Monday, June 08, 2009

Looking at Lebanon After Yesterday's Elections

Lebanese politics is a form of representative democracy, but nothing like what Americans imagine when they read those words. I have been following events in that part of the world since before I started blogging and it seems the more I learn the less I know. Americans hear the term Hisbollah and rarely stop to think that it is neither a country nor a tribe, and most have no idea that it's geographic location is inside Lebanon. It is puzzling, then, that there can be a war between Israel and Hisbollah that does not involve the whole of Lebanon. This is because various political interests there are not under a single control and command center. Each group has its own militia which protects and retains whatever power is possible under the Lebanese constitution.

Via the Arabist I just watched a four part documentary about the Gemayyel clan which as Maronite Christians is the dominant family which controls the presidency of Lebanon by constitutional authority.

That sentence calls for an explanation.

Lebanon's constitution is modeled around what is called a consociational principle. When I first came across that word several years ago I thought it was a typographical error. Nothing in my schooling had referred to anything consociational so I had to look it up. In plain language it refers to a political system insuring that certain interests that could be pushed out of power if mathematical results of voting are left unchecked are afforded constitutional protection. Variations of this idea are also practiced in Switzerland and the Netherlands.

When we speak carelessly of "democracy" we forget that one of the downsides of the idea is what political scientists call the "tyranny of the majority." We like to say that everyone has to go along with whatever the majority decides, but in many instances that is impossible, not because the minority won't "just go along" but because by doing so they would be violating deeply held beliefs that if abandoned would mean they would simply vanish. In America we deal with this problem by allowing certain groups to be exempt from whatever the majority holds. The Amish, for example, are not expected to pay taxes or allow their children to be recruited into the military. Various religious groups routinely are allowed to observe certain days as holidays, often paid. Sometimes these exceptions are mandated by law. More often they are simply extensions of cultural courtesy.

When the Lebanese constitution was drawn up a background of bloodshed and bad feelings made "cultural courtesy" an unrealistic ideal. So by law certain components of the political control of the country were designated for various groups. The president will always be a Christian (which in Lebanon means a Maronite Christian), Speaker of Parliament will be a Shiite Muslim, Prime Minister will be a Sunni Muslim, and other parts of the government will be similarly divided, including not only these three main sectarian groups but Druze and others as well. (Druze refers to a Muslim offshoot group that can be though of as "Muslim unitarians.") For this reason the presence of Palestinian refugees is tolerated, even though they have little or no political influence, and Hisbollah, which is a remnant (and revolutionary) Sunni group, is also able to control part of the country. (For Americans, one of the bright spots of yesterday's elections in Lebanon was that Hesbollah did not do as well as they had hoped. Nevertheless, the group is very much a reality in the Lebanese political scheme of things.)

Short sentence. Long explanation.

Anyway, for the reader who had half an hour and is willing to click through four different videos I recommend this series.
I learned more in half an hour of watching than I have been able to grasp after five years of reading and studying. It helps that I have put in that five years, of course, but even without knowing that much background an uninitiated American can get a lot out of the series. Disclosure: Yes, this is an Al Jezeera production, so for those who have already decided that anything from that source is taboo, I suppose you may simply keep moving in your bigoted ignorance. For everyone else, here is Part One.

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