March 26, 2001
Beyond all the kind words that will no doubt greet Cardinal Nasrallah
Butros Sfeir upon his arrival Tuesday, he, his church, and his country
face a series of challenges that will require even more than the lofty
ideals championed during his tour of North America. That the Maronite patriarch’s
intentions are entirely in keeping with Lebanon’s national interest is
beyond doubt. The real test will be in the results that he can achieve,
and this demands more than good faith: It calls for effective strategy
that sidesteps his detractors until their opposition can be defused by
In the short term, the problem is that while many of the patriarch’s suggestions for Lebanon’s multiple ailments are perfectly sound ones, they all share the common flaw that they cannot be achieved just now because the country’s entire political system is such a train wreck. The structure of the state is decrepit, the mechanisms of government are a hopeless mess, the existing electoral law is itself an insurmountable obstacle to democracy, and Syrian influence or fear thereof keeps many Lebanese political and religious leaders from addressing key issues forthrightly. All of these factors have combined to make the primary building block of national recovery, the Lebanese citizen, an utterly powerless being whose mounting political disenfranchisement is surpassed only by his or her economic impotence.
Worse still, each of these problems helps to perpetuate the others. For instance, even if the concoction of a fair electoral law could be accomplished despite the perception of competing interests among the country’s various religious communities, its product would still be questionable because far too many voters would remain in the thrall of the same traditional politicians who have made such a hash of what should be an ideal little nation. Similar hindrances apply to economic liberalization, administrative reform, national reconciliation, and a variety of other pressing issues.
The solution to this quandary is not to crush what already exists but to instill private citizens with the knowledge that they themselves are the key to their own release from the socio-economic prison constructed by their mostly incompetent political masters. Herein lies the route to so many items on Cardinal Sfeir’s wishlist: The best thing he can do right now would be to kick off and keep up a steady drumbeat of calls for an independent judiciary. Such a campaign would be very nearly impossible to oppose because all sects would be able to see the almost immediate benefits that would derive from its successful completion. Even more importantly, its principle side-effect would be to inexorably erode the edifice of sectarianism and the other political cancers that keep Lebanon and the Lebanese from living up to their magnificent potential.
There is perhaps no individual better-suited to initiating such a campaign because Sfeir and his flock have undeniably been the losers in the limp statecraft of the past decade or so but had previously been the beneficiaries of the lopsided structure left behind by the French. For them to hitch their cart to a genuinely progressive cart would do wonders to rebuild trust with other sects and so begin the process of educating all of the electorate for the day when its voice can truly be heard.
Nor could the timing be better: Sfeir is returning not with a bag of goodies from governments whose intentions may or may not be pure but with the moral support of millions of Lebanese expatriates. Their clout may have been acquired thanks to the freer political systems that exist abroad, but their importance has its roots here. Whether they are brand-new emigrants produced by economic malaise, slightly less recent ones driven out by the civil war, or the descendants of people who fled Ottoman persecution, all of them have a lot to say about Lebanon’s future and an undeniable right to be heard. The outpouring of support granted to the patriarch while he was abroad make it obvious that his leadership extends far beyond this country’s diminutive borders and that so long as it is necessary for religious figures to wield political influence here, his will be buttressed by a broad cross-section of expatriates whose hearts still call Lebanon “home.”
The symbolism of successful Lebanese expatriates thronging to see the patriarch should not be underestimated, for they were living proof of what this country can make of itself if and when its political system becomes oriented solely toward democracy and its political values put freedom above all other concerns. Where such systems exist, Lebanese communities have blossomed to their fullest: Given the nature of the Lebanese state, it is anything but surprising that so few of its inhabitants manage to prosper and that so many want to leave.
Effective governments cannot be developed during a weekend of brainstorming: They must be built from the ground up, on solid foundations, before their benefits can be realized by citizens and leaders alike. Nothing is more essential to that foundation than an independent judiciary, and Cardinal Sfeir is in the best position to demand that it be laid as soon as possible.
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