x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Call for reform draws criticism in Lebanon

Controversy after the Lebanese parliamentary speaker announced his drive to abolish a system whereby political power is shared by major religious groups.

Standing from left to right in the front row in a military parade in Beirut last year are Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, Michel Suleiman, the president, and Saad Hariri, the prime minister.
Standing from left to right in the front row in a military parade in Beirut last year are Nabih Berri, the parliament speaker, Michel Suleiman, the president, and Saad Hariri, the prime minister.

BEIRUT // The recent campaign by Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, to abolish the country's divisive sectarian political system has drawn criticism from his political enemies and allies alike. Change to the established political arrangement is so sensitive that even a small chance of its being implemented has thrown the system into a minor state of disarray.

The controversy erupted over the past month as Mr Berri announced he would pursue the reforms to Lebanon's confessional system that, although mandated by the agreement ending the civil war in 1990, have never been seriously pursued by any party for fear of losing critical influence and patronage opportunities. The most ethnically and religiously diverse country in the Middle East, Lebanon has long been ruled by a gentlemen's agreement between the major sects to divide power among Christians, Shiite and Sunni Muslims.

The presidency has traditionally been reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister's seat for a Sunni and the speaker of parliament to a Shiite. But with Muslims clearly holding a dominant demographic advantage, the ratio of power assigned to Christians at the primary expense of Lebanon's Shiite majority has long infuriated not only that community, but Lebanese civil society as well, which claims that it promotes not only sectarian divisions but encourages corruption through patronage.

"The system is rotten and designed to protect the powerful warlords," according to Sheikh Suhbi Tufayli, a Shiite cleric in eastern Lebanon who leads a movement against the current sectarian system. "The politicians steal all the money and positions in the government so they can distribute this power to their people. The result isn't that the people are protected by their leaders, but rather the leaders are kept in power by the fear of people losing what little they get from the system," he concluded.

But while, according to independent polling, as many as 60 per cent of the Lebanese people support abolishing a system that allocates seats in parliament and the cabinet according to religion, the resistance to changing it from the entrenched Christian political establishment has been ferocious. Many Christians and their Sunni allies in a coalition against Shiite and other Christian parties have called Mr Berri's proposal a combination of irony, in light of his own colourful history of sectarian politics, and duplicity in light of their concerns about debating the need for Mr Berri's allies in Hizbollah to remain an armed force autonomous from the Lebanese government.

Christians frequently argue that they should not be forced to relinquish political power regardless of how unfair it might be when their rivals remain the single most powerful military and political force in the country. "Let's try disarming Hizbollah first, so we can have a political balance to start with. Mr Berri thinks it's the right time just because he is pressured by Syria to try and change the political system," said Antoine Zahra, an MP with the Lebanese Forces, a hardline Christian party that tends to see Syrian plots behind their rival's proposals.

"We can't apply abolishing sectarianism while there is no balance in power within the Lebanese parties. Once Hizbollah is disarmed, then we can talk about it," he added. Mr Berri in a television interview rejected the "accusations" that forming the commission to abolish sectarianism was raised to deviate attention from discussing Hizbollah's arms. "The accusations are rejected and Nabih Berri is not the one who can be put in accusation's cage," he said.

"Hizbollah's arms are not for bargaining, and I'm not one of those who may participate in deals about measures related to the resistance or its arms." Even Mr Berri's top Christian ally, the former general Michel Aoun, reacted with confusion and anger, indicating the tense alliance between the two men. Mr Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement has long been one of the least sectarian parties in Lebanon despite its overwhelmingly Christian composition, but Mr Aoun has struggled to calibrate his response to an issue he clearly supports but would mean a huge loss of support from his own people should he pursue it.

In a recent interview, Mr Aoun described himself as "the founder of abolishing political sectarianism", but then added, "the time is not appropriate now, and conditions should be prepared". mprothero@thenational.ae