Karam Karam, Le Mouvement Civil au Liban: revendications, protestations et mobilisations associatives dans l’après-guerre
(Tamirace Fakhoury Muehlbacher)
Paris/Aix-en-Provence, Karthala/IREMAM, 2006
If Lebanon’s search for identity has been marred with several internal and external obstacles, its diversity has given birth to various civil and communal discourses, which have enriched the country’s national heritage.
Its political system, commonly depicted as a power-sharing or consociational democracy, whose cornerstone is the 1943 national pact, is thought to enhance on the one hand social and political diversity and to foment on the other hand conflict and dissension.
Although Lebanon’s power-sharing system has been generally perceived as a classical example of power-sharing in consociational literature, some scholars see in Lebanon’s political apparatus the major source of its ills, and would rather refer to the latter as a devious or “flawed” type of confessionalism which accentuates inter-segmental divisions.
It is within this spectrum of dichotomy that Lebanon’s national identity and modern history have been shaped. After the creation of the Lebanese nation-state, the republic witnessed a period of relative economic prosperity and political stability, interrupted occasionally by episodes of domestic disquiet. However, increasing regional pressures after the exacerbation of the Israeli-Arab conflict coupled with the inability of the Lebanese communities to agree on a common course of action at times of crisis precipitated the country into a 15-year conflict characterized with a complex configuration of external and internal dynamics.
Shortly before the end of the war, an updated formula of consensus was adopted in 1989. The new covenant or the Ta’if pact, which reaffirmed the viability of the Lebanese state, was hailed for putting an end to a longstanding conflict. The pact additionally revived the Lebanese consociational democracy after its collapse in 1975, and introduced some reforms at the legislative and executive levels. After the adoption of the Ta’if pact and the subsequent suspension of armed conflict, it became common to speak about a new post-war or post-Ta’if era.
Nevertheless, the implementation of the pact was affected by Syria’s heavy-handed interventions in the making of Lebanon’s Second Republic. A complex Lebanese-Syrian model of governance deformed the dynamics and core of Lebanon’s consensus democracy, which initially presupposed accommodation and coalescence among communities and elites. During this period (1990-2005), observers talk about the transformation of Lebanon’s system into a functional model of authority, a “skirted” democracy, or a type of odd pluralism. It is also common to allude to the resurgence of a predominant political language, which very much weakened the country’s maze of social and political discourses.
In addition, despite apparent signs of stability and security in the post-war period, Lebanon’s intricate regional problems and communal grievances remained unresolved. Retrospectively, one could easily assert that Syria’s guardianship over post-war Lebanon constituted a cover under which lurked latent grievances. Hence, the divided post-war society failed to embark on a genuine reconciliation process and a comprehensive national dialogue. Also, despite the Ta’if pact’s allusion to an eventual deconfessionalisation, political confessionalism has become even more pronounced in post-war Lebanon. More importantly, in the wake of former Prime Minister Hariri’s assassination and the Syrian troops’ withdrawal in 2005, Lebanon has relived on various occasions episodes reminiscent of the previous war (1975-1990).
Karam Karam’s Civil Movement in Lebanon situates itself at the crossroads of Lebanon’s post-war quest for national unity and political transition. Adopting a novel approach, it sheds light on Lebanon’s civil and political society in order to grasp more deeply the fabric of a multi-communal society hovering between conflict and coexistence. Going beyond usual analyses, which adopt a top-down approach to Lebanon’s dilemma and concentrate on elucidating the incumbents’ discourses, the book explores the dynamics of collective action that have indelibly affected the post-war period.
It is worth mentioning in this respect that the underlying structures shaping Lebanon’s civil society remain under-researched. Hence, many works tackling Lebanon’s political history take for granted that the small Republic has one of the most vibrant civil societies in the Arab world, yet rare are the studies that probe into the ‘exceptionalism’ of these public spaces.
Karam’s study proposes to identify the mechanisms that led to the profusion of civil associations in the post-war period, and to probe deeply into the nature of these associations. Research questions structuring the study touch upon the inner mechanisms of the associative sector and its interactions with political society: to what extent do civil associations contribute to building a new dimension of citizenship? Are they a mere derivative of multi-communalism i.e. a natural by-product of Lebanon’s inherent diversity? Do they perpetuate Lebanon’s confessional patterns or provide outlets for a common public space? Do they contribute at the end of the day to shaping a new political consciousness? Are they a key element in Lebanon’s quest for democracy?
In short, Karam investigates whether civil society’s associations, actors and institutions really participate in “the remaking of a Lebanese political society”, and to what extent they contribute to shaping a national sphere prevailing over communal spaces and state-led institutions (Karam, 13). He analyses moreover whether these associations have played a role in the regulation of conflicts through alternative modes of mediation, and whether they could encourage a bottom-top reconciliation, which privileges overarching projects and downplays inter-confessional cleavages.
The author also examines to what extent these civil associations have demarcated themselves from the rigid structure of a confessional system, how they challenge the latter and in which cases they succumb to its dynamics. A core hypothesis providing a systematic research framework for the book is how civil spaces create and recompose “resources” capable of generating new modes of “representation and participation” (Karam: 26).
Karam’s study is structured into three main parts which allow the reader to gather sufficient insights into the history, components and effects of the associative sector in Lebanon. The author first sets the stage by reexamining the past patterns and embedded structures of civil society during the pre-war and war periods. Then he goes about delineating various types of associations in post-war Lebanon . He particularly sheds light on their profile, intrinsic mechanisms, and to what extent they represent” new objects of analysis” (Karam: 90).
In the second part, the author probes more incisively into social movements and coalitions that have flourished in the post-war period. He addresses in detail the role that these civil spaces have played in reconstructing Lebanon’s post-war pluralistic politics , and whether they enhance communal concordance or reproduce the trails of conflict that have prevailed during the war. This part allows for a multi-faceted analysis of various intersectional spaces linking the civil and political spheres in Lebanon.
In the third part, Karam ventures further into the complex functioning of post-war civil movements, and considers their interests, choices and strategies. He particularly addresses the dynamics and perceptions of civil society actors and coalitions “tempted” by the electoral and political game, and analyses in which aspects they contribute to reconfiguring the system or whether they end up trapped in the workings of the system.
An interesting finding in Karam’s study is that reaching simple conclusions on the interrelationships between Lebanon’s civil and political societies is no linear task. As spaces between the two spheres tend to overlap, a simplistic analysis laying emphasis on civil society’s democratising effect on the political system does not yield much result, for the mere fact that Lebanon’s social movements do not automatically evolve into viable political projects. In fact, Karam draws attention to the necessity of addressing – analytically and empirically - the ambivalent relationship characterizing Lebanon’s civil and political societies.
Addressing this space of ambivalence lies in finding out in which sense Lebanon’s associative sector contributes to the country’s liberalisation, and which movements fail to affect the core of politics. Hence, whereas some post-war coalitions tempted by the political game fell prey to inter-communal divisions, other associative moments anchored in public spaces were able to consolidate political and social freedoms or convert their civil into political gains. Why ? The third part of the study unravels various findings on the background conditions that could lead the emergence of a collective consciousness within the Lebanese public space. Karam’s findings on these issues attract also attention to the fact that Lebanon’s pluralism does not necessarily enhance democracy.
The thrust of Karam’s work is that it departs from common axes of scholarly analysis when it comes to grasping the complex Lebanese conflict and the post-war period. The author chooses to shed light on the endogenous dynamics lying behind Lebanon’s multiple civil spaces, and their interactions with the system, and does not solely concentrate on Lebanon’s state institutions or on predominant political discourses – as many works have gone about.
This alternative path discloses analytical vectors that have impacted – heavily albeit less visibly – Lebanon’s development. By studying “interim spaces”, dichotomies as well as tensions between the community, the public space and the political sphere, the book unveils key mechanisms that help revisit Lebanon’s political development from a multi-layered perspective.
On a more theoretical level, Karam shifts focus from common methodological and theoretical tools traditionally used to analyse Lebanese politics to less familiar scientific and conceptual frameworks. Thus, not only do the well-known and established theories of power-sharing and conflict-regulation cast light on Lebanon’s dynamics but also alternative conceptual tools related to more recent theories on system transition, democratisation, and social actors.
Another aspect that distinguishes this book is that it allows for the perception of a post-war Lebanon that is not only categorised in terms of confessional connotations.
Karam’s choice to examine the post-war period from an alternative perspective also denotes disenchantment with the more traditional vectors of analysis. There is no doubt that analysing Lebanon’s devious power-sharing mechanisms, politically-driven discourses and state institutions have helped clarify Lebanon’s derailment. Yet, these analyses do not provide in the longer run a conceptual framework able to bridge the gap between a divided society trapped in political and sectarian bickering and a more viable Lebanon free of confessional shackles. Alternatively, the consolidation of Lebanon’s complex web of associative, corporate, and social movements could provide the missing link leading towards an overarching Lebanese identity based on shared interests. Future research should thereby concentrate on how the associative sector and transcommunal spaces could minimize the hold of confessional patterns, and strengthen national cohesiveness so that Lebanon becomes less vulnerable to external and internal pressures.
In the final analysis, studying how civil actors and associations articulate new modes of cooperation beyond the segmental pillars of Lebanon’s communalism, is undoubtedly a significant scholarly breakthrough. Nevertheless, it does not dispense scholars from tackling how Lebanon’s developments are shaped on the one hand by its inexorable institutions and communal givens as well as by its external environment, which condition to a great extent internal modalities as well as the associative sector’s margin of action.
Tamirace Fakhoury Muehlbacher, European University Institute Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies, Florence
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