massive privatisation and liberalise laws to allow all sects to create new industries and develop existing sectors, especially electricity, other utilities and possibly aviation.

This should result in a reversal of a mainly Christian brain drain that began during the civil war. If we can create a country in which doing business is easy, then we can have a level sectarian playing field, one on which we can all create a really serious economy."

In his book The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, Young writes: "In Lebanon alone, a formula was worked out to accept the reality of sectarianism and take advantage of the liberal openings it created … Lebanon may not quite be a message, but it is undoubtedly an outpost of invigorating variety …"

Long may it flourish.

A Michael Karam is a publishing and communication consultant based in Beirut

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