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?

The Quota for Women is a Very Lebanese Idea

The Lebanese cabinet was busy discussing reforms to the electoral law yesterday. For this we should credit the heroic efforts of the civil campaign for electoral reforms which has been diligently pushing this important issue. The discussions will resume later and the next item on their list will be the “quota for women”, i.e. the idea that a minimum percentage of Lebanese MPs should be comprised of women. I like this idea; I’m glad that it is picking up in the Arab world and I hope it makes it in Lebanon.

The principle of a quota for women has its supporters and its opponents, and not all the opponents are close-minded bigots. Continue…

Don't Demonize Proportional Representation

Attacking a good idea for political expediency..

Hariri may 6

There’s a new talking point in Beirut: An electoral law based on proportional representation is evil because it reinstates Damascus’ influence by increasing the power of its allies in Lebanon.

I understand when people like MP Walid Jumblatt peddle such rubbish. After all, he stands to significantly lose influence if such a law was to be enacted. But MP Hariri’s reiteration of this argument yesterday is very worrying to me. Continue…

The Notorious Abu Ismail

– Spoof ad campaign for Hazem Salah Abou Ismail, an Islamist candidate for the Egyptian presidency –

Candidates for elections do crazy stuff, and most of them enjoy some kinds of publicity stunts. But some candidates are so relentless, so ubiquitous, so larger than life that their campaigns eventually take lives of their own on the web. (Remember Pierre Hashash?)

A case in point is Hazem Salah Abou-Ismail, a candidate for the presidential elections in Egypt, whose epic poster campaign reverberated widely on the web and spawned many spoofs (like the ad above) and even a dedicated spoof blog. Keep your eye on this one, as this could prove to be an important reminder that web notoriety does not necessarily translate into votes.

How to Improve Lebanese Elections

Complex ideas like proportional representation and electoral reform, despite being so important, are difficult to explain to the general public. I’ve tried once with a pizza and sushi metaphor, but even that was confusing to many.

To the rescue comes the Lebanese Civil Campaign for Electoral Reform (CCER). They have just put together a video that is both useful and fun, which explains how to make Lebanese elections more fair and representative. I highly suggest that you check it out and spread the word about it.

Can Lebanon Ever Have an Independent Electoral Commission ?

President Sleiman had a good idea today: We need to establish an independent body to monitor the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections in 2013, because:

An electoral system that ensures a healthy representation for all the components of the society reflects the will of the Lebanese to live together

A wonderful sentiment. Independent electoral commissions are vital for democracies everywhere. But the question is: Can it be done in Lebanon? Can you create an institution tasked with monitoring a process that will choose Lebanon’s most powerful people, then fill this institution with “independent” field workers, officials and mandarins? Do we have such people in Lebanon?

This is a surprisingly difficult undertaking in Lebanon. The first problem will be choosing the sect of the head of such a commission. Once an agreement on that is found (a big assumption), we will need to find someone who is at an equal distance from all sides, who somehow manages to win everyone’s trust and who is respectable enough to inspire confidence in the Lebanese people. He/she should also be honest enough to withstand the great barrage of bribes that will come his/her way from competing regional interests. If you think replacing Ziad Baroud as the Minister of Interior took time, wait till you see this.

That person will then be tasked with creating a brand new bureaucracy with offices and people all over Lebanon. These people will also have to be trustworthy and independent of all religious and political affiliations, and yet they should have a complete familiarity with Lebanese politics. They will have to have no association with governmental organization and — if we’re paranoid enough– no association with foreign or foreign-funded NGOs.

Oh and all of this should be done in less than one year. Good luck Mr. President.

Who Are These People?

Steven Cook on liberal Egypt’s shock at the success of Salafists:

given the world in which many Egyptian liberals exist, they can’t seem to fathom where the Salafis come from so they complain about Saudi money and the manipulations of Habeeb al Adly’s Interior Ministry in the late Mubarak era, but I have news for them, they come from Egypt. It’s the same dynamic as when New Yorkers, for example, woke up on November 3, 2004 to learn that George W. Bush had been re-elected. Like everyone on the 6 train that morning who was feeling alienated from the rest of the United States, the denizens of La Bodega and the Marriott garden are collectively asking, “Who are these people?”

My own such moment of waking up to the other’s existence was on March 8 2005, when Hezbollah rallied hundreds of thousands of its supporters to thank Syria. I remember thinking precisely: “Who are these people?”

Back to Egypt. I think one of the best things that came out of the Egyptian elections is the surfacing of the Salafists from their underground. The choice was not between Salafists or no Salafists. It was between Salafists who are working in public and Salafists that are in public view and that are subject to the scrutiny of the rest of Egyptians.