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Protecting communities or protecting the state project?
Published on 20/12/2011 in As-Safir
The proposed electoral law submitted by some members of the Orthodox community gathered in the “Orthodox Rally” may provoke confusion as it seems at odds with the traditional historical positions of such a community which has always distinguished itself by its openness and its rejection of compartmentalized identities and sectarian isolation. According to this proposal, the representatives of each community would be elected by proportional representation, but only by the Lebanese of this community.

Whatever one thinks of this proposal, and although this rally is not official and does not represent the whole Orthodox community, its adoption by the Maronite leaders must give us a start and prompt us to reflect on the state of our institutions and the rise of sectarian divisions that distort our system and threaten our national pact.

A break with the traditional position of Orthodox…

This idea seems to be at odds with the positions that have always been those of the Orthodox community throughout history, from the nineteenth century until today through the darkest hours of the Lebanese war. Throughout their history, the Orthodox in our part of the world have always rejected the communities and identities shackles; they have always sought to transcend sectarian divisions and to bring out syntheses in the service of national unity and Lebanon’s higher interest. When faced with a choice or decision, they never wondered “is it good for our community?” but only “is it in the interest of our country?”

The Orthodox have always advocated openness, and have been among the first to understand that their development and that of their countrymen can only be achieved within the framework of the state institutions of a unified and democratic Lebanon. Some icons of the Orthodox community in Lebanon, like Ghassan Tueni, Albert Moukheiber, Fouad Boutros, Bishops Audi and Khodr and before them Patriarch Hazim, have become symbols of this aspiration to universalism and rejection of sectarianism.
This vision has enabled them to keep a cool head during periods of fever, outbursts and blunders. The Lebanese are now unanimous in recognizing the stabilizing and unifying role played by the Orthodox when everything went wrong. I wish that we remain faithful to this noble heritage and that we continue to reject the evils of exacerbated identitarianism and communitarianism.

However, the proposed bill could embolden extremists, foster sectarian outbidding and incite candidate to mobilize their constituencies using slogans that are hostile to other communities. It would therefore endanger our coexistence and our common interests.

Some might think that I have a personal interest in making such comments, quite the contrary. I am proud to be the deputy of a mixed region, and to have obtained a majority of Sunni voices as well as Christian and Orthodox voices in my constituency. I have never felt the need to give up my identity even though I was elected by a majority of voices that belong to a community other than mine. I even feel like one of the few politicians who actually went beyond sectarian thinking without renouncing my commitment to the community to which I belong.

… Reflecting the decay of the state and the excesses of the institutions

This said, we must ask ourselves the following question: how did we get here? Many reasons have made this shocking Orthodox proposal possible and led the main Maronite leaders to describe it as “adequate”. In fact, we have been living for several years in a political system gone mad, the Taif Agreement has been emptied of its substance and distorted, and instead of reducing sectarian tensions it has contributed to their exacerbation. Furthermore, the state failed to impose its authority on all communities.

Our political system has been gradually transformed into a system of communitarian federalism that does not speak its name because of the refusal of community leaders to give up their veto on the institutions as well as the resurgence of sectarian tensions at the regional level and their impacts on Lebanon.

We did not show any willingness to properly apply the provisions of the Taif Agreement or to amend it to avoid some of its pitfalls when we should have done both. We find ourselves again in a situation where institutions are nothing more than empty shells and the state is powerless. In this context, no wonder that some parties, especially the Christians that have neither weapons like the Shiites nor regional strategic depth like the Sunnis, come to develop such proposals.

It is perfectly legitimate to criticize the bill, but we would have not gotten there had we engaged to build a strong and impartial state beyond all communities and ensuring the political, economic and social rights of the whole population.

It seems that we have chosen to abandon the building of the state and to accept the omnipotence of the communities, and we are now paying the price. The responsibility for this situation is collective, and each community has experienced dark days; each one of us must now be self-critical.

The moment of choice

Lebanon is now at a crossroads and we must make a clear choice between two options:
Either we decide to put an end to the process of excessive sectarianism that plagues our institutions, by agreeing to simultaneously implement the remaining provisions of the Taif Agreement and correcting its pitfalls. In doing so, and this is what I hope for, our politicians and community leaders would show their willingness to build a strong and impartial state able to impose its authority on all and to give everyone the necessary guarantees. This decision to strengthen the state naturally involves the revision of the electoral law away from settlements that would aggravate the sectarian nature of our system.

Or on the contrary we continue to strengthen communities, to reinforce their fears and obsessions and import regional conflicts. In this case, we would at best go towards the institutionalization of a system of communitarian federalism, and at worst towards an organized chaos. Without saying it openly, Lebanon seems to have made this second choice over the years. In this context of strengthening community affiliations, the proposition of the “Orthodox Rally” is understandable even if it is in contradiction with the heritage of our community and it announces that the last wise people have unfortunately joined the process of denaturation of our institutions.