Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)
Tuesday,19 June, 2018
Issue 1288, (24 - 30 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Is federalism coming to Lebanon?

The Kurdish declaration of an autonomous region in Syria has sent ripples through Lebanon’s own sect-based system, writes Hassan Al-Qishawi in Beirut

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Al-Ahram Weekly

The Kurds’ declaration of a federal region in northern Syria has sounded a warning bell in the Arab region and the entire Middle East. Many states have expressed their concern at the event, first and foremost Egypt, but also Iran and Turkey, and this despite their differences on Syria.

In Lebanon, many fear the impact of a Syrian federal state on the small country, which was historically part of the Syrian Levant and is strongly influenced by events next door, especially since Syria determined the fate of Lebanon for more than 30 years during and after the country’s civil war.

These fears have been brought to the forefront by the return of old demands from some Christian political forces in Lebanon for a federal state, most recently from the head of the Phalange Party, Samy Gemayel.

According to Gemayel, federalism is the only way to reduce sectarianism in Lebanon. Currently, the country’s communal leaders exploit sectarian differences for economic and political gain, but the formation of federal regions would preclude this, he said.

The reality is that while Lebanon is officially a united country, in practice the powers of sects and communal leaders far exceed the powers of the state. In Lebanon, the army or internal security forces cannot enter an area to arrest the most hardened criminal without the approval of the political leader of the area.

In the recent case of illegal Internet networks in the country, for example, several people who had been obtaining services from Israeli networks and were thought to be spying for Israel were arrested but were released because they enjoyed the protection of a major political leader.

Federalism in Lebanon is not only a matter of a weak central state but also extends to norms, customs and legal measures. While alcohol is part of everyday life in Christian areas and is permissible in Beirut, in practice, and sometimes in law, it is forbidden in public in many conservative Sunni and Shia areas of the country. Federalism is present as well in personal life in the form of the communal courts regulating matters of personal status.

In practice, Lebanon has gone beyond federalism to something like a confederation. Even in foreign policy, parties and sects have foreign allies from whom they openly receive assistance, including military aid.

The recent garbage crisis in Beirut clearly demonstrated the limited authority of the Lebanese state, which has been unable to establish landfills in areas around the country due to the refusal of political leaders to countenance them and different regional arrangements. The crisis was only resolved with the approval of these leaders.

The different Lebanese communal leaders are the uncrowned kings of their regions. Their authority is limited only by competing leaders or local arrangements, but certainly not by the state. Instead of declaring a federal state, Lebanon would do better to rationalise its existing de facto federation, some commentators have said.

A federal system is the long-held dream of some Christian political leaders, although Christian areas are socially isolated from the rest of the country. The dream became stronger after the demographic balance in the country shifted in favour of the Muslim population following independence in the 1940s, as Christians began to fear for the identity of the country that they saw themselves as having founded.

What is most troubling is that sectarian manoeuvres today have become part of Lebanese political life. Defending the sect and protecting it from injustice is the only way to attract political support and votes in a society based on sectarian parties.

Competition between Lebanon’s Christian parties is also greater than among Muslims. Each Muslim sect, Sunni, Shia or Druze, is controlled by one political force — Future Movement for the Sunnis and Walid Jumblatt for the Druze — or split between two forces by tacit agreement, like the Shia Hizbullah group and the Amal Movement for the Shia, without any real internal competitor.

In this context, the Lebanese Al-Liwa newspaper recently reported that parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri is disappointed by the support for partition and federalism shown by some members of the Change and Reform bloc headed by Michel Aoun, a Hizbullah ally, and in light of growing fears of events in neighbouring Syria sparked by the Kurdish declaration of a federal region.

The paper reported that Berri expressed his position following an argument between his representative in the government, Ali Hassan Khalil, and the head of the Free Patriotic Movement and Aoun’s son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, during a cabinet meeting.

Bassil had criticised Khalil’s role in the ministry, describing it as “political clientism”. Berri reportedly did not hide his displeasure at such talk, which is no longer limited to party meetings and salons, but has made its way into cabinet meetings, speeches, festivals and the pulpit. He also did not conceal his surprise at the shifting roles on the Christian stage in the country.

Whereas Samir Geagea, head of the Lebanese Forces Party, used to advocate the partition of Lebanon, he now calls for unity, the upholding of the Taif Accords that put an end to the country’s civil war, and coexistence.

Aoun, who once raised the banner of national unity, today leads a faction promoting partition and federalism.

Berri said that such shifts were “unexpected,” adding, according to Al-Liwa, that partition is a “red line” and that the unity of Lebanon stands above all else. “We will confront plans for partition, even if it requires armed confrontation,” Berri said. “Nothing takes precedence over Lebanon’s unity, coexistence and the unity of its people.”

Berri said that he considers Bassil’s comment about political clientism to be aimed at partition, federalism and fragmenting the unity of the state and society. He said this could threaten the collapse of the country if it is not addressed.

Most Lebanese know that despite their country’s uniqueness it is intimately linked to the rest of the Arab world and especially to Syria. While supporters of federalism may be seizing the present opportunity to make their voices heard, others fear that the danger to the country goes beyond federalism.

There are now more than a million Syrian refugees and another half a million Syrian workers in a country that has a population of just four million. Lebanon also has low growth rates due to emigration, high educational attainment and the high cost of living.

More important still has been rising Sunni anger, as many Sunnis see themselves as being oppressed in Syria and Lebanon and believe that many of the proposed resolutions to the crisis in Syria would come at their expense.

The greatest danger now may be that this anger will explode into the open some years down the line.

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