Coexistence Is the Last Chance to Avoid the Precipice

Last week, Egypt’s Coptic Christians cancelled Easter celebrations in mourning for those who were killed in two separate terrorist explosions targeting churches in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria.

In Iraq too, new maps are being drawn by sectarianism, while minorities shrink and ethno-religious fabric change under the violence perpetrated by Iran on one side and ISIS on another.

Likewise, we openly witness how shredded Syria has become, and under the eyes of the international community, it is well on the road of partition and population exchange– finally, the less said the better it is when the subject matter is ongoing events in occupied Palestinian territories.

Given this painful regional climate, the ongoing arguments about Lebanon’s future electoral system become a travesty, not much different from the ‘crowded’ field of Iran’s presidential elections where neither votes nor abundance of candidates mean a thing against what the Supreme Leader utters and the elitist Revolutionary Gaurd the (IRGC) dictates.

In Lebanon, the Middle East’s ‘democratic’ soft belly, the Lebanese’ daily bread and butter is endless and absurd arguments and counter-arguments about what the most appropriate electoral system should look like in upcoming parliamentary elections. This is not actually new. Moreover, true intentions behind what is going on have nothing to do with what is being said, whether the intention is escalation or hypocrisy.

The real problem is that the Lebanese are acutely divided on several basic issues regarding conditions of coexistence, political representation and even the meaning of democracy.

For a start, one must ask oneself whether the next elections – regardless of what system is adopted – are going to produce any change in the status quo? Is there any common Lebanese vision as to what the country’s identity is among the ostensible ‘allies’, let alone political adversaries and those dependent on foreign backing and sectarian hegemony?

Then, one may also ask – given defective mechanisms of governance – would ‘state institutions’ still be relevant and meaningful? Would any electoral law be effective in the light of accelerating disproportionate sectarian demographics, and the fact that one large religious sect enjoys a monopoly of military might outside the state’s umbrella, while still sharing what is underneath that umbrella?

The other day in his Easter sermon the Maronite Patriarch Cardinal Bechara Ra’i said “the (Lebanese) Christians are nobody’s bullied weaklings, but are rather indispensable (!)…”. This is tough talk indeed, but it too is not new.

From what is widely known about Cardinal Ra’i, even before assuming the Patriarchate, is that he is highly interested in politics, and that political views are as candid as they are decisive. On Syria, in particular, he has been among the first to warn the West against and dissuade its leaders from supporting the Syrian uprising; when he claimed during his visits – beginning with France – that any regime that may replace Bashar Al-Assad’s may be worse, and thus it would better to keep him in power.

The same path has been followed by current Lebanese president Michel Aoun, who was strongly backed by Hezbollah, to the extent that the latter forced a political vacuum on Lebanon lasting for over two years.

Of course, Hezbollah, in the meantime, had been imposing its hegemony over Lebanon, fighting for Al-Assad in Syria, and training the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen as part of Iran’s project of regional dominance. In promoting this ‘project’ globally, but particularly in the West, Iran has given it the themes of ‘fighting terrorism’ – meaning ‘Sunni Muslim terrorism’- and ‘protection of minorities’ within the framework of a tactical ‘coalition of the minorities’.

A few days ago Aoun said during an interview that “the aim behind what is taking place in the Orient is to empty it of Christians and partition the region into several states”. Again, this is not something new, as it used to be said on the murder and kidnapping road blocks during the dark days of the Lebanese War between 1975 and 1990. Those days the fears of uprooting were common and widespread; reaching the climax within the Christian community with rumors that the mission of American diplomat Dean Brown was to evacuate Lebanon’s Christians to Canada, and within the Druze community during ‘the Mountain War’ (1983-1984) that they would be expelled to southern Syria.

However, Aoun, as it seems, has not been quite aware of who was applying the final touches on population exchange, and drawing the map for the ‘future’ states he has been warning against. He has simply ignored the full picture, turning instead, to repeat old talk in order to justify temporary interests that are harmful if not fatal to minorities, rather than being beneficial and protective.

In this context, come the ‘try-to-be-smart’ attempts to impose a new electoral law in Lebanon as a means of blackmail, as if the country’s sectarian ‘tribal chieftains’ are naïve or debutants in the arena of sectarian politics. The latest has come from Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister and President Aoun’s son-in-law, when he expressed his “willingness to entertain the idea of a Senate, on the condition that it is headed by a Christian!”. This pre-condition was quickly rejected by the Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri on the basis that the presidency of a Senate, as approved in “Taif Agreement” – which is now part of Lebanon’s Constitution – was allocated to the Druze; and thus, what Bassil had suggested was unconstitutional.

It is worth mentioning here that all suggestions regarding the future electoral law have ignored the issue of a Senate. It was has also been obvious that another item in the “Taif Agreement” was being intentionally ignored too, which is adopting ‘Administrative De-Centralization’.

However, if some Lebanese parties feel uncomfortable with the idea of ‘De-Centralization’, more so as both Iraq and Syria seem to be on their way to actual partition, it is not possible anymore to separate Lebanon’s politics from its demographics.

The latter are now being affected by radical and everlasting demographic changes occurring across the country’s disintegrating eastern borders with Syria. These include what is being reported – without being refuted – about widespread settlement and naturalization activities in Damascus and its countryside. Furthermore, once the population exchange between Shi’ite ‘pockets’ of northern Syria and the Sunni majority population of the Barada River valley is completed, the new sectarian and demographic fabric of Damascus and its countryside would gain a strategic depth and merge with a similar fabric in eastern Lebanon.

This is a danger that Lebanese Christians, indeed, all Lebanese, Syrians, Iraqis and all Arabs, must be aware of and sincere about. The cost of ignoring facts on the ground is tragic, as blood begets blood, exclusion justifies exclusion, and marginalization undermines coexistence.

Nation-building is impossible in the absence of a free will to live together. It is impossible in a climate of lies, while those who think they are smart gamble on shifting regional and global balances of power.

The Return to Saudi Arabia!

The region is undergoing a game-changer phase after the conclusion of former U.S. president Barack Obama’s tenure and the start of U.S. President Donald Trump’s phase. This is happening because of Trump’s stance in considering the fight against terrorism as a priority and Iran as a terrorism-sponsoring country, and for that, he is seeking a coalition to stand against Iran in the region.

Trump also wants to establish safe zones in Syria, backed by Saudi Arabia, in addition to Washington’s approach towards the Yemeni crisis that seems more restrict than Obama’s.

In the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there comes Trump’s confused and excited administration.

All this pushed Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to visit Oman and Kuwait and to try to build ties with Saudi Arabia. We also saw Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in an attempt to deliver messages to Trump, hoping to succeed in this new trick. Also Hassan Nasralla announced approval upon the ceasefire and political talks in Syria as he claimed that 99% of the possibility to oust the regime was evaded before he changed the subject, moving to the Palestinian cause.

Nasralla added that the meeting between Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu means the conclusion of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Anyone who listens to Nasralla thinks that he was a supporter of negotiations and peaceful solution and not actually one of the most prominent exploiters of the Palestinian cause to serve Iranian goals in the region.

After this full-of-confusion phase, what is next? Let us start from the Financial Times editorial on Trump’s statements over the Palestinian cause to remind him that there is no need to submit new solutions and that the best approach is to revive the Arab Peace Initiative (API) – a Saudi initiative made by Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz.

This means that if serious intention to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli struggle exists then it is a must to return to the Saudi API. Also, seriousness in combating terrorism is embodied in making use of the special Saudi force in combating terrorism that brought Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdulaziz, deputy premier and minister of interior, George Tenet Medal from the CIA for his intelligence work in the fight against terrorism and his contributions in achieving international security and safety.

Is this everything? No, because if we wanted to reach a solution in Yemen then it is essential to return to the Gulf initiative, led majorly by Saudi Arabia and UAE, that has turned into a U.N. resolution. The condition is similar in Lebanon, regardless of what Iranians say, but the backbone there is Taif Agreement.

Another question is: Where is the Iranian helpful initiative in the region? Where is the Iranian’s effort to achieve peace and stability? It is not a Saudi-Iranian conflict but we are infront of two different methodologies.

On one hand there is Saudi Arabia that is seeking stability and peace as affirmed by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman Bin Abdulaziz and on the other there is Iran’s continuous pursuit to create more chaos and rifts to reinforce its power.

Despite the confusion, Saudi Arabia proves itself as a rational power that should not be misused – Saudi Arabia has game-changer cards in hand while the Iranian confusion is plain.

Opinion: No, Lebanon is not finished

“Lebanon is finished!” This was what a Lebanese friend asserted the other day when he dropped in for commiseration. He came out with a litany of woes about Lebanon: inability to choose a president, a parliament prolonging its paralytic life, a Hezbollah serving Iran rather than Lebanon, takfiris trying to carve out mini-emirates, and political elites more focused on making money than solving the nation’s problems.

While all those assertions are valid, at least in part, they cannot sustain the conclusion that Lebanon has become a moribund state.

True, the presidency has been vacant since May. However, let us note that with the 1989 Taif Agreement the presidential system was effectively replaced with a parliamentary one. Today, having no president doesn’t look good, but nor does it do much harm.

At the risk of sounding cynical, one may suggest that having no president may be preferable to having a bad one. Just think of how many presidents Arab nations would rather have done without.

That Lebanon is unable to hold parliamentary elections is certainly lamentable. But no election is better than fraudulent ones, as is the norm in many countries. The prolonged parliament still represents Lebanon’s confessional and political groupings.

The good news is that a paralyzed parliament, while it cannot function as a proper legislature, can’t do much harm either. With the paralysis of the Lebanese state’s political organs the nation has to function on autopilot. In the absence of political meddling, non-political organs, such as courts, the central bank, the bureaucracy, and the army may actually function better.

The weakening of the political apparatus may also create more space for civil society, including the private sector of the economy, mosques and churches, the media, cultural associations, professional syndicates, and trade unions.

In fact, one of the problems that most modern Arab nations have faced is the overwhelming power of the state at the expense of civil society.

One could argue that in contrast with an earlier generation of its leaders, under Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah has, at times, risked Lebanon’s national interests to help Iran’s ambitions. Nevertheless, there are signs that Nasrallah, a clever politician, is perhaps becoming aware of the fragility of his position. He is beginning to take note of some facts, including the deteriorating situation in Syria, the challenge posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the possibility of the mullahs making a deal with Washington.

Nasrallah’s speech at the start of Muharram merits study. There is no space here for detailed analysis of his subtle changes of tone. However, three points need to be made.

First, he sounded shaken by events that have upset his optimistic vision of a triumphant Iran as regional hegemon. Iran’s increasing cash-flow problems, partly due to falling oil prices, have provoked a debate in Tehran about cutting down on financial aid to regional clients, including Hezbollah and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Nasrallah also implicitly admitted that defeating ISIS and kindred movements cannot be done with slogans of a sectarian nature. He appealed to “our brethren, the Sunni theologians, the majority of Muslims” to take the lead and assume “their great responsibility.”

Hezbollah’s shrinking support base and some loss of sympathy from non-Shi’ite communities that admired the party’s rhetoric against Israel is also bound to force Nasrallah to start thinking more about Lebanon’s national interests.

As for political elites spending more time on business, that, too, need not be bad news. The interregnum may persuade some of them to quit politics and focus on what they know best: making money.

That brings us to the tangibles of the situation.

If they indicate anything it is that Lebanon, far from being “finished,” may be doing better than its neighbors. According to World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) reports, the Lebanese economy will register a growth rate of more than 3 percent this year. That may not sound sensational, but is OK at a time when most other economies, from Mesopotamia to North Africa, are in meltdown mode.

Inflation is down to 1.2 percent, compared to the regional average of 11 percent. Although Lebanon has cut interest rates, capital inflow has increased by 3 percent, and the central bank’s foreign assets have topped 40 billion US dollars, an all-time record. While Lebanon’s public debt of 42 billion dollars is proportionally the second-largest in the world, the country has registered a record trade surplus.

Private bank deposits have increased by almost 12 percent and the national currency has maintained its value while other regional currencies have plummeted. That has enabled Lebanese banks to increase lending by almost 6 percent.

The projected massive drop in the number of tourists has not materialized, with visitors expected to top 1 million this year.

Beirut’s real estate market is booming and real sector indicators, that is to say infrastructural businesses, have risen by almost 10 per cent this year.

An agreement by the G-20 to end banking privacy in 2017 is likely to draw more foreign investors to Lebanon as one of a shrinking number of global tax havens.

Further down the road, Syria, reduced to an archipelago of rubble, would one day be rebuilt. Then, Lebanon would be the base of companies taking part in the rebuilding effort.

Every region needs a Lebanon, especially in times of crisis, a space closed to none and available for dialogue, investment and leisure. In a Europe shaken by endless wars, Switzerland played that role for almost 200 years. In war-torn South America, the role was assumed by Uruguay and in southern Asia by Singapore and Hong Kong. In the Gulf, Dubai has assumed part of that role.

Lebanon still faces many dangers and challenges, not least how to absorb more than a million Syrian refugees.

“But are you ready to put your own money in Lebanon?” my friend asked.

My answer was yes, with one caveat: I have no money to speak of. But that’s another story.

Lebanese politicians to consider public-sector workers’ demands

File photo of senior members of the March 14 Alliance posing for a group photograph during a news conference. (Asharq Al-Awsat)
File photo of senior members of the March 14 Alliance posing for a group photograph during a news conference. (Asharq Al-Awsat)

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Lebanese politicians are preparing for a parliamentary session on Tuesday to consider demands by public-sector workers for better pay and conditions, despite continued wrangling among Lebanese parties over the failure to elect a new president.

Despite reports in local press to the contrary on Sunday, a parliamentary session to elect a new head of state on Monday was unable to muster a quorum due to a boycott by one of the country’s main political blocs, the March 8 Alliance.

March 8, which includes Hezbollah, opposes the candidacy of Samir Geagea, a controversial former warlord, for the position.

Monday’s session marked the sixth attempt to elect a new president, and the fifth that has failed to reach a quorum of two-thirds of the 128 members of parliament, leading to fears that parliament will be unable to meet to discuss public sector pay demands, which have led civil servants and teachers to threaten industrial action.

The Lebanese presidency has been vacant since May 25, when the term of Michel Suleiman ended. Under Lebanon’s complex, confessional-based political system, the post of head of state is traditionally reserved for a member of the Maronite Christian community.

Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces Party, is a member of the other major political bloc, the March 14 Alliance. The bloc’s Christian parties announced on Sunday they would boycott all forthcoming parliamentary sessions, claiming that parliament cannot legislate in the absence of a president.

The biggest party in the March 14, the Future Movement, backed their colleagues’ position.

However, followers of Geagea’s March 8 rival, Michael Aoun, say they are ready to proceed with a parliamentary session to address public sector pay demands on Tuesday.

Ibrahim Kanaan, and MP for Aoun’s bloc, said on Sunday that he was consulting with other legislators in an attempt to “reach a common ground to allow the General Secretariat of the parliament to ratify the decision on [state] employees’ salaries and working conditions.”

Meanwhile, senior sources from the March 14 Alliance told Asharq Al-Awsat that the continuing wrangling over the presidency was caused by underlying divisions over the distribution of power between the country’s patchwork of religious communities.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one source said: “The tug of war between March 14 and March 8 is a struggle between the Taif Accord group, which decided on an equal share of power between Muslims and Christians in Lebanon, and the third-share group,” which desires to split power three ways between Sunnis, Shi’ites and Christians.

The Taif Accord, signed in the Saudi city of the same name in 1989, ended the Lebanese Civil War and established the contours of Lebanon’s postwar political system.

According to the sources, Samir Geagea backs the Taif Accord, while Aoun is the “third-share candidate.”

“The difference with the other side is not personal; it is a difference over a plan, which requires sovereign forces to stay with their candidates to the end, despite the ongoing difficult political circumstances,” one source said.

Geagea is expected to discuss his candidacy in a TV interview on Monday, as well as his position on the open dialogue between Aoun and the leader of the Future Movement, ex-PM Saad Al-Hariri.

A senior official from Geagea’s party, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “contacts between the two parties do not cause concern for the Lebanese Forces.”

He added that “Hariri met Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and we never lost confidence in him, so what if he meets Aoun?”

Meanwhile, Progressive Socialist Party chief and the leader of Lebanon’s Druze, Walid Jumblatt, has announced he will not withdraw his nomination of Henri Helou for the presidency–even if Saad Al-Hariri and Michel Aoun reach an agreement—in an open indication of his opposition to Aoun becoming president.

The religious leader of Lebanon’s Maronite Christians, Patriarch Bechara Boutros Al-Rahi, warned on Sunday that “failure to elect a new president of the republic is a dangerous violation of the constitution which will paralyze the constitutional institutions.”

In his Sunday sermon, Rahi said: “The election of a government which replaces the president for an indefinite period is a dangerous violation of the charter and agreement, because the Christian–Maronite constituent will be excluded from the presidency; leaving the parliament unable to carry out its legislative role and the government unable to exercise its powers.”

Lebanon’s Unwritten Constitution

Lebanese MPs attend a parliament session in Beirut, Lebanon, on May 31, 2013. (Reuters/Mohamed Azakir)
Lebanese MPs attend a parliament session in Beirut, Lebanon, on May 31, 2013. (Reuters/Mohamed Azakir)
Lebanese MPs attend a parliament session in Beirut, Lebanon, on May 31, 2013. (Reuters/Mohamed Azakir)

Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—Lebanon’s unwritten constitution has, as anywhere, arisen from tradition. In other words, any practice in Lebanese society that has affected government and which has been repeatedly practiced has become part of the constitution, so long as nobody objected to it too vocally. One of the eldest of these traditions is, perhaps, the division of power along sectarian lines that has arisen since 1943, known as the confessional system. In that year, when Lebanon was liberated from the French mandate, the country’s leaders met and agreed to the unwritten “National Pact,” which divided power—in particular, seats in the new parliament—between Christians and Muslims in a 6:5 ratio. The president and the heads of the army and public security would all be Maronite Christians. A Shi’a Muslim would be appointed Speaker of Parliament, and a Sunni Muslim would be Prime Minister. Though this arrangement was not written down, changing it was one of the causes of the devastating civil war that ended in 1990, with the signing of the Taif Agreement.

That document provided for equality between Muslims and Christians in the political sphere in a written document, but it added another unwritten tradition to the fold in response to demands from the Shi’ite community. Lebanon’s Shi’ites had originally called for a post of vice-president to be created—an idea originally suggested by the current Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, during peace talks at Geneva and Lausanne in the mid-1980s. It was suggested once again at Taif, this time by Prime Minister Hussein Al-Husseini, but was rejected once again on the grounds that the parliamentary system did not have a position of “vice president.” Instead, the Ministry of Finance was handed over to the Shi’ite sect at Taif, by virtue of the fact that the Minister of Finance has to sign off on most money bills and the sect’s original goal had been to secure a post involved in signing bills into law.

Lebanon’s political leaders are reportedly growing closer to a settlement to a crisis that has stalled governance since the Cabinet since March last year, when the last Cabinet resigned. In this latest political stalemate, it is clear that Lebanon’s confessional system is continuing to interfere with the smooth running of government. As Prime Minister-designate Tammam Salam, a Sunni, tries to form a national consensus government with each party in the coalition taking at least one ministerial portfolio, Michel Aoun, a Christian, has been in opposition, saying Salam’s proposed arrangement would run foul of tradition and marginalize Christian presence in the government. Doubtlessly, part of the dispute has arisen because the traditions governing the assignment of ministerial posts are unclear.

Musical ministerial chairs

That custom, of selecting a Shi’ite finance minister, continued over a number of years and a number of different governments. Ali Khalil served as Minister of Finance in the government of Salim Al-Hoss and during the first premiership of President Elias Al-Hrawi, who was elected immediately after the Taif Agreement and served until 1998. In his first government, the Ministry of Defense was given to the Greek Orthodox sect, the Interior Ministry to the Maronites, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the Sunnis. Thus these ministries, known as the “sovereign ministries,” were assigned to the four largest sects, while the remaining ministerial portfolios were distributed among the remaining sects. In the subsequent government, Prime Minister Omar Karami maintained that system, although he appointed a Sunni as Minister of the Interior, a Maronite Christian, to the Foreign Ministry, and a Greek Orthodox Christian to the Defense Ministry. Prime Minister Rashid Al-Solh then followed suit, and his government—the third under Hrawi and the second after the Taif Agreement—allocated the Ministry of Finance to Asaad Diab, a Shi’ite, in 1992. Solh assigned a Sunni to the Interior Ministry and a Greek Orthodox Christian to the Ministry of Defense.

While it seemed in those early years after the civil war that Lebabnon was acquiring a new customary constitutional law, the system did not hold out. In 1992, the late Rafik Al-Hariri began his tenure as Prime Minister. As his economic plans required a certain kind of presence in the Ministry of Finance, Hariri asked that the portfolio be given to one of his close associates, Fouad Siniora, a Sunni. But that request was rejected, as it would mean breaking with the tradition then being established for Hariri and not for others. Instead, Hariri himself was appointed finance minister and Siniora was made the Minister of State for Financial Affairs, to assist with any tasks Hariri himself could not undertake due to other obligations. In the meantime, the Ministry of Defense was given to a Shi’ite, the Ministry of the Interior to a Greek Orthodox Christian and the foreign ministry to President Hrawi’s son-in-law, Maronite Christian Faris Bouiez, who had held the post under the two previous governments.

Salim Al-Hoss, who formed the government from December 1998 until October 2000 after Hariri refused to preside over the first government under President Émile Lahoud, appointed a Greek Orthodox Christian as finance minister while also leaving the interior ministry to the sect. He left the defense ministry in the hands of the Shi’ites, and the foreign ministry was given to the Sunni Muslim sect.

Following his return to power with a landslide election victory in 2000, Hariri made the same request with regards to Siniora and the finance ministry, and that time Siniora did take the finance portfolio. In his second government the foreign ministry was given to the Shi’a sect for the first time, which gave rise to a tradition that has continued until today.

In the next government, led by Omar Karami from 2004, the foreign ministry was again given to the Shi’ites, the finance ministry to the Orthodox Christians, the defense ministry to the Sunnis and the interior ministry to the Maronites.

Najib Mikati, who came to power after the assassination of Hariri in 2005 and the consequent collapse of Karami’s government, gave the finance ministry back to the Maronites. He assigned the Defense Ministry to the Greek Orthodox sect and the interior ministry to the Sunnis, leaving the foreign ministry with the Shi’ites.

The same arrangement was used in Siniora’s first government, which was formed after the 2005 elections. But in his second government, formed after the infamous Doha Agreement of 2008 that paved the way for Michel Suleiman to come to power, the interior ministry was headed by a Maronite and the defense ministry by an Orthodox Christian. The finance ministry was given to a Sunni, Mohamad Chatah (who was assassinated in December). The foreign ministry again remained with the Shi’a sect.

The government of Saad Al-Hariri, which lasted from 2009 to 2011, repeated Siniora’s pattern. The Shi’ites had the foreign ministry, the Sunnis the finance ministry, the Orthodox Christians the defense ministry and the Maronites had the interior ministry. This arrangement was repeated again in 2011, when Mikati became prime minister after the collapse of Hariri’s government.

A sect’s ministries are its castle

If the so-called sovereign ministries are the most important in government and allocated equally among Lebanon’s sects, then other ministries are allocated according to the political needs of each group. For example, Prime Minister Berri refused to take part in the first government under President Hrawi until he was entrusted with a special ministry for the south, which gave him the ability to implement projects in a region where his political and electoral interests were concentrated. Berri used his time at the head of that ministry to consolidate his presence in south Lebanon through building and improving infrastructure, including schools, roads and irrigation. For this reason, he also sought to keep the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources in the hands of his own Shi’ite sect.

Walid Jumblatt also has control of a similar ministry, the Ministry of Displaced People, through which he has used service provision to strengthen his influence in the Mount Lebanon region. In addition, the Ministry of Public Works has remained under the control of his Druze sect.

The late Prime Minister Hariri focused mainly on the economy, finance and construction, and so he sought to secure ministries related to these competencies for his followers. Similarly, President Hrawi’s main interest was foreign affairs, and he sought to secure corresponding ministerial posts. Two generals who went on to become presidents, Émile Lahoud and Suleiman, were keen to secure the security and defense ministries, and those two portfolios were always allocated to members of their Maronite Christian sect.

Syria’s allies always took possession of the Ministry of Labor, which was concerned with employment—and mainly employment in Syrian Lebanon. Thus it was exclusively headed by Ba’athist ministers or those from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. When those two parties left government in 2005, Hezbollah took over.

The Ministry of Energy and Water Resources has transformed very rapidly into a “super ministry” due to the discovery of promising oil resources, and so Michel Aoun has sought to maintain control of it through his son-in-law, current Minister of Energy and Water Gibran Bassil, a Maronite. But Aoun is being challenged by Berri, a Shi’ite. Bassil has gone so far as to tie the energy ministry to “the rights of Christians” in Lebanon, saying that “oil gives a new guarantee for the Christians. There is a balanced growth in it that the Christians have been missing for 25 years.”

Illustrating the emphasis placed by the sects on securing ministerial portfolios, he added: “Is it permissible to deny the largest Christian bloc a sovereign portfolio? The Christians must come together regarding this issue as today we form the largest Christian bloc and tomorrow someone else will, so is it permissible to deny the largest Christian bloc a sovereign portfolio and for the Christians to be left with the two lesser sovereign ones? . . . Has the Christian role become one of folklore? Christians cannot be deprived of anything because they are the guarantors of everything in Lebanon, and they are not beggars of seats and portfolios.”

Does anybody know how it works?

Article 95 of the Lebanese constitution provides that “the sectarian groups shall be represented in a just and equitable manner in the formation of the Cabinet” until such time as the confessional system can be abolished. But Lebanese constitutional scholars have identified a layer of unwritten constitutional law solidifying that provision, in which the three major sects—Maronites, Sunnis and Shi’ites—must be given an equal share of ministerial portfolios with the remaining sects taking the remainder.

As Lebanese legal expert Ahmed Al-Zain acknowledges, under this arrangement representation of Muslims is limited to members of the Sunni, Shi’ite and Druze sects, which each get two ministers if the government has 30 ministries to staff. That figure was adopted by Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, to secure as diverse a representation as possible. Other than Maronite and Orthodox Christians, no minority Christian sect would receive a ministerial portfolio under this power-sharing tradition unless there were 30 ministries. Thus the 24 ministries being proposed now would exclude minority Christian sects from holding ministerial posts. Furthermore, under this arrangement the Armenians do not get a minister unless there are more than 19 ministries, and the Alawites, who have never held a ministry despite the extensive Syrian influence during the 1990s, do not get a portfolio unless there are 35 or more ministries.

Citing the Taif Agreement and the discussions leading to its agreement, former justice minister Edmond Rizk rejected the idea that a certain ministry should always be allocated to a specific sect. “When we were meeting in Taif,” he said, “we set off based on the idea that Lebanon is a diverse country and there is no discrimination.” He added that when he was entrusted with formulating constitutional amendments he purposely mentioned a paragraph from Article 95 that stipulated the abolition of confessional representation and called for resorting to expertise and competence in public offices, the judiciary, military and security institutions, and public and mixed bodies in accordance with the requirements of national reconciliation.

Rizk believes that any discussions about the “rotation” [of cabinet portfolios] is “heretical,” because ministers should be selected based on their specific expertise and competencies. He emphasized that the ministries “are not inherited but are rather a responsibility on the shoulders of those in charge of them,” stressing that any talk of rotation of cabinet portfolios inherently implies confessionalism.

Rizk believes that people are now looking for solutions in the wrong places, saying: “Lebanon today needs to develop its spirit of citizenship and to bypass sectarianism and to confront excessive family gains.” Looking to Lebanon’s past, he noted that the system in place before the civil war&€8212;where ministers were selected by the president in consultation with his prime minister alone, without reference to Lebanon’s various political parties and trends—may be a guide for its future.

But unless that system can be reestablished, it seems that Lebanon’s sects and their corresponding political parties will continue to hold great influence over the selection of ministers, contrary to the normal course of government formation in a parliamentary democracy—Lebanon’s own constitution states that the president and prime minister alone are entitled to form the government and select the ministers. The unwritten constitution that has emerged since the Taif Agreement clearly prevents that, and so today the confessional system reigns supreme over the selection of ministers.