Can Lebanon shed its confessional chains?
Written by Malek   

by Joseph A. Kechichian, Senior Writer Beirut: Lebanon is a largely paralysed society that is struggling with basic governance issues, some of which predate the 1975-1990 Civil War, though the chaos endured by citizens has intensified in the past twenty years.

Since its creation, Lebanon has had a relatively effective presidential system through a unique paradigm [a power-sharing system based along confessional lines].

Then in 1989, the Taif agreement which ended Lebanon’s bitter civil war shifted that very paradigm into the hands of the cabinet. The aim of Taif was to return Lebanon to operate under a functioning democracy. The options being toyed with range from federalism to administrative decentralisation and even the drastic option of dividing Lebanon into two to three separate countries.

Taif was largely built upon the 1943 National Pact which focused on the concept of “mutual coexistence” (Al Aysh Al Mushtarak) between Lebanon’s 18 religious sects.

Some of the new proposals seek to modernise Taif to better equip it to manage Lebanon’s current political, religious and sectarian realities which have changed over time.

Some of the new proposals include to expand Lebanon’s Arab identity, the disarmament of militias, the abolition of political sectarianism, and to increase the size of the chamber of deputies to 128 members and, perhaps the most important, to have the cabinet be held accountable by the legislature which is the case in most parliamentary democracies worldwide.

Introducing a Senate to function alongside the parliament is also being proposed in order to strengthen power sharing between Christians and Muslims. This is intended to cushion sectarian influences instead of eliminating it altogether.

While Taif’s intentions were to free parliament from sectarian quotas (64 Christian and 64 Muslim deputies divided among the 18 sects) and have the “one-person-one-vote” system, this did very little to limit sectarianism in the country. This was largely due to ingrained interests that empowered confessional institutions.

In other words, the politics of sectarianism allowed those who enjoyed certain monopolies to benefit from existing arrangements that, naturally, rejected the notion of “one-person-one-vote” and intended to keep the prevailing confessional mechanisms in place.

Under the Senate proposal, clearly enunciated in the Ta’if Accords, the idea is to regroup different religious representations that would reduce confessionalism in the political system without jeopardising minority rights.

Taif doesn’t specify who would or could serve in the Senate, whether members would be elected or appointed, what kind of jurisdiction the body ought to have and, perhaps critically, what would be its relationship be with the other branches.

Although one would assume that the country’s same elites would fill its ranks, which effectively meant that the body was stillborn and why, perhaps, it never materialised.

The idea of a Senate in Lebanon did not originate with Taif — as a Senate existed under French Mandate but was abolished on October 17, 1927 — even if the notion gained momentum in 1989 to grant the Druze community a leadership post.

Since the presidency was entrusted with Maronite Catholics, the premiership to Sunnis, and the parliamentary speakership to Shiites, it is assumed the leadership of the senate would be given to the Druze.

While the goal of a putative Senate would be to reduce legislative gridlock caused by confessional agendas, it is unclear whether Lebanon’s elites are ready to accept this.

Except for a small minority, many Lebanese benefit from the very confessional system that has caused political stagnation.

Lebanese elites across confessional lines often work together to maintain their positions even if it is at the expense of the national interest.

A Senate therefore could not guarantee that power and decision making could be wrested from the hands of the elite.

Twenty-seven years later, Taif has not achieved its aim, which has prompted many in the country to propose to redraw Lebanon’s entire political structure