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    Mr. Berri is Playing Another Nasty Game

    Abolishing political sectarianism is the goal of secular Lebanese, who believe that sectarianism in all its forms is the biggest problem for Lebanon. If the Lebanese were able to reach that goal, secularists believe, the state would gain more power as the different sectarian factions melt into one national identity.

    Now that the country has entered a phase of relative stability with the formation of the national unity government and the reconciliatory meetings between rival political leaders, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri decided to start his latest term with a campaign to abolish political sectarianism from the constitution, referring to Article 95 of the Taif Accord and President Michel Sleiman’s call to implement the document.

    In as much as Berri’s demand is valid and constitutes an opportunity for secular Lebanese to fulfill their dreams of a civil state, the context of his campaign raises a number of concerns.

    Berri’s political history does not reveal an aspiration to abolish sectarianism, he being the sectarian leader of Amal, a Shia militia. On the contrary, in his 18 years as speaker of the house, Berri has abused state institutions for both sectarian and personal purposes. He has attempted to boost his popularity among the Shia by providing state jobs and services to his followers, and has put the parliament at the service of his ally, Hezbollah, and its regional backers. Notably, Berri closed the parliament for 18 months between 2006 and 2008 to protest against what he said was Shia underrepresentation in the government, thereby paralyzing state institutions and blocking the election of the president for months.

    Yet this Wednesday, Berri told reporters that it is now time to establish a national committee to abolish political sectarianism in the wake of the formation of the national unity cabinet and considering the current political stability in Lebanon.

    Who is he fooling? The primary benefactors of the abolition of political sectarianism would be the Shia, demographically the largest community in Lebanon, who overwhelmingly side with Hezbollah and Amal. Despite the urgency of eliminating sectarianism from both Lebanese society and the country’s official texts, it would be hard to accept that the largest community, the one controlled by the Hezbollah-led opposition and its arsenal, would be then able to control the country, its institutions and decisions, including UN Security Council resolutions 1559 and 1701.

    Hezbollah is not only armed, it has ideological connections to the Wilayat al-Faqih, or the Guardianship of the Jurist, the religious institution of the Islamic state of Iran. Abolishing political sectarianism would in essence enable an armed Islamic party to control Lebanon and its institutions.

    Berri’s timing is also questionable. He decided to launch his campaign, despite objections from other political leaders, right before preparations for the national dialogue, in which Lebanese leaders are to sit down to discuss Hezbollah’s arms and the national defense strategy. As more March 14 Christians raise the call to disarm Hezbollah, and despite the consensus on the ministerial statement, Berri – and by extension Hezbollah – thought it might be a good idea to warn the Christians with the anti-sectarian mantra, as it threatens them directly.

    Christians in Lebanon are already divided and are thinning demographically. Moreover, the Taif Accord transferred many of the Maronite president’s privileges to the Sunni prime minister. If the current equal division of power in the parliament between Christians and Muslims were abolished, the Christians would lose even more of their standing. It is not a coincidence that only Shia figures supported Berri’s initiative, while others objected to it.

    Berri’s selectiveness is another concern. The speaker noted that the Taif stipulated the formation of the committee. However, he ignored other Taif requirements that are part of abolishing sectarianism, such as guaranteeing the state’s sovereignty and control over all its territory, disarming all militias, and implementing administrative decentralization.

    It is also ironic that the speaker stated that this initiative “does not require consensus”, while he made it abundantly clear over the past five years that Lebanese institutions can only be built on consensus, the latest example of which is the national unity government that both Berri and Hezbollah fought for.

    Although Berri said that forming the committee does not mean an immediate abolition of political sectarianism, and that it would take decades for its cancellation to be complete, he did not hesitate to use his usual bullying tone. He told reporters that obstructing one constitutional article will affect other ones, such as those related to the formation of a senate and a new election law. He added that there are relevant issues that will also be stalled, such passing a law to allow members of the Lebanese diaspora to vote and administrative decentralization.

    It is understood that the senate is associated with the formation of the committee. But why would it affect the implementation of other requirements? Berri has picked a valid cause but his logic is unsound.

    On the other hand, the speaker’s campaign emphasized the fact that no one, whether politicians or civil society activists, has a clear plan of how to end political sectarianism. All reactions to his proposal were based on sectarian-fuelled fears of some parties losing power and of Hezbollah gaining more. No one has addressed the issue with a call for a national plan, where it is tackled at a grass-roots level.

    Abolishing political sectarianism is a necessary step, but it should not be imposed on Lebanon by one sect or sectarian party. It will be a long process that should take into consideration ways to develop the Lebanese political system, without causing any party fears.

    Obliterating political sectarianism requires erasing it on every level, from the education system and civil society to discriminatory laws. It requires eliminating the power of religious figures, coming up with a unifying civil law and forbidding the formation of religious parties. Is Berri willing to go through with this process?

    He only called for the formation of the committee, and dialogue among all groups would be its main pursuit. But dialogue requires equality, and it is not possible to debate such a sensitive issue between an armed group and the rest of the country. The May 7 events are still fresh in the collective memory of the Lebanese.

    Hanin GHADDAR
    NOW Lebanon
    16.01.2010

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