Lebanon News

Godfather of Taif says time for reform is at hand

BEIRUT: “You get the rulers you deserve” is an Arabic saying that highlights how the people’s conduct dictates the choice of their rulers.

“But this is not the case in Lebanon,” according to former Speaker Hussein Husseini, who expresses hope that a new parliamentary electoral law can be drafted and approved to pave the way for the abolition of political sectarianism, and a more representative political class.

The last few months have seen thousands of people march in support of “toppling” the country’s sectarian regime, a demand Husseini took part in drafting into the Taif Accord, which ended Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War.

“There is no alternative to the youth movement [demanding the abolition of the sectarian system]. Its abolition is the implementation of the Constitution,” Husseini told The Daily Star at his residence in Ain al-Tineh.

However, the still modest but ongoing movement protesting against political sectarianism faces many obstacles, beginning with an agreement over an alternative political system.

Disagreements among representatives of civil society groups and activists participating in the “anti-sectarian” movement have lately surfaced in public with some demanding a secular state while others called for a civil state or simply the elimination of quotas allotted to the country’s religious sects.

“Irrespective of the slogans carried by the young people, there is one goal and that is the implementation of the Constitution,” Husseini said.

According to the former speaker, Taif already defined the alternative to political sectarianism, in the establishment of a civil rather than secular state.

But other legal experts disagree, saying it was up to the committee to be formed to abolish political sectarianism to decide on the framework, mechanism and alternative structure to political sectarianism.

“Political reforms in 1989 called for a civil state with all Lebanese holding equal rights and responsibilities to assume toward the state,” Husseini said.

Husseini added that a civil state entails no state religion, but yet expresses the state’s belief in God.

“A civil state does not impose a religion, but does not reject a religion either. A civil state is one that recognizes religious communities, whereas a secular one does not recognize such communities,” Husseini said.

“Article 9 of [Lebanon’s] Constitution stipulates that freedom of belief is absolute. The Constitution states as well as that the state should respect God,” he added.

The former speaker explained that a civil state would require the approval of an “optional personal status law” that does not abolish religious courts, but rather grants Lebanese a choice between the two.

“Why would someone seeking civil marriage have to leave the country though the Lebanese state recognizes civil marriage held in a foreign country?” Husseini asked.

While many Lebanese Muslims demand the abolition of political sectarianism by eliminating quotas reserved for representatives of religious sects in Parliament and state administrative positions, the majority of Christians often respond with demands to establish an entirely secular state.

Christians, who make up almost 40 percent of Lebanon’s population, fear that the abolition of quotas alone would weaken their role in the confessional power-sharing system as demographics have shifted in favor of Muslims due to high emigration and low birth rates among the country’s Christian community.

Maroun Bustani, the dean of the Law School at Sagesse University, said it was up to the committee to be formed to abolish political sectarianism to decide on the framework, mechanism and alternative structure to political sectarianism.

However, Husseini said the abolition of political sectarianism no longer required the formation of a committee, as suggested by the Taif agreement back in 1989.

“When we called for the formation of a committee to abolish political sectarianism, the idea was to give it two years to avoid rushing things and creating damage. Then, the idea later developed, and we agreed to form it after electing a Parliament based on parity between Muslims and Christians,” Husseini said.

“But now that the damage is done, there is no need to wait to form a committee; rather, we should directly implement the reforms,” Husseini added.

Entirely rejecting such a process, some legal experts argue that the abolition of political sectarianism, limited to the elimination of quotas, would be in violation of the Preamble to the Constitution, which stipulates that “there is no legitimacy to any authority that contradicts the Pact of National Coexistence.”

According to those experts, the Pact of National Coexistence entails the participation of all religious factions in power, which rules out any amendment to the Constitution such as the elimination of quotas, because it would sideline the role of Christian factions in power by establishing Muslim majority rule.

“Some make such claims. But I ask them, are matters progressing today under the current system? No. Therefore, we should let go of this philosophy,” the former speaker said, dismissing the arguments.

Husseini added that the endorsement of an electoral law based on proportional representation would guarantee the representation of all factions in power and their participation in decision-making.

“Now [under the current system], militias monopolize a religious community rather than representing it,” Husseini said.

“Do we need another 220,000 people killed to implement these reforms?” Husseini asked in reference to Lebanon’s 15-year Civil War, the 36th anniversary of whose onset was commemorated this week.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 16, 2011, on page 2.

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