THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


The Politics of Fragmentation

Mobilizing for secularism in sectarian Lebanon

by Isabel DeBre

Illustration by Gabriel Matesanz

published November 10, 2017


On November 4, Saad Hariri resigned as Prime Minister of Lebanon, shocking the country. “I sensed what’s being woven in secret to target my life,” he said from an address in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, alluding to an assassination plot similar to what killed his father and blaming Iran for its interference in Lebanese politics. Hariri hasn’t returned to Beirut since, leading major newspapers to speculate that Saudi Arabia is holding him hostage. “No one has any idea what will happen next,” Lebanese political blogger Joey Ayoub told the Independent—a familiar sentiment in a country that has weathered multiple wars, foreign occupations, and massive refugee crises. 

Many commentators deem Hariri’s resignation a disaster for domestic politics, which are already awash with religious tensions and regional rivalries. Since the Ta’if agreement of 1989, which marked the end of the country’s brutal civil war, sectarianism—the imposition of religious representation in politics—has characterized Lebanese government. Parliament has been split evenly between Christians and Muslims, each half distributed among 11 of Lebanon’s 18 official sects (for example, Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Alawite, Maronite, and Protestant, among others). A power-sharing compromise among former warlords dictates that Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian, its prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and its speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim. Each of Parliament’s 128 seats is reserved for members of specific sects. Even ordinary bureaucratic posts are filled according to intricate sectarian formulas under the Constitution. Consensus among these adversarial groups is always in short supply. The system entrenches the primacy of the religious and political elite, forecloses any possibility of a fledgling party electing candidates and holding sway, and often paralyzes the government, breeding violence. 

The dramatic events of the past week have revealed Lebanon’s sectarianism as increasingly untenable. While mainstream talk of Lebanon’s future now revolves around leaders’ sects and Hezbollah stances, an alternative route toward political unity may emerge from the most unlikely of places: a student club. The Secular Club at the American University of Beirut (AUB), led by Nadine Barakat, aims to create space for social and political solutions free of the scourge of sectarianism. 

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Nadine may not remember Lebanon’s brutal 15-year civil war, but she’ll tell you how its legacy shaped her life. “Sectarianism in this country determines the laws, how much I pay to eat and go to school, whether, as a Christian, I can marry a Muslim or not,” she told the Independent.

Nadine grew up north of Beirut in a strict Christian family. Her father served as a high-level officer in the Lebanese Forces, one of the largest Christian parties in the country’s pro-Western coalition. She arrived at AUB, a university unaffiliated with the school of the same title in Washington DC, uninterested in her country’s messy politics, but her family urged her to participate in university elections as a representative of their Christian sect. For American readers accustomed to student elections as an innocuous social endeavor, it is hard to grasp the stakes of Lebanese university politics. Especially at such a large and prestigious university as AUB, campus politics are viewed as a microcosm, and even a bellwether, for the country’s politics. At first glance, the names of campus political clubs may sound innocent, even corny—Leaders of Tomorrow, Students for Change, Campus Choice—but they are exact reflections of religious sects in government, split between Hezbollah and Amal (Shia support) and the Future Movement (Sunni support), with Christians dispersed among the two camps. Election results, published on the front pages of national newspapers, are viewed as indexes of a party’s overall popularity. As Nadine told the Independent, “AUB elections are a really big deal. Political parties pour tons of resources into our elections—television advertising, money. It’s a huge indicator of support for the parties nation-wide.” 

Nadine was prepared to join the Future Movement just to please her father. But during the school’s club fair, something strange caught her eye: “I remember seeing this sign that said Secular Club, and being totally confused,” she told the Independent. “At the table there was a guy wearing a cross next to a girl in a hijab. I went up to them and they told me about their frustrations with the political system—how, after suffering from sectarian violence and incompetence for so long, it was time to create a third space. Something different, something new.” The fact that these club-members were clearly religious clarified secularism for Nadine. They believed that confessionalism in state politics was the source of government corruption and stagnation. She was skeptical, but intrigued.

When the Independent interviewed Nadine this fall, three years after her first brush with this nascent club, she was racing around her campus collecting hundreds of signatures before election day on October 18. As current President of the AUB Secular Club, she has overseen the club’s massive growth into a formidable political force on campus, despite the dominance of established religious parties. In 2015, the Secular Club won four seats in the University Student Faculty Committee (USFC). In 2016, they won five. A few weeks ago, they won six, one in each of the AUB faculties—the same number as the March 14 Alliance (Future Movement and Lebanese Army) and the March 8 Alliance (Free Patriotic Movement, Hezbollah, and Amal) respectively. This year, they launched the largest campaign in AUB’s history. On November 7, they will elect their representatives to the AUB Cabinet.

Nadine’s trajectory from a political skeptic in a sectarian family to the leader of the country’s largest secular student movement provides a glimpse into recent currents of popular resistance to Lebanon’s sectarianism.  

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Scholars once touted Lebanon’s sect-based power-sharing system as a successful symbol of democracy and religious coexistence in a region plagued by authoritarianism. But the government’s profound weaknesses have unraveled such illusions, revealing chronic instability, inequality, and an inability to deliver the most basic public services such as water, electricity, and waste management. These crises have paralyzed political progress: Parliament has extended its term three times and even canceled its own elections in 2013 after opposing sects in the government failed to come to a consensus on the next president. Recent polls by Information International indicate that public trust in the country’s precarious political system has taken a dramatic nosedive. In particular, Lebanon’s post-war millennials, disenfranchised and discontented, have begun to mobilize against the divisive and corrupt alliances and rivalries in government. 

“My whole life I thought that politics was something that only my parents could talk about behind closed doors,” Nadine told the Independent. Given that no one under the age of 29 has ever participated in parliamentary elections (due to electoral postponement), disillusionment among Nadine’s demographic runs deep. “But then came the garbage crisis. It changed everything. For the first time, I could see the government’s mess up close and took to the streets to demand my rights.”

The gargantuan piles of garbage that engulfed Beirut streets in 2015 thrust the government’s corruption and negligence into the spotlight and spurred many like Nadine to action. An online campaign called “Tol3et Re7etkom” (Lebanese Arabic for “You Stink!”), along with other civil society groups transcending religious denominations, braved police violence to organize overnight protests and hunger strikes in Beirut’s central Riad al-Solh square. As Joey Ayoub, “You Stink!” organizer, wrote in Al-Araby, “We are protesting on behalf of all those who struggle to breathe, eat, and drink under the filth of sectarian violence and clientelism, deeply institutionalized throughout Lebanese society.” After accomplishing a few of its short-term aims (including a proposed waste management plan), the campaign fizzled out. Still, its efforts came to symbolize what the Lebanese political scene has long lacked: popular mobilization untainted by sectarianism. 

The youth movement’s calls for accountability, reform, and transparency have since moved from the radical fringes into mainstream politics, especially with the emergence of Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City), a volunteer-led political campaign that ran in Beirut’s municipal elections last year. Beirut Madinati, what Al-Araby called “an existential threat to the country’s sectarian political elite,” coalesced around environmental and civic concerns. In particular, it advocated for decent public transport, public parks, consistent electricity, waste management, and overall resistance to postwar privatization at the turn of the century. Because of what Nadine and others term “fraudulent shenanigans” by terrified sectarian elites, Beirut Madiniti failed to gain seats in the municipal council. Despite this interference, the party still managed to win one of three Beirut electoral districts, and garnered some 41 percent of the popular vote. “For me, the incredible thing about Beirut Madinati was that it showed a version of protest and contestation that wasn’t just opposition to the status-quo,” Nadine said. “It was an explicitly positive movement that said, look, here are our demands—they’re real, they’re feasible, and we’re prepared to make them happen.” 

These small yet significant secular victories against the entrenched religious elite have produced fissures for more grassroots action to coalesce in. For instance, in April, the Beirut Union of Engineers elected Jad Tabet, an independent candidate backed by the civil society group Naqabati and Beirut Madinati, over Paul Najm, the Free Patriotic Movement candidate representing various powerful sects. Many called Tabet’s win “Beirut Madinati 2.0,” except this time, as Lebanese political blogger Gino Raidy wrote, “questionable tactics, voter fraud and bribery didn’t work because the Head of the Syndicate of Engineers is now an independent. This is unprecedented.” Lebanese syndicates, or unions that allow major labor forces to pressure politicians, hold sway over municipal decisions; anything related to urban planning in Beirut requires the approval of the Syndicate of Engineers’ director. Although Naqabati’s win was largely symbolic, it has practical implications: Tabet now has the capacity to halt politicians’ corrupt alliances with corporations.

As these social movements built on each other, expanding possibilities for youth participation, Nadine came to her own political awakening—not an epiphany, but a gradual reckoning with her own agency as a citizen. “I thought about my father, who never talked about secularism, and yet suffered his whole life from the war and from sectarianism,” she told the Independent. “I thought about protests in which I saw this huge number of people, regardless of identity, sect, religion, come together under the same umbrella. I thought about the constitution, which actually demands that Lebanon create a committee to get out of sectarianism, a post-war fix which was never meant to be permanent... which still hasn’t happened.” 

Energized by her experience protesting with “You Stink!”, Nadine reached out to the Secular Club, translating her frustrations and hopes for the Lebanese government into a concrete political vision for her university. It occurred to her that even though the club had stood against unjust AUB policies—like arbitrary fee hikes—since its establishment in 2012, it had never stood in solidarity with marginalized social groups or articulated an actionable agenda. This fall, taking a hint from the language of Beirut Madinati, Nadine helped draft a concrete platform demanding the same sorts of changes she wants to see in her country: accessible transport, more student lounge and study spaces, expanded health insurance, funding for mental health services, increased financial aid, and support for initiatives aiming to counter racism and to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Although winning six seats in this year’s election in no way guarantees the Secular Club can bring these ambitious goals to fruition, setting them down in writing helps hold the administration accountable for its negligence, and creates a forum for students to voice their grievances and desires. Within AUB’s tangle of party-sponsored campaigns and sectarian schemes to maximize votes, the Secular Club emerges as an alternative route, a “third space,” as Nadine called it, to disrupt the campus climate of complacency and articulate a different reality. 

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Discussions about the potential of independent secular movements to gain traction in Lebanese politics have climaxed in recent months. On June 16, Parliament ratified a new electoral law that will govern the upcoming national elections next year. The law will reorganize the country’s electoral system through proportional instead of majoritarian representation for the first time in Lebanese history. Parties will win seats according to the proportion of the vote they receive in a given district instead of competing in a winner-takes-all system. This radical change has the power to break up the hegemony of the political elite by facilitating the participation of independent candidates and fostering the emergence of non sectarian political parties—exactly what activists and civil society groups have demanded for the past election-less decade. The law also lowers the threshold for winning a seat, which may encourage reformers and those without traditional political backgrounds to test the waters with campaigns that cater to “a public that is desperate for better governance,” as Lebanese political expert Elias Muhanna wrote in the New Yorker this summer. Although many fear that a proportional system will destabilize the present precarious power-sharing among religious minorities, recent polls by Information International indicate that independents may have a real chance to disrupt political stagnation: around 58 percent of people are in favor of abolishing, or at the very least reforming, Lebanon’s sectarian system.

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After such positive momentum in civil society, Hariri’s resignation plunges the nation into uncertainty.  As rumors swirl, panic mounts, and politicians scramble, Lebanon's new electoral law and rescheduled elections recede from the spotlight. But this moment of crisis, in revealing the impossibility of the status quo, could also create opportunities for Lebanese people to envision a different, functional and united government—representative of diversity, not fragmentation. As Lebanese writer Elias Khoury posted on Facebook (in Arabic) Tuesday: “Lebanon needs to be rewritten, to build new political meaning outside its current structures that render it vulnerable to foreign powers.” 

“We’re tired and frustrated,” Nadine said. “It’s time to stop talking about our sectarian differences and start talking about our basic needs, our basic rights.”

ISABEL DEBRE B’18 tried not to write the words “at a crossroads.”