Lebanon, in its history of sectarian conflict and through its means of solving it, has come to be seen as dual role model in the Levant.
Nassif Hitti asks whether the "Lebanon model," which breeds fragile and sectarian democracies, is suited for Syria.
January 17 2013
Several similarly diverse societies in the region, where diversity is usually a source of enrichment, have seen the retreat of secular or civil ideologies and the rise of sectarianism in their place. Once the shackles of an authoritarian regime have been thrown off, we often witness that the resultant conflict can become a sectarian one, fought with either guns or declarations; a clear example of this can be seen in Iraq. Syria, now locked in a stalemate with little prospect of any political or military solution, has seen its conflict fall into one that is largely sectarian. Notwithstanding the other important internal political and external strategic factors, we can see the spreading of a Lebanese-style sectarian conflict that weighs heavily on the national politics in both old and newly divided societies.
Furthermore, we have seen that since the end of the war in Iraq, the challenges of rebuilding the country have been attempted according to the Lebanese model; an issue this author has previously raised more than once.
In political science literature, this is commonly known as consociationalism, where government is based on consensus and guaranteed representation among different sectarian and ethnic groups. Consociationalism seeks a way out of conflict by creating a functioning balance that provides mutual guarantees through the redistribution of power in a society. It is so fragile, however, that it almost always encourages politics to follow sectarian lines. It also carries the risk of turning any minor issue, over either internal or external issues, into a major crisis that paralyzes and endangers the country, dividing it along sectarian lines.
We have seen this often both in Lebanon and in Iraq. The balance of power shifts regularly through alliances with external actors, in addition to the fact that it discourages the emergence of nonsectarian political actors, as well as weakening nonsectarian political reforms.
There have already been discussions about a post-Assad Syria, which no one pretends to know the arrival date or price of, in which the Lebanese model of building a system of balanced reassurance, which locks people and politics into their own communities, has been considered. Some argue that this is the least problematic model of government when managing a complex transition. Yet such a transition is open ended and the model, once established as a form of government, tends to reproduce itself and consolidate is own constituencies through groups that benefit from the system or that are afraid to open the Pandora’s box brought by possible change.
What we are therefore witnessing is the 'Lebanonization' of internal conflicts, strongly influenced by external factors, and after that, the 'Lebanonization' of the settlement encouraged by those same actors.
Ambassador Nassif Hitti is head of the Arab League Mission in Paris, a permanent observer at UNESCO and a member of the Al-Monitor board of directors. The views he presents here are his alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.