State and citizenship will save Lebanon, not confessionalism

Upcoming elections are an important moment to reflect on what the country's modern identity should be

A beggar sits at the entrance of Empire Cinema in Tripoli, Lebanon. AP

Lebanon, as we know it, no longer exists. We need as much clarity to fathom its collapse as we do to reimagine it otherwise. This certainly triggers some feelings of resignation, but it mostly requires a sense of commitment and hope.

One in three children in Lebanon now goes to bed hungry. The collapse of the national currency is just one facet of one of the worst economic crises in modern history. The country's future looks even bleaker, with so many Lebanese packing their bags and leaving – a massive exodus threatens the very existence of Lebanon and its ability to recover.

This is all the more galling because Lebanon supposedly has a "liberal" economy. But that has long not been the case, severely damaging its productivity. The Lebanese economy hinders healthy competition and subordinates any growth to clientelism. It owes most of its growth to the disproportionate might of its financial sector, which ended up drowning and taking down the economy with it. As low as things are now, there is still a need to advocate for the freedom of enterprises and private initiatives, without turning a blind eye to social justice or to a fair distribution of the fruits of any future prosperity.

The root of the problem, however, remains political: beyond corruption, it is the inability of the Lebanese political system to allow for real collective decisions. The ruling class has turned a so-called “consensus” democracy to a sclerotic tribal bargaining system. This was the fundamental message that emerged from the October 2019 uprising, a euphoric moment during which an entire generation rose up to fight the demons of the past.

Admittedly, this euphoria was short-lived: The counter-revolution forces seem to have won the battle by preventing any change and banking on the fact that the uprising would lose its momentum.

As difficult as it may seem, wider Lebanese society must also recognise its share of responsibility in this setback. It contended itself with the uprising’s flagship slogan “Killun yaani killun” (“All of them means all of them”). Pointing very precisely to sectarian leaders who form the ruling class meant limiting the conversation to one truth. They are the problem indeed, but it is up to the rest of society to build the alternative. Getting rid of “them” will take a truly grassroots effort to unite and transform popular potential into leverage.

The obvious counterpoint will be to question the capacity of Lebanese people to unite this way, as though sectarianism flows from the bottom up. In truth, however, the Lebanese intellectual tradition that gives primacy to the national common good and the bonds that unify Lebanese people runs very deep. After all, Michel Chiha, the main architect of the Lebanese Constitution, perceived the country as one of peacefully coexisting “associated minorities”. And there is value in that viewpoint; it made it possible at the time of Lebanon’s founding to build up a unique country in the region.

But now is the time to go one step further and truly forge our national, secular identity – above our sectarian ones and against what the writer Amin Maalouf termed “deadly identities”. Despite what many might think, it is possible and is evidenced most profoundly by the extent to which sectarian differences seem to fade the moment Lebanese people step outside their country.

Lebanon’s general elections are scheduled to take place in May, and they mark the start of a long political process to pull the country out of its present morass. That process, at some point, must include questions of constitutional reform if any collective Lebanese identity is to be salvaged, or a sustainable new Lebanese identity is to be forged.

A few obvious examples of constitutional changes that can provide a stepping stone to this path include the removal of confessional attachments to so many aspects of the state, and the unification of personal status. In Lebanon, there is no civil code on personal status matters, such as marriage. Individuals are treated differently according to their religion or gender, rather than their inherent status as Lebanese citizens.

The country is also facing an impending food crisis. Reuters

To make Lebanese identity sustainable requires incoming politicians to force a deep shift in the mind-set that underwrites the present legal paradigm – one that is inclusive of all religious and geographic particularities and embody a sense of common adventure. Lebanon’s myriad religious and cultural identities will never be better protected than within the framework of a strong state that is sheltered from the narrow interests of clans and sectarian powers.

At the same time, seeking to redefine the true meaning of citizenship and developing a productive and prosperous economy for all requires the existence of a fully sovereign state. In Lebanon’s case, this demands neutrality in foreign policy to keep the country at bay from entanglement in regional tensions that are tearing some other countries in the region apart. The existence of an independent judiciary capable of applying its own decisions is also imperative, especially when it comes to delivering justice in the investigation of August 2020’s Beirut port explosion.

Of course, a fully sovereign state is difficult to imagine when its authority is constantly undercut by an armed militia, which is financed and guided by a foreign power. Instead of resisting Israel, Hezbollah’s weapons have been resisting the yearning for change that is driving most Lebanese. But the only way to weaken Hezbollah is to build a truly secular opposition to it.

The timing of the coming elections is critical in this respect. After the peak of euphoria in October 2019, a collective depression seems to have emerged causing people to retreat into their own communities – something that benefits sectarian parties. Lebanese history, however, shows that there are times when the desperation of disaster breeds the necessary innovation in thinking. And they have played a critical role in solidifying the non-sectarian intellectual tradition I mentioned earlier.

One example stretches as far back as 1860, a year of terrible massacres which saw the Chouf mountain region torn between Druze and Maronite Christians. The conflict ground the country to a halt. This was when the vision of modernity and secularism put forth by Boutros Al Boustany, one of the founding fathers of the “Arab Renaissance” or Al Nahda, unfolded.

A century later, 1958 was the year of the first post-independence Lebanese civil war. Fouad Chehab ascended to the presidency against the backdrop of an extremely tense sectarian situation. In order to defuse tensions, Chehab sought to establish the institutional foundations of a modern state with senior civil servants chosen for their competence and not their religious affiliations.

This process of innovation can happen in the present time, against all odds. Pope John Paul II once famously said that “Lebanon is more than a country; it is a message to the world”. That may have once rung true, and it can ring true again. But it will require confidence and commitment to ground-breaking, structural change. Now more than ever, Lebanon is an act of faith.

Michel Helou is the former of director of L’Orient Le Jour, a Lebanese daily, and is a candidate for the Lebanese National Bloc Party in the 2022 Lebanese parliamentary elections

Published: March 15, 2022, 4:00 AM
Michel Helou

Michel Helou

Michel Helou is the former of director of L’Orient Le Jour, a Lebanese daily, and is a candidate for the Lebanese National Bloc Party in the 2022 Lebanese parliamentary elections