The Lebanese model may work for Syria

July 24, 2012

By Jawad Boulos
The Daily Star, Lebanon

Syria is in the midst of a civil war. As the predominantly Alawite regime attempts to defend its waning power against an increasingly successful, mainly Sunni, insurgency, the struggle has degenerated into a bloodbath. Murder, torture, rape and destruction have become wanton. Pro-government militias stand accused of crimes against humanity. The regime is tearing Syria apart to save itself.

This situation has led to a mighty geopolitical tug of war, constraining the ability of the international community to end the killing. No one seems able to articulate a credible vision of what an acceptable settlement should look like. The plan of Kofi Annan, the United Nations-Arab League envoy on Syria, has been dismissed by the insurgents and has been undermined by the regime. Talk of partition, genocide and religious radicalization in Syria fills the airwaves.

The Lebanese government’s stated Syria policy has been reactive and rooted in ambiguity. The conveniently nebulous concept of disassociation provides a fig leaf to an increasingly nervous Prime Minister Najib Mikati, while Hezbollah and its supporters in government sing to their own tune and invest heavily in the Syrian regime’s survival. The foreign minister, Adnan Mansour, acts as a mouthpiece for the Syrian ambassador. The intelligence and security services have been tasked with blunting activity perceived as threatening to the Assad regime. A blind eye is turned toward Syrian incursions onto sovereign Lebanese territory and a deaf ear to statements by the likes of the pro-Syrian Palestinian official Ahmad Jibril committing Lebanese militias to fight for the Assads.

Nearly five years into the mandate of Michel Sleiman, few expect the Lebanese president to engage in dynamic diplomacy on most issues. Yet the dearth of initiatives on Syria remains surprising. No matter will have more of an impact on Lebanon’s future and, ultimately, our freedoms than the outcome of the drama unfolding in that country.

Sleiman is in a position to step forward with a vision for the future of Syria. Why not promote the Lebanese formula that he is constitutionally obligated to defend in Lebanon? Why not draw attention to the advantages of the Lebanese system for a post-Assad Syria?

The Lebanese political system has been maligned in Lebanon and abroad. Yet its formula was designed to consolidate a democratic form of government that protects the rights of religious and ethnic communities by ensuring they hold a share of power in a system of confessional checks and balances. This would preserve the freedom of communities and of individuals. That our system has been deficient in delivering stability owes more to the interference of Syria over the decades than to any substantial flaw in the system’s conception.

Many readers would scoff at this. Lebanon needs to be rid of the confessional system that is the cause of all our problems, goes the familiar line. But this simplistic view downplays the importance of the political construct designed by the framers of our Constitution. It proceeds from the misunderstanding that democracy is simply the rule of the majority. It is not. Democracy is the rule of the majority coupled with the protection of the right and ability of a minority to oppose the majority. It is about the preservation of the principle of alternation allowing a minority to become a political majority as a result of free elections, on the strength of a political platform.

When majorities are religious, however, as is in the Middle East, one can only move from the minority to the majority by changing one’s religion, which is a profoundly undemocratic solution. This is why democracy can often only be achieved by recognizing the right of religious minorities to hold a guaranteed share of power and a veto right over decisions that may affect the fundamental rights of both their community and its members. This idea is at the core of our system. It explains why Lebanon does not recognize a state religion.

And that is why the Lebanese formula is so exportable. It can be adapted to the religious and social realities of Syria, which are not dissimilar to those of Lebanon. It can then mold them into a framework that guarantees the fundamental rights of individuals including, crucially, freedom of religion and the right not to be discriminated against on account of one’s religious affiliation.

This solution dovetails with the publicly expressed fears of the religious minorities in Syria. But it can work just as well for ethnic minorities. It also converges with the stated positions of most Syrian insurgent factions, who hold that they want a free, open and democratic Syria where citizens are equal under the law.

It is up to the Lebanese to champion this model. And who is better placed to do so than Lebanon’s president? He could draw on the influence of leaders on both sides of the Lebanese political and confessional spectrum with influence in Syria. Once traction is gained, regional players could become involved in an attempt to bridge the destructive Syrian geopolitical divide.

It is in Lebanon’s interest that the inevitable transition in Syria should occur rapidly and that violence should end. It is equally in our interest to attempt to shape the outcome. Let us do it on our own terms. Michel Sleiman should act. There is much to gain in his attempt.

Jawad Boulos is a former Lebanese parliamentarian, and was a March 14 delegate to the National Dialogue, the dialogue sessions at La Celle-Saint Cloud near Paris, and the Doha conference. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

Read more:
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

Categories: Asia, Lebanon, Syria

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