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Federalism is Impossible With Its Opposite

Federalism is Impossible With Its Opposite

Thursday, 6 May, 2021 - 11:00

Between Lebanon’s establishment and the 1980s, the contention between Christians and Muslims over the country’s political framework had two extremes: hinting at division and federalism by the former and demands for Arab unity or unity with Syria by the latter. However, both have reservations about Lebanon that must be dealt with peacefully, through a delicate balancing act, mastery of the art of lying, a blend of modern and clannish political practices, and constant efforts to reduce both sides’ willingness to resort to violence.

The pact for independence from France stipulated that the Christians are to abandon their dream of remaining under French protection in exchange for Muslims’ abandonment of their aspirations for Arab or Syrian unity. George Nackash was right when he commented that “two negations don’t make a nation,” as the Christians’ discourse of division and seeking Western protection was faced with Muslims’ threats of unity, whether with Nasser’s United Arab Republic or Baathist Syria.

Secessionist rhetoric (even when it is framed as a desire for openness to the Western or Arab worlds) gains momentum with every crisis that hits Lebanon’s governance framework. Unsurprisingly, this rhetoric peaked during the civil war, broadly regressing after the signing of the Taif Agreement, which simultaneously asserted Lebanon’s Arabness and stressed the Lebanese entity’s finality. The Pax Syriana (1990- 2005) implemented a distorted version of this concept, clamping down on Christians and, to a lesser extent, the other sects, and subordinating everyone to the interests of the leadership in Damascus, which wouldn’t allow anyone to take part in determining or defining those interests.

As is customary, the ongoing economic and political crisis has propelled a reexamination of the country’s governing framework. Almost every day, at the forefront of the debate in media outlets, are interviews and articles advocating federalism written primarily by Christian lawyers and academics who believe that Lebanon remaining a centralized state after the dismal failure of the experience since independence, with all of its wars and conflicts and the state we find ourselves in today, is untenable. They believe these failures make it unequivocally clear that it is impossible for Lebanon’s communities to coexist within a traditional centralized political system. Though expanded administrative decentralization is one of the stipulations the Taif Agreement emphasizes, it seems that the fact that this point is found in an agreement considered dead and gone does not suffice to compel a reconsideration of calls for federalism.

Those who support federalism are still exercising their right to explain, frame, and advocate the idea despite the compelling arguments that have been presented in opposition to it. Firstly, federations usually leave intact three components of unitary power, money, foreign policy and defense, while these headings are at the heart of the issues that the Lebanese are divided on. Secondly, Lebanon’s sectarian communities have internal contradictions sufficient for triggering mini civil wars if they are not settled. The Lebanese civil war was not only a fight between Lebanese and non-Lebanese or between different sects, but also a series of wars between factions of the same sect (the fierce battle between Aoun and Geagea known as the ‘Abolition War’, the battles between Amal and “Hezbollah”, the Islamic Unification Movement’s battles for control of Tripoli...). Finally, federalist calls have provided an abundance of assessments of each community’s capacity for managing its own affairs, while they have neglected to examine the unequally developed federal state’s viability amid the storms of civil and foreign loyalties.

Despite their importance, these counter-arguments neglect that a reexamination of the Lebanese entity should be met with an alternative discourse, whether Arab nationalist, Islamist or proletarian. The fact is that the situation in the Arab world has denied those with an alternative proposal the opportunity to build an alternative discourse. It is impossible to discuss Arab unity today, while the Arab and Islamic worlds are divided, and terrorist groups carry the banner of political Islam. No internationalist model deserves the name, let alone to be considered sufficiently compelling to pave the way for secularists and leftists to present it as a solution to the Lebanese quandary.

In contrast to the prevalent Lebanese way of thinking- that is, conjuring up communities, most of which are imaginary, and subsequently imposing them on the ground- the federalist argument, to progress and make political ground through dialogue with the non-Christian sects and forces (Muslim or secular and leftist), needs, paradoxically, an opposite discourse. This is precisely what happened in the case of the historical pact of 1943, which sprung from the contradiction of the calls for Western protection and Arab unity.

The annihilation of the Arab unity project, the failure of political Islam, and the secular parties’ meager influence all leave federalist proposals alone in the theoretical debate. However, alone, it cannot attain a victory or achieve its goal. For this reason, its impossibility demands an opposite, similarly impossible, demand, like Arab unity, an Islamic caliphate, or a people’s republic so that a compromise can be reached somewhere for something in the middle.

Accordingly, the Christians’ circumvention of the Lebanese state’s failure to realize the Christians’ perception of themselves will not end soon. It is perhaps one of the misfortunes of the Lebanese that their fates are intertwined, leaving them Lebanese suffocate each other with their mutual misery, which contrasts sharply with their incredibly fantastical ideas.

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