With Lebanon's municipal elections underway, a significant question has emerged after two Sundays of voting, one with deeper consequences for the country and for sectarian relations. Namely, what does the future hold for Lebanese Christians? In the three major elections held during the past five years, the parliamentary elections of 2005 and 2009 and the current municipal elections, the truly competitive races took place in predominantly Christian areas. In mainly Shiite constituencies Hizbollah easily prevailed, along with the weaker allied Amal movement. While in majority Sunni districts the Future Movement led by Saad Hariri held sway. Only the Christians, especially their largest sect, the Maronites, escaped such unanimity through their political divisions.
In some respects this was laudable. For optimists, the Christians' pluralism was a sign of political maturity, as was their ability to accept the election processes as peaceful contests. There is some truth here. Historically, the Christians, like Lebanon's other religious groups, known here as confessions, have tended to gravitate around dual rival leaderships. Christians still do so, while Lebanon's Muslim communities in the past decade and a half, and longer in some cases, have come to be dominated by a single party or individual.
However, the optimistic reading of the Christians' destiny fails to take into consideration underlying dynamics that threaten the community's status as a central participant in Lebanese political life. For starters, there are demographics. Christians today represent anywhere between a quarter and a third of Lebanon's population (no census has been taken since 1932), after having been a majority in the pre-Independence and immediate post-Independence period. In 1989, the Taif Accord established parity between Christians and Muslims in parliament, after decades when Christians held a 6-to-5 majority. This was later integrated into the constitution as one of a series of amendments that diminished Christian political clout. Most prominent, the executive powers of the president of the republic, traditionally a Maronite, were distributed collectively to the council of ministers, led by a Sunni prime minister.
Christian-Muslim legislative parity, though Christians make up less than half the population, continues to be respected by Muslims. Indeed, in the recent municipal elections in Beirut, Mr Hariri sponsored a list of candidates, half of whom were Christian. Unlike parliament, municipal councils are not divided along religious lines. However, the decision was a sign of a deeper problem. If parity is increasingly regarded as a favour to be granted by Muslims, then it could just as easily, and legitimately, be challenged once the Muslims decide that the political breakdown no longer reflects reality. It is here that Christians, particularly the Maronites, have failed to prepare themselves for such an alternative. And to do so essentially requires that they overhaul their decades-old outlook when it comes to Lebanon and their aspirations in it.
Taif outlined a process of political deconfessionalism, whereby Lebanon would gradually reduce or eliminate the apportionment of political and administrative posts according to religion. The process never got off the ground, for myriad reasons. The most compelling, however, was that deconfessionalising the system would create panic among Christians by denying them the protection of parity, taking away from them reserved government posts, above all the presidency, therefore formalising their minority status.
Yet for Christians to cling to this unnatural situation through fear is potentially dangerous. It is better for them to seize the initiative of change, shaping outcomes in their favour, rather than have change imposed on them one day if Sunnis and Shiites agree to reduce Christian power. The Taif process allows for manageable change, including the formation of a senate to decide on vital national issues that would maintain Christian-Muslim parity. A system allowing communities to rotate senior government posts between themselves is also feasible, and could further reassure Christians.
In other words, where there is consensual change, there will also be a willingness by all sides, particularly the Muslims, to compromise. Yet the Christians have shown little willingness to address deconfessionalisation, and their leaders have been reluctant to initiate communal discussion on the topic. Which brings us to the psychological advantages of accepting a system that reduces or does away with sectarian quotas. For as long as Christians cannot transcend the fact that they are losing power, they will be unable to reinvent themselves in a new Lebanon. Their focus on preserving elusive prerogatives has prevented them from admitting to the dwindling advantages of these prerogatives. What they need is to define a new role for themselves, in a country where Muslims still remain amenable to facilitating this transformation.
This is no easy feat. The presence of an armed Hizbollah makes any new negotiation on power-sharing difficult today, especially between Sunnis and Shiites. Christians in particular are passing through a period of hardening dejection, exacerbated by destructive political rifts. Their saga of decline is undermining the confidence of their youths, whose first reflex is to emigrate. Christian churches, often pillars of the community educationally, but also socially and even politically, are in need of profound reform. Christian leaders are by and large obsessed with parochial calculations, and thoroughly incapable of fashioning a new vision for their coreligionists.
And yet the Christians have much to offer. Among both Sunnis and Shiites you will hear warnings of the imbalances in the political and social system if Christians were to collapse into irrelevance. Christians played an essential function in the creation of modern Lebanon, and for better or worse the system's DNA has been affected as much by their cultural, social and political reflexes as by that of the other communities, if not more so. Lebanon's Christians remain important, but they seem to be the last to realise it.
Michael Young is the opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut. His book, The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle (Simon & Schuster), has just been published.