Instead of wholeheartedly embracing and riding the wave of the Arab Spring, Lebanon turned into a spectator, cheering for this historic development but nevertheless treating it as some foreign event.
We saw and continue to see ourselves above the Arab Spring. We enjoy religious freedoms and political liberties in Lebanon. Therefore, unlike Tunisians, Libyans, Yemenis, Egyptians, Syrians and other fellow Arabs, we have no battle to fight, no cause to champion, so it seems. Surely we can implement reforms to fix our economic problems and make our bureaucracy more effective, but deep down we continue to believe that our sectarian political system, while imperfect, is fundamentally sound and even worth emulating by others. Change is good, but it is not for us.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The reality is that our system is rotten and the tragedy is that nobody wants to change it, except of course for a few well-intentioned civil society activists and Lebanese, including myself, living abroad. It is easy to assign blame on our corrupt politicians and foreign governments for our enormous economic debt and chronic political instability. But let’s be candid and look ourselves in the mirror. We have failed to fulfill our country’s promise — that of prosperity, tolerance, and pluralism in the Middle East — not because of our government, Israel, Iran, or Syria but because of who we are, a sectarian people that judges on the basis of sect, allocates political rights on the basis of sect, marries on the basis of sect, and loves, hates, and fears on the basis of sect.
In social gatherings, we do not miss an opportunity to express our disgust with our norms, rules and traditions. Yet if we truly find them so abhorrent, why don’t we change them? What is stopping us? We claim to be a democratic society that freely elects its leaders, then why don’t we elect the good guys to office and ask them to change our laws that force us to elect a Christian Maronite for president, a Sunni for prime minister, and a Shiite for Parliament speaker? The honest answer is because the Lebanese don’t want to. Our leaders, who we love to hate, are only a reflection of us.
The Arab world is in a state of rebellion, yet Lebanon is mired in deep sleep. People across the region are dying or risking their lives daily demonstrating against social and political injustice, yet the Lebanese have not launched a single large protest against their flawed system of governance. Arabs are stepping into the new while Lebanese are clinging to the old. The political, religious, and social boundaries that Arabs are trying to break in their societies, we insist on preserving in ours. Arab publics are calling for a just state that can protect them from tyranny, offer them employment and social services, and perhaps most importantly, restore their sense of honor, dignity and feeling of belonging. We, on the other hand, do our utmost to keep our state apparatus as impotent as possible, destroying with our own hands the path to non-sectarian citizenship and social cohesion. Despite the semblance of a central government in Lebanon, we live as autonomous cantons, willing to interact with the other only when it is necessary, rarely to form meaningful, inter-communal relationships.
We used to hide our ills by excelling in other areas such as education, business, and finance. But the rise of other Arab countries over the years and the praiseworthy advances they have made in politics, economics, arts, and sciences have shown how far behind we find ourselves today. Dubai has replaced Beirut as a financial hub of the region. Doha’s educational system — which comprises of several top-notch American schools and universities — can easily compete with, if not surpass, Beirut’s. We are no longer the region’s focal point for the exchange of ideas between the West and the Arab and Muslim worlds. And thanks to Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, Arab political discourse is no longer being formed in Beirut. Despite our decline in these areas, we still think we have a unique regional advantage — our liberal democracy, its flaws notwithstanding. Yet even that edge, we are on the verge of losing if the Arab Spring experiment turns out to be successful. So what do we have left?
We must make a choice that will determine our country’s future for generations to come. It is a choice between modernity and backwardness, between real democracy and fake democracy. Either we act on our genuine and deeply-rooted liberal impulses and build a functioning, non-sectarian system that is able to sustain and nurture our freedoms or we maintain our quota-based system and continue to hypocritically blame our politicians and neighbors for our troubles.
The obstacles to long-term stability, security, and prosperity in Lebanon are not Hezbollah’s arms, widespread corruption, or political polarization. These are symptoms. The real problem is sectarianism, which has defined us as a people and around which we have built all political and economic life since the very formation of independent Lebanon in 1943. Nobody forced us to create a weak central government. Nobody forced us to marginalize our own state institutions. Nobody forced us to build a feeble army. Instead, we consciously chose to do those things because we so preciously wanted to guard our religious freedoms and political autonomy, all at the expense of building a state. Why can't we do both? Why do political stability and social security have to be the casualties of liberty and freedom?
Sectarianism, which is entrenched in our national psyche and political culture, is, sadly, the edifice upon which we stand as a society. But it is also our cancer, and we must kill it before it kills us. We know there is something terribly wrong with our politics yet for unknown reasons we choose to remain passive. It’s ironic, because not too long ago, we rose against injustice and put our revolutionary zeal on display in front of the entire world. One million Lebanese people took to the streets of Beirut on March 14, 2005, helping to put an end to Syria’s 30-year military presence and political domination of Lebanon. It was a brilliant, genuine, spontaneous, and unique demonstration of Lebanese solidarity. You can make a case that the “Cedar Revolution” set the stage for the Arab Spring.
We need that Lebanese team spirit again, only this time, we need to call for something much more profound: our own salvation, full restoration, and freedom from sectarianism, without which our full potential can never be met and our promise to the region and the world at large — religious toleration, coexistence, and peace — can never be fulfilled.
Rooting out sectarianism from our hearts and minds will take generations. But something can be done in the interim. We can make our sectarian system fairer and more merit-based so that we can elect competent and accountable representatives. For that we need a new electoral law. We have had countless meetings and national commissions studying this issue and we have come up with several options. Yet what we desperately need is a national political dialogue that allows for implementation. Sadly, this is the kind of dialogue we have postponing forever. Lebanese politicians can hold as many debates as they want on Hezbollah’s arms and a national defense strategy, but these are tangential issues. The real issue is and has always been our broken system of government. We fix that, or at least we start to frankly discuss it, and all of our other problems will be much easier to solve.
Bilal Y. Saab is a Visiting Fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.