x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Lebanon's politicians fail to grasp nettle of civil marriage

The civil marriage of two Lebanese citizens, Kholoud Sukkarieh and Nidal Darwish, could have wide repercussions for the country's sectarian-based system

Kholoud Sukkariyeh and Nidal Darwish became the first Muslim couple to wed in a civil ceremony in Lebanon. AFP
Kholoud Sukkariyeh and Nidal Darwish became the first Muslim couple to wed in a civil ceremony in Lebanon. AFP

Again and again, the nettle of civil marriage has poked through to Lebanon's public sphere, and again and again, politicians have failed to grasp it. The past few weeks have been no exception. Calls for a large rally in Beirut yesterday afternoon in favour of civil marriage were merely the culmination of weeks of discussion, debate, activism - and a few insults.

The issue began when a Muslim couple became the first to wed in a civil ceremony. Nidal Darwish and Kholoud Sukkarieh went through an extended process of removing any reference to their religious denominations from official documentation.

That process is legal but tortuous, because the Lebanese state demands that religious sect is factored into every government interaction. At the end of that process, in November last year, the couple exploited a legal loophole dating back to the French Mandate, which allows them to marry in a civil ceremony - although official government recognition has not yet been forthcoming.

The couple went public with their marriage and a hyper-connected country threw its weight behind them, using social networking sites, blogs and media to promote the marriage. Such was the groundswell of support that the country's president joined in on Twitter, publicly agreeing with their demand for civil marriage.

But not everyone was so supportive. The country's Grand Mufti, Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, warned of "predators lurking among us, trying to sow the bacteria of civil marriage". He was merely the most vocal of the country's religious leaders (Lebanon recognises 18 separate sects) to condemn the civil marriage.

In a sign of some division between political and religious leaders, Saad Hariri, the country's former prime minister, agreed that there ought to be civil marriage in Lebanon, but carefully qualified his support, arguing that while he would prefer his children did not marry in a civil ceremony, he recognised others wanted it.

What started as activism has blossomed into something different: a genuine attempt to change existing law.

Ahead of general elections expected in June, few politicians are willing to risk the opprobrium of the religious figures ahead of the vote. Yet at the same time, the timing allows for some measure of courting of the public vote, which might push wavering politicians into the civil marriage camp.

Najib Mikati, the country's current prime minister, has called the issue a distraction; the issue can certainly seem trivial when stacked against the greater danger of a civil war next door in Syria.

Yet the move towards civil marriage is part of a shift in thinking in Lebanon, a recognition of something that has been clear since the country's 15-year civil war: that the straitjacket of sectarianism may have held the country together, but it is stifling the growth of a real state.

Activists have seized on civil marriage as an achievable goal that has widespread support among the Lebanese public and that could pry apart a system that has held Lebanon together for decades.

At the root of this is the sectarian system that has both kept a fragile nation together and kept the people apart.

One of the reasons why so many of the wars of the Middle East have been waged across Lebanon's territory is that the sheer number of sects makes it easy to play one off against the other. It was this sectarianism that allowed the 1975-1989 civil war to rage for so long, yet, at the same time, provided the political structure that allowed it to be resolved.

E pluribus unum - "out of many, one" - runs the motto on the seal of the United States. A more appropriate reading for the fractious state in the Levant may be e pluribus Lebanon, that is, Lebanon offers a real attempt to forge a nation state out of many sects.

This is a dilemma: there are strong vested interests that wish to see the sectarian system preserved, not merely the politicians, who benefit from the bloc votes the system delivers, and religious leaders, who fear a decline in their power in an increasingly irreligious Lebanon.

Civil marriage would mean, for the first time, that the state of Lebanon would recognise Lebanese citizens in a structure independent of religious affiliation.

Now, the status of Lebanese citizens in marriage, divorce, inheritance, even employment (because some public jobs are subject to sectarian quotas) is governed by their sects. Removing that would have repercussions far beyond marriage: it would likely mean a change in the political system, whereby certain jobs are reserved for certain sects.

That political agreement was at the heart of the Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war and there are genuine concerns that removing it might make some sects take up arms.

Lebanon today - where protesters are marching in favour of love, not war - is a long way from that. Prying open the sectarian system will not be done overnight. But the trickle that Ms Sukkarieh and Mr Darwish have started may yet become a flood, sweeping away one of the pillars of the sectarian system and forcing politicians and the public to forge a real state and a real, separate Lebanese identity.



On Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai