Beirut - Polarised by all sorts of crises and adversities, Lebanon's communities appear to be pulling slowly apart, moving away little by little from the 1920 pact that led to the birth of Greater Lebanon and that of 1943, a political pact of positive neutrality vis-à-vis Syria and France. Sensitive to this process, Maronite Patriarch Bechara al-Rahi, who just celebrated the first year of his patriarchate, has tirelessly urged the country's communities to renew and upgrade the national pact.
In order to understand fully the patriarch's remarks it is necessary to clarify two elements of ambiguity. Some have interpreted his appeal as a call to rethink Lebanon's political-communal balance. Others have expressed concerns that such an initiative would encourage the Shia community to demand greater political power, proportional to its relative demographic size.
This is not what the patriarch is suggesting, for he is attached to the principle of equality between Christians and Muslims in parliament and the top echelons of the state, a principle sanctioned by the 1990 Taif accord and incorporated in the constitution.
The patriarch's appeal includes another, more subtle ambiguity that must be clarified. In calling for a new national pact, the patriarch appears to be appealing directly to the communal consciousness of the various political actors, rather than to their civic or political sense of duty. In a certain way, this appeal can appear anachronistic because it calls on communities to reconnect to a consciousness of themselves before independence and the process of national integration that unfolded in the next seven decades.
In reality, despite appearances, the patriarch's appeal is a realistic one. At its basis is a realisation that the desire of the country's communities to live together has weakened, as a result of the civil war of 1975-1990. Along with its territory, such a desire is the fundamental basis for the nation's existence. The head of the Maronite Church, which remains the historical engine of Lebanon's national identity, must therefore revive the communities' will to live together, which led to the birth of Lebanon in 1920 and 1943, in lieu of placing their ideological differences above such will.
In effect, we are slowing moving away from one another for reasons tied as much to each group's strong identity as to current political issues. The civil war led, like it or not, to identity-based positions that favoured new, cultural and territorial divisions and cleavages.
Each community has its own neighbourhoods, customs and places of leisure. The Members of the National Assembly might smile and greet each in parliament, but come evening, they go back to their respective communities, values, setting and reflexes. Fortunately, communal attitudes are not mutually exclusive. Inter-communal spaces do exist, in the workplace, public facilities and schools. However, their impact is moderated by all sorts of contrary forces, most notably politics.
Indeed, political life is a major source of division. In fact, relayed and intensified by free-for-all media, opposing political ideologies vie for power and we cunningly use them against one another in order to prevail.
The result of this partly unacknowledged showdown will shape the type of Lebanon to which we will belong, whether it is that of the Americans or the Europeans, of the Iranians or the Syrians, of the Sunnis or the Shias, of the Lebanese Forces or pro-Aoun forces . . . .
The cultural and political excesses we see are leading to the breakup and dislocation of our institutions along heterogeneous political and communal line. Public services, universities, offices and banks have become segregated, private preserves from which other communities and political forces are excluded.
These cultural and political excesses are real and it is against them that the patriarch has issued warning after warning. For him, it is as if then Lebanese were throwing the dice, insensitive not only to the perverse nature of the game, intensified by the media, but also to the daily tribulations of ordinary people, whose priorities are sacrificed on the altar of ideological differences, which in turn intensify social crises.
Rediscovering or reiterating our will to live together is an exhilarating but difficult enterprise. If political actors appear incapable of reacting to centripetal forces that are weakening the Lebanese people's will to live together, it is necessary for intellectual elites to join at least their voice to that of the Maronite patriarch so that his appeal can be heeded.
One area in which the Lebanese can engage in reconciliation is that of shared memory. Lebanon is still getting back on its feet after a civil war that did not break it up nor lead to its annexation or disappearance. The recent controversy about that period of our history, which each party and community interprets in its own way, shows that the war has not yet faded into the past. It continues to haunt and eat into us. We have not yet drawn lessons from it.
We must realise that this is one of the main factors that have weakened our will to live together. As we might expect, each camp is still viscerally attached to its cause. The war that devastated Lebanon continues to ravage it through politics today.
For some, the war represents first of all the resistance to the armed Palestinian presence, which marked the start of the war, followed later by the intervention of the Syrian army. For others, the glorious phase of the resistance to the Israeli army overshadows everything else. The glorious day 14 March is thus seen as a mere footnote to history and the Lebanese revolution that led to the pullout of Syrian troops in May 2005 as an element in the regional strategy of the United States.
The war still permeates our political life. We continue to seek victory over the other faction, even if the cost is the general weakening of Lebanon, which we know to be our shared home and homeland. This is our tragedy, a tragedy the patriarch feels personally, as he witnesses every day the country's slow death. In order to break out of this situation and find a will to live together, it is essential to work on our history.
Indeed, the history of contemporary Lebanon has yet to be written. Its history book must take into account the devastations caused by the war, not only its "glories". It must hide neither its crimes, nor the blindness that led us into the civil war.
On the contrary, we must work on remembrance and reconciliation, something the Lebanese have only timidly started to do. Even before Hizbollah's weapons, the Lebanese must sit down at the dialogue table to talk about their memories and find ways to reconcile them, one way or the other. They must reconcile their memories so that they can look at sharing a future again.