x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Secular campaigners take first steps on Lebanon's 'beautiful path'

'What is your sect?' activists asked the marchers. 'Ma Khassak!' came the reply, 'None of your business!'

Pip Montserrat for The National
Pip Montserrat for The National

A week before Lebanon goes to the polls for municipal elections and there was something of a party in downtown Beirut. Packs of people walked in the bright sunshine, holding signs that read "Civil marriage not civil war". Smiling women in summer dresses and skinny hipsters on their bikes mixed with the very young (in pushchairs) and the somewhat older (holding canes). There was even an appearance by a popular Lebanese rapper and - being an Arab country - there were sunglasses and cigarettes everywhere.

What was happening was a gathering of some 3,000 calling for the end to political sectarianism in the country and the establishment of a secular state. The music and the colours masked a serious point, but the voices made it clear: "What is your sect?" activists asked the marchers. "Ma Khassak!" came the reply, "None of your business!" For now, religion remains the government's business. Municipal elections, which begin tomorrow, will mostly return established candidates to unsurprising victories. With 18 religious sects, Lebanon is deeply divided along sectarian lines. Parliamentary seats are still allocated by religious affiliation, with the top three positions reserved for a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim and a Shia Muslim. Although municipal seats, unlike parliamentary ones, are not reserved for confessional groups, bloc voting ensures most seats are safe for their incumbents.

There is much to recommend a sectarian system in a fragile, kaleidoscopic country such as Lebanon, the firmest of which is that it safeguards against a rise in sectarian tensions among a people who have suffered 15 years of armed sectarian conflict. But the confessional system isn't working for everyone. The rights of citizens vary by religious group and it is individual religious authorities who are responsible for marriage and matters of inheritance.

The confessional division of political life, which has persisted since independence from France in 1943, has entrenched community leaders and made political support along sectarian lines instinctive to many in the population. Leaders can change their political philosophy almost entirely and still count on the support of their sect. When Michel Aoun, the leader of the mainly-Christian Free Patriotic Movement, changed his anti-Syrian stance and joined March 8th, a broadly pro-Syrian coalition dominated by the Shia party Hizbollah, he raised many eyebrows but still took most of his supporters with him. Similarly Walid Jumblatt, the combative Druze leader, has changed his stance towards Syria markedly over the past few months and yet has remained popular - if grudgingly so - with the Druze.

This is the philosophical problem at the heart of the confessional system. As much as it secures the representation of minority groups, it locks citizens into a sect. With assured representation, the Lebanese lose their individuality and what ought to be mere political problems become sectarian ones, rendering compromise and thus resolution difficult. Politicians, used to thinking along sectarian lines, find cross-confessional politics a temporary fix: their heads in policy but hearts in faith, so to speak. The result has been stasis in politics.

Yet even as polls show that public opinion is broadly in favour of abolishing the confessional system, they also show that the public isn't clear on what ought to replace it. In a country of religious feeling, what a secular state might look like leaves many nervous. Indeed, simply draining Lebanon of confessionalism will not leave an empty space of secularism, because, for all its use as a glittering generality of political discourse, secularism is highly specific to every country in which it exists.

Laïque Pride, the group behind the march for secularism, understands this. "Secularism is a complex idea to implement," says Kinda Hassan, one of the organisers. "We can't just import French or American or Turkish or Syrian secularism. The social and confessional situation of Lebanon is very different and we need to work out what will work for this country." All of which means that, were confessionalism to be removed, a secular state that emerged would have a peculiarly Lebanese flavour. But those who oppose confessionalism have not yet articulated what it might taste like.

Sects hold a strong place in Lebanese conceptions of political identity. For many, it appears to be an instinct of the heart. Yet like all political identities, it is malleable and open to reinterpretation. For those in the big tent of anti-confessionalism - those calling for redistribution of power, or against foreign interference, or for a separation of faith and state, or for women's rights - there is a distinct lack of clarity on where the movement is heading. Indeed, its supporters often conflate notions of personal rights, communal justice and the limits of state interference. And while the movement has many supporters, it has few leaders within the political system itself - although to some that is one of its strengths.

An entrenched political system based on a widely held political identity, with a broadly leaderless opposition is rarely a recipe for clear change. But there are reasons to be optimistic. The first is the most obvious: any movement that can bring thousands of people out on to the streets necessarily has thousands more supporters at home. The energy of the movement is impressive and has caught the imagination of people, as evidenced by the thousands who have joined on social networking sites and those who have trodden the streets to promote the march. More needs to be done to build a functioning movement, but a spark of energy is not a bad place to start.

The second reason is that people power can change Lebanon again. "If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads," wrote the French poet and novelist Anatole France, and Lebanon has lived his words before. This week marks another milestone for the small country, the moment, five years ago exactly, when the last Syrian soldier left Lebanese soil. It was Lebanese people power that did it, the largest outpouring of popular demonstrations in the region's recent history.

Although far from an exact parallel, the stance against Syrian interference was widespread, popularly held and translated into concrete change. As much as that transformation is still a work in progress, it can be an inspiration. The Lebanese have trodden uncertain paths before - and have started with a walk through Beirut. Faisal al Yafai is a journalist. He received the Ibn Battuta Award for Media in London last month and is a Churchill Fellow for 2009/2010