Lebanese politicians should refrain from feeding the sectarian hydra

Sunday 21/05/2017
Slaying the beast. Lebanese demonstrators protesting against sectarian politicians at Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut. (Reuters)

Anyone remotely familiar with Leba­non and its unique political infrastruc­ture will be aware of the sectarian nature of the sporadic violence that has tarnished its recent history. About nine years ago, the Lebanese people bore witness to an out­break of sectarian violence that almost pushed the country to the brink of civil war, later referred to simply as the May 7 events.
Ostensibly, the violence was sparked by the apparently straightforward decision of the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to dismantle Hezbollah’s private communica­tion network and suspend Beirut airport’s head of security, a Shia-Lebanese army officer. Irrespective of government intentions, the outcome was an assault against pro-government factions throughout the area, resulting in the occupation of West Beirut by Hezbollah and its allies.
Hezbollah’s 2008 military push was ultimately curtailed. How­ever, its half-finished coup left Lebanon’s Sunni population with a lingering sense of defeat and the already volatile relationship between Sunni and Shia Muslims on a knife’s edge.
What tensions remained were apparently forgotten after the belligerents attended a confer­ence in Doha. They hammered out a deal that led to the election of Michel Suleiman as president and agreed upon on an electoral law that would seem to benefit all parties.
As expedient as the Doha Accord was, its legacy has been to paper over, rather than resolve, Lebanon’s sectarian divide, which continues to hinder progress towards a political solution in the country.
While the representatives of the Sunni/Shia divide, the Future Movement and Hezbollah, have agreed on a truce and conduct regular dialogue sessions, these meetings rarely extend beyond the cosmetic. Behind the façade, the embers of sectarianism smoulder, erupting into flames every time Lebanon’s political system is tested.
Much of the debate surrounding the long-awaited and long-delayed parliamentary elections has been accompanied by a rise in sectarian rhetoric, both within the political class and the Lebanese commu­nity at large, especially on social media. However, all of this takes place under the shadow of the anniversary of 2008’s violence, an ominous reminder of what is at stake for Lebanon’s parties.
Lebanon’s sectarian tensions extend to the newly emerging schism between the Christian Maronites and Shias, particularly over forthcoming revisions to election law. Despite being ostensible allies, neither Hezbol­lah nor the Free Patriotic Move­ment (FPM), Lebanon’s largest Christian faction, seems able to agree on how to proceed with electoral reform.
Hezbollah has proven itself a staunch supporter of proportional representation, which would allow for the Shias and their allies to control virtually one-third of the parliament. Ironically, the FPM, which had championed propor­tional representation, now appears to find it a disadvantage after its former leader, Michel Aoun, was elected president and has since tried to step back from champion­ing a law that would widen the existing gap between the Chris­tians and their Muslim counter­parts.
The real challenge for the Lebanese political class goes further than reaching consensus over electoral reform. It lies in coming to terms with the reality that sectarianism in Lebanon is a double-edged sword that once drawn will not easily go back to its scabbard. With Lebanon’s historic patrons, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, occupied with affairs closer to their respective homes, no benevolent intervention, such as that of 2008, is likely to be forthcoming in the event of renewed violence.
What is critical for all parties to understand is that any outbreak of sectarian tension is unlikely to be restricted to their immediate groups but will act like the mythological hydra, growing two heads for every one that is severed. In Lebanon, the only way to slay this beast is to refrain from feeding it the public sentiments of hatred for the sake of a few parliamentary seats, which will not count for much if violence ever erupts again.