Admittedly, Lebanon does not live up to its liberal mythology. But, for all its warts, and despite periodic failures, coexistence among Lebanon’s communities reflects, and in turn promotes, a pluralism that is absent throughout much of the Middle East. Since the mid-19th century, when European intervention in Ottoman-era Mount Lebanon helped consolidate communalism, political pluralism has distinguished Lebanon from the rest of the region in three positive ways.
First, Lebanon benefits from a dynamism that is due, in part, to its people’s intimate contact with “the Other.” From cosmopolitan Beirut to the most insular of mountain villages, the Lebanese interact with, or are at least exposed to, other groups. This diversity manifests on street corners, in classrooms, in the workplace, and in the political arena – and helps breed cultural awareness, lateral thinking, and tact. Wired for the world, members of the far-flung Lebanese diaspora owe part of their success to this nurturing process. In turn, Lebanon benefits from its diaspora’s ideas, remittances, investments, and other initiatives, which offset the negative impact of “brain drain.”
Second, Lebanon has managed to avoid the authoritarianism that has plagued much of the Middle East. From Morocco to the Persian Gulf, theocracies, monarchies, hereditary presidencies, and military cabals have clung to power for decades. While not exactly a liberal bunch, Lebanon’s politicians, military leaders, and clerics must operate within a context that restricts their power. Because few Lebanese leaders have been able to cull together serious support outside of their communities, power has remained diffused.
Occasionally, a Lebanese leader manages to transcend the communal context. But those instances are both rare and fleeting. The vanished Imam Mousa al-Sadr, the assassinated president-elect Bashir Gemayel, the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, former General Michel Aoun, or Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah have at one time or another emerged as political giants with cross-communal support. But, time and again, Lebanon’s system has met these figures head on, frustrating and inhibiting their ambitions (note that most of these leaders met, or are likely to meet, indecorous ends).
Clearly, the interplay of various leaders and groups has sometimes led to discord. Lebanon’s most recent government crisis, due to a Hizbullah-led withdrawal that owed much of its bite to Lebanon’s power-sharing system, is a stark reminder of the negative aspects of consociationalism. However, as Lebanese-American journalist Michael Young suggests “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square,” it may be better to live under the rule of “a forest of fathers,” than under the watch of a single “father” who holds all the strings.
Third, Lebanon’s state-society relations differ significantly from the regional norm. In one form or another, a culture of dissent prevails in the media, the academia, cafes, and the halls of power. By contrast, the state lurks almost everywhere else in the Arab world. Irrespective of the political inclinations or geostrategic relevance of their regimes, these states stifle expression, suppress political opposition, and constrain free thought.
So, while Lebanon falls short on liberalism, it is very much pluralistic. But the underpinnings of this pluralism are under attack. Coexistence in Lebanon is eroding.
During the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1991), a militia order gradually took root. As a consequence of prolonged hostilities, and a militia logic that demanded ethnic and ideological consolidation, Lebanon became more cantonized than it had been before the war.
Christians receded into an enclave stretching from East Beirut to northern Lebanon. The Druze took shelter in the heart of Mount Lebanon, where much of Lebanon’s contemporary system is derived from. Sunnis remained in their coastal dwellings or patches of the Bekaa Valley. Shiites clustered around Beirut, in the northern Bekaa Valley, and in South Lebanon.
Now, two decades after the civil war, coexistence faces new threats. First, poor and unbalanced economic development continues to drive people from Lebanon’s outer provinces towards Beirut, where communal neighborhoods and ghettos, rather than inter-mixed villages, are the norm.
Second, massive land transfers taking place throughout Lebanon also threaten coexistence. The pattern of transfers reflects and perpetuates Christian detachment and apathy, as well as aggressive and possibly orchestrated purchase of properties by parties, organizations, and individuals at above-market prices. True, natural demographic and economic forces are at play; but it is also clear that something else is happening.
Coexistence has long rested upon two geo-demographic pillars: a Christian presence in the far reaches Lebanon, such as the Hermel region and Lebanese border villages in the South; and a concurrent Muslim presence in what are now perceived to be Christian areas like Batroun, Jbeil, the Metn, and Zahle.
Migration – existing alongside the problem of large-scale land transfers – threatens to deepen Lebanon’s de facto segregation. While it may be unrealistic to expect an immediate reversal of civil war-era dislocations, it is not too late to raise awareness of more gradual, contemporary threats to coexistence.
Recently, MP Boutros Harb (Batroun, March 14) proposed a draft law proposal that would freeze the sale of land between Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim populations for a period of 15 years. Although such a law would probably survive constitutional scrutiny, the proposal suffers from three serious problems.
First, the draft law reinforces the communal impulse, and thereby further subjugates individuals to categories that are, in a sense, rooted in accidents of birth. Second, the law offends social sensibilities, particularly as it has come off as a narrow reassertion of Christian interests in Lebanon. Third, the law is a temporary stop-gap measure that does not adequately address the social and economic reasons behind Lebanon’s cantonization.
But, if Harb’s approach is too stringent, too broad, and off the mark, its faults must not obscure the need for action. “Federalism” was once a dirty word in Lebanon. Without striving towards (and sacrificing for) elusive unity, the partition or devolution of a country whose “founding myth” was tolerance may soon become inevitable.
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