Lebanon has never been in worse shape. The economy has collapsed, political paralysis has become the norm, and social unrest is increasingly on the rise. A much understudied aspect of the Lebanese crisis is the rising polarization among the different social, political, and religious groups of the country. This has led to the emergence of fringe or outcast ideological currents that were always cast out of mainstream discussion. One such current is Lebanese federalism, which advocates for the partition of Lebanon according to sectarian lines, as a solution to the power sharing agreement which has governed Lebanon since its creation.
Now, where did Lebanese federalism come from? The federal option had been championed by and debated among mainly Christian politicians and parties prior to and during Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990). President Camille Chamoun (1952-1958) offered a detailed plan for a federal Lebanon; the Lebanese Front, representing mainly Maronite aspirations, likewise presented a federal project during the Lebanon National Dialogue in Lausanne in 1984; and president-elect Bashir Gemayel, assassinated in 1982, toyed with the idea of federalism. It is no coincidence that the debate of federalism in Lebanon has only emerged during times of socioeconomic crisis or nationwide unrest.
After the end of the civil war, the partisans of the war came together and entered a new power sharing arrangement under the terms of the Taif Agreement, which was guaranteed by the presence of Syrian troops and officials in Lebanon. After the Syrians left in 2005, the political system muddled through protracted periods of constitutional void: presidential vacuums in 2007–2008 and 2014–2016 (and now in 2023), and political gridlocks resulting from an agonizing government formation process, all of which left caretaker governments in charge of the country for several months, without a constitutional mandate to do anything.
As this balance became weaker, eventually unraveling in 2019 in parallel with the economic freefall, it was natural for people to seek political alternatives. Some chose to rally behind establishment opposition parties, like Lebanese Forces and Kataeb, while others rallied behind progressive anti-establishment opposition collectives. A significant segment of people, however, are advocating for applying the federal system in Lebanon. Nonetheless, federalism seems to elicit maximalist reactions to it: either complete adherence or complete rejection, in a manner that resembles the religious sectarianism which has plagued Lebanon almost from the get-go, which should make us study it even more.
When division of territory within one nation runs along religious, ethnic, or sectarian lines, it is not generic federalism, but blatant ethno-federalism. In Lebanon, the particularism of the federalist narrative is its entrenchment in ethnic identities. It is not defined by racial or biological unions, but by a perceived belonging or affiliation to a cultural, linguistic, or religious identity, one that acquires a de facto ethnic character. I read the “constitution” of the “Federal Republic of Lebanon”, and three aspects caught my attention: the obsession with equality, the fixation on a monolithic social identity, and the (apparently cumbersome) management of diversity.
Equality means that all citizens are equal before the law, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status. Given the Lebanese federalism originated from Lebanese Christian ideologues in the runup to the civil war, it is driven by a fear that Christians in Lebanon are being relegated to second-rate citizens, or dhimmis, a derogatory term used to describe non-Muslims in Muslim empires. Federalists believe that the shifting demographic balance is a sign of weakening equality between the sectarian groups of the nation, and therefore each sect should have its own borders, to protect itself from “existential threats” from other sects.
The narrative of Muslims threatening to “eat” Christians is an old trope in Lebanese collective memory. This led to the aforementioned Christian fears, and contributed to the “minority-driven” narrative of federalism. This does not resolve or quash these tropes, but rather validates them: why would Christians live in their own monolithic cantons if the Muslims were not actively driving them out? Therefore, what appears to be a protective division of areas with religious specifics is actually fuel to the fire of sectarian divisions, and that is without even accounting for inter-sectarian and inter-ethnic conflict, which federalism buries under a monolith.
We are told that this ethno-federalism is essential to preserve the diversity of the Lebanese people. By maximizing the political autonomy, legitimacy, and sovereignty of Lebanon’s religious sects, ethno-federalism effectively grants these sects the right to live together, in their own spaces. The proposition seems to espouse liberal democratic values, embodied in the freedom of each group to exercise not only its own religious customs but also free rein to its own understanding of history. However, the federal pacts that bind together countries like the US are premised on a sense of unity, rather than an arrangement to prevent secession.
Does this make federalism viable in a highly polarized ecosystem like Lebanon? I don’t think so. In Lebanon, people take the first chance they get to spew hate speech against another sect or religion. Some people still say Muslims should not attend Christian funerals, and other people say that Muslims are backward camel riders who want to impose jizya on Christians. The racist rhetoric against Syrian refugees was initially built on the demographic changes they could cause, until it was unfortunately (mostly) transferred to blame for the crisis. Recently, sectarian sensibilities were disturbingly inflamed over the ridiculous time zone decision.
This Lebanese federalism sounds like a coward’s way out. Instead of actually living together in this country as Lebanese citizens, we are stymied by our differences, instead promoting irredentist history and a distorted image of federalism because we won’t live with someone who does not share our opinions, beliefs, and maybe ethnicity.I would have dismissed the ideas espoused by federalists had it not been for the disingenuous and problematic positions that they mostly take, regarding the current state of Lebanese politics and the most basic issues in our society and culture today, and that only stokes the polarization.
For example, some advocates of federalism espouse racism blatantly and openly. They believe that the Syrian refugees are altering the demographic composition of the country “to the disadvantage of the local population,” and that they’re “stealing jobs and committing crimes.” Unfortunately, they also support political parties who espouse such rhetoric, such as the Lebanese Forces and the Free Patriotic Movement. How can anyone with a minimum of social and economic awareness endorse a political vision that has xenophobia and racism at its core, be it against Syrians or against “other” Lebanese who do not belong to their isolated sectarian canton?
Disappointingly, these same people often echo reactionary and harmful arguments & talking points which are a staple of Western-style conservatism. I am seeing more and more tweets which are taking aggressive stances against minorities, refugees, women, and members of the LGBT community. All this tells us is that you are hostile to anyone and anything that is not a carbon copy of yourselves. Is this how you want to live? In an echo chamber? Are different people really intolerable? For those of you who are religious, how do you espouse such views and claim to be religious and also intolerant?
I don’t want to repeat classic insults and tropes which degrade them, or call them stupid. I don’t think anyone involved here is stupid, however, the disingenuous and dangerous rhetoric federalists are pushing is by no means a solution. The large majority of Lebanese people are predisposed to tribalism and sectarianism, and this is our biggest problem yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Federalism will be the end of Lebanon as we know it today, and the manifestation of ridiculous and malignant fantasies that will polarize people and make them hate anyone unlike them, which is a cardinal sin for all humans.