Lebanon: seeking an escape from eternal confrontation

If history offers a lesson it is that no one group in Lebanon can eliminate or subdue the other. The challenge is devising a working solution that benefits, and is accepted by, all major Lebanese communal components.

Justin Salhani
27 September 2012

High above sea-level, on a cliff over-looking the Christian heartland of Jounieh stands a massive statue of the Virgin Mary. Arms open to embrace them, Mary watches over the mainly Maronite Catholic community, instilling in them a sense of warmth and security. 

In years past, the Maronites were the most influential and largest numerical community in Lebanon but mass migration, the growth in Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities and various internal conflicts has left them with dwindling numbers and waning political influence.

Paired with the insecurity of losing influence is the fear of regional Islamic movements that many Maronites worry threaten their identity. Maronites fear discrimination and persecution ahead; worries shared by other small Christian communities in the Middle East, such as Copts in Egypt and Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq.

Haytham Chaer is the President of Bnay Qyomo, an NGO that is working to revive the Syriac language in the Lebanese Maronite community. Chaer believes that teaching Syriac and reviving the "language of Christ" will help to strengthen the Maronite identity.

Explaining the connection between Syriac and the Maronites, Mr. Chaer notes that after the days of Jesus Christ, Christians often spoke Aramaic but prayed in Syriac.

Though for Mr. Chaer and Bnay Qyomo (which translates to 'Sons of the Resurrection'), the connection between Syriac and Maronites goes deeper than just language:

"You can see different faces, people, cultures and identities in Lebanon," said Chaer. For him and his NGO, the preserving of the Maronite identity is the number one issue and he is convinced that he has the solution both for preserving identity and maintaining civil peace. "Lebanon has to be a federal country or we're just going to live in war until the end of time," he said, adding that a federal Lebanon will allow each community to maintain their rights and religious freedoms. Mr. Chaer and Bnay Qyomo want to maintain the Lebanese state with a united army, currency and foreign policy to this end: "We believe in Lebanon and in one country but we are different," said Chaer, adding that Muslims and Christians need to live together in Lebanon.

However, the Maronite church does not support Bnay Qyomo’s mission precisely becuase of their discomfort with the connotations of federalism. Federalism is not a new concept to Lebanon. During certain periods of Lebanon's 15 year civil war, religiously segregated militias divided up the country often performing local services like trash pickup and road maintenance. The idea of federalism is often paired with memories from this tumultuous period and the assumption that Lebanon will be broken up into miniature states based on religious sect. Political analysts I contacted expressed similar reservations and discomfort at the idea of federalism in Lebanon, but were unable to offer much evidence to support their feelings.

"We need to break with some of the stereotypes which have lingered on from the years of the war," said Jean Pierre Katrib a university lecturer at various Beirut based universities and a strong supporter of Lebanese federalism. "People mistakenly believe that federalism means partition. But in legal terms there is a huge difference."

Dr. Sami Nader is a professor of Economics at Universite Saint Joseph in Beirut who has been working for the last couple years on the financial aspects of federalism in Iraq. Dr. Nader believes for a federal system to work the Lebanese government needs to practice fiscal decentralization.  Currently, for example, Beirut manages to lay on only 21 hours of state-provided electricity a day, while areas outside Beirut experience as little as three hours. According to Dr. Nader, giving increased responsibility to municipal governments, allowing them to levy and spend their own tax money would make it easier to provide basic services like electricity.
Addressing issues like corruption and political bickering, Katrib said, "This will increase responsive governance, enabling people to hold officials accountable." Mr. Katrib added that the tricky issue of foreign policy would be handled by maintaining neutrality on regional issues that have plagued Lebanon's past and present.

For Mr. Katrib, federalism is more important than simply providing services or preserving an identity. It is the best way to salvation and peace:

"Every 10-15 years, Lebanon has undergone periods of instability that have led to paralysis and in turn to bloody confrontations between Lebanese people," said Katrib, explaining that each time it took foreign-sponsored peace accords to change the government makeup in order to resolve the confrontation.

"If history offers us any lesson at all", he concludes,"it is that no one group in Lebanon can eliminate or subdue the other. This aspiration can only be a recipe for eternal confrontation...  so we have to devise a working solution that benefits, and is accepted by, all major Lebanese communal components."

Mr. Katrib is optimistic that Lebanon will secure a federal government in the future, though he believes it will only be achieved after constitutional revisions. 

"Trust me we are getting there," Katrib said, though what came next was not as reassuring. " But it will take more blood being spilled before we will revisit the constitution."

Implementing a federal system may one day lead to a stable and united Lebanon. Until then, the Maronites will raise their vision to the cliff where the Virgin Mary watches over them with her arms open to embrace them.


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