Swans Commentary » swans.com January 15, 2007  



Hezbollah's Democratic Demands


by Mohammed Ben Jelloun




By demanding a national unity government and a veto power over major decisions, Hezbollah and its allies are sticking to the consociational (multi-confessional) letter and the republican (patriotic) spirit of the Lebanese constitution.


(Swans - January 15, 2007)   In his Friday speech on December 1, 2006; that is, on the first sit-in day in the ongoing Lebanese Anti-Government Protest, Sheikh Abd Al-Ameer Kablan, the vice president of the Shi'i Council in Lebanon, made it clear that the opposition's demands were of a "consociational" nature; "we are for consociational participation not majority/minority participation," he said. Unlike many commentators, indeed, Hezbollah and its allies do not contest the constitutional system in force in Lebanon; they don't question what Stephen Zune (December 6, 2006) sees as a "colonially-imposed" and Robert Fisk (November 13, 2006) as a "French conceived" confessional representation system. To the contrary, Hezbollah and its allies are championing Lebanese-style democracy.

Equally, against all sorts of worries, fear, suspicion, and warnings about Hezbollah, this strengthened party in the aftermath of the July-August war did not advocate any majoritarian change in the system of representation -- even less a violent overthrow. In fact, Hezbollah embraced radical forms of consociational democracy instead.

A document (August 28, 2006) entitled "Hezbollah and the Lebanese State, Reconciling a National Strategy with a Regional Role" and signed Ali Fayyad, politburo member and director of a think tank closely affiliated with Hezbollah, is being explicit about it. "The consensus rule became Hezbollah's motto" according to Fayyad following what the party saw as an attempt by the majority side in government to monopolize the decision-making process by majority votes:

The Hezbollah's insistence that Lebanon's political system is a democratic consensual one based on the rule of "con-sociationism" as stipulated by the Preamble of the Lebanese Constitution cannot be understood merely as a political response to a particular moment of deep divisions. It reflects a deep transformation in Hezbollah's understanding of the requirements of the Lebanese political system as well as its appreciation that internal stability is central to every national project if it is to succeed in its pan-Arab and Islamic dimensions. Hezbollah's adherence to the consensus-building principle (...) sees that the majority rule creates an unstable balance of power and is inadequate in the long run to protect the interests of all. The movement seeks therefore to invest its strength and capacities to promote balance rather than to achieve domination in the Lebanese structure.

The document speaks thus clearly against "consociationalist" Michael Young of the Beirut Daily Star, who (August 7, 2006) invoked a "coup d'Etat by Nasrallah": "There is real danger today that Hezbollah will inherit Lebanon after the war. If it does, an uncontainable civil war will probably ensue... And it will mean the death of a country that, for all its faults, nonetheless tried to recreate a formula for peaceful coexistence between its religious communities in 1990 when that Lebanese civil war ended," he said.

The document speaks too against Flynn Everett, another alarmist and a former member of the CIA, State Department, and National Security Council, who (July 14, 2006) outlined the scenario of Hezbollah's taking over as follows:

If the Lebanese government, including the current one, were to push on the disarmament issue in the name of implementing the Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war in 1989, say, Hezbollah has a trump card it can play, which is deconfessionalization, which is, "Let's move to one man, one vote." That would greatly benefit the Shi'a. That would greatly benefit Hezbollah, in terms of its political standing. And it's something that the rest of the Lebanese political establishment, including the leaders of the Cedar Revolution that we saw play out in the streets of Beirut last year, they don't want to go near that issue. And it's the ultimate trump card that Hezbollah has to fend off pressure on the disarmament issue.

These allusions, allegations, and accusations of blackmail were naturally based upon those figures of Lebanese demographics being favorable (over 40% of the population) to Shi'a community, in comparison with the unfavorable ones (21% of parliamentary seats) of its political representation, owing to the "artificial" balance (50:50) maintained between Christians and Muslims. The charges were based too upon Hezbollah's own traditional "deconfessionalization" discourse. Indeed, insofar the party held any domestic political discourse it wished probably no less than "a total deconfessionalization of the political system, including the highest positions," as expressed in a statement (spring 2005) by one of its spiritual leaders: Lebanon's Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.

Hezbollah did question the multi-confessional system in the past; however, the present politically maturing party no longer does. That is, the more political and national the more consociational it got, starting with the time of the 1992 elections. At that point, the party entered the political game properly, winding up part of its puritan and militaristic past for the sake of political participation. The next move occurred with the 2005 elections and the party's subsequent involvement in government.

In fact, until very recently, talks favorable to one-person-one-vote system were still in currency. For example, while Ghaleb Abu Zeinab, the politburo member who is in charge of Hezbollah's relations with Lebanon's non-Shi'i communities, has (Fall 2004) been informing that any intention to force the system onto the country's Christians had been dropped he did also allow for change in foreseeable future:

Yes, the Christians are afraid of having a one-person-one-vote system here. That's why we don't have one yet, even though Taef called explicitly for an ending of the "confessional" system of government. (...) If we want to get to full democracy here we need to have everyone persuaded of its benefits, and not afraid that they would be overthrown. Besides, we look at the coexistence we have between the different confessions here as an example, and we don't want to overthrow it. If it was a "majority-minority" system here it would be explosive. So we'll hang onto this confessional balance we have for now. But I don't know what will happen in 20 years.

The "consociationalization" process of Hezbollah evolved dramatically since the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005. A first prefiguration of a future Lebanese national unity government occurred as the Shi'i Hezbollah and Amal movements joined the so-called Quartet Understanding, a then new electoral understanding comprising also the Movement of the Future led by Sunni Saad Hariri and the Progressive Socialist Party led by Druze Walid Joumblat. The quartet's compromise, which led to the constitution of present government, was based on the preservation of national unity, the rebuilding of the State and the protection of the resistance, leaving divergences in positions on the weapons of the resistance, the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, and the fate of the Presidency to a so-called internal Lebanese National Dialogue.

A second and more robust anticipation of a national unity government occurred as Hezbollah, the most popular movement from the Muslim community, "allied" with the Free Patriotic Movement of General Michel Aoun, the most popular movement from the Christian community. In a joint Memorandum of Understanding (February 6, 2006), the FPM agreed that the resistance should retain its weapons until liberation is completed and the Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons are free, while Hezbollah agreed to the exchange of embassies with Syria and to the drawing of borders. The document was particularly unequivocal about the non-majoritarian nature of the Lebanese political system, making it plain that "consensual democracy remains the fundamental basis for governance in Lebanon, because it is the effective embodiment of the spirit of the Constitution and of the essence of the pact of shared coexistence."

As in the political thinking of Hannah Arendt and Edward Said on a bi-national Israeli-Palestinian coexistence, Hezbollah's is now a consociational not Jacobin republicanism. And not only is its national unity government claim conform to the basic principle of any consociation -- grand coalition -- the party is actually loyal to the peculiar Lebanese principle of confessional balances.

Hezbollah is loyal to the Lebanese system in spite of the party's own Shi'i constituency being the least favored in this respect, but it does not back perverse and unpatriotic outcomes of the system. Indeed, the Druzes (mostly pro-Western) who are only 5% of the Lebanese population have the right to 2 out of 24 seats in Cabinet, and the Sunnis (mostly pro-Western) who are less than 25% of the population have 5 and the prime minister post, while the Shi'is (mostly nationalist) who are more than 40% have only 5 and only the parliament speaker post. So should Hezbollah and its Shi'i allies abandon the balance principle for more proportionality, there is little doubt that they would have a blocking third on their own in the Cabinet.

Hezbollah is loyal to the letter of the constitution, but also to its founding spirit; the constitutional system it respects is not supposed to reward unpatriotism, quite the contrary. At least, for the "majority" in power to disserve its present over-representation in the system it should be part with the opposition in the patriotic contest. In any case, viewed from this constitutional angle, the system shouldn't as it actually does reward cosmopolitanist voters at the expense of Lebanese patriots. In particular, it shouldn't reward the Christians who voted for the Rafik Hariri List (the 14 March Alliance) at the expense of those Christians who voted for the Aoun Alliance. And it definitely shouldn't reward 25 to 30% of Christian votes with some 10 (out of 24) Cabinet seats at the expense of the other 70 to 75%, who received 21 out of 128 parliament seats but no Cabinet seats at all.

By demanding a veto power for the opposition Hezbollah is being loyal to the -- consociational -- letter of Lebanon's constitution. Hezbollah merely insists on the enforcement of Article 65(5), which says that a two-thirds vote in the Cabinet is needed to pass decisions that are not made by consensus, and that a group made up of a third plus one of the Ministers, acting together, can block any decisions on "basic national issues" to which it is opposed. The article implies also that a resignation of one-third of the Cabinet automatically brings down the government.

Hezbollah merely insists on the opposition's legitimate right to an accurate representation in the Cabinet. It is a fact that Hezbollah, the FPM, and their allies have 56 out of the 128, or 43 to 44%, seats in the Chamber of Deputies. A government representative of the Chamber, therefore, would give them over the third, or 10 out of 24, of the seats in the Cabinet, which is more than the total 6 seats they actually possess or did possess - but that would allow the opposition to veto key decisions, such as "international agreements and treaties," which the "majority" doesn't feel like it.

Naturally, Hezbollah and Amal Movement aren't seeking more cabinet seats for themselves, since under Lebanese multi-confessional law the number of seats for Shi'is is fixed to 5. They are demanding representation instead for their main Christian ally, General Michel Aoun and his FPM.

However, obstinacy on the part of the "majority" caused the dialogue on possible veto power and national unity government to fail. It (November 11, 2006) caused six ministers, including all five Shi'i ministers, to resign. And it caused the Cabinet meetings becoming illegal according to Article 95(3) of the Constitution requiring that "The confessional groups are to be represented in a just and equitable fashion in the formation of the Cabinet." President Emile Lahoud and parliament speaker Nabih Berri have consequently declared Siniora as ruling in violation of the constitution.

By demanding a veto power for the country's patriotic forces, by demanding it for the overwhelming majority of Lebanese who hated the American collusion with Israel's aggression war last summer, Hezbollah is being loyal to the spirit -- republican and anti-colonial -- of Lebanon's constitution. In fact, the current domestic conflict is not so much about confessional representation as it is about patriotism and the under-representation of nationalist voices.

The joint Memorandum of Understanding created a new political and social reality in Lebanon, where the opposition's camp is roughly Shi'i and Christian while the 14 March coalition's is Sunni and Druze. It re-shuffled and partly shifted political division away from the traditional sectarian lines to national patriotic ones. The Nasrallah-Aoun agreement seems to have ended the old dreadful Muslim-Christian cleavage in the country. The Memorandum re-incarnated, as it were, the shining spirit of the 1943 Lebanese National Pact; the Solh-Khoury, Muslim-Christian, understanding; the compromise between pro-Arab and pro-Western Lebanese that brought about French withdrawal from Lebanon -- a model of democracy the Israeli rival obviously just can't stand.

If, as it looks now, Hezbollah people prove not to be potential tyrants of some sort but truly self-restrained consociational democrats then it's up to their ruling political adversaries to prove they too can be good patriots -- to behave at least in the loyal way of the "Lebanese street" last summer, which resisted every ferocious and useless Israeli attempt to provoking civil war.

However, to prove that especially since the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, it will no longer do to simply set the two axes, the Syrian-Iranian and Israeli-American, in some symmetrical relationship like the one established between Syrian and French pretenders in Lebanon in former times.

It will no longer do to give precedence to investigating a particular political crime over national unity, national security, and national reconstruction; it will no longer do to give priority to tracking still hypothetical murderers of former prime minister Rafik Hariri over protection against destroyers of Lebanon's infra-structure and murderers -- the assassins beyond any reasonable doubt, though powerfully protected -- of more than 1.000 Lebanese civilians.


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About the Author

Mohammed Ben Jelloun is a sociologist and political scientist. His recent articles are What's Consociational Patriotism? From Lebanon to Iraq, (Swans, April 25, 2005), and Wilsonian or Straussian: Post-Cold War Idealism? (Swans, August 2, 2004). Please visit his Web Site.



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Published January 15, 2007