Posted by: sean | November 9, 2006

Sectarian divide in Lebanese politics

I was talking to my new landlord the other day about the political situation here in Lebanon, and he surprised me by saying that the Christians here only made up 27 percent of the population. “I know, because I’m a Christian,” he told me. This number is significantly lower than numbers that I’d heard before, which ranged from 35 to 40 percent. An article in the Times today on Lebanon’s Christians, however, gives an even lower number:

Generally speaking, Sunnis insist they are equal in number to Shiites. Shiites say they are a majority and Christians say they account for more than 20 percent. At the same time, all sides have said the state’s convoluted election laws needed to be altered — but, for now, without becoming so democratic as to undermine the distribution of power.

“A census will show the Christians are a clear minority,” said Hilal Khashan, a political science professor at American University in Beirut. “Nobody wants to know they extent of their decline. Some think they don’t even make up 25 percent of the population.”

Since a census has not been done in Lebanon since the 1930s, it is impossible to know for sure, but I am shocked by, and have never once heard, the assertation that the Sunni are equal in number to the Shia.

In any and all cases, there are two serious problems in Lebanon: First, the current system does not represent the country’s makeup, and second, Lebanese politics are confessional. I’ve thought a fair amount about how to make the electoral system more representative here without reinforcing sectarian divide and/or causing a civil war. I recently came across an article in Foreign Policy by Paul Salem, the director of the Beirut office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on the future of Lebanon. In order to solve the first problem, Salem suggests a good compromise in the form of a bicameral legislature, which would allow the current parliament to exist, complete with its confessional politics and non-representative allocation of seats, with a more representative chamber without confessional quotas.

[A] bicameral legislature must be established, with a lower house free of confessional quotas, which would allow the Shiites better representation. It will not do to argue that the Shiites cannot be trusted with power because they are too close to outside actors (as the Maronites argued of the Sunnis in the past). They will reduce their dependence on foreign powers largely to the extent that they feel like they have a secure stake in the government. The horse must be put in front, and the cart will follow. And every group in Lebanon has at some point committed the sin of relying on extensive outside support: the Maronites allied with Israel and the Sunnis with the Palestine Liberation Organization, and everyone used — and was used by — the Syrians.

Now this solution would not stop politics from being sectarian; it would only make the legislative branch more representative of sectarian realities. The problem of confessional voting in Lebanon is not one that can be solved by restructuring the electoral system.

I’m not really sure how such a fundamental shift could be made in Lebanon, but until people start voting for mixed parties based on their platforms instead of single confessional parties based primarily on one’s religion, Lebanon will never be able to overcome the sectarian discord that has plagued this small Mediterranean country for so long.


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