Wednesday, November 28, 2007
They all changed their minds... The US, Hariri, and March 14. They now support a constitutional amendment to allow Army Chief General Michel Suleiman who is a top-rank civil servant to become the "consensus" candidate for the presidency. The constitution right now stipulates that such a servant must be two years out of office before being eligible for the post of president.
For months, US ambassador Feltman and Saad Hariri rejected any constitutional amendment for such a purpose. Only last Friday Nov. 23, the Hariri Bloc and his March 14 cohort rejected Michel Aoun's last ditch initiative outright because it proposed another constitutional amendment as a means to resolve the stalemate.
What happened? Perhaps one of the outcomes of the Annapolis Conference was for the Americans to give Hariri the green light to agree to Suleiman as President. Suleiman is seen as pro-Syrian and pro-opposition. He is even rumored to be a Maronite of Syrian Alawi (same tribe as the Assads) background himself, three generations removed. Therefore, for the Americans to switch Saad Hariri to support a pro-Syrian candidate is meant as a goodwill gesture, a rapprochement by the Americans towards the Syrians to thank them for providing cover to the Annapolis Conference and for distancing themselves from the Iranians.
Ahmadinejad himself blasted the Syrians for going to Annapolis. Which means that Hezbollah might not necessarily support Suleiman. From cracks in the March 14 alliance to potential cracks in the opposition? No one ever said that Lebanese politics are based on principles. Still, since 2003 the Americans have been promising the Lebanese that they will never make a deal with the Syrians over the Lebanese. Then again, no one ever said that US foreign policy was based on principles either.
November 28, 2007
The word “democracy” comes from the Greek and means “Government by the people”: “Demos” for people, and “Kratia” for government. In the current stalemate in Lebanon over the presidential election, the inability of elected representatives to vote on a candidate for President highlights the inherent conflicts built into the Lebanese political system. Some call it consensual or consociational democracy. I call it Oxymoronic Democracy because consensual democracy just isn’t democracy, and the fact is that it has never worked. The idea behind consensual democracy is that a hodge-podge of elected (usually lay) and unelected (usually religious) leaders meet when they feel like it and, depending on their own interests – and not necessarily those of the people – make decisions on behalf of the people, thus subverting the institution of Parliament where only elected representatives ought to legislate, vote and make decisions. The very principle of the anonymity of the popular source of power that is inherent in elected representation is just breached, and the decisions made “consensually” by community leaders are not reflective of the will of the people.
I happen to agree with Michel Aoun on the issue that he, the elected majority representative of the Christian community of Lebanon, and not the unelected Patriarch of the Maronite Church, Cardinal Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir, is the ultimate political decision-maker on behalf of that community. Many are crying foul over Aoun’s position, but I find it consistent with the idea, ideals and practices of democracy. Would anyone in the Western world accept that laws be passed, and senior government officials (judges, cabinet members, and Presidents) be appointed and confirmed by bishops and other senior Catholic and Protestant clergymen, grand Jewish rabbis, Moslem Sheikhs and leaders of the other religious communities, after consultation with congressmen and senators?
Granted that Aoun sees no problem that his allies in Hezbollah rely on their unelected clergyman, Hassan Nasrallah, to lead and overrule the elected representatives of the Shiite community. But Aoun can argue that he cannot impose on the other communities what he believes should apply to his community. He can merely act according to the principle and thus set an example for others to follow. In fact, Patriarch Sfeir himself, as the enlightened religious leader that he is, has declared repeatedly that he does not want to make political decisions nor does he want to be put in the position of taking sides between political parties within his community, even if many claim to seek the Patriarch’s benediction and are barking high and low to denounce Aoun for saying what the Patriarch himself has been saying. In fact, during last week’s presidential election charade, the Patriarch held out for a very long time against pressure to name “his” candidate and demanded that due process, as stipulated by the constitution, be adhered to regardless of who gets elected. In other words, the leader of the Church himself was asking the civilian political leadership to leave him and the Church alone and out of their wranglings. It was only under intense pressure and in the sincere hope of breaking the logjam that he volunteered a very long list of names, from which Parliament and the politicians were supposed to choose candidates for elections. With the failure of the latter to act as promised, Patriarch Sfeir was reported to be very angry because he was duped by those same people who are crying foul today against Aoun for agreeing with the Patriarch.
It remains that if the Moslems in Lebanon want to continue using archaic and backward mechanisms to have unelected clergymen represent them, that’s their business. But the “Christians” of Lebanon, as traditionalist Maronite leaders Amin Gemayel and Samir Geagea and such like to remind us, claim to be more “advanced” and “more democratic” than their Moslem compatriots. In fact, the very foundation of Gemayel’s and Geagea’s political platform rests on a decentralization of the Lebanese communities which then become semi-autonomous within a federated State of Lebanon. Something like the Swiss cantons. Such a “separation” from the Moslems, Geagea and Gemayel argue, would allow the Christians to practice their “more advanced” form of government without hindrance from the “backward” Moslems who always want to inject Islamic Sharia law into daily life. But if the current elected Christian leadership surrenders the authority given to them by the people to the unelected head of the Church every time they fail to make a decision – as happened during the presidential election fiasco last week – then what’s the point of separating from the Moslems? What is the point of claiming to want to practice a more advanced form of democracy if they turn around and act exactly like the Moslems? What’s the point of holding, running for, and voting in elections? Do we really believe in democracy, in which power rests uniquely with the people, and the people periodically changes its leadership through elections? Is there really a belief in the separation of Church and State within the Christian community? Or is the Christian community in Lebanon as backward as the Moslems in referring to religious leadership instead of the people when change is needed or in times of crisis?
Lebanese democracy as it stands today is the prototype of the failure of this oxymoronic democracy. Between the 1920s and the 1940s, when the modern State of Lebanon was being shaped, after it enjoyed autonomous status between 1860 and 1914 within the Ottoman Empire, Ottoman rule legacy dictated that religious leaders take the reins of their communities or “millets” as they were known to the Ottoman State. Having laid the foundation for a modern State equipped with institutions, this early form of Lebanese democracy turned out to be a federation of millets, whereby the State was constituted by the religious communities more so than by the Lebanese people themselves. This would be similar to the United States having only a Senate (representing the States) and no House of Representatives (representing the people). The religious communities then in turn claimed to represent the individual citizens. This parochial form of representation kept real power in the hands of the bosses (Zuama) who allied themselves with the Church (for the Christians) or the Mosque (for the Moslems). An individual Maronite or Shiite Lebanese is at the complete mercy of his Church or Mosque and the civilian bosses they blessed. By the same token, no one in Lebanon can be recognized as a citizen if he or she is a declared atheist or agnostic or a member of a religion other than the 18 religions recognized by the Lebanese constitution. In Lebanon, you will have no existence if you are a Hindu or Buddhist. Also, one is born a Maronite or a Shiite or a Druze or Armenian Orthodox first, then and only then is one a Lebanese citizen.
Time has come for Lebanese democracy to evolve and be more in tune with modern times. This can be done in one of two ways. The first would be to amend the political system to allow for direct representation without the intercession of the religious communities, which would require the State to handle civil status affairs (marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.) that are handled by the churches and mosques today, candidates would run in elections on some other basis than their religious affiliation, and all Lebanese citizens, regardless of religion or lack thereof, have thus a place in the system. The second way would be to institute a bicameral form of Parliament in which a Senate is created representing the religious communities on an equal footing (say 2 senators per community), leaving Parliament to represent the people directly regardless of religious affiliation. This is the case with such countries as the US (Senate represents the states, the House of Representatives represents the people) or France (Senate represents the departments, while the National Assembly represents the people) or the UK (House of Lords represents the nobility and the Church, while the House of Commons represents the people), and many other countries.