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A country needs great leaders to achieve great things. Václav Havel, the Czech writer and former dissident who became a statesman when he served as the President of Czechoslovakia (1989-1992), and who painstakingly presided over that country’s partition into two republics, was such an individual. Not only did Havel play a key role in the Velvet Revolution that dethroned communism in his native land, but he also helped in the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact, somewhat peacefully. Above all else, he ensured that partition into the Czech and Slovak republics occurred without bloodshed, which earned him various accolades—but not the Nobel Peace Prize.
Havel the intellectual will likely go down in history as much more than a peacenik, and he will long be remembered for his grandeur. Such persons are rare even if there are urgently needed in several countries, including Lebanon, where renewed violence is no longer a mere discussion subject
Nearly three months after the 4 August 2020 Beirut harbour explosions that destroyed parts of the capital, Lebanese officials have yet to come to terms with what occurred, unable to benefit from global sympathy and French political investments to salvage what can be in the middle of a double whammy: a colossal economic crisis as well as serious health consequences associated with the spread of the Coronavirus. Warnings of a new civil war, including one issued by President Emmanuel Macron of France, are now common, though local politicians remain absent-minded, hiding in their make-believe cocoons and waiting for providence to restore the country to its alleged glory days.
A year after the 17 October 2019 uprisings, President Michel Aoun and his Free Patriotic Movement still hold the view that they can manage whatever challenges exist or will emerge next, while the Shi‘a duopoly, Hizballah and the Amal Movement, tend to dismiss economic as well as socio-political fears because they can impose law and order. In fact, Aoun and Hizballah leaders experimented with the Hassan Diab government that resigned after the harbour explosions, and both tried to impose a duplicate set-up with the proposed Mustafa Adib government that, mercifully, was stillborn. Against this failed record, former Prime Minister Saad Hariri is trying to return to power, ostensibly with French backing. Hariri and his Future Movement confidently project the preservation of the current political system, as amended in the 1989 Ta’if Accords that ended the 1975-1990 civil war, though how he will address the 17 October challenges remains murky.
Others are more cautious, not only because the last conflict culled an entire generation but also because they no longer trust the consociational system in place. Instead of retaining a mechanism that divided power along ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines—all in a relatively stable balance of power that maintained internal stability among the country’s Christian and Muslim elites—parties like the Phalange or even the Lebanese Forces are vetting federalism, while the Maronite Patriarch Mar Bisharah Butros al-Ra’i has called for neutrality. A wary population is confronted with existential questions, ranging the gamut from preserving prevailing norms to partition, as serious demographic changes and, far more important, sharp disagreements over identity divide the Lebanese. Some perceive citizenship as “an inclusive, cross-cutting conception of national belonging,” while others insist on sectarian preferences.
Therefore, it is fair to ask how liberty can survive when leading components disagree on Lebanon’s very identity. Can elites muster the courage to embark on a fresh national pact that will ensure unity and guarantee freedoms for all? Will a reinvented pact acknowledge sharp differences or will a federated entity or even partitioned nations survive? Although partition would indeed be an ideal option, even if few can imagine the actual mechanisms that might trigger such an outcome, getting there is neither easy nor fast. For starters, articulating such options will require great leaders (although the country harbours weighty thinkers) that, regrettably, Lebanon does not have.
Equally important, and as often conveyed by anti-partition advocates, separation is likely to be messy, perhaps even violent. Of course, the primary assumption for a successful partition would rest on its peaceful nature, precisely to avoid a renewal of the dormant and largely inconclusive civil war that killed nearly 150,000 between 1975 and 1990 and literally destroyed the spirit of coexistence. Whatever the Lebanese decide to do next must, consequently, avoid a new calamity. To be sure, the onus is on proponents to devise a peaceful trigger mechanism to accomplish a relatively pacific partition, perhaps along with the Czechoslovak model, though tragic precedents in Yugoslavia, India and Sudan frighten most.
One of the non-violent mechanisms that could set in motion either federation or partition is a constitutional convention that will assemble the political establishment, even if its putative members—the country’s elites—routinely demonstrate intrinsic inabilities to accomplish much. The president of France derided them during his 27 September press conference devoted to Lebanon, and while he stated he was ashamed of them, Macron nevertheless recognized that he had to deal with the political class that ruled Beirut, which highlighted existing dilemmas. Notwithstanding their documented political and financial corruption, Lebanon was burdened with the presence of wily leaders whose chief preoccupations are to preserve their positions, precisely to benefit from the system.
Remarkably, a constitutional convention might just be the mechanism to relieve tension because all components are sure to prevail, some relying on their raw power (Hizballah), contemplated merits of the cause (Phalange), the alleged ability for reconciliation (Future), pure insistence on demographic parity (Progressive Socialist Party), and plausible devotion to norms that will preserve rights and privileges (Lebanese Forces). Everyone stands to gain through a credible constitutional convention must also include civil society leaders whose voices can no longer be suppressed.
To be sure, this is easier said than done, and once the hurdle to convene a constitutional convention is crossed, Lebanon’s elites will have little choice but to identify and select experts to embark on numerous theoretical and practical questions precisely to avoid catastrophes and lead to an effective new pact or outright partition. Such a convention will take time and cannot be rushed, and might optimistically necessitate the better part of a year or two of intense negotiations among Lebanese thinkers, philosophers, writers, political scientists, geographers, historians, economists, sociologists, retired military officers and, above all, legal experts, all of whom will need to evaluate various options. For discussions to be effective, these individuals will need to come to terms with the shortcomings within the existing constitution (as amended in the Ta’if agreement), assess intrinsic weaknesses in the 1943 National Pact—a verbal compromise between Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims—that pledged all parties to adopt neutrality, and identify the key points over which fundamental disputes linger.
For example, conventioneers will need to settle why “mutual coexistence” (aysh al-mushtarak) is now a mere slogan and why it moved into the unsuccessful column. Likewise, they will have to discuss the country’s identities and why there were several instead of a single unifying item. With a little luck, conventioneers will also determine why Lebanon has been the battleground for regional conflicts and, as a corollary, why elites failed to build consensus on foreign policy matters. Some participants might even have the courage to delve into the causes of the two civil wars, those of 1958 and 1975, which will help avoid repeating past mistakes in the nascent republics. Whether discussants will dig on super-sensitive questions that deal with the Palestinian Question and how both Israel and Syria fought proxy wars in Lebanon remains to be determined, but it is nearly impossible to avoid such topics if the convention is to be crowned with relative success.
Naturally, the biggest hurdle for the constitutional convention will hover around delicate geographic separations, given that Lebanon is an ethnic maze. Sceptics will raise legitimate concerns over how the federal or partitioned districts would be identified or divided. What will be the borders of the new states that will emerge from such a division? Would these be purely along geographical lines, South and Biqa‘ Valley vs. Beirut, Mount Lebanon, Tripoli/North, or sectarian lines, when the current ethnic labyrinth probably prevented such a clear-cut separation? Logic dictates that the south and the Biqa‘ Valley will become a single entity, with its Mount Lebanon neighbour. Is this doable, and, in the affirmative, will it be acceptable to conventioneers? If not, will Lebanon experience the Yugoslav or even the Indian models that, regrettably, will not be peaceful?
Equally important, how would the newly demarcated states coexist, and will the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as well as the Internal Security Forces (ISF) be divided along sectarian lines? This last point is super complicated as Christian and Shi‘a officers lead the LAF, whereas the bulk of its rank-and-file is made-up of Sunni recruits, while the ISF is predominantly led by Sunni officers and soldiers. Yet, and beyond geographic and ethnic divisions, several pertinent concerns must also be addressed, including confidential or classified security matters—yes, even Lebanon has a few of these, including the identities of various assassins that gunned down politicians, journalists and writers—and who would become the leaders of the partitioned countries. Would conventioneers tolerate the emergence of new elites that will earn their respective legitimacies backed by truly independent legal systems?
At the economic level, and notwithstanding the current financial doldrums, what would happen to the banking system and which of the partitioned or federated states would remain viable? How will the country’s huge debt, estimated to top the US$90 billion mark, be divided? Will any entity inherit hard assets equally, or will these be apportioned based on investments made by private sources over the past several decades? Which state would demand and receive the Beirut International Airport, and once this key entry facility is allocated, will the other receive financial compensation to construct an alternative aerodrome? One could envisage similar problems in other areas, like industry and agriculture, but these are minor problems that wily Lebanese entrepreneurs will solve within a few years, especially if the federated or partitioned entities agree to live in peace as neighbours. Truth be told, both states will include intrinsic capabilities, and both will succeed as entrepreneurship is inherent in Levantine peoples’ character.
Of course, conventioneers will need to agree on the names of the two states and what kind of systems each will have. One might prefer a republic, whereas the other might consider the jurisprudent of God (Wilayat al-Faqih). Some participants may recommend a constitutional monarchy, while others may wish to see an authoritarian form of government that will impose law and order. Whatever emerges will necessarily need to satisfy the populations in the respective entities who, presumably, would want to do better than what Lebanon offered in 2020. Indeed, the quest for liberty will largely define what might emerge that, at least for one of the two states, will be epochal.
Finally, there is one other major concern that will preoccupy the constitutional convention, a topic that merits attention even if it is seldom broached, and that has to do with the role(s) played by the clergy, both Muslim as well as Christian. In 2020, nearly 40 percent of Lebanon’s land holdings are held as endowments by Christian and Muslim religious institutions. Will clerics allow conventioneers to address endowment land-holdings, or will they oppose such divisions?
These concerns highlight the tip of the constitutional convention iceberg, and it behoves all components to prepare for tough and prolonged negotiations. Of course, most will wish to delay such a gathering, on the assumption that negotiating federalism or partition with Hizballah is impossible as long as the party can use its military superiority to dictate terms. In particular, the Lebanese Forces will vigorously postpone the date for such a conference, waiting to see the direction of major regional realignments (Iran, Israel and Arab Gulf States) and, perhaps, hope that Hizballah would be militarily weakened before embarking on various caucuses. Delays will not necessarily produce what Lebanese strategists wish since Hizballah could gain military strength instead of the opposite. Moreover, there are no guarantees that Future Movement reconciliation attempts, or the Progressive Socialist Party and Phalange readjustments, will be crowned with success. In other words, delaying the inevitable will not necessarily result in a better convention, especially since security conditions are going from bad to worse.
Whatever emerges from a constitutional convention will be highly controversial as sceptics will quickly conclude that federalism or partition will be nearly impossible after Hizballah rejected an eminently tame call for neutrality issued by the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal al-Ra‘i. Neutrality, as proposed by the prelate, meant a commitment “to common Arab issues without entering into political and military conflict, or entering into alliances, but to be the first defender of justice, peace and understanding in Arab international issues with the exception of Israel.” A defence of justice and peace was allegedly far easier than either federalism or an outright partition, but nothing could be further from the truth since the Cardinal’s call necessitated all parties, including Hizballah, to abide by strict conditions that the “Party of God” was unwilling to tolerate. Hizballah knows that Lebanon is a complicated country as it is. Moreover, one cannot expect Lebanese elites to adopt new policies or even pledge to honour existing institutions when they scorn the existing system save for benefitting from its weaknesses. If neutrality is undoable, and if the consociational system in place failed to create a unified nation, should the Lebanese not think of alternatives?
Levantine survival instincts required compromises at all levels, which also means that few Lebanese leaders espoused principles that were necessary to save the country from disaster. In 2020, Lebanon lacked a political leader—Muslim or Christian—who truly believed that this was a nation worthy of unity and peoples worthy of liberty. There is no Lebanese Václav Havel within the establishment, but there are prominent figures like Chibli Mallat, Muhammad Mattar, Antoine Sfeir, Azizah Y. al-Hibri, Wassef al-Harake, Sa‘id Malik or Nawaf Salam, who can prevent catastrophes though all are die-hard nationalists who want to strengthen existing institutions and uphold the constitution. There are many others, of course, but they fall outside the system that is so rotten that every imaginable avenue for salvation is duly blocked. Consequently, it is fair to state that Lebanon’s choices—a new pact or partition—will be extremely difficult to accomplish.
Still, for federalism or partition to become practical solutions, the following four conditions must be met:
A few weeks ago, and in one of his more memorable declarations, President Michel Aoun answered a reporter’s question about political gridlock as a nation that would reach “hell” if reconciliation efforts failed. Many Lebanese felt that they were already there, with little hope to move to purgatory, much less make it to the “heaven” that some allegedly experienced before the country hit the abyss. France’s President Macron blamed local elites for their collective treason and felt betrayed that pledges made to him on 1 September 2020 in Beirut were trampled upon. He said he was ashamed of them, but he should have known that he was dealing with an ossified elite anxious to remain in power at all costs. His challenge, which Paris neglected to valorise, was to deny this class any benefits, though realpolitik imposed practical restrictions on the French head-of-state. Macron has to deal with what is available, though the elitist conglomerate managed him well. Clearly, the time was long overdue to propose alternatives and to offer concrete solutions before the Lebanese lose everything.
As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy