Lebanon: Getting Off the Fence

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Ministers are seen during a cabinet meeting in Lebanon. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Ibrahim al-Amin

Published Monday, April 2, 2012

Lebanon is approaching a decisive regional juncture. The confrontation over Syria is entering a new phase which will require new tools to be used. A new chapter is opening in the war of attrition against the solid wall that has so far prevented the West and the Arabs from achieving their goal of bringing down the Syrian regime.

There are no signs of them conceding defeat. Nor do developments inside Syria make for a climate of trust in which national reconciliation can be discussed and a process of reform carried out peacefully. The alternative is one we in Lebanon know from the experience of two decades. It involves seeking to further polarize society, undermine the state and its institutions, and besiege the country by various means in pursuit of the above goal.

In the past, nobody in Lebanon used to advocate neutrality other than Christians. The picture is different today. The Maronites and the other Christian denominations are part of this decisive Arab struggle, albeit on different sides. The Church, along with the Free Patriotic Movement, the Marada, and a number of influential Christian figures and political forces, dreads the downfall of the regime in Damascus. These fears relate to what would follow, and the impact on the position of Christians in Syria and Lebanon. On the other hand, the Lebanese Forces and other March 14 Christians want to join the campaign led by the US and the Gulf states, and in which Sunni Islamists play a pre-eminent role. They reason that this would bring Lebanon into harmony with its Arab and regional milieu, thus enabling the Christians to preserve their interests and influence.

The Druze, who have often joined wars in accordance with decisions taken in the key Arab capitals, are doing the same today – either as the Druze in Syria are, or as Walid Jumblatt is.

The Shia were always part of Lebanon’s struggles over attitudes to the Palestine question or domestic change. After Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, and the rise of their role in Lebanon and then Iraq, they became effective players in the regional game. It is they who are most strongly engaged in it today, and for the foreseeable future.

The Sunnis see no alternative to going with their own political flow. They have become compelled to take sides and not sit on the fence. That is what Sunni Islamists have been doing everywhere. And that is what has been decided by the self-proclaimed moderates, be they from Wahhabism’s financial capitals in the Gulf, or the Future Movement in Lebanon.

Developments in the Syrian crisis have served notice to all that there is no longer any place for a middle option. This applies to Prime Minister Najib Mikati, and a host of figures who have sought to keep separate their views on regional developments and on the governing coalition in Lebanon. These include the president of the republic, the speaker of parliament, and the “scale-tipper” Walid Jumblatt. All will shortly be required to make clear choices. This warrants a rethink of the principle of “self-distancing.”

At the outset of the crisis, this policy seemed like a remedy for the Lebanese, who are split over an issue whose parameters and prospects were unclear. But at the moment of truth, it becomes a throwback to the logic that was adopted by the Lebanon of the Lebanese Front, or the Lebanon of Pierre Gemayel Senior – the Lebanon that raises the slogan “Lebanon’s strength lies in its weakness.” This is a formula that formally places Lebanon outside the regional struggle that its people, resources, and arenas are all part of.

If taking clear positions is the new name of the game, it should not just apply to what is going on around us. Nor only to our ceaseless debate about national identity, what Lebanon’s relationship with existing Arab and regional alliances should be, or the resistance and its arms.

In today’s circumstances, it should be about imposing new rules in the relationship between citizens and their fellow citizens, between them and the state’s institutions, and between the state and the forces that wield decision-making power within it.

Loud slogans that raise sectarian and communal passions cannot conceal the fact that the majority of people share a common agenda. This agenda relates to their daily lives: to the corruption which has spared no aspect of them; to the legalized theft of public funds in the name of the sects and of regional development; to the ignorance afflicting those in charge of the public administration; to the partiality of the military, to security and judicial institutions that act in contravention to their stated functions; and to the food, drink, education, and medical treatment available to their families.

It is no longer possible to defer, or keep quiet about, anything in the country. And there is nobody any longer who is capable of creating battles whose noise aims at rising above the voice of the citizen.

No time should be lost in speaking out about what is needed in the period ahead. To start with, a law for the forthcoming parliamentary elections, in which the people manage to impose proportional representation on the overseers of death and theft is needed. Secondly, there is the imposition of respect for the constitution and laws. Politicians who are close to the people need to prevent violations in the guise of compromises. That would hopefully pave the way for an authority that exercises popular oversight, and can prevent people from being killed by their food and dying at the doors of their hospitals.

Ibrahim al-Amin is editor-in-chief of Al-Akhbar.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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