The Arabic, French and English voices that mingle on the streets of Beirut are a testament to the richness of Lebanon’s cultural inheritance. But while the city wears the batterings of civil war, and more recent Israeli bombing, the national constitution is also beginning to creek.
After months of postponement, the Lebanese parliament is finally due to anoint a new president on February 11th – almost certainly the armed forces commander, General Michel Sulaiman.
With the blessing of the Arab League, the highly decorated soldier’s installation in the vacant post appears guaranteed. Like his 22 predecessors, he is a Maronite Christian. Because under the 1943 unwritten ‘national pact’ which marked independence, the Lebanese president is always a Maronite Christian.
The pact established a ‘confessionalist’ principle; that while the president should be Maronite, the prime minister should always be a Sunni Muslim, and the parliament’s speaker a Shia Muslim. Other political posts, and seats in the parliament were divided amongst smaller religious groups.
In the 1940s, Lebanon’s Christians still out-numbered their Muslim and Druze neighbours. But migration and a disparity in birth rates have left Christians accounting for a little under 40% of the population. This figure is an estimate: because, curiously, holding a national census is forbidden. Perhaps because it would highlight the settlement’s increasing absurdity.
Christian community leaders are keenly aware that their support base is evaporating. Two years ago the Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah lobbied for greater restrictions on the exit visas, so worried was he by the number of young Christians leaving the country. Better education amongst Christians has traditionally made emigration far easier for them. Meanwhile, the country’s Shia population has soared.
The division of power by religious grouping must have seemed an expedient temporary measure in 1943. Christians were keen to preserve their power and identity, as well as preventing the formation of a Greater Syria. Sunnis wanted to rid the country of French influence, and gain a stake in their homeland’s governance. The Shias lacked the traction to object.
In 1989 the Ta’if accord was concluded, bringing an end to the years of traumatic civil war. It re-weighted the parliament, dividing its seats equally between Christian and Muslim. The explicitly stated original constitutional goal of moving beyond confessionalism was re-asserted, but politicians did little to facilitate it.
The palliative character of these reforms have left a permanent undercurrent of resentment; a desire amongst ordinary Shia and progressives on all sides to abandon the stifling hegemonies of institutionally sectarianised politics.
But there are worrying signs that the system is pushing Lebanese to retreat back into their groupings. Even Maronites once loyal to the secularist General Aoun are increasingly turning to more hardline candidates, dismayed by his co-operation with Hezbollah.
There are a handful of politicians leading the case for reform, like former Ambassador to the US, Nassib Lahoud. He leads Democratic Renewal, a party regarded as representing the intelligentsia and opposing Syrian influence. He had expressed an interest in standing for the presidency, but lacks the necessary support.
It is an irony that whilst the under-represented Shia stand most to gain from a new president and constitutional reform, Hezbollah, which purports to speak for them, seems content with the status quo.
Lebanon expert Dr Christopher Davidson explains that the delays and stalemate which have characterised the presidential election work in their favour. “The longer it continues, the weaker Lebanon’s army becomes. It’s the only institution above religion, and with deadlock, it grows more likely that the armed forces will unravel. Then Hezbollah and Syria can get what they want.”
The outgoing president, Émile Lahoud (a cousin of Nassib), enjoyed an extended period in office. Under pressure from Damascus, the parliament prolonged his six-year term by a further three. Lebanese of all religion understood his need to deal pragmatically with Syria, but rumours that he spent the day of assassinated prime minister Rafik Hariri’s funeral at a country club did little to enhance his reputation.
Even with a uniting president of military stock – it seems that constitutional change will be slow in coming to Lebanon. Hani Bathish, a journalist with Beirut’s Daily Star, is not optimistic. “Those in power are a product of confessionalism,” he says. “There are pro-reform parties like Democratic Renewal, but they get lumped in with a larger alliance. With Lebanon’s problems, addressing constitutional reform just isn’t their main priority.”