Federalism will not solve all of Lebanon’s problems

Federalism will not solve all of Lebanon’s problems

Federalism will not solve all of Lebanon’s problems
Customers scuffle with riot police as they try to storm a bank in Beirut, Lebanon, on Oct. 6, 2021. (AP/File)
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With the political impasse in Lebanon and the economic collapse resulting from it comes a heated debate, mainly among Christians in the country, regarding proposals for a federal alternative to the current system.
But not all federalists agree on the same formula or have the same rationale. The common theme is that, if we cannot live with an armed Hezbollah and we cannot fight it or disarm it, then the alternative is some degree of separation.
While at one end what is proposed is no more than a form of decentralization, at the other extreme are dangerous ideas based on twisted interpretations of both Lebanese and European history, and the result is no longer identifiable with Lebanon.
This division is not new and it dates back to long before the creation of the modern state of Lebanon. The fundamental question is whether people of different religions can live together in one unit or if they have to separate into more homogenous administrations.
The Emirate of Mount Lebanon, which enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy, collapsed in 1841 and was replaced by two separate regions, or cantons, known as the Double Qaim-Maqamate, one to the north with a Maronite majority and the other to the south with a Druze majority. After the massacres of Christians in the southern district in 1860, this was replaced by an autonomous region, or Mutasarrifate, where the two cantons were joined together under a Christian Ottoman governor, with the help of a council in which all the communities were represented. A Turkish historian of Lebanon called this “the long peace,” with stability lasting from 1864 to 1914. The Mutasarrifate was replaced by the rule of a military governor during the First World War.
There was a similar discussion after the creation of the modern state of Greater Lebanon, which consisted of an expanded Mount Lebanon, made more viable economically by including coastal cities and the agricultural areas of the Bekaa Valley and the south of the country, as well as the city of Tripoli and other areas in the north. The argument during the French Mandate, again mainly among Christians, was whether it would have been wiser to maintain a smaller area where they would be a majority, rather than face the challenge of sharing a country with other religious groups.
It is true, however, that during the civil war the country was divided into cantons and these were relatively efficiently run by the militias that controlled them. They collected taxes, distributed fuel and electricity, provided some services and security, and even managed to collaborate across the dividing lines. But there was also internal fighting for control within each side, sometimes more violent than the country had ever seen during the civil war. It was also at that time that radicals eventually took over in cities like Tripoli and Sidon and most parts of west Beirut. This was no longer the Lebanon we knew.

The fundamental question is whether people of different religions can live together in one unit.

Nadim Shehadi

In 1988, there was a meeting between two Lebanese in London. “You have to understand that the Christians are afraid of radical Islam,” said one of them, Joe, an intellectual linked to Gen. Michel Aoun, to Mohammed, a politician who was close to then-Prime Minister Salim Al-Hoss. Lebanon then had two separate governments, one headed by Al-Hoss and the other by Aoun. The office of the president was vacant with no clear mechanism on how to fill it.
Mohammed’s reply was to explain that Muslims have far more to fear if the radicals took over, as they would impose their way of life and their rigid interpretation of Islam on their coreligionists. They would be more of a threat to them than they would be to Christians. For him, the main antidote would be to go back to the model of coexistence. In fact, what he was saying was that mainstream Muslims find security in living in a diverse society within the Lebanese formula of power-sharing, which provides a healthier environment and is the best protection against radicalism. After all, radicalism is a threat to everyone.
The same goes for Christians. If the idea is to live in a separate and more homogeneous canton, then radicals of a different sort could take control. An equally rigid definition of identity would exclude many and curb freedoms.
If Lebanon’s current condition is caused by Hezbollah, then the Shiites who are under its control are its main victims. It is their children who are being indoctrinated and recruited into the militia at an early age. It is also their young men who are sent to fight and die in Syria, Iraq or Yemen. If Hezbollah launches or provokes a war, it is they who will be its human shields and among the first targets of assassinations.
The fact that Hezbollah’s lists may achieve 95 percent of the votes in Shiite areas is not an indication of its popularity, but rather evidence of its totalitarian grip on the community achieved through the traditional methods of control. These include a bloody three-year conflict from 1988 to 1990 between Hezbollah and the Amal militia, which ended with an agreement that gave it hegemony.
Moreover, it is a fallacy that one can isolate an area and live peacefully next to Hezbollah-land. We have seen this in Palestine, where the West Bank under Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization is not isolated from the influence of Hamas’ control of Gaza. It is also the Gazans themselves who are the primary victims of Hamas’ control.
It is also true that if Lebanon, with its track record, cannot solve the puzzle of coexistence between diverse people and different religions, then nobody can — not Syria, Iraq, the rest of the Middle East or Europe. Each society has its good, bad and ugly people, and we need a solution where the good will prevail.

Nadim Shehadi is a Lebanese economist.Twitter: @Confusezeus

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