an escape from eternal confrontation
If history offers a lesson it is that no one group in Lebanon can
eliminate or subdue the other. The challenge is devising a working
solution that benefits, and is accepted by, all major Lebanese communal
High above sea-level, on a cliff over-looking the Christian heartland of
Jounieh stands a massive statue of the Virgin Mary. Arms open to embrace
them, Mary watches over the mainly Maronite Catholic community,
instilling in them a sense of warmth and security.
In years past, the Maronites were the most influential and largest
numerical community in Lebanon but mass migration, the growth in Sunni
and Shiite Muslim communities and various internal conflicts has left
them with dwindling numbers and waning political influence.
Paired with the insecurity of losing influence is the fear of regional
Islamic movements that many Maronites worry threaten their identity.
Maronites fear discrimination and persecution ahead; worries shared by
other small Christian communities in the Middle East, such as Copts in
Egypt and Assyrians and Chaldeans in Iraq.
Haytham Chaer is the President of Bnay Qyomo, an NGO that is working to
revive the Syriac language in the Lebanese Maronite community. Chaer
believes that teaching Syriac and reviving the "language of Christ" will
help to strengthen the Maronite identity.
Explaining the connection between Syriac and the Maronites, Mr. Chaer
notes that after the days of Jesus Christ, Christians often spoke
Aramaic but prayed in Syriac.
Though for Mr. Chaer and Bnay Qyomo (which translates to 'Sons of the
Resurrection'), the connection between Syriac and Maronites goes deeper
than just language:
"You can see different faces, people, cultures and identities in Lebanon,"
said Chaer. For him and his NGO, the preserving of the Maronite identity
is the number one issue and he is convinced that he has the solution
both for preserving identity and maintaining civil peace. "Lebanon has
to be a federal country or we're just going to live in war until the end
of time," he said, adding that a federal Lebanon will allow each
community to maintain their rights and religious freedoms. Mr. Chaer and
Bnay Qyomo want to maintain the Lebanese state with a united army,
currency and foreign policy to this end: "We believe in Lebanon and in
one country but we are different," said Chaer, adding that Muslims and
Christians need to live together in Lebanon.
However, the Maronite church does not support Bnay Qyomo’s mission
precisely becuase of their discomfort with the connotations of
federalism. Federalism is not a new concept to Lebanon. During certain
periods of Lebanon's 15 year civil war, religiously segregated militias
divided up the country often performing local services like trash pickup
and road maintenance. The idea of federalism is often paired with
memories from this tumultuous period and the assumption that Lebanon
will be broken up into miniature states based on religious sect.
Political analysts I contacted expressed similar reservations and
discomfort at the idea of federalism in Lebanon, but were unable to
offer much evidence to support their feelings.
"We need to break with some of the stereotypes which have lingered on
from the years of the war," said Jean Pierre Katrib a university
lecturer at various Beirut based universities and a strong supporter of
Lebanese federalism. "People mistakenly believe that federalism means
partition. But in legal terms there is a huge difference."
Dr. Sami Nader is a professor of Economics at Universite Saint Joseph in
Beirut who has been working for the last couple years on the financial
aspects of federalism in Iraq. Dr. Nader believes for a federal system
to work the Lebanese government needs to practice fiscal
decentralization. Currently, for example, Beirut manages to lay on only
21 hours of state-provided electricity a day, while areas outside Beirut
experience as little as three hours. According to Dr. Nader, giving
increased responsibility to municipal governments, allowing them to levy
and spend their own tax money would make it easier to provide basic
services like electricity.
Addressing issues like corruption and political bickering, Katrib said,
"This will increase responsive governance, enabling people to hold
officials accountable." Mr. Katrib added that the tricky issue of
foreign policy would be handled by maintaining neutrality on regional
issues that have plagued Lebanon's past and present.
For Mr. Katrib, federalism is more important than simply providing
services or preserving an identity. It is the best way to salvation and
"Every 10-15 years, Lebanon has undergone periods of instability that
have led to paralysis and in turn to bloody confrontations between
Lebanese people," said Katrib, explaining that each time it took
foreign-sponsored peace accords to change the government makeup in order
to resolve the confrontation.
"If history offers us any lesson at all", he concludes,"it is that no
one group in Lebanon can eliminate or subdue the other. This aspiration
can only be a recipe for eternal confrontation... so we have to devise a
working solution that benefits, and is accepted by, all major Lebanese
Mr. Katrib is optimistic that Lebanon will secure a federal government
in the future, though he believes it will only be achieved after
"Trust me we are getting there," Katrib said, though what came next was
not as reassuring. " But it will take more blood being spilled before we
will revisit the constitution."
Implementing a federal system may one day lead to a stable and united
Lebanon. Until then, the Maronites will raise their vision to the cliff
where the Virgin Mary watches over them with her arms open to embrace