A bit of a stir
It seemed like the perfect time to bring up the subject but I did so cautiously.
‘ Do you think we can have democracy in the Arab world, I mean a true democracy?’ I asked during the lull in the conversation at the dinner party my husband and I were hosting.
All faces turned to me. Here gathered in my home were six Lebanese friends and one American. The subject had obviously crossed their minds as all leaned forward eagerly.
‘ I don’t see why not,’ said one friend, Ramez. ‘If democracy works in the West it can work in the Arab world. We can have a true representative system and indeed we should have one.’
Lebanon is the closest any Arab country has come to democracy. While the people don’t directly elect the president, they elect the members of parliament. The parliament then elects the president and the speaker of the house. The new president in consultation with members of the parliament appoints a prime minister, who then appoints the cabinet.
However, to satisfy all religions in Lebanon, political seats are already prearranged by sect. The president must be a Christian Maronite (a sect similar to Catholics originating in the Middle East), the prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the house speaker must be a Shi’a Muslim. Each religious group has a certain number of seats in the cabinet and parliament.
I could see another friend, Sana, pondering Ramez’s stand on democracy. ‘No way would democracy work here,’ she said. ‘If we change our system and let the “best man” win, well then each sect would vote for its own candidate and this would never do.’
Sana, a Christian, didn’t want to offend the Muslims in the group. What she meant to say was that she feared that Muslims – the majority in Lebanon – would win the presidency every time. Lebanese society, like the rest of the Arab world, is built on loyalties to sects, affiliations or tribes. Christians elect Christians, Shi’as elect Shi’as, and Sunnis elect Sunnis.
Lamia, a Muslim, got the point. ‘What you’re saying is that we will end up having an Islamic state if we have democracy,’ she said. ‘That’s not necessarily true. You know that many Muslims don’t want an Islamic state.’
There was an awkward silence. Zahi, another Muslim friend, spoke up. ‘Well, I think with the popularity of Muslim fundamentalism right now in the Arab world, it’s quite likely that Lebanon would become an Islamic state.’
‘ And so?’ Lamia retorted.
‘ And so,’ responded Sana rather defensively, ‘a lot of Lebanese Christians – and Muslims, I may add – will leave the country. No, we can’t have true democracy here. The seats must be prearranged between Muslims and Christians.’
My American friend, who’d been following the conversation closely, lightly cleared her throat and all eyes turned to her. ‘To be honest,’ she said, ‘I’m not sure Lebanon or the Arab world can be a democracy. It’s a mentality thing. You’re too tribal. Too sect-oriented. You don’t think: who can run the country better? You think: do I want a Muslim or Christian in power? We don’t think like that in the US and so it works.’
Another silence fell on the group as we took in Sarah’s words. Seeing that a tense religious debate was about to unfold and wanting to save my dinner party, I quickly changed the subject.
But the issue continued to nag in my head as many questions remained unanswered. It’s not a matter of whether we want democracy here or not, but would it work? Can we as Lebanese forget our sects and vote for a good president, regardless of religion?
I continued to ask various friends and acquaintances. All had ready answers. ‘Democracy’ has become the biggest buzzword since the Iraq war. Television programmes broadcast debates between pro- and anti-democracy analysts.
Some people I asked laughed, citing Iraq. ‘The Americans managed to untangle a web in Iraq,’ said one acquaintance. ‘Saddam Hussein held the many tribes together. Yes, with an iron fist and by repression – but they were held together. It’s laughable to think that a democratic system would work there.’
Others vehemently supported a democratic Iraq. ‘Iraq is the test,’ said a friend. ‘If it can work there, then it can work everywhere in the Arab world. America didn’t just become democratic. There was a time when only white males voted. They evolved. And so can we.’
My questions remain unanswered. I guess only time will tell.
© Copyright 2003 New Internationalist
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