Monday, July 7, 2014

Dissecting the problem

[Originally posted at NOW]

Regional crises revive ideas of communal segregation in Lebanon.

Graffiti in Beirut reading "Yes to federalism" is altered to read "Yes to secularism" (NOW/Alex Rowell)

As the mangled remains of the 22nd car to have exploded in Lebanon since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis lay smoldering in a mixed Sunni-Shiite Beirut neighborhood last Tuesday, one young male bystander told a television reporter he only had one thing to say. “It’s either them or us. We can’t live together.”

It was a statement of an exasperation felt by many Lebanese – an exasperation that is increasingly leading some to conclude that the country’s decades-old brand of sectarian coexistence has failed, and should be replaced with something that formalizes or to some extent reinforces segregation along communal lines. Adding momentum to these currents is the spectacle of raging Sunni-Shiite warfare elsewhere in the region, particularly in Syria and Iraq, where Islamist extremists have literally demolished the post-WWI border and declared the formation of a theocratic state. At the same time, Kurdish separatists have seized the city long coveted as the capital of their future state and insisted they won’t give it back. Surveying these “great changes and historical turns,” Lebanese Druze chieftain Walid Jumblatt wrote last Monday of the need to “preserve General Gouraud’s Lebanon before it is too late.” (Gouraud was the French High Commissioner who in 1920 decreed the creation of Lebanon within its current borders.)

While few Lebanese seriously advocate the abolition of “General Gouraud’s Lebanon,” there is rising interest in ideas ranging from decentralization to regionalism to federalism. Significantly, enthusiasm no longer comes exclusively from the Christian community – a segment of which has advocated such measures since the 1975-90 civil war – but from a minority of Muslims as well.

At the extreme end are the militant Sunni factions calling openly for an Islamist statelet in the north. On Sunday, June 22, 2014, supporters of Salafist cleric Sheikh Salem al-Rafei in Tripoli held a demonstration during which they chanted, “We want an Islamic state.” Asked by NOW about the slogan, Rafei initially denied that it was intended to be taken literally, but later said he “believed in the Muslim khilafa [caliphate] regime […] this is the ideology I follow.” While he said the concept was “not applicable” in Lebanon, due to its religious diversity, he predicted “the struggle between Sunnis and Shiites will lead to the segmentation of Lebanon, just like Iraq and Syria will be divided into provinces […] The first [part of Lebanon] would be for those who want wilayat al-faqih (Iranian state ideology nominally advocated by Hezbollah) and the second for those who want a just state that assures equality for all its citizens – Sunnis, Druze, Christians, and independent Shiites.”

Rafei’s is a view firmly rejected by mainstream Sunni political factions, who officially oppose any such “segmentation” even in its mildest forms. “Federalism is an illusion,” said MP Ahmat Fatfat of the Future Movement. “Lebanon is a small country. The only solution is the state,” he told NOW.

Yet a minority within the Sunni community disagrees. “I am definitely a supporter of federalism,” said Nabil al-Halabi, a Sunni human rights lawyer, who told NOW the same fear of domination that previously drove Christians toward the idea was now duplicating itself among Sunnis, whose vulnerability “became more apparent” after the violent takeover by Hezbollah-affiliated militiamen of predominantly Sunni neighborhoods of Beirut in 2008. “Federalism will forbid any community from governing other communities.”

Nor is Halabi alone, according to Jean-Pierre Katrib, former spokesman of the now-defunct federalism advocacy group Loubnanouna (“Our Lebanon”).

“This is no longer a function of the Christian community alone,” Katrib told NOW. “You come across people from the Shiite community who are not hostile to the notion of federalism as they once were. You come across very senior Sunni figures – for reasons of confidentiality I cannot disclose their names, but I can tell you these are high-ranking, well-known Sunni figures, enjoying wide popularity – who welcome the idea. I’m saying this because I have met with these people at their request.” [Disclosure: Katrib is an employee of Quantum Communications, a sister company of NOW’s.]

Does it work?

To be sure, federalists remain a minority nationwide, and certainly have many detractors. Among the criticisms of federalism is that it simply does not solve the system’s core problems, and may even aggravate them.

“I don’t think it could work in Lebanon,” said Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at Chatham House and former director of the Centre for Lebanese Studies at Oxford University. Shehadi points to the final years of the civil war, when the Christians in fact did control their own de facto canton in Mount Lebanon, yet partook in some of the worst violence of the entire 15 years – among themselves. “Controlling your own canton doesn’t necessarily mean homogeneity,” Shehadi told NOW. “So it doesn’t solve much.”

To this, advocates counter that federalism is less about cantonization than tackling inefficiency and promoting regional economic development.

“It’s not about separation or creating a shield for the Christians, because we don’t believe you can have Monaco in Jounieh and Kandahar in Tripoli,” said Albert Costanian, political bureau member of the Kataeb Party, who prefers the term “regionalism” to federalism. By electing regional representatives locally, rather than having them appointed by the central government, and giving those representatives fiscal and executive autonomy, Costanian told NOW that much of the chronic corruption of the central government could be avoided, while regions could pursue their own economic development programs without depending financially and administratively on Beirut.

Federalism or secularism?

Another common criticism of federalism is the argument that, by granting the premise that identity is fundamentally defined by sect, it perpetuates the same communal divisions that fuel the dysfunction and violence for which it purports to be the solution. As the slogan “Yes to federalism” has been spray-painted by graffiti activists across Beirut’s walls in recent months, it has elicited a counter-campaign by opponents, altering the text to “Yes to secularism.”

This dichotomy, according to Costanian, is a false one, akin to “comparing apples and oranges.” Indeed, he argues regionalism will “accompany the people’s march toward secularism” by abolishing sectarian quotas within regional governorates and allowing for regional legislation in favor of things like civil marriage. “Hopefully we will reach a totally secular system in a few years,” he told NOW.

By contrast, in Shehadi’s view, the two concepts cannot be married so easily. “When you have people of different identities on the same land, you have a choice between breaking down the boundaries or reinforcing them,” he told NOW. He cited the example of 19th-century cosmopolitan cities such as Smyrna, where for all the inter-communal mingling in marketplaces and public squares, each ethnic and religious group lived in segregated quarters, to which they would retreat and “lock the gates” at night.

“Of course,” says Shehadi, “in times of crisis, when people feel threatened, they become more sectarian and they want more extreme sectarian solutions.”

“But the bottom line question is, do you protect boundaries, or break them down totally?”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

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