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Compromise or new social contract?

Tuesday 26 February 2008, by Nahla Chahal

Confessionalism in Lebanon is not only a legacy, it is a constructed system, and I would almost venture to say a rational one. What follows is not a historical overview, the likes of which is often tedious when it comes in the guise of an indispensable introduction. This is not even an introduction. If the current debate is about the options open to Lebanon, and the way in which each of us positions ourselves vis-à-vis these options, then let us start by determining the nature of the present moment. I will venture, first, to say that the assassination of the late Prime Minister Hariri, the withdrawal of the Syrian forces from Lebanon, and all the events related thereto, do not constitute ‘the nature of the present moment’ but only some of its manifestations. This nature and its manifestations, although related, are not one and the same thing. Although this presupposes our ability to distance ourselves from what we may feel strongly about, yet perhaps this caution or good judgment is the only thing left for us to do today.

On another note, Lebanon, as all other countries in history of course although perhaps to a greater degree than others—and this assertion is open to analysis and argument—does not exist in isolation, but is affected by, indeed accessory to, what transpires around it in this geographic region. The country’s urgent need to reconstitute its internal dynamics according to new definitions and agreements arises even as stormy winds rage through the entire region, overturning the country’s state of affairs and exposing it to a host of unknown possibilities.

A Tumultuous—yet Ingrained—”Lebaneseness”

Let me start with the disparity that has presently become somewhat old and firmly established between Lebanon’s perception of itself and its actual reality. This disparity, wherever it occurs, is the source of numerous crises. Lebanon is not a self-evident nation. Although one might argue that this is the condition of many other national entities in the region, we are presently concerned with Lebanon.

“Lebaneseness” traversed a foundational stage before embarking on its tumultuous course. I think that now, and at the end of this course, we could venture to assert that Lebanon is no longer questionable as a nation. This is a precious and reckonable accomplishment, evidenced in numerous boundaries, some of which even the Civil War was unable to encroach on. This, however, does not mean that Lebanon exists as an absolute entity. Recognizing this is increasingly important in view of the potential impact of turbulent regional events on Lebanon and on the region as a whole.

Returning to the foundation stage and its context: the founding of Lebanon necessitated a ‘Social Contract’ in the fullest sense of the term. For if Lebanon shares with other countries in the region this lack of self evident nationhood, it is nevertheless unique in being established on a clearly negotiated social contract, duly ratified through general consensus, and defined in terms of articles and principles. This social contract—known in its political/legislative form as the “National Pact”—rested on a function, which Lebanon performed or was able to perform. This social contract was related to a special role played by Lebanon in the region, a role that the region was in dire need of at the time, and which Palestine, due to structural causes in its society, geography and history, could have played had it not been derailed.

We all know the elements of this role and how it was congruent with the agreed-upon “Lebanese Formula”: Lebanon was to be a mediator between the Arab interior and Europe. This mediation role presupposed some crucial features:

A high degree of internal freedom, starting with freedom of trade and capital mobility, including banking secrecy, and freedom of thought and lifestyle. Saying there is diversity and plurality in Lebanon is saying something evident, but proclaiming it is an important part of the self-same contract; diversity and plurality are thus safe-guarded through the contract and remain agreed upon.
A high degree of neutral distance from the region, in the form of a margin maintained for the sake of enabling the mediation role.
Lebanon’s arbitration between the Arab interior and Europe or the West was not only concerned with finance, business and goods; it also touched on education, publishing, and hence ideas and politics. There were several other auxiliary services: tourism, healthcare, etc… Lebanon thereby became a role as well as a venue, and the two functions were interrelated.

There is no exaggeration in saying that this role of mediation was necessarily temporary, and that the Arab interior eventually ceased to have need for it. International relations changed on all levels, commercial and otherwise, as did their centers of influence. Meanwhile, and for a multitude of interrelated reasons, once the mediation role disintegrated, Lebanon’s second feature, namely as venue, was in turn brutally violate. Lebanon ceased to be ‘neutralized’ after the arrival and settlement of the armed Palestinian resistance. Years of protracted civil war completed the collapse of mediation, which was an underpinning of the Lebanese formula. With Lebanon’s forced absence emerged and thrived numerous other regional centers that assumed the various aspects of that role.

It may very well be that allowing the situation in Lebanon to culminate in civil war, and the subsequent absence of any decisive Arab or international intervention to stop it—out of neglect or for reasons related to the overall regional struggle—was yet another indication that Lebanon’s role as arbiter had ended and become expendable. In other words, the war may not have been, after all, the cause for the end of this role and its demand in the region. Rather and more specifically, it may have been a sign of the waning of this role due to regional and international developments and changes. I am not after solving the conundrum of the egg and the hen. Rather I am seeking to view the multilayered meanings of one event.

An additional factor must be considered: we have been in a period of waiting throughout the recent past, since the beginning of the 90s and after the official end of the Civil War. The original project represented by Prime Minister Hariri was in crisis because it was based on the resumption of Lebanon’s mediation role, with some modifications of its features of course. This was premised on what I shall briefly term “the Madrid frame of reference”, which had the ambition of establishing a stable and open region, including a successful and practicable settlement with Israel. Subsequent developments, however, shattered this frame of reference: the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, the First Gulf War, the assassination of Rabin, the arrival of neo-conservatives to the US presidency, September 11, and finally the war on Iraq and its subsequent occupation. It is immaterial which had more impact, the conspiracies or the sequences of events, when we consider the outcomes of the existing structures themselves. What ultimately counts is that Prime Minister Hariri had ventured to build all those highways and bridges, and the famed Downtown, etc. on the premise that the advent of the ‘Greater Middle East’ is imminent. However, he did this with unprecedented and non-strategic means such as ‘Constructive instability’, which amounts to a war project and a recipe for protracted wars in various forms. The type of ‘business’ suitable under such conditions differs from ‘business’ in peacetime.

The rise, spread, and even dominance of primitive sectarian feelings precisely during the past decade, which was noticed by all with anxiety or derision, may be explained not as an emotional extension of the conditions of war. Rather, it must be explained as an expression of this particular period of anticipation and alienation, which generated a kind of sectarian fanaticism devoid of the usual functions of confessionalism in Lebanon and therefore totally crude.

The period of waiting, labeled the “status quo” and represented by Prime Minister Hariri, came to an end. It ended not due only to his assassination, but also because it originally lasted longer than believed possible, feeding on a combination of illusions and foreign aid, which the man—and maybe no-one else—could provide Lebanon. I shall not dwell on the attributes that made this exception possible, for this lies outside the scope of my topic. However, I will go off on a tangent concerning another matter. The violent death of Prime Minister Hariri cannot become a pretext for changing what he represented or concealing the dilemma Lebanon was already facing, and with it Prime Minister Hariri’s own project.

On the other hand, many of the factors pertaining to given episodes do not vanish with the end of those episodes, but extend to subsequent periods, accumulating and mutating as they stray from their original courses. This means, among other things, that the reality is naturally more intense and intricate than the consecutive points I am reviewing, and that it is difficult to isolate a single decisive factor that determines the direction of this reality. Finally, and because of the intricacy of multiple factors, it is always possible to emphasize one determining factor from among all the others. It is therefore unsound to downplay the importance of what is termed ‘subjective agency’ and its ability to influence reality and the actions therein.

Postponed Task: Renewing the “Social Contract”

We currently stand before a task that has been postponed for some time: the task of renewing the social contract. This consists in renewing firstly the notion of a contract, and secondly the foundations that enabled it to come into existence, namely Lebanon as a role[1]. Finally, the task requires renewing the contract’s inherent features, which were ‘freedom’, as a form of mutual tolerance and recognition of difference; ‘neutralization’ which is different from ‘neutrality’; and all the characteristics that formerly constituted a single interconnected, functional, and rational entity. The omission of any of its components impairs the whole and requires a redefinition and reconstruction of the whole ‘Lebanese formula’, a fundamental point, which I raise and leave open for discussion.

The Taif Agreement did not accomplish this task, and we cannot place the National Pact and the Taif Agreement on the same footing. Nor can we consider that the latter revised the former and renewed it in conformity with new requisites, namely grabbing the historic opportunity for such renewal. The Taif Agreement is a milestone intimately bound to the circumstances in which it came about, and consequently bears the traces of these circumstances. Of course, that does not raise any doubts or questions about its legitimacy. However, it is essential to mention this point in order to fully grasp what has been achieved and what has yet to be accomplished.

Another point I want to broach, and which may seem a departure from the subject although I think it is not, is democracy. Certainly there are general principles that define democracy. However, each democracy is based on its own foundations. In France, for instance, democracy and republic are one and the same, even if they may contradict each other widely in practice. French democracy is a militant and ideologized democracy built on the idea of secularism and citizenship from which the idea of integration derives its force. In Great Britain, democracy rests mainly on the idea of public freedoms. Democratic extremism in the French model, namely the deviation that is attached to the concept and its implementation, leads to the desire for enforced unification and prioritized homogeneity, and the belief in an acquiesced and accepted paradigm. The solidification of democracy in France passes through the affirmation, against this trend, of diversity and its legitimacy. Meanwhile, certain actual developments, not just theoretical precautions, come to reinforce the need for this alarm and revision. The French secularist crisis in its many aspects, including the affair of the hijab (headscarf) and the angry riots of suburban youth, is but an instance of my claim.

Democracy in Lebanon has its own mechanisms and dynamisms. It deteriorates when it becomes a mere management of confessional equilibriums. Several of those present on this panel were convinced in the past with the attempt to analyze and derive a concept, and described the Lebanese political system as “political feudalism.” Ever since that time, no serious analysis of the value of this notion was made, nor of the alterations that affected it, nor of the multiple aspects that are inherent in its framework, at least two of which are: first, the social renewal of political, social, economic and cultural elites; and second, the weakness of any movement that deviates from the Lebanese political system, i.e. the relegation of non-confessionalism to a very small and marginal space in Lebanon. This issue is not related to ethics or values. Rather its importance is related to the fact that the existence of particular movements may sometimes be vital to stave off the catastrophic effects of a system in crisis. It may be that no movement was capable of confronting and stopping the Civil War in Lebanon. Yet the absence of such a movement is significant (by absence I do not mean the dearth of words and articles, which were available, but the lack of any social, political and intellectual conditions aimed at stopping the war and offering the practicable agenda to reach that end.) As a disclaimer, I do not think that social and political structures can be voluntarily built according to a chosen plan. Yet neither do I think that they are self-built, and that their outcomes are predetermined.

The Present Crisis is not the Outcome of Hariri’s Assassination

Finally I want to invest all the above in Lebanon’s present crisis. I suggest the following points:

First, the present crisis is not a consequence of the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri, despite the significance of that event, not to mention its horror; neither is it the result of the Syrian withdrawal, nor was the Syrian presence, despite its hideousness, its cause. Rather it is the outcome of our confrontation with the necessities of renewing the ‘social contract’ along with its underpinnings, in light of its conditions of possibility. These conditions of possibility are not exclusively Lebanese, but are also related, by and large, to the whole region. The dilemma is that the crisis is taking place while the region is verging on the unknown. This is an essential factor in so far as the previously-mentioned task is concerned. By the same token, the presence and force of the American strategy cannot be ignored. The fact remains that the US is a major player, and with its vision, interests and objectives, it will make use of Lebanon, as an item on its agenda, according to its overall requirements.

Second, the answer to the query of how to tackle the task of renewing the social contract may not be within reach; in other words, neither its conditions nor its potentialities are clear. What is presently required is to find ways to move forward in eclectic patterns, and not in any complete or consistent system. Becoming aware of that, we realize it and acknowledge the relativity of the truth that each party holds fast to, while waiting for things to settle down. I believe that the importance of this lies in a collective acknowledgment of the legitimacy of all viewpoints, and a toning down of fanaticism on all sides.

Third, and consequently, we are facing an extremely complex and complicated situation. It would be catastrophic to reduce this situation to an oversimplified dichotomy, as the predominant trend has been in Lebanon in the past few months. The demarcation line between attitudes, opinions and allegiances cannot be broken down into two positional slots: ‘with or against the Syrians’ as is commonly done. That is beside the issue. Others have experienced this problem before us. Iraq here comes to mind, and it is for that, among other reasons, a good example of what I want to say. Some of the forces that vehemently and absolutely opposed Saddam’s regime, including those whom he pursued and persecuted, adopted an attitude of rejection toward the first war on Iraq in 1991, the sanctions that ensued, the American war of 2003, as well as the present occupation of Iraq by American troops. Their stance was extremely difficult because they refused to accept confinement within a choice between dictatorship and American colonization, and they appeared unrealistic at a time that was dominated by these two hegemonic powers. Their claim that both powers are destructive and hold no promise of deliverance for Iraq and that they are at least objectively complicit, was dismissed in spite of its veracity, as unrealistic. We all know how the story ends. Here is Iraq in the midst of untold years of destruction, and it became clear that the local forces could not call on the Americans to act on their behalf, nor could they employ then dismiss them at will, since they are not a charitable organization. They have their own strategy and interests, and they are abler and stronger than local elements. Nevertheless, I have no desire to make arbitrary comparisons and projections that ignore the particularities of countries, such as saying that Lebanon is a candidate to become Syria’s Kurdistan, i.e. its backyard for assault. Nor do I take very seriously the threat of chaos brandished by Arab regimes, chief among them the Syrian regime, in their attempt to inflate the legitimacy of their own perpetuation while they have lost all other foundations for this legitimacy. It is not possible to deal with the Lebanese crisis on this basis, and I think that the democratic forces in Syria are doing their best to put forth certain proposals.

Finally, and taking into consideration all the preceding points, can we in Lebanon agree on recognizing and accepting our differences, and avoid slipping into violent clashes of any kind? While awaiting the restitution of the social contract, the elaboration of its components and the necessary conditions for proposing and adopting it locally and regionally, can we agree on making prevalent the spirit of public debate rather than categorical dichotomization and fervent partisanship? The danger menacing Lebanon is much greater than that menacing others. It may be that we cannot prevent some major and turbulent events from ravaging the region, but perhaps it is within our means not make light of the challenges ahead.