These days, Lebanon has reached an apparent political dead-end. The government has resigned ten months ago, but a new one is not in sight. Decisions are blocked on all levels; inter-sectarian strifes seem to increase. With the war in neighbouring Syria turning from bad to worse, also the stability of Lebanon becomes more and more fragile – bombings in sensitive areas are a recurring effect. Adyan, an independent foundation that has grown rapidly in the last couple of years, seeks to overcome this situation by promoting a society in which the religious diversity is enriching and unifying, not separating. Its chairman Fadi Daou explains to Alsharq the dangers of sectarianism and Adyan’s idea to counter them.
Alsharq: Mister Daou, 70 years after Lebanon gained independence from France, the president of the country, Michel Sleiman, said that Lebanon still was not fully independent. Where do you see Lebanon on its way to independence?
Fadi Daou: On the formal level, Lebanon is an independent country since 1943. Yet it is true that this independence is not being accomplished by political awareness and political sovereignty for the Lebanese people and country.
What is missing for a fulfilled independence?
From my perspective it is the fact that our national politics is not really sovereign and it’s so much dependent on the regional and international powers. Every internal issue in Lebanon is always and unfortunately more and more connected to the regional powers: Iran, Saudi-Arabia, Syria of course, and on a larger scale the United States.
Isn’t this due to the fact that many political parties in Lebanon are looking for outside assistance?
This is the other side of the Taef agreement that ended the Lebanese war between 1975 and 1990. The hidden part of this agreement was that those who fought the war are still in the position to govern the country. So even though, with the Taef agreement, we reached a kind of
consensus on how we want to manage our living together as Lebanese, the militia leaders became the governors of the country. The prominent Lebanese journalist and politician Ghassan Tueni wrote a book entitled: “The War of Others” (Une guerre pour les autres). This war of others, of regional powers in fact, was fought by Lebanese militias which were used to serve non-Lebanese interests, and still in power today.
The Taef agreement dates back more than 20 years.
But the former militia leaders came to govern the country until now. And because of this, political affiliation on the regional level is still very present now. This is why every time we have tensions or a problem or want to form a government, each of the parties will have to go back to their external allies to agree on what they are negotiating internally.
And this is doubled by another issue, which is the sectarian one. Because the militias were mainly divided on confessional lines, the political powers in Lebanon are today monopolizing the power in the name of the communities.
But the Taef agreement and even the Lebanese constitution are saying that sectarianism should be overcome eventually.
Exactly, it became part of the constitution to abolish the confessional system. But what was implemented in reality was totally the opposite. We reached today a more blocked confessional system. This is not due to the religious thinking in the society but rather to this monopolization of power inside each community by the previous militia leaders, which are now the leaders of the communities. It’s not at all in their interest to abolish the confessional system, because they will lose all the powers they have. So they are manipulating the system.
Former militia leaders like Michel Aoun, Walid Joumblatt or Nabih Berri also won’t stay in power forever. You’re saying that they are implementing a system that lasts longer than them. What kind of society would be needed to eventually overcome this system?
In fact, the situation is very complex and difficult. These people stay in power not only because they manipulate the system, but also due to the corruption related to the system. They have a network of beneficiaries. It’s not just about some individuals, it became today about networks of power and corruption surrounding each of these political leaders. The situation is very complex and a major challenge for the Lebanese population. There is a growing awareness among Lebanese people that this cannot continue like this and that we’re facing a huge danger.
What danger do you mean?
To give an example of this danger, the Lebanese governmental debt is now about 60 billion US-Dollars and we know that a big part of this debt is due to the corruption and this very fast increase in benefits of these leaders.
Then how is the situation to change?
The major resistance is coming from the civil society, and it’s trying very hard to obtain a new electoral law with a relative counting of votes that will allow wider representation on a political level. But the politicians from both major camps – March 8 and March 14 – are indirectly agreeing on maintaining the current electoral law, which is very biased and helps them to stay in power.
What you’re saying is that the leaders are manipulating the people through their religious belongings. Wouldn’t one therefore first need a society that doesn’t care so much about sectarian belongings anymore?
I’ll give you an example on the relation between the citizens and the state: If you want to obtain a job in any of the Lebanese public institutions, you will absolutely need to go to these confessional, former militia, leaders, you will need their push. So all Lebanese are in a way prisoners of the system. They need to pass sometimes through these confessional authorities to obtain what they need.
Adyan foundation, whose head you are, is trying to change this situation. How?
We work on several levels. On the educational and cultural level, we are working very hard to promote the citizenship values and the approach of inclusive citizenship, where the management of diversity is not being manipulated by the powerful people. We obtained in fact an agreement with the ministry of education for the reform of the educational system and programs in Lebanon regarding citizenship education. But we know of course that this will not change everything. This will bring something new for education and culture for the young generation.
So, on the one side we need to work on the culture and education, especially for the young generation, but on the other side we absolutely need to change the political system, which is the source of corruption.
Education and change of the political system – what else?
The third approach Adyan is working on is the understanding of religious issues related to the public sphere. We try to build a positive approach for inter-communal relations that will allow people to have a better and stronger understanding of the other, so it will not be so easy to manipulate them through their religious feelings by the political authorities.
For example you often hear from political leaders saying: “I am the leader of the Shia, protecting you from the Sunnis”, or: “I am the leader of the Christians, protecting you from the Muslims.” When people become aware that it’s not the religious difference that represents a threat for them and have a better understanding of these differences and their role in the society, it will become more difficult to manipulate their feelings in politics.
How do people with whom you engage on a daily basis generally react to your work?
In fact, we are having very positive feedback and support, and this is the reason why the very young Adyan foundation, which was founded in 2006, grew so fast, incredibly fast. I mean, we are among the biggest organizations in the country on this level. This is of course a momentum, but we have a big support coming from the society on different levels, including sometimes public authorities. Adyan has also today regional (Arab countries) and international (Euro-Arab) programs, sharing our expertise in diversity management and intercultural and interfaith dialogue.
This is what makes me feel that people are aware about their problems and the solutions we need, but what is missing is that we are not being able until now to reach the political system to produce these solutions. This is a kind of contradictory situation. You can see that the civil society in Lebanon is very rich and very progressive, very dynamic, but the political system is very rigid, blocked, and problematic.
So what you and the Adyan foundation are promoting is an understanding of citizenship that means the people are citizens of the state and at the same time you don’t want to exclude the sectarian belongings.
We promote an inclusive citizenship based on diversity and a system that can include cultural and religious diversity opposing any manipulation of feelings of fear. Of course, what we need absolutely in Lebanon is to promote diversity and helping to understand that a citizenship identity is not contradictory to the religious belonging.
This is why we use two different concepts: We say that everyone has a national identity, but we have different belongings, and these belongings can enrich the citizenship and the public sphere when they come together and are positively managed. Promoting citizenship and management of religious diversity is something enriching for the public sphere.
So this is on the level of the society. But which role should religion play on the political level in your opinion?
Actually, we don’t see a role for religion on the political level, if we are talking about the political system of power itself, because this should be based on citizenship and equality amongst all citizens. So we are pushing to implement what the Taef agreement asks for: the separation between religious belonging and political system.
But we believe that the religious affiliation for example can help to promote values of public life, even though it should not have a role in the political struggle. This is our approach: Religion can enrich society by culture and values, but on the political level, we promote a more civil policy.
It sounds like a secular policy.
In Lebanon we cannot expect a radical secularism like in France for example, where religion is totally outside the public sphere. We know that here religion is part of the public sphere, public life and national culture , and we don’t want to throw them out. They do have a role to play, and this is an enriching role for all of us. But this role should stay on the cultural and ethical level, on the value-level, but not on the political one.
This is why I hope that the solution in Lebanon will come on the political level by having trans-confessional parties for example and not just Christian parties or Sunni parties or Shia parties. This is what we do need in Lebanon now, but this cannot happen if we don’t also have an electoral law that promotes this approach of mixing all Lebanese in one trans-confessional political power.
So far, the Christians hold 50 per cent of the seats in the National Chamber in Lebanon as stated by the constitution. You and your fellow Christians have seen what happened in Egypt and in Iraq. Don’t you think many people are scared of easily giving up their veto-power in parliament?
That’s true and I’m sure that in fact the system we’re looking for won’t be just only based on elections and direct vote of citizens. I’m sure the system will always contain and maintain a kind of – I will not say privileges – status for the communities, especially on the Christian-Muslim level. Even the Muslims in Lebanon are agreeing on this and protect this specific role of Christians in the Lebanese political system.
How will this be possible, if religion is not part of the political system?
We have different ways to obtain it: For example, the Taef agreement proposed to have a senate, where we can have a direct representation of the communities to be sure that we are protecting the diversity of Lebanon. Others are saying that we keep the parity between Christians and Muslims but we don’t elect based on belonging. We take 50 per cent Christians and Muslims without saying who is electing whom in which region.
There are many ways to keep this Lebanese specificity in the region where the Christians are playing an important role in the political life. I believe that we can reach the two objectives together: To abolish the confessional system but maintain the diversity even on the political level. We can reach something creative. The problem with the confessional system is not that 50 per cent of the deputies are Christians and the other half are Muslims. The problem is this manipulation of the communities by their leaders and this predominant abuse of the communities and the religious feelings of the population by the leaders, which is something totally different.
But now it seems more and more difficult to get somewhere near this state you’re proposing because of the current situation with one million Syrian refugees and about 400.000 Palestinian refugees in the country, whose population itself counts only four million people. Isn’t it hard to put these fundamental issues on the agenda now, where probably many people say: Ok, let’s put these problems behind until we have solved the other ones?
In fact, we are passing through a major crisis in the life of Lebanon now. The fact that we have more than one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon now is a major challenge for the Lebanese identity itself and the Lebanese country as a whole. Not just because of the social and economic pressure that they represent for our small and weak country, because this is what we are trying to deal with as much as possible on the educational and social level and so on.
But the major issue is that we are almost sure that even if an agreement was reached in Syria, not all of the Syrian refugees will leave Lebanon, some hundred thousands of them will stay here. The demography of Lebanon will be different even after an end of the crisis in Syria. So this is one side, and on the other side we have the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, whose number is also increasing because there are also many of them coming from Syria.
Unfortunately this crucial situation is being faced on the political level by weak and fragile institutions. In four months we’ll have the presidential elections in Lebanon and everyone is aware that we need to prepare it and we need to reach an agreement and if we’re not able to reach an agreement about it we may reach a state where we’re not able to elect a new president. We’re currently already having a government in power that previously resigned…
… and a parliament whose mandate has expired some months ago…
… exactly. So we are going through a major crisis on the political level which is not only related to the presence of the refugees, although they are a major challenge. I think also that we are in a period very similar to the one that led to the Taef agreement 23 years ago. Many say that maybe the Taef agreement has reached its full capacities and end now and we will need to go through a new agreement.
What is your opinion on that?
I’m not sure if the country is ready to do it, because a new agreement will mean in fact rebalancing the power between the Shia and the Sunni in Lebanon. The regional level is not yet ready for this either. So I don’t think we’re going towards a new agreement, but we’re going through a huge crisis now. All depends on how things will evolve in Syria.
If the agreement reached with Iran on the nuclear capacities will have a direct and quick positive impact on the Syrian crisis, pushing both parties to negotiate in Geneva II and reach a kind of starting point for an agreement, this can mean that we can also witness some positive changes in Lebanon. We are so much related to what’s happening on the regional level, so of course we have this tension in Lebanon, which will rise once Saudi Arabia should further confront Iran.
So Mr. Sleiman is right – independence is not that fully achieved as one would say after 70 years?
Yes, of course, it’s far away. Realistically, Lebanon is under threat from various directions. But since I’m working with the young generation and activist people from the civil society from different communities and backgrounds, I remain hopeful that we have an increasing awareness among Lebanese about the problems and a better awareness now about the solution we need on the grassroots-level. So this is why I keep hoping that with some new breakthrough in the political system we can see some positive changes happening on the national level.
Mr. Daou, thank you very much for the interview.
The interview was held on November 26, 2013.