Monday, June 28, 2010

Lebanon's sectarian burden: No changes expected!

OxFan: Excerpts:

"..... Since the murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, Lebanon has seen heightened sectarian tensions and periodic violent scuffles, fed by a prolonged political standoff with sectarian overtones between the March 8 and March 14 coalitions. The fact that Lebanon came precariously close in 2008 to a relapse into sectarian violence similar to the 1975-1990 civil war has urged some groups to organise demonstrations, public meetings, exhibitions, media campaigns and various projects aimed at tempering sectarian divisions.
A reform movement has also gained pace within political parties, particularly among Shia leaders who may see an advantage in removing sectarian quotas, since they are the majority population group:
  • Barring the Shia Amal and Hizbollah parties, the milieu supporting a secular system in Lebanon has roots in leftist parties which formed the National Movement during Lebanon's 1975-90 civil war.
  • It includes academics, human rights lawyers and civil society stalwarts -- some of whom, like Interior Minister Ziad Baroud, are today legislators.
  • They face a tough task on many levels, as sectarianism is ingrained in social norms, media, public institutions and -- most importantly -- in Lebanon's constitution.....
Entrenched sectarianism. Sectarian practices have become more entrenched since the end of the civil war in 1990:
  • The 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the war merely shelved some of the key political conflicts of the war, and Lebanon's Christians in particular felt excluded during the period of Syrian military presence in Lebanon. Continued political instability and unresolved conflicts between political and sectarian groups have fed the population's need for protection within their sects.
  • The civil war saw many areas and neighbourhoods of Lebanon turned into near-homogenous zones along sectarian lines. Despite plans to resettle the internally displaced from the war, urban space is still divided.
  • Lack of educational and electoral reforms has perpetuated institutional sectarianism.
  • A sectarian division of the media sector, which has grown exponentially since the 1990s, reifies sectarian affiliation and political dividing lines......
.... Proportional representation was a key recommendation of the 2006 Boutros Commission, appointed by the government, and is likely to be taken up and debated ahead of the 2013 parliamentary elections.
Shia secularists. Fundamental changes to the constitution depend on support from sectarian political leaders. Long-time parliament speaker, Nabih Berri, has recently declared himself a champion of the abolition of political sectarianism. In January, Berri called for a national committee to be established to focus on eradicating sectarianism. Similar gestures have been made by his Shia ally in the March 8 coalition, Hizbollah head Hassan Nasrallah.
Reactions have been mainly critical:
  • Many secularists point out that the initiative comes from leaders who take advantage of the sectarian system. Shia sectarian parties have at times attempted to co-opt Shia secularists through reference to secularism, and particularly, calls to change the electoral law.
  • Berri's remarks stoked deep-seated Christian fears that abolishing sectarianism would leave them underrepresented as a result of their dwindling numbers, whereas the Shia, thought to be the largest sect in Lebanon today, would dominate parliament.
  • The Maronite Church, a key player in Christian politics, is strongly opposed to the idea, with Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir arguing on several occasions that sectarianism ought to be "removed from the souls before being removed from the texts".

.... Outlook. These groups represent a minority of largely well-educated, urban middle classes, and are likely to stay marginal for the time being. However, despite their limited ability to influence politics, they have become more visible in the last five years, and could play a notable role in shaping public debate.
The leftist parties have much greater political influence, but they are remnants of an older project to reform Lebanon which has seen little real success. The electoral law is likely to remain central to the political debate about sectarianism, and it is possible that the 2006 draft will eventually pass, with the help of these parties. However, this would require a much calmer and more stable regional and domestic political environment, and is not likely in the near future. Much like nuclear disarmament, the dismantling of sectarianism is regarded as a desirable prospect, but one which needs key security guarantees for the beneficiaries of the current system. Moreover, there is little chance that the system will change as long as the sectarian parties maintain their power bases in the population, and the wider population depends on their sectarian representatives financially. Such factors add weight to the argument that sectarianism must be dismantled from below, through a change in mentality, ahead of any major constitutional reforms -- and such a change cannot be expected in the short term."

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