Lebanese protest against sectarianism

Thousands of people demonstrated in Beirut on Sunday, calling for an end to sectarianism in Lebanon. The size of the protest (around 8,000, according to Reuters) was considerably larger than a week earlier, when just a few hundred braved bad weather for a similar demonstration.

Lebanon's political system is based on a power-sharing arrangement which aims to maintain a balance among the 18 officially-recognised sects. Among other things, this means that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim.

Although that arrangement may have helped to keep a lid on sectarian strife, it tends to lead to ineffective government, as well as corruption. Worse still, it institutionalises religious discrimination at all levels of Lebanese society.

Interestingly, the Iranian (Shia) Press TV portrays Sunday's protest as a call to scrap the Ta'if Agreement which brought an end to the Lebanese civil war. In fact, the Ta'if Agreement – while accepting political sectarianism in the short term – declared that abolition was "a fundamental national objective" and proposed a "phased plan" for achieving it.

Calls to secularise the Lebanese system are not by any means new – there was the Laïque Pride event last year, for example – but the latest campaign comes at a time when the country again finds itself without a government as a result of factional wrangling. However, with so many vested interests at stake, the chances of success in the near future still look pretty remote.
It's worth re-quoting an article that Elias Muhanna wrote in The National a year ago:

Moves to eliminate political confessionalism in Lebanon have a long history of failure, dating back to the earliest days of the republic. Leftist political parties and secularists advocated for the abolition of the system in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Taif Agreement (which ended the country’s 15-year civil war) called explicitly for the establishment of a non-confessional bicameral legislature, a demand that has gone unheeded for two decades.

In 2006, a Lebanese civil-society group launched a media campaign comprised of satirical newspaper advertisements and billboards that purported to offer jobs and services to members of specific sects: parking spots for Christians, doctors who catered only to Sunnis, a modelling agency searching for beautiful Shiite women. If the goal was to provoke debate about the infiltration of sectarianism into every aspect of Lebanese society, the campaign was a great success: in many neighbourhoods, billboards were defaced by angry residents who mistook feigned bigotry for the real deal.

But while many find the commingling of politics and religion to be odious, most Lebanese seem to regard the prospect of surrendering the imagined security provided by these arrangements far worse than whatever putative benefits a more democratic and non-confessional government might produce.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 March 2011.