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Lebanon and the role of the Christians in the Middle East 1/19/2009

Since the painful events of early May 2008, the Doha agreement and the election of President Michel Sleiman have resulted in a stretch of uneasy peace and slow gradual normalization in Lebanon. Yet some of the crucial and vital problems remain unsolved and many Lebanese and friends of Lebanon wonder whether solutions are in progress or at all possible. 

Despite heavy indebtedness (the government reportedly owes more than $40 billions) Lebanon has been an oasis of financial stability and security during this period of global economic turmoil, because of avoiding the craze of toxic investment security products. Nevertheless, Lebanese expatriates are hesitant about investing or returning to their country of origin, and questions continue as to whether the civil peace can endure and survive the upcoming important landmark dates and deadlines, the most critical of which being the upcoming parliamentary elections, next spring.

The fact that Lebanon has managed to avoid, so far, a violent confrontation with Israel, as a result of the painful violence in Gaza is very encouraging. Nevertheless, sadly but realistically we need to admit and recognize that Lebanon remains dangerously polarized and divided between the so called March 14 and March 8 groups and ideologies. The realignment of the Free Patriotic Movement from its March 14, 2005 participation into the March 8 understanding or alliance has brought more electoral balance between the two political groups. But at the same time it has made the situation more dangerous and unpredictable since the election results may remain too close to call until and possibly beyond the upcoming parliamentary election. Further, the arms of Hezbollah in opposition to UNR 1559 and 1701, which were originally accepted as an instrument of resistance and deterrence against outside aggression, have now become a subject of general anxiety, particularly to the March 14 group. Their use internally against West Beirut population, in the suburbs and other areas of Mount Lebanon generated questions and concerns that are difficult to resolve. Each side seems to be ready to delegitimize the electoral process if it perceives that the results may allow the opponents to achieve a possible majority in Parliament. Outside observes within the expatriate community and among experts and analysts wonder if a true democratic vote can take place peacefully and reliably, when several armed groups within some Lebanese Parties or part of Non-Lebanese Militias, remain outside government control. 

We in the American Lebanese Foundation take pride of being non-partisan and non-sectarian, despite individual Board Member friendships, affinities and possible affiliation with various Lebanese groups or leaders. Nevertheless, our common denominator is moderation and the desire or passion to search for solutions that would minimize the divisive effects of confessional radicalism and ethnic short sightedness on Lebanon’s fate. We have always argued for a Lebanon that promotes the “Dialogue of Civilizations” and serves as an antidote to the Huntington vision of the “Clash of Civilizations”. Nevertheless, denying or ignoring that Lebanon’s consensual democracy is based on a proportional division of political power in relation to its confessional constituents will make any attempt to propose solutions doomed to certain failure. Lebanon’s history and the psychology and sensitivity of all major and minor factions will have to be taken into consideration for any chance at success and stability. 

The reality is that the March 14 alliance is dominated by Sunnis and is supported in the Arab World by the Saudi Arabian/ Egyptian axis as well as by the United States and Europe. On the other hand the March 8 group is lead by Shiite parties and is aligned and influenced by Iran and Syria. Most of the current prominent Christian leaders and politicians have made a choice to align with one or the other ideology, setting the stage for a potential strong and tense confrontation within the electoral districts that have significant Christian presence or majorities. Is this truly in the best interest of Lebanon or the Arab World? Should the Christians be making confessional or ethnic alliances based on emotional, materialistic or selfish considerations at the risk of contributing or igniting dangerous and possibly violent confrontations among themselves and/or their respective allies? Can the Christians afford to become champions of perpetuating or intensifying confessional tension, whether Christian vs Moslem or Sunnis vs Shiites? Granted, these alliances may have some beneficial confessional and national effects. The Christian alliance with the dominant Shiite groups may have limited the scope and duration of the May 2008 rampage and may have contributed to the current restraint in the response to the Gaza violence. On the other hand the alliance with the dominant Sunni current may have strengthened and intensified the drive towards full independence and sovereignty. Both alliances have diminished the risks of Christian/Moslem confrontation. However, the question remains as to: how could Lebanon be really unified again in such atmosphere. What assurance there is that a Sunni/Shiite confrontation may not be triggered in Lebanon by a trivial political incident, only to spread later to neighboring countries and engulf the whole Middle East in violent clashes.

We all know that the Lebanese political atmosphere is conducive to confessional posturing. General Aoun, while in exile reportedly said “Please reject me if I talk with any confessional tone.” Yet since his return to Lebanon, he found himself dragged into constantly trying to assert and reassert his Christian representation and leadership in Lebanon and beyond. On the other hand his opponents within the March 14 alliance argue that they are the ones that represent the traditional Christian aspirations and vision of independence, sovereignty and peaceful democracy. 

While the other major Lebanese denominations: Sunnis, Shiites and Druze have clear majorities within their ranks who have reached apparent understandings with their minorities, the Christians remain precariously divided and thereby they may be endangering Lebanon’s march toward full sovereignty, peace and stability. Various efforts to date have failed to produce any satisfactory progress toward unity. 

President Michel Sleiman was elected to the highest office of the land with broad support from the Christians, all other Lebanese denominations as well as the Arab and International community. He earned this impressive support largely because of confidence in his equidistance from the opposing political groups and the belief that he would have a better shot at unifying the Christians and the overall Lebanese population. Those of us who know President Sleiman are aware of the fact that he has the necessary knowledge, determination and potential for the real unifying solutions. His actions since he acceded to the Presidency do not contradict such expectations. However questions have arisen as to whether he is acting aggressively and fast enough to protect Lebanon in general and the Christians in particular from looming risks that could be exacerbated by unpredictable internal or external events? 

The role of the Christians in Lebanon and the Middle East should be that of mediators and/or catalysts for tolerance, understanding and easing of the tensions produced by the struggle for power or dominance by various players, locally or on the broad world scene. The Lebanese Christians’ destiny is also to serve as ambassadors for Arab issues and interests in the West and wherever needed. During the past three to four decades much of that has been happening through the efforts of individuals or groups within the Lebanese expatriate community. However, divisions on the Lebanese scene have frequently spilled into the expatriate world and neutralized the emigrants’ effectiveness. Thus it may serve the Lebanese and Arab causes that much of the ambassadorial and mediation responsibilities be entrusted to the Christian President. 

President Sleiman remains the best possible potential messenger or spokesman for the unifying and tolerant strategies within Lebanon and amongst Lebanon’s neighbors and friends. Once he finds the appropriate moment (and hopefully sooner rather than later) other Christian politicians will have no choice but to coalesce around him and support his efforts, the same as they all came together to elect him to the Presidency. Many on the Lebanese political scene are wondering and debating whether or not President Sleiman should seek to establish a parliamentary group, loyal to him, and independent from the two opposing political alliances. This in itself, while very desirable, may be impractical and risky unless the President enunciates a plan for solutions and unity that will win internal and external support. Such plan can only be based on mediation and conciliation between the two main Lebanese groups and their Arab and International supporters. An important component of the plan has to be some level of Christian unity or at least some sincere understanding between the divergent philosophies President Sleiman is a quiet and patient leader and only few people may know the exact strategy he may have in mind at this point. The future of Lebanon as an independent, united, free, democratic and sovereign state will largely depend on the implementation and pace of such possible strategy.


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