A regressive idea

Butros Harb would do well to read the constitution the next time he proposes legilsation (Photo: AFP/MARWAN NAAMANI)

As the wheels slowly fell off yet another ‘national unity’ government last month, Lebanon’s political class apparently had enough time to re-hash some old ideas and present them as legislation. But of all the bad ideas that Lebanese politicians have come up with to preserve the “diversity” of the country, the most recent draft law proposed by Labor Minister Butros Harb is likely the most regressive and divisive.

Harb’s proposal to ban the sale of land between individuals from different religions for a period of 15 years is nothing new and stems back as far as the 1860s, when Lebanon’s first “civil war” erupted. But supposing that the minister has read the constitution, he would know all too well that his proposal contravenes the principles of equality among the Lebanese, the right to private property, a free economy, and the fact that “there is no segregation of the people on the basis of any type of belonging, and no fragmentation, partition, or colonization.”

Then again, government regularly makes a habit of ignoring the constitution, from its obligation to hold timely sessions of parliament to that of passing a national budget, so perhaps we should regard Harb’s proposal as par for the course. At a time when the issue of Christians in the Middle East is particularly loaded, Harb may have used the opportunity to promote himself as the torchbearer of age-old Christian paranoia over being engulfed by the wider Muslim, and in this case Shia, population.

One reason for the draft law stems from allegations that parties such as Hezbollah are behind real estate purchases in “Christian” areas. If that is the problem, however, Harb could have used his legislative ingenuity to propose measures to lift banking secrecy on the accounts of public officials and their relatives and increase the transparency of financial transactions by political parties. That, however, might not go over well with his colleagues in government, who use banking secrecy to circumvent campaign finance laws to help buy their way into office.

A more relevant move for Harb in his capacity as labor minister would be to propose a measure to stamp out sectarian discrimination in the workplace.

Unfortunately, it makes more political sense to stoke sectarian fears and claim to be defending your own than to stick your neck out and actually propose something that takes aim at the institution of Lebanese sectarianism. For starters, if the intention of any law is to protect a particular sect then it is by definition discriminatory and will only serve to increase divisions rather than do away with them. The idea that people from sects that did not traditionally reside in places like Keserwan or Batroun now want to buy property there should not be thought of as particularly grotesque, unless one truly believes that each sect should have its own ghetto and Lebanon is nothing more than a collection of Bantustans.

If Harb truly fears for his community, then he should have used his position as both a member of Parliament and a minister to dismantle the institution of sectarianism by insisting that the cabinet form the constitutionally mandated committee to abolish the practice in society, and that legal structures of a secular state are voted on by parliament. True to form, neither Harb nor any of his colleagues has yet been brave enough to seriously propose either, preferring instead to use such suggestions as a political bargaining tool, happy that they can collect their paychecks and kickbacks based, effectively, on their own sect.

The mantra of coexistence between sects cannot just be a pretty phrase that we blindly recite to foreigners before rejecting citizens from “our” areas because they pray on Friday or Sunday. The fact that the country is already staunchly segregated is not something to be proud of, nor a condition to be supported through legislation.

For all their faults, the Constitution and the Taif Accord lay out the framework that intends to eventually abolish the stain of sectarianism. The Lebanese, including Harb, should not forget that the people and their government are not bound by any other social contract. So the next time a minister or MP would like to propose legislation to protect their community from the “dominance” of other sects, they would do well to start with that in mind and leave the sectarian laws where they belong: as things of the past.

First published in Executive Magazine’s February 2011 issue.


Author: Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is a policy consultant who covers a range of policy issues and analyses development programmes, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Sami specialises in analysing policies and programmes in order to provide evidence-based recommendations to policy-makers and international development agencies. Sami holds a Master of Public Policy with Distinction from The University of Edinburgh.

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