After decades during which they saw their influence consistently decline, Lebanon’s Christians are in a position to once again play a decisive political role. The May 2008 Doha agreement, coming in the wake of Hizbollah’s takeover of West Beirut, provides the Christian community with the opportunity to regain an important place on the political map and to advance demands that have long been ignored. Already, Christians have obtained key positions in the new government, which was formed on 12 July. But the Doha agreement goes well beyond.
The Doha accords have ushered in three significant changes. First, they led to the election as president of Michel Suleiman, the former army commander. As a result, the Christians recovered the institution to which they are constitutionally entitled but whose effective powers had considerably diminished since the crisis began in 2004. The new president is likely to be courted by political actors of all stripes, each seeking to shape decisions he will face at his term’s outset. These include initiation of a dialogue on a national defence strategy (which, ultimately, will have to include the question of Hizbollah’s weapons), preparation of the 2009 parliamentary elections and the definition of new relations between Syria and Lebanon founded on mutual respect for sovereignty.
Secondly, the Doha agreement paves the way for a more Christian-friendly electoral law. Up until now, the electoral map was such that the vast majority of Christian candidates had to enter into alliances with the main Muslim parties. Most Christian politicians, it follows, were elected thanks to Muslim votes. Not any more. Post-Doha, Christian parliamentarians for the most part will be elected in predominantly Christian disticts. That means they will have real leverage and be able to adjudicate between the two principal Muslim poles, the one dominated by the Sunni Future Movement, the other by the Shiite Hizbollah. Because Lebanon’s political system broadly allocates ministerial seats in accordance with various parties’ parliamentary weight, the Christian vote will be decisive in the establishment of a novel balance of power – unless, of course, violence or massive irregularities prevent the holding of elections or undermine their credibility.
Thirdly and lastly, Christians will be in a position to revitalise old demands which the rest of the political class generally has disregarded. President Suleiman mentioned these in his inaugural address and Michel Aoun, the community’s self-proclaimed leader, also made them the focus of his effort to build a large Christian coalition. Among these demands are long overdue and ever deferred administrative reforms (eg, decentralisation), empowering the presidency, ensuring better Christian representation in senior civil service positions, rejecting the naturalisation of Palestinian refugees and facilitating the return of displaced and exiled co-religionists. Never before have these claims – which have long obsessed members of the Christian community – been as central a part of the political debate as they are today. Because powerful Muslim actors will need to ensure the loyalty of Christian politicians, and because such politicians’ leverage thereby will be strengthened, some of these longstanding demands could well be realised in the end.
For Lebanon’s Christians, these represent potentially momentous changes. The formula devised in 1989 to end the fifteen-year civil war shifted the balance of power in a way that clearly disfavoured them: the president was stripped of several prerogatives while the number of parliamentary seats allocated to Christians was brought down from 60 to 50 per cent. The ensuing period was characterised by Syria’s military occupation and the systematic repression of pro-independence Christian movements. Already weakened by a substantial wartime exodus, the Christian community was both leaderless and adrift, contributing to a sense of dispossession that, to this day, shapes its outlook in profound ways.
Syria’s 2005 withdrawal enabled the return and release of key Christian leaders together with the reassertion of core demands. But the Christian political scene split into two camps. On one side, Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces and Amine Gemayel’s Phalanges banked on the end of all residual Syrian influence, joined forces with former pro-Syrian actors (a majority of Sunnis and Druze) and called upon the international community to help restore a sovereign Lebanese state. This latter goal would be achieved, in particular, by setting up an international tribunal charged with investigating former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri’s murder, imputed to Damascus, and by pressing for Hizbollah’s disarmament. On the other side, General Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement challenged the political system as a whole, breaking its isolation by forging a controversial understanding with Hizbollah, Syria’s main Lebanese ally.
The first camp defined the priority as genuine sovereignty through which would emerge a strong state capable of carrying out Christian demands. Aoun’s camp, by contrast, argued that its ties to a powerful actor, flexible on all issues other than its armed status, was the optimal way to address the community’s immediate and vital concerns. It also claimed that the emergence of an unchallenged Christian leader (read: Aoun as president) would allow a complete overhaul of the political system.
The tug of war between the two principal Christian camps is hardly over. Much will depend on the 2009 parliamentary elections which will be a test of their respective power and determine the country’s next government. In that sense, the Christian electorate – whose political preferences are by far the least predictable of all – will play a decisive role. Assuming it can play its role deftly, it will be in a position to promote policies it has long advocated. More importantly, it will be in a position to ensure that the country’s political conflicts are resolved within and not in spite of its institutions – through ballots rather than bullets. After one full-blown civil war and another near-miss, that would be no small achievement.