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Exclusive - Lebanese Politicians Exploit Sectarianism to Preserve Power

Exclusive - Lebanese Politicians Exploit Sectarianism to Preserve Power

Monday, 8 October, 2018 - 08:45
People walk next to a poster of Lebanon's Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri. (Reuters)

Sectarianism controls all aspects of political life in Lebanon. It imposes itself on the scene, from the formation of the government to the appointment of employees.

Take the example of caretaker Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh, who sacked a Christian employee affiliated to the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Two FPM ministers retaliated by sacking two Druze officials from their jobs.

It is as if the politicians are seeking to legalize sectarianism and turn it into a commodity that grants its owners more privileges through introducing new norms, such as in the government formation process or the rights of sects in assuming certain ministerial portfolios.

Officials have no shame when it comes to sectarian rhetoric.

Lebanese Forces MP George Akis told Asharq Al-Awsat that politicians started to resort to such rhetoric after the 1989 Taif Accord left the Lebanese with an inconclusive political settlement.

The accord helped end the country’s 1975-90 civil war, but failed to cement the “no victor, no vanquished” formula in Lebanon, added the lawmaker.

Researcher at Information International Mohammed Shamseddine argued that sectarianism in Lebanon dates back to the 1930s.

He told Asharq Al-Awsat that “demographic concerns” imposed the sectarian reality on Lebanon.

Sectarianism has been legalized since 1936 through a decree issued by French High Commissioner Damien de Martel, who approved a sectarian system for Lebanon, he explained. His decree recognized ten Christian sects, five Islamic ones and an Israelite sect. The Christian Anglican sect was added to the system in 1950 and the Coptic one in 1996.

“This system promoted the independence of sects in terms of handling personal, education, medical and social affairs, thereby, forming states within the state,” he continued.

“The collapse and weakening of the state empowered the sects. Citizens felt greater belonging to the sect that they believed provided for their education and medical care,” Shamseddine added. The people felt more protected by their sect than their state.

Islamic studies professor at the Lebanese American University Hosn Abboud contrasted sectarian in Lebanon to other countries where the state provides for the people.

She noted Lebanese with dual nationalities obtain their rights through the second country they belong to, not Lebanon. These countries believe in free medical care and education. In return, the citizens pay taxes to the state, which provides them with services.

In Lebanon and due to the flaw in the political sectarian system, the people expect their sectarian leader to provide for them, she added.

Akis, meanwhile, remarked that the sectarian rhetoric in Lebanon had intensified in recent years because politicians are aware that tapping into the people’s sectarian sentiments was the easier way to rile them up. Adopting a tolerant approach is instead seen as a form of weakness.

The LF, he continued, resorts to sectarian rhetoric strictly to garner better Christian representation in power.

The LF represents a vast number of Christians in Lebanon. Such rhetoric is not a product of an isolationist policy, he stressed. On the contrary, the LF is open to its Arab environment and its moderate Sunni, Druze and Shiite colleagues in Lebanon.

Moreover, the lawmaker said that the LF’s alliances are not based on sectarian interests.

Akis added: “The weakness of politicians and inability to offer actual achievements to the people in regards to the establishment of a strong state, pushed them towards investing in the sectarian rhetoric.”

“Change can only come from the political class. It should come from the educated and cultured figures of all sects,” he went on to say. “This all takes time and should start from school curricula.”

Shamseddine, for his part, said that change can only take place when the majority of the Lebanese “grow hungry, but this will not happen any time soon.”

“The people will not move alone. They need someone to lead them from outside their own sect,” he explained. So far, no such figure has emerged.

A civil society movement that had risen in recent years turned out to only seek power, he lamented.

The solution to this bitter reality, said Akis, lies in the implementation of the constitution.

Its laws, he explained, limit sectarianism to parliamentary representation and the highest positions in the country.

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