“Three things matter to the Christians of Lebanon, and those of Zahle in particular: the Presidency, the Lebanese Armed Forces [LAF], and the Church,” said Okab Sakr, a Shiite MP from the Zahle district, during a Thursday airing of Kalam al-Nass. These words are as true as ever, but the Christian community seems hell-bent on undermining the last pillars of its significance.
The President of the Republic is traditionally a Maronite Christian. Although the Taif Accord that ended the Lebanese Civil War transferred most executive power from the presidency to the Cabinet (headed by a Sunni Prime Minister), the president retains considerable esteem as the “head of state and the symbol of the nation’s unity.”
As modified by the Taif Amendments, the Constitution states that the president “shall safeguard the constitution and Lebanon’s independence, unity, and territorial integrity.” As a Christian leader, the president also retains influence grounded in the communal nature of Lebanese politics.
All in all, the presidency is imbued with a great deal of symbolic importance and a potential for great influence over politics in Lebanon. But translating potential into effectiveness requires communal support – in the form of a parliamentary coalition or a share in cabinet – for the president.
Over the past two decades Christian bickering has stripped the presidency of such support. In the 1990s, Syria exploited intra-Christian and inter-communal divisions to install two docile presidents. From 2005 until 2008, Christian political leaders failed to reach a consensus on who would replace the inept President Emile Lahoud. Discord led to a six-month-long presidential vaccuum and allowed other local and regional players to determine the course of the presidency.
President Michel Suleiman, former commander of the LAF, has not been able (he may not be willing, either) to carve out an autonomous popular base for himself. With no parliamentary coalition aligned with him, Suleiman will need to retain a ‘swing bloc’ of cabinet ministers if he is to play the role of internal arbiter envisioned in the Taif Accord. Unfortunately, the consensus president has come under attack.
Leading the charge is Free Patriotic Movement leader and former General Michel Aoun. After the 2005 parliamentary elections, Aoun found himself at the head of a coalition of 22 lawmakers. Other Christian figures like Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and Phalange boss and former President Amin Gemayel did not want to see Aoun ascend to the presidency, especially because of his alliance with Hizbullah. The March 14 Sunni and Druze factions also feared or resented Aoun, and preferred a presidential void to Aoun as president.
For his part, Aoun allowed his lust for the power to cloud his political vision: rather than act as kingmaker and facilitate the election of a consensus president, Aoun clung to his delusions. Like his Christian counterparts in the March 14 coalition, Aoun eventually saw himself sidelined within his political alliance when Hizbullah’s interests favored electing a consensus president. The President was delivered over the heads of rival Christian factions.
Thus, despite his best efforts, Sleiman lacks institutional or popular bases for playing an effective role in the country.
A March 14 victory at the polls has only thrown the president’s role into question. First, the March 14-March 8 divide polarized the elections and prevented a third bloc from emerging in support of Sleiman. Second, the March 14 victory means that the international community will not have to engage with the president as an alternative to a Hizbullah-led cabinet.
Of course, the president commands the respect of the army and has increasingly turned to the United States to strengthen the state institutions that he embodies. Strangely enough, a Lebanese President lacking an autonomous Christian base has strong support from the international community and Lebanese Muslims. Negotiations over the next cabinet will determine to what extent Sleiman can use this support to bolster his domestic role, but the presidency remains relatively marginalized within the Christian community for now, and this in turn has marginalized the community in Lebanon’s system.
The Lebanese Armed Forces
The commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces is also traditionally Maronite, although decisions of war and peace do not rest with either with the commander or the president (the cabinet, collectively, must decide such matters).
The army is the most compelling example of cross-communal national unity in Lebanon. The institution draws members from all sects and regions, and Lebanon’s various political bosses – despite several moments of dissatisfaction with particular actions – have yet to openly challenge its role in Lebanon since the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005.
Within the Christian community, the army receives almost exalted treatment. As a national institution, the LAF stands as a symbol the state of Lebanon, the “final homeland for all its citizens.” On the other hand, as an institution commanded by a Christian, the LAF symbolizes the “enduring presence of Christians in Lebanon.”
In doing so, the LAF somehow manages to satisfy two traditional – and sometimes conflicting – currents of Christian political thought: the narrow Christian desire for relevance in Lebanese political life and the broader Christian ambition of a Lebanese nation-state set apart from the region.
Brigadier-General Jean Kahwaji has replaced Suleiman as LAF commander, and has moved to preserve the international relationships built by Suleiman and Defense Minister Elias Murr, while attempting to retain the military’s trust that Suleiman earned as a commander not too prone to either Western or Syrian interference.
Seeking training and material support from the West while maintaining a nationalist posture is a delicate task, but the LAF and its command staff have thus far managed to walk that line. As of yet, the LAF is a strong source of Christian unity and of Lebanese national sentiment.
Fortunately, no Christian leader appears set to consciously derail progress on this front. Unfortunately, political division continues to shackle the LAF’s ability to make progress on strategic and operational fronts. Lacking a comprehensive defense policy or any sort of political cohesion regarding threats to the state, Lebanese military commanders have refrained from developing a strategic vision or tactical implementation.
The Christian rift in Lebanon has, on the one hand, weakened decision-making in the cabinet and, on the other hand, lent cross-communal support for Hizbullah. The consequences of this domestic division will continue to hold back the LAF, irrespective of international efforts to support the army’s capabilities.
The Maronite Church is a Uniate Church, which means that the it is Catholic with regard to dogma and follows the Vatican, but retains an Eastern Syriac (Aramaic) liturgy and some institutional autonomy. The Maronite Patriarch is actually elected by a Conclave of Maronite Bishops and is “recognized” – rather than “appointed” – by the Pope.
The Church has played an important role in the history of Mount Lebanon and, since 1920, the successor Grand Liban and Republic of Lebanon. The Church was active in establishing an autonomous Lebanese state; nurturing “Lebanism” (Lebanese nationalism, rather than pan-Syrianism or Arabism) since the mid-19th century, and in expressing Lebanese Christian concerns in the absence of effective political leadership.
During the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, with Free Patriotic Movement leader General Michel Aoun in exile and Lebanese Forces chief Samir Geagea imprisoned, Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Butros Sfeir led domestic opposition to Syria’s post-war occupation of Lebanon. Other Lebanese figures and factions – particularly Hizbullah – have criticized the Patriarch for not adopting a more hostile stance towards Israel’s of South Lebanon, which ended in 2000.
Nevertheless, the Patriarch commands the respect of broad swathes of Lebanese society, and stands as a symbol of the Christian conscience. After the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri triggered mass demonstrations calling for Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon, the Patriarch’s stances have seemed congruent with the March 14 coalition.
Most recently, Sfeir has come under fire from Nasrallah and Aoun for issuing an election-eve statement cautioning the Lebanese against “mistakes” that would likely ensue in the event of a Hizbullah victory, which would threaten “Lebanon’s existence and its Arab identity.”
Anyone – a patriarch, priest, or pundit – who makes a political statement should be ready to accept the reactions and criticisms of others. Furthermore, the Patriarch must be careful not to further alienate Aoun and Marada Movement leader Suleiman Franjieh, as they will be necessary to any intra-Christian reconciliation.
That being said, few religious clerics in Lebanon are subject to the same criticism from within or without their communities. For example, Ayatollah Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah does not draw the same ire for his relatively moderate stances regarding politics, society in Lebanon, or the role and rights of women.
More relevantly, Sayyed Nasrallah himself seems to be above criticism. For example, two years ago, Hizbullah supporters took to the streets to voice their rage at a satire show’s depiction of Nasrallah. The Sayyed then announced to the rest of the Lebanese that, in Lebanon’s pluralistic framework, people must be aware that “certain communities and cultures do not accept what others view as permissible.”
A religious cleric who heads an Islamist party may thus use his cloak to place himself above questioning, while a Catholic cardinal and Patriarch must answer to others for his political commentary. This is not to say that the Patriarch should be immune from criticism (all individuals should bear the consequences of their speech and actions), but only to highlight the double standard that applies to Hizbullah.
Nevertheless, the fault here is not Hizbullah’s. Other communities have shielded their religious leaders from mudslinging, but Christian politicians more readily criticize and even attack their own. In some regards, this is healthy: members of the Christian community can and often readily disagree with political leaders, spiritual guides, and each other. In the communal game, however, pluralism often leads to counterproductive fragmentation. A proper balance between criticism and respect is simply lacking in the Christian community.
Thorn Among Roses
In 1510, Pope Leo X addressed a papal bull to the Maronite Patriarch, Peter of Hadath, and described the Maronites as a “rose among thorns.” Divided amongst themselves despite common trials and tribulations, Christians continue to leverage and undermine the presidency and patriarchate whilst bemoaning the “communal immunity” of their Lebanese counterparts. Alas, the Christians of Lebanon seem determined to become thorns among roses.
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