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Lebanon beyond sectarianism

By Chris Phillips. Source: The Guardian Comment is Free

As the battle lines are drawn for the Lebanese elections in June, reports suggest the surprising kingmakers could be Lebanon's Armenians. This small community of barely 150,000 look set to abandon its traditional neutrality and back the Hezbollah-led opposition. While this appears to be yet another example of the complex interconfessional horse trading that has characterised Lebanese politics for years, it could be a sign that the state is finally taking slow steps away from its long-standing sectarianism.

Although the Taif accord of 1989, which ended the Lebanese civil war, stated that "abolishing political sectarianism is a fundamental national objective", a confessional electoral system remains in place. Parliamentary seats are assigned by religious group and parties are defined by sect rather than political agenda. In the years of Syrian domination after the war (1991-2005), Damascus saw the benefit of reviving this system which allowed them to divide and rule. Even after the Syrian withdrawal, it stayed enshrined in the constitution. The recent decision to enact Taif's other demand of removing religion from ID cards two decades later than expected cannot disguise the slow progress that has been made.

Ostensibly, the cedar revolution of 2005, which expelled the Syrians and created the current political landscape, also divided along religious lines. The Sunni, Druze and Christian communities supported the anti-Syrian 14 March coalition, while the pro-Syrian 8 March group was largely Shia. Yet recent developments have challenged these alignments. Firstly, the memorandum of understanding in early 2006 saw the Christian Free Patriotic Movement form an unlikely alliance with Hezbollah. With the FPM claiming they had won 70% of Christian support in the 2005 elections, this ensured that 8 March could no longer be seen as a purely Shia bloc. Now, the decision of Armenians, such as the Tashnag party, to join them in the coming elections is further bolstering 8 March's non-sectarian credentials, producing an opposition that is seemingly united by its politics rather than confession.

A key reason for this drift into non-religious blocs is the question over Syrian influence after their withdrawal in 2005, which presents Lebanese voters with a political rather than a sectarian issue around which to align. While the Maronite Christian and now Armenian communities appear more equally split between the two camps than other groups, there are also minority Shia parties in the government and Sunni and Druze representatives in the opposition. Moreover, issues unrelated to Syria are emerging to define the camps' agendas; 8 March presents itself as anti-corruption, while 14 March claims to be the defender of economic stability. Could these political platforms eventually come to outstrip creed in setting the civic agenda?

Sectarianism won't be washed away in one election though, and powerful forces support its continuation. Christian, Druze and Sunni political dynasties that have created parties to continue a regional dominance of their tribe and sect stretching back generations do not want to alter a system that has historically given them power. Similarly, external actors promote divisions. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt have tried to whip up hostility in recent years by presenting Hezbollah as part of a wider Iranian-led Shia threat to Sunnis in the region, while Iran and Syria have made little effort to dispel such accusations.

Despite pursuing a non-sectarian agenda, even the opposition can be seen as endorsing the status quo. Many see the FPM's alliance with Hezbollah as merely an expedient way for its leader, Michael Aoun, to find political space as the only major Christian figure in the opposition, rather than carving out a permanent political alliance. His importance to 8 March is that he brings parliamentary seats that can only be allocated to Christians. In a non-religious electoral system, he would have no role to play. Similarly, the Tashnag party's conversion could be viewed as an assessment that Armenian interests would best be served under 8 March, rather than a genuine belief in abandoning a structure that guarantees this minority's political representation.

Lebanon's confessional constitution damages its democratic credibility and leaves the door open for a return to religious violence in the future. Only last year sectarian militias took to the streets of Beirut and Tripoli , showing that conflict isn't far from the surface. This is exacerbated by outside powers exaggerating the Sunni-Shia divide to pursue their own regional goals. Twenty years on from the civil war, political power remains in the hands of the same elites and ruling families, with a few new additions, who oversaw the outbreak of hostilities in the first place. Hopes that the younger generation who dominated the cedar revolution might produce new leaders to break this oligarchy soon dwindled as the cause was hijacked by the traditional parties and their political heirs.

Yet even if their motives are more cynical, the emergence of two political rather than religious blocs in Lebanon should still be encouraged. It might be unlikely that these fragile coalitions will be able to wean Lebanon off confessionalism in the current regional climate. However, the more they evolve policy agendas that transcend traditional divisions, the more likely the Taif goal of "abolishing political sectarianism" will prove possible when, and if, regional circumstances allow.