Flawed as it may be, Lebanon can serve as a model

Lebanon provides a valuable lesson for many other countries in the region on how to manage sectarian relations, despite having a deeply dysfunctional system, writes Michael Young

Lebanon offers an example of social cohesion in the region. AFP
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A cliché about Lebanon is that its strength lies in its weakness. For Lebanese living constantly in an unstable country, such a statement sounds vacuous. However, it also happens to be true.

For a long time, to many people in the Arab world, Lebanon’s weakness was its sectarian political system. Sectarianism guaranteed a divided society, undermined the notion of a unifying statehood, and left the country at the mercy of sectarian politicians. This, the argument went, was archaic, so it seemed natural in 1975 that Lebanon should enter into a civil war.

Indeed, but what critics never looked at was that Lebanon emerged from its war as one country – not two, three or four. That was partly due to the fact that Syria imposed its hegemony during the conflict, preventing a breakup. But there was more to it than that: the country had reflexes to manage its sectarian differences and institutionalise pluralism. Therefore when the state broke down, there were mechanisms to pursue reconciliation.

What we have seen in the Arab world – particularly in Syria and Iraq, two countries with sectarian makeups similar to Lebanon’s – is something different. Under the regimes of Hafez Al Assad, followed by his son Bashar, and Saddam Hussein, sectarianism was buried under a veneer of Baathist Arab nationalism.

So prevalent was the nationalist mythology that few people in either country would venture to discuss sectarianism. Many years ago, I travelled to Damascus to interview people for a report I was writing on Lebanese-Syrian relations. Virtually all my interlocutors were careful to steer away from any discussion of sectarianism in Syria, saying only that this was Lebanon’s curse.

The alleged Arab nationalist systems in Syria and Iraq, however, were dominated by minorities – Alawites in Syria, Sunnis in Iraq – whose rule was upheld by vast apparatuses of repression.

The forced removal of the old order in Iraq and Syria, whether by foreign military intervention or domestic revolt, undermined the instruments of repression. Yet there were no formal or informal institutions to fill the vacuum and help regulate sectarian or ethnic relations afterward. That is why the breakdowns in both countries were so sweeping and catastrophic.

Lebanon is far from being out of the woods, as the destructive sectarian impulse sweeps the Middle East. However, in its favour the country does have in place institutions to alleviate its sectarian tensions. This may not be enough to contain rising Sunni-Shia hostility in the country, but it can delay the worst, allowing for solutions to diffuse crises.

Paying a heavy price today are the region’s religious and ethnic minorities. Iraq’s and Syria’s Christian communities are not likely to reconstitute themselves again. Syria’s Alawite-dominated regime is collapsing. Once that happens Alawites, too, will slowly disappear from Syria, especially after the crimes they perpetrated there.

The Shia will hold out, even if they lose ground, but at what cost in terms of death and devastation? In Iraq, relying on Shia solidarity, as the Iranians have advised, will only make matters worse. What is required is a new social contract with the Sunnis to reach a compromise over power-sharing that is respected.

The Lebanese showed foresight in embracing a sectarian-based political system at independence. It was France, the Mandatory power in Lebanon after the First World War, that helped them do so. They built on sectarian institutions and traditions already introduced at the time of Ottoman rule, and that had been pushed partly by the Ottomans and partly by the European powers.

However, sectarian political systems tend to impose elaborate mechanisms that, if disregarded, exacerbate sectarian relations. The reason for this is that interactions between sects tend to rub up against existential sensitivities. When the rules are not acknowledged by one sect, the other sects very quickly feel this may pose a potential threat to their existence.

In Lebanon, Hizbollah has systematically ignored the rules of sectarian compromise in the past decade. The party’s attacks against the Sunni community and Sunni political figures in the years 2005-2008, coupled with its entry into the Syrian civil war on behalf of Mr Al Assad’s regime and Iran, greatly angered Lebanon’s Sunnis, persuading some to take up arms.

Today, Hizbollah must adopt the rules of sectarian compromise quickly, because the strains with the country’s Sunnis have reached disturbing levels. By and large Lebanese Sunnis are moderate, but the reality is that in times of conflict, it is the extremists who gain and eliminate alternative approaches.

Had Lebanon not had institutions in place to reduce tensions – a preference for national-unity governments, a distribution of the top three posts in the state among members of the three main sects, Sunnis, Shia and Maronite Christians, as well as a predilection for taking national decisions based on consensus – it might have been far deeper in civil conflict than it is today.

By the same token, it is difficult to imagine normalisation in Syria and Iraq without the introduction of some kind of system that ingrains sectarian and ethnic compromise in political life. It may not make for the most efficient systems, but it will make for ones where sectarian coexistence can succeed.

Lebanon is hardly an ideal model for the Middle East. But in a region where sectarianism was never neutralised, only hidden away under layers of intimidation, it is a more appropriate model than any other. The country may still succumb to sectarian conflict, but that it hasn’t done so until now is itself worthy of mention.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

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