Sectarianism as a Means to Liberal Ends

One of the more interesting ways of thinking about Lebanese politics in the last few years was the idea that Lebanese Sectarianism, although morally bankrupt, paradoxically leads to good things like freedom, pluralism and progess. In March 2011, Michael Young wrote:

The [Lebanese] sectarian order is deeply debilitating, but it also offers the only mechanism Lebanon has to enforce equilibrium, therefore preserving political and social pluralism

I always found that idea intriguing, and the pragmatic in me agreed with its logic. Since we don’t have one single dominant player (insert objection about Hezbollah here), power is divided, tyranny is averted and the struggle for power creates an environment that benefits everyone. That’s the theory anyway.

It never made sense to my mind that an elitist “revolution” can somehow topple our deeply engrained sectarian system. The trail of well-intentioned failures from the March 11 movement to the laïque pride to the revolution against sectarianism bears testimony to that. Nevertheless, my better self always struggled with the idea that something right can come out of something so wrong. Now, I have to go through that internal struggle again.

The appeal of the Orthodox Gathering election law

In the last few days, I learned many new synonyms for the words vomit and nausea. It’s because my friends on facebook kept posting this OTV video that promoted an election law which effectively allows the Lebanese only vote for people of their sects. “Regressive”, “disgusting”, “Neanderthal”, “reactionary”, “appalling” are some of the many words thrown around by my liberal and politically correct friends on facebook. Even hackers found it necessary to hack into a Lebanese TV station’s website to show their distaste for the law.

But once again, a shiny silver lining has caught the attention of some liberal observers. Seeing opportunity in a law that is widely abhorred among your peers is a delicate task; the law is so despised and so lacking in dignity that writers need to heavily qualify their arguments with long introductions about how bad the law is (check ✓).

So what good can possibly come out of the law? Sit down, have an open mind, and go read the two pieces by Karl and Elias about why the law could turn out to be good for Lebanese liberals. In short, the law can potentially shake things up in the country, create a backlash, tamper religious insecurity and reduce the influence of regional sectarian leaders and even lower the barrier for secular independents to join parliament. In other words, the law is so bad it’s actually good.

I will add a little titillating thought to the mix: If the Orthodox election law is in effect and the existential fears of christians was reduced, what excuse will people use to prevent Lebanese women from granting their children the lebanese nationality, to treat Palestinian refugees with dignity or for that matter to have a decent demographic census in the country to properly allocate development funds?

Machiavellian cynicism or pragmatic realism?

The question is: Should we lose respect for the liberals who decide to endorse this law for the aforementioned reason? Should we admire the fact that they’re finally thinking tactically? Or would we rather they languished in high-minded hell than endorse such a morally questionable law?

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  • gkaram

    It is a rotten proposal pure and simple. Nothing, absolutely nothing in that proposal has any virtue whatsoever.

  • rubber ducky

    i strongly disagree with you. isn’t it enough to oppose it that Michel Aoun ( and Al-Akhbar ( have endorsed it? What good can come out of things endorsed by those two?
    furthermore, the law is experimental. there is no telling what it could produce or not. since it is an experimental law, the best way to try it is a pilot program in one region, and not experiment on an entire country for a whole parliament session. if so, then that session must promise to pass a secular law for the next round, as a necessary condition for the orthodox law. otherwise, there wouldn’t be any point in trying it. yes good things may – and may not probably – come out of it, but if it is pledged in writing that a parliament produced by it MUST abolish sectartianism within a set time frame then that is the only way to ENSURE that something good will come out of it.

    otherwise, do not endorse this medieval law.

    • Mustapha

      Oh, “Medieval”. How did I forget that one?

      • Rubber ducky

        Is that really all you can say? What about the points I made or the suggestion about a pilot?

  • mfaezt

    The question here isn’t whether this law is good or not, because it’s always good for some and bad for others, it’s the mere fact they’re playing us, while the country was facing the most catastrophic storm and weather, they were meeting to discuss other matters related to this law when drastic measures had to be taken. As far as I’m concerned the same people are getting elected, thus the situation isn’t going to change.

  • Observer

    What I don’t get are the 50 districts.

    How many of the candidates that will be on lists actually “live” in the districts they get elected through?

    If they want each sect to elect their own, what are districts needed for?

    • Shiwa7ad

      the 50 district law is a rival to the omg law, it is not part of it.

  • Shiwa7ad

    Hello Mustapha,
    I agree with gkaram that the omg law is an abomination with no redeeming features. The worst aspect in it is not that it encourages sectarianism; Rather it is the fact that it is so absurd that it will undermine the legitimacy of the MPs elected according to this law. In case of any major crisis, Hezbollah will be able to claim the parliament has a very limited legitimacy, and in the view of the rest of the world they will have a point, since the law will create a huge imbalance in the number of people electing a given MP, and many MPs will have no idea of the issues facing their electorate (Nadim Gemayel representing people of rmeish, really ?) This might make Hezbollah the only side in Lebanon with undisputed legitimacy, especially in the case of a major crisis.
    Less controversially, In your post, “bare” should be “bear”.

    • Mustapha

      Great points Shiwa7ad, thanks for the typo tip.. fixed it..

      • rubber ducky

        typo. i see what you did there 😛

  • George

    The future of Lebanon rests with the Christians. Whether you want to believe that or not, it’s true. To think that a Lebanon would exist today without Christians having influence in the political sphere is a bit naive. I may sound sectarian, but whatever, I won’t apologize for that. At least with proper Christian representation, you may get a situation where more openness can be pushed through legislation. The balance is already shifting away from true Christian representation. As long as that is the case, you will have Iran and Saudi influence, one can not disturb the other or we will end up like Syria (which we probably will). So like it or not, without the sectarian system, Lebanon would become another Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Iran. I prefer Lebanon just the way it is and I’d give my endorsement for more Christian power until the rest of the communities start voting outside their safe havens of Hizballah or Future. Federalism is without doubt the answer, and true federalism along sectarian voting lines is the goal.