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Lebanon's democracy celebrated on Independence Day

Lebanon's democracy celebrated on Independence Day

By Henri Bou Saab in Beirut

Photo of author Henri Bou Saab and visiting Kiwi writer Jeremy Rose

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  • We have just celebrated Independence Day in Beirut, this November 22 being the first time in thirty years that the special day has occurred without any foreign armies permanently stationed on our soil.

    When my grandparents' generation were first campaigning for Lebanese independence from France in the early 20th Century they devised a constitution based on power-sharing, a system to ensure that all communities that identified as communities would be represented in the parliamentary and bureaucratic systems of government.

    The system works when it is respected but it has failed its citizens terribly in the past when it was imbalanced, when any community felt disadvantaged or locked out of the power-sharing system of democracy that our founding constitution envisaged.

    With 17 communities in Lebanon, it isn't always an easy task.

    But we have definitely learnt the hard way what happens when one community tries to take too much, or if any group or groups are excluded or feel excluded.

    This year's celebration was, for me and my friends then, very much about celebrating our unity and also our diversity in Lebanon.

    There is no unity or national cohesion unless each and every community is able to breathe freely and has a strong stake in the country's progress.

    And without acknowledging and catering to the diverse communities, there is no nation at peace, but only discord.

    And the practical evidence from Lebanon's experiences since its independence in 1943 is that unity and diversity are strengthened in turn by the fostering of democracy and of individual freedoms under the rule of law.

    Lebanon is unique in its part of the world.

    I'm not a historian, but I can't help notice that most Middle Eastern States are not that dissimilar to Lebanon in the sense that they are home to distinct communities.

    When two, three, four or five distinct communities have legitimate, historic claims to call a place home but the State that is established in that land caters primarily for the interests and privileges of one or two communities, then the price must be repression and the use of force to keep the subject population or populations "under control".

    The difference in Lebanon is that we've first acknowledged that our State is a State of distinct communities and then tried to put in place a system of power-sharing between those communities. Part of the art of democratic politics in Lebanon is about refining and adjusting the nature of the power-sharing over time, as circumstances change.

    But the essence of the "idea" of Lebanese democracy is one of power-sharing and compromise.

    It is that no one community can prosper for long if another community is suffering unfairly. Every community has an interest in ensuring other communities are represented in the power sharing because imbalance gurantees violence and war.

    When I look around the countries and societies in this region I realise that Lebanon's democracy must succeed and Lebanon must prosper as an example to those around us - societies that haven't attempted to deliver serious and meaningful power-sharing systems and have, to varying degrees, instituted force and the threat of force to maintain what must surely only be relatively short-term "stability" in the absence of power-sharing, democratic systems.

    In theory, urbanization, and technological progress, should be propelling all societies to advance the natural impulse toward greater democracy and freedom and liberty.

    If the Lebanese democratic experiment of power-sharing continues to succeed while all our neighbours are stuck in cycles of ethnic and religious conflict, then Lebanon might have a really valuable Export on offer to the region - one we can give free of charge and with pleasure.

    That's what we've been celebrating in Lebanon this Independence Day.


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