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Lebanon — a nation postponed

As is well-known, there is a basic difference between an examination and a contest. In the first, all entrants may pass; the second must end with winners and losers. In schools and universities, exams are the norm unless there is a need to fill a limited number of vacancies in highly selective advanced or specialized courses. In such cases, these exams become contests whereby even those who pass will not necessarily fill available vacancies.

The occasion for this is the much-hoped-for but elusive deal among Lebanese politicians on a new electoral law. This agreement has been farcical to say the least, especially since it has emerged while all concerned parties are talking of winners and losers.

Wrangling, maneuvering, and impossible demands and counter-demands have dominated Lebanon’s political scene, becoming like other issues such as energy crises and garbage collection: Red herrings designed to preoccupy people in a country that refuses to acknowledge it is suffering from a governmental crisis, if not an existential debacle.

Even more noteworthy is that legislators have continued openly talking about winners and losers among religious and political blocs after reaching the agreement. For winners and losers to emerge from adopting an electoral law is not an exception in a proper democracy, but the notion of winning and losing in Lebanon implies marginalization and exclusion.

In a proper democracy, election results are not predestined or guaranteed in advance, and no fair and free elections can be conducted while one of the country’s constituent communities is exclusively allowed to carry and use heavy weapons, and is in de facto control of its own territories while imposing its influence on others’ territories.

Furthermore, sectarian apportionment in Lebanon’s political system is enshrined in law. Religious and sectarian identity precede citizenship in Lebanon in most fields related to rights and duties, since the constitution deals with Lebanese when they become candidates for government posts — civilian or military — as members of sectarian flocks, not equal citizens before the law.

Under the silly and barely credible slogan of national unity, it was deemed necessary to respect diversity by equally distributing government posts between Christians and Muslims, regardless of demography. There will be winners and losers as long as Lebanon remains a hostage to institutionalized sectarianism, and as long as political parties remain blocs with sectarian identities, loyalties and interests.

This means a rise in a certain sect’s share would be at the expense of another sect because parliamentary seats are limited and earmarked for particular sects, as are senior government posts in the judiciary, civil service, diplomatic service, armed forces and security forces.

While most Lebanese claim to strive for a healthy civil society based on true consensus and accords, the forces that speak on their behalf spare no effort to undermine any move toward that goal. It may not be far off to say Lebanese today are more extremist and sectarian than they were in the 1970s, when the civil war broke out.

Eyad Abu Shakra

The immense political influence Lebanese religious leaders wield is not new. But today, in the era of NGOs and the Internet, even religious occasions have become political platforms. In the Christian camp, regular meetings of Maronite bishops chaired by the patriarch are almost always concluded by political statements. The same goes for weekly Sunday sermons.

In the Muslim camp, it has been Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah’s habit to deliver fiery speeches, make calls to arms and engage in political arguments and threats in Shiite religious festivals and landmarks; and recently, Ramadan iftars (breaking the fast) on the Sunni side have been turned into opportunities to settle political scores and mobilize political supporters.

While most Lebanese claim to strive for a healthy civil society based on true consensus and accords, the forces that speak on their behalf spare no effort to undermine any move toward that goal. It may not be far off to say Lebanese today are more extremist and sectarian than they were in the 1970s, when the civil war broke out.

To make matters worse, Lebanese youths — who are calling for a lowering of the voting age and are active in various NGOs — to some extent do not have a strong political memory, and are unable to comprehend the dynamics that dominate the country’s political reality.

Talking of winners and losers in approving the electoral law under current conditions in Lebanon destroys several notions. It destroys the notion of national consensus, underlining that it is just a lie exploited by political merchants from all religious communities. It destroys democracy by depriving it of its true spirit.

It destroys the notion of a common Lebanese destiny via temporary factional and sectarian deals reached amid competition for ethnic, religious and sectarian hegemony between regional powers.

It destroys the last opportunity to build a real homeland that all Lebanese have a vested interest in building and living in together, not at each other’s expense. Not building a homeland whose inhabitants are supposed to have learned from the mistakes and tragedies of a devastating war that lasted 15 years is very damaging.

More so, in a region already paying a heavy price for wars and foreign interventions, in the absence of wise and capable leaders, it would have been better to safeguard Lebanon instead of throwing it into the quagmire of nations’ collapse, hatred and seeking foreign protection. Alas, Lebanon’s political class seems to be still living in the past, and for the past.

• Eyad Abu Shakra is managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, where this article was originally published.