Last fortnight, Egypt’s Coptic Christians canceled Easter celebrations in mourning for those killed in two terrorist explosions targeting churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria. In Iraq too, new maps are being drawn by sectarianism while minorities shrink and ethno-religious fabric changes due to violence by Iran on one side and Daesh on the other.
Likewise, we witness how torn apart Syria has become, all under the eyes of the international community. Syria is well on the road to partition and population exchange. And the less said the better when the subject is ongoing events in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Given this painful regional climate, ongoing arguments about Lebanon’s future electoral system become pointless. It is not much different to the “crowded” field of Iran’s presidential elections, where neither votes nor the number of candidates mean a thing in the face of what the supreme leader utters and the elitist Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) dictates.
In Lebanon, the Middle East’s “democratic” soft belly, we see absurd arguments about what the most appropriate electoral system should look like in upcoming parliamentary elections. This is not new. Moreover, true intentions behind what is going on have nothing to do with what is being said, regardless of whether the intention is escalation or hypocrisy.
The real problem is that the Lebanese are sharply divided on several basic issues regarding conditions for coexistence, political representation and even the meaning of democracy. For a start, one must ask whether the next elections — regardless of what system is adopted — are going to produce any change.
Is there a common Lebanese vision as to what the country’s identity is among ostensible “allies,” let alone political adversaries and those in favor of foreign backing and sectarian hegemony?
Then one may also ask, given the defective mechanisms of governance: Will “state institutions” still be relevant and meaningful? Will any electoral law be effective in light of accelerating disproportionate sectarian demographics, and the fact that one large religious sect enjoys a monopoly of military might outside the state’s umbrella while at the same time sharing what is under that umbrella?
In his Easter sermon, Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Ra’i said Lebanese Christians “are nobody’s bullied weaklings, but are rather indispensable.” This is tough talk, but it too is not new.
From what is widely known about Ra’i even before he assumed the patriarchate, he is highly interested in politics, and his political views are as candid as they are decisive. He was among the first to warn the West against supporting the Syrian uprising. He claimed during his visits, beginning with France, that any regime replacing Bashar Assad’s may be worse, so it would be better to keep him in power.
The same path has been followed by Lebanese President Michel Aoun, who was strongly backed by Hezbollah, to the extent that the latter created a political vacuum in Lebanon lasting more than two years.
Hezbollah, meanwhile, has been imposing its hegemony in Lebanon, fighting for Assad in Syria and training Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as part of Tehran’s project of regional dominance. In promoting this project globally, but particularly in the West, Iran has given it the themes of “fighting terrorism” — meaning “Sunni Muslim terrorism” — and “protection of minorities” within the framework of a tactical “coalition of the minorities.”
The cost of ignoring facts on the ground is tragic as blood begets blood, exclusion justifies exclusion, and marginalization undermines coexistence.
Eyad Abu Shakra
A few days ago, Aoun said: “The aim behind what is taking place in the Orient is to empty it of Christians and partition the region into several states.” Again this is nothing new, as it used to be said at roadblocks during the dark days of the Lebanese war between 1975 and 1990.
In those days, fears of uprooting were widespread, reaching a climax within the Christian community with rumors that the mission of US diplomat Dean Brown was to evacuate Lebanon’s Christians to Canada, and with rumors circulating in the Druze community during the Mountain War (1983-1984) that they would be expelled to southern Syria.
But it seems Aoun has not been aware of who was applying the final touches to population exchange, and drawing the map for the future states he has been warning against. He has simply ignored the full picture, instead repeating old talk in order to justify temporary interests that are harmful, if not fatal, to minorities.
In this context come the “try-to-be-smart” attempts to impose a new electoral law in Lebanon as a means of blackmail, as if the country’s sectarian tribal chieftains are naive or novices in the arena of sectarian politics. The latest came from Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister and Aoun’s son-in-law, when he expressed his “willingness to entertain the idea of a Senate, on the condition that it is headed by a Christian.”
This pre-condition was quickly rejected by Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri on the basis that the presidency of a Senate, as approved in the Taif Agreement — now part of Lebanon’s constitution — was allocated to the Druze, so what Bassil suggested was unconstitutional.
All suggestions regarding a future electoral law have ignored the issue of a Senate. It is also obvious that another item in the Taif Agreement was being intentionally ignored: The adoption of administrative decentralization. But if some Lebanese parties feel uncomfortable with the idea of decentralization, since Iraq and Syria seem to be on their way to partition, it is no longer possible to separate Lebanon’s politics from its demographics.
The latter are now being affected by radical and permanent demographic changes across the country’s disintegrating eastern border with Syria. These include what is being reported — without being refuted — about widespread settlement and naturalization activities in Damascus and its countryside.
Furthermore, once the population exchange between Shiite pockets of northern Syria and the Sunni-majority population of the Barada River valley is completed, the new sectarian and demographic fabric of Damascus and its countryside will gain a strategic depth and merge with a similar fabric in eastern Lebanon.
This is a danger that Lebanese Christians — indeed all Arabs — must be aware of and sincere about. The cost of ignoring facts on the ground is tragic as blood begets blood, exclusion justifies exclusion, and marginalization undermines coexistence.
Nation-building is impossible in the absence of a free will to live together. It is impossible in a climate of lies, while those who think they are smart gamble on shifting regional and global balances of power.
• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.