I am preoccupied with a question beyond that of the necessity or legitimacy of abolishing political sectarianism, or of sectarianism as a political system in Lebanon. The starting point in this new line of questioning is the relationship between the sectarian system and the leaders who have emerged to become its symbols and the axis of polarization, and perhaps partisanship within it. What do we hope or fear from the abolishment of this system? Provided that the danger we want to mitigate is acute polarisation [of the population], will abolishing the sectarian system weaken the leaders that this system gave birth to, just as cutting down a tree causes its branches to dry out? Or, on the contrary, will abolishing this system reinforce fears and partisanship, which would strengthen the leaders and raise their status as polarizing symbols?
To answer these questions, I will make the case for the following two claims:
Firstly, the dominant face of the political system today is no longer the sectarian system. Rather, it is the regime of elite leaders [zu’ama] that emerged from it (i.e., the regime of prestige or charisma). The sectarian system developed in the opposite direction of what the Constitution [when it was written in 1926] and subsequently the Taif Agreement , at least verbally, aspired to; while these documents envisioned a path towards transcending the sectarian system, the leaders who symbolized it exploited their influence to transform it from a system that protects minorities, into a charismatic system that protects their influence. This they did not only by exploiting sectarian quotas, but, first and foremost, by cementing a legal system that is in principle independent of the sectarian system, and liable to persist in spite of the latter’s disappearance.
Secondly, this diagnosis changes priorities and by extension the perimeters of the discussion to some degree: the starting point for the desired reform is not necessarily the abrogation of the texts that safeguard sectarian minorities; rather, it is first and foremost the abrogation of the texts that help strengthen the influence of these leaders.
The demand to abolish political sectarianism usually takes on a sectarian course. These demands end up taking shape between sects that retain and fear losing constitutional guarantees, the most important being the distribution of parliamentary seats between their adherents, and sects that have become dejected by these guarantees. In contrast, the demand to weaken the influence of leaders and thus strengthen citizenship rights creates a state of trans-sect civic consciousness.
To this end, I will identify the signs of the leaders’ hegemony over the public sphere and the transformation of all that is public into part of the private province [of these leaders]. This I will do in a three-part series of articles. The first part, below, is dedicated to an exposition of the consolidation of the ‘stature’ system [nizam al-maqamat], the second to outlining the mechanisms used to mould the institutions to suit the leaders, and the third to examining the mechanisms used to mould public discourse to suit them.
The Stature System: the Prestige of the Leader and the Vulnerability of the Citizen
I must first point out a number of revealing instances that entrenched leadership as a paramount value in the Lebanese system. That these occurred at important turning points in Lebanon’s history underscores their constituent nature.
The first example is the amnesty law issued in the wake of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). This law pardoned all political crimes except for certain kinds. The most important exceptions were crimes committed against political and religious leaders and crimes referred to the Justice Council, the mass majority of which are crimes against political and religious leaders. In other words, it deemed pardonable all political crimes, including crimes against humanity, except for crimes against leaders. This suggested that the paramount value of the future system would not be human dignity or national unity, but the leader. The parliament speaker at the time expressed this notion clearly when he responded to the objection that the aforementioned exception violates the principle of equality before the law, by saying that this discrimination is permissible because the leaders are “national symbols”.
In fact, the principle of excluding crimes against leaders from amnesty is extremely revealing because it means that a crime against a person is in principle pardoned unless it is proven that the person has a leadership role (i.e., was an authority during the war), in which case the crime becomes unpardonable. Moreover, the fact that the law included no provision for restoring the rights of the victims suggests that the leader has inherent legitimacy irrespective of his actions, while the citizen is nothing more than an adherent. Thus, the amnesty law was not only an act of blanket self-pardoning, but also, and most importantly, an act of self-glorification that entrenched the memory of [these leaders as] heroes.
Of course, the stature system does not only involve raising the standing of leaders; it also reflects on the concept of rights. The greater number of rights that tied to the leaders, the stronger their regime becomes. Conversely, the recognition of any right in isolation of the leaders’ will is likely to help citizens disengage (and thus free themselves) from those leaders, thereby increasing the prospects of change. Hence, it is no wonder that the regime’s efforts to consecrate the stature of leaders coincide with efforts to carve the other side of the same coin, i.e., to construct vulnerability for the citizens which facilitates their subordination. The system requires that the citizens do not demand – they may only make appeals and requests. Hence, the word ‘right’ is virtually the mortal enemy of the ruler, or even an attempt to attack and marginalise him. Of course, that the state has increased the volume of social services does not contradict this; the aforementioned system does not mean depriving citizens of their needs, but merely playing on their needs in order to control them [within these systems of loyalty].
Thus, in the wake of the amnesty law and in addition to raising their own stature, the leaders have persevered in denying any right that may harm their image. In particular, they have denied the rights of persons missing and kidnapped [during the civil war] on the pretext that recognizing them will cause another war. Even worse, they have tried to exploit the tragedies of the war, which they caused, and turn them into an additional source of spoils and power. They did this by reducing the issue of displaced persons into a matter of mere financial compensation, and by confining reconciliations to reconciliations among themselves or, at best, their adherents.
In the same vein, the neoliberal tendencies of the post-war governments have helped manufacture vulnerability by curtailing social rights, especially the right to social security. Among the most recent and revealing examples is the law that established the free economic zone in Tripoli. Issued in 2006, this law went so far so as to declare contractual freedom in the area of employment, thus bidding goodbye to social justice and the law that tries to compensate for the actual inequality between employers and employees. Moreover, the aforementioned law absolved employers of their duty to register employees with the National Social Security Fund provided that the employers themselves ensure their employees’ right to benefit from an equivalent level of social services. This puts the employers in charge of the interests of those workers and creates competition between workers to gain their employer’s endearment, thus returning the political climate as a whole to an advanced form of neoliberalism. In the same vein, social security services have declined while the Ministry of Health plays an active role accepting requests from leaders to provide medical treatment to certain people. Similarly, educational services have declined due to the neglect of government schools and their transformation from instruments of education into instruments of nepotism and employment. Furthermore, appointment based on competition or tender bidding has given way to consensual contracts, which always allow nepotism and clientelism to prevail over merit.
On top of that, the system appears to have an interest in keeping the largest possible number of citizens in vulnerable and unstable legal circumstances, which facilitates their subordination, or even in maintaining their status as outlaws or pushing them in that direction. People in such circumstances do not need the law’s protection against the leaders; they need the leaders’ protection against even the law. From this angle, constructing vulnerability is synonymous with creating a cleft between people’s interests and inclinations, on the one hand, and the law, on the other. Accordingly, homosexuals remain outlaws in a country at a time when public space itself has become more open to their presence. Similarly, the tourism sector is developing and its establishments spreading in contravention of the law. Small cities, villages, and camps are even being built in their entirety upon infractions. Of course, all of this occurs without the prospect of acquired rights, and in a manner that enables people with authority to undo the situation whenever they wish, which facilitates blackmail and despotism.
The policy of constructing vulnerability does not even shy away from using citizenship as a bribe. Accordingly, Lebanon has created a new category of people: ‘naturalized persons whose citizenship is contested’. Influential persons use these people in every electoral cycle to give the upper hand to one candidate or another. The system seems to allow the preservation of this category, for it may be the one most suited to its interests. Hence, it took years for the State Council to charge the Ministry of Interior with the duty of re-examining the statuses of those whose naturalization decree was contested, and it be many more years before any of these cases are settled.
On the other hand, the system tries to block any attempt to disengage from it, even in a manner that totally conflicts with the most basic principles of humanity and natural rights. The greatest example is the system’s response to attempts by some organisations and United Nations agencies to create alternatives that allow children who are from poor families and currently living in care facilities to stay with their families, and in their natural environments, without being deprived of the right to obtain social assistance.
This article is an edited translation from Arabic.