Why there is no ‘Maronite politics’ in Lebanon

Maronite politics manifests today in several ways hardly expressed anymore by the old concept of “Christian Lebanon.”
Sunday 23/09/2018
Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks during a news conference in Beirut, last June. (Reuters)
Unexpected divisions. Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil speaks during a news conference in Beirut, last June. (Reuters)

The government crisis in Lebanon has highlighted the signs of fracture inside what used to be known as “Maronite politics” in Lebanon.

In reality, the government crisis has at its base a Christian-Christian disagreement, or more precisely a Maronite-Maronite disagreement, about the nature of the Christian quota in Lebanon’s government. At stake is the leadership of the Christian community in Lebanon, given that the outcome of that competition prepares for filling the position of Lebanese president in 2022.

Divisions in the Christian bloc in Lebanon were unexpected. What was expected was that Maronite politics would play a vital and neutral role in Lebanon, given the other fierce schism in the region — the one between Sunnis and Shias. Observers discovered that Maronites have become players in the big Lebanese schism and their political fate has become intimately tied to the Sunni-Shia rivalry.

There have been proposals to rid Lebanon of the sectarian rivalry between the Sunnis and the Shias by giving Christians a greater role in Lebanese politics, similar in importance to the role of the Maronite before the 1989 Taif Agreement.

Those voices did not wish to undo the Taif Agreement, which ended 15 years of civil war but pointed out that Lebanese Maronite Christians do not have an independent model for Lebanon, which is different from models propagated by various elements of Lebanese society.

Christian political leaders do not say Lebanese Maronites can come up with an independent political agenda for Lebanon. They say the Christian camp has reached high levels of discord such that its internal crises have become an obstacle to forming a government in Lebanon and a hindrance to the political system in the country.

Former member of parliament Fares Saeed rejected the idea of elaborating a purely Christian agenda for Lebanon, which would be independent of the overall Lebanese context. “There shouldn’t be a Christian project for Lebanon,” he said. “There should only be a Lebanese project for all the sects in Lebanon.” Saeed quoted Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir: “Lebanon does not belong to the Maronites; rather, it’s the Maronites who belong to Lebanon.”

Inside the Christian camp, there are two competing schools. The first says that Lebanese Christians must be an integral part of a regional coalition grouping all other minorities regardless of their religions, sects or ethnicities. This school finds its origins in the ideology that accompanied the creation of the Lebanese entity. That ideology states that Lebanon is the home country of minorities. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has been accused of belonging to this school, which would explain his preference to ally himself with Hezbollah, Damascus and Tehran rather than with Lebanon’s Arab environment.

The second school finds its roots in the Christians’ experience in the civil war and their acceptance of the Taif Agreement, which clearly states that Lebanon is an Arab country. This Christian school says it believes in ending the idea of a “Maronite exception” in Lebanon and in working towards a full partnership with the Lebanese Muslims since the agreement states that Lebanon is the definitive homeland for all Lebanese. Given this background, all Lebanese Christians must accept that Lebanon is part of the Arab region.

Saeed is also coordinator of the March 14 coalition, which had refused the compromise that put Aoun in the presidency. “The idea that Lebanon is a homeland for all minorities in the region is dead and so is the idea that Maronite Christians are an exceptional community in Lebanon. What we have now is the idea that Lebanon is collective living, which is the fundamental idea behind the Taif Agreement and the constitution,” Saeed said.

While some people close to Aoun concluded that the Aounist movement and its Free Patriotic Movement party are the real representatives of Christian forces in Lebanon and their independence, others disagree and say the Aounists draw their strength from their alliance with Hezbollah.

So when Aoun and his son-in-law, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, oppose proposals for a new government put forth by Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri, they are taking advantage of Hezbollah’s forceful dominance of political life in Lebanon.

Christian politician and former minister Sajaan Qazi said, contrary to what some might believe, “the large victories obtained by the Aounist movement during the last three general elections in Lebanon were made possible only by the last three agreements that the general (Aoun) had struck with Hezbollah in 2006 (St Michael’s Agreement), with the Lebanese Forces Party in 2015 (the Declaration of Intentions), and in 2016 with the Future Movement (the Presidential Agreement).”

Saeed said the old understanding of Maronite politics is part of old history. He indicated that “the (Lebanese) Shias today are trying to appropriate for themselves the idea of ‘exceptional sect.’ In other words, they’re trying to put in place a ‘political Shia ideology’ that would replace the pre-war political Maronite ideology.”

Saeed said: “Back in time, the Maronites had argued that Lebanon was a Maronite invention, so they naturally had the right to govern it. Today the Shias are saying: ‘We are the ones who have protected Lebanon from Israel and terrorism’ and he who protects the land governs the land.”

Observers said the main beneficiary of this internal Christian conflict is Hezbollah, as long as its bickering partners stay within the boundaries of the party’s will and agenda. They point out that when the independent Christian forces come together with big Christian parties, such as the Forces or the Phalanges, to vex Aoun and Bassel, that doesn’t necessarily mean that foundations are being laid for a new “Maronite politics,” even if their movement represents new efforts to position themselves within the spirit of the March 14 coalition.

Some Lebanese politicians have concluded that a purely Christian Maronite political camp is missing in the Lebanese scene where already two camps, the Shia political camp, headed by Hezbollah and Amal Movement, and the Sunni political camp, headed by the Future Movement, are battling it out. However, Maronite politics manifests today in several ways hardly expressed anymore by the old concept of “Christian Lebanon.”

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