The Happy Arab News Service

Friday, May 18, 2007

Lebanon in 5 years from now

Last updated: May 28, 2008

May 18, 2007

On January 11, 2006 Jeha was commenting on the statistics of the ethno-demographic situation in Lebanon published by Al-Nahar . Despite the appearance of a certain equilibrium between the three main Lebanese communities, Jeha said that more digging in the data reveals a completely different picture.

The common knowledge is the diminishing Christian presence in Lebanon. While holding 50% of the seats in Parliament, the Christian community now hardly amounts to 1/3 of the population. Yet among those under the age of 20, Christians don't even account for 25%. According to Jeha, low fertility and increasing emigration will reduce the Christian share of the population to 20% within the next 5 years.

Recently the Christians failed to play a meaningful role in Lebanese politics. Instead a bizarre situation is persisting with Christians taking part on both sides in what starts looking more and more as another Sunni Shia confrontation. From all mistakes and blunders committed by the Christians until now, this one may well be their last big one, as there are simply not enough of them left in Lebanon to continue committing mistakes of that scale.

More musings by Jeha about the situation don't add up to an overly optimistic picture of the Lebanon that will be waiting for us in 5 years from now. Contrary to the commonly held view, it's not the Shia who lead the demographic race, which means Nasrallah is massively shooting himself in a foot by insisting on reforming the electoral system. In Northern areas such as the impoverished Akkar, the Sunni fertility rates are well above the national average, while the Shia and Christian birth rates are converging nationwide.

Surprising as it may appear, one should bear in mind that the mother ship of the Shia Islam in the region has a population growth of less than 1%, its demographic indicators being comparable to the demographically stagnating Europe. In fact, Iran is held by many to be one of the most advanced nations around in family planning. On the other hand, a Lebanese blogger, on a visit to Israel a few months ago, was quite skeptical about the widespread perception of the Shias as the most backward and deprived of Lebanese communities. In his view many people fail to take sufficiently into account the situation in the demographically super-active and economically backward Sunni North, as well as recent advances of the Shia community.

Jeha worried about the future of the Lebanese political system which is losing any relationship to the situation on the ground. Lebanon did not have a national census since 1932 and the elevated number of casualties of the last civil war, more than 100,000 dead, serves a stark warning to all fans of censuses and electoral reforms. Yet the plain impossibility to maintain a system that gives the Christians 50% of seats and the presidential post, while the community itself keeps disappearing, spells more bad news in the future.

And however bad the Hezbs can appear, it's the Salafis who worry Jeha most.

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Another article published on the Catholic News Service site not so long ago appears to echo some of Jeha's conclusions. According to it, the largest Christian community, the Maronites, is at an advanced stage of disintegration.

Forty-three percent of Maronite Catholics – the largest of the country's 12 Christian denominations – polled recently said they were considering emigrating.

Nearly a third of them have applied for visas in the last six months, according to the study by Information International, an independent Beirut-based research body. The study, which was to be published in May, was released early to Catholic News Service.

"Some 60,000-70,000 Christians have left the country in the last six months," said George Khoury, executive director of Caritas Lebanon, the local agency of the Caritas Internationalis confederation of Catholic relief, development and social services organizations. "In some ways Lebanon is becoming increasingly Islamized because of the demographic shift."

And a violent explosion of Sunni fundamentalism is not such a far fetched scenario at all.

Jawad Adra, managing partner of Information International, warned that the increasing polarization of Lebanon's pro- and anti-government factions was providing a fertile breeding ground for Sunni extremism, which is only likely to hasten the pace of Christian emigration from the country.

"The growth of Sunni extremism is a ticking time bomb that is waiting to explode and could sweep all moderates out of its path," he said.

Kim Howells, British Foreign Office minister, warned during a visit to Beirut in March that "seasoned jihadists" from Iraq were flocking to Lebanon because they regard it as a soft target for terrorist attacks.

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By Michael Hirst
April 17, 2007



The chances are good that in 5 years from now one of the two Muslim communities will either demand normalization of the electoral system, or redesigning the old one in line with the new ethno-demographic situation. Such a demand, if not met with an outright refusal, may find itself confronted with an acute interest in federalism in some quarters. A failure to accommodate the federalists may well mean another civil war.

In 5 years from now, Lebanon may lose a lot of what was making it such a special place. Of this the first one is its large Christian community. The more Islamic Lebanon will still have Beirut . . . But it will also still have Akkar and this may happen to be more important.


The discussion in the comments section of Jeha's post has a few very good comments on the demographic situation in Lebanon and demographics in general.

On this blog the general Arab demographics are covered by this post.

May 28, 2008

The Nation of Associated Minorities

In one of its last reports on Lebanon the Economist published a map that highlights the enormous difficulty if not impossibility of resolving Lebanon's unending mess by means of splitting the country.

Source: Iran's tool fights America's stooge

The two major Shia blocks on this sectarian map grossly resemble the West Bank/Gaza cut in two in the low end of the Bekaa Valley. The vulnerability of the land locked Shia Northern flank in a hypothetical case of Sunni religious revivalists taking over Syria amidst an escalating Sunni Shia conflict in Lebanon is also evident. Hezbollah was recently rocking the boat very hard but it should bear in mind that in this region the hypothetical can turn reality in no time. As for now, reports abound about Hezbollah's latest action having unleashed a new wave of the Sunni Shia animosity.

With the Christians divided and their numbers steadily declining the Christian vs Muslim dimension seems to be more and more overshadowed by the Sunni vs Shia one. The last confrontation in which Christians shot not one single bullet testifies to the changing nature of the Lebanese conflict. And yet, for all the growing importance of the Sunni Shia relations (or rather tensions) for the future of Lebanon, there exists one single most populous Lebanese sect habitually ignored and underestimated in all inter and intra sectarian calculations. Or so claims Mark Farha in Demography and Democracy in Lebanon published in the January-March 2008 issue of the Middle East Monitor. According to a 2005 survey, he says, 34% of Lebanese identify themselves first of all by their national identity, the sectarian one coming only second.

In all probability this hidden third (if it does exist) is massively underrepresented in the present political system. Geographically, in very few places there can be high enough concentration of such voters to enable/justify creation of political forces of non sectarian nature. On the other hand, if Lebanon introduces instead an electoral system based on proportional representation the style of Israel, this constituency can take up to about 1/3 of the seats. The way out, according to Farha, lies in strengthening and encouraging this sector of the Lebanese society. Reforming the electoral system can be one of the first steps in this direction.

There are several problems with this idea though. To start with, 34% is a lot but it's not majority while systems based on proportional representation are notorious for their successes in creating very fractured political landscapes conducive to various dysfunctions and occasionally total paralyzes of political systems. Israel with its 15 something parties and Italy are obvious examples.

Another thing to keep in mind is that in our age of political correctness, people all around the world are self policing their speech and thought to such a degree that it's not easy to know what people are really thinking as frequently they don't know it themselves. Blatantly sectarian modes of speech are very much out of fashion these days and so many people make an extra effort to wrap their often super sectarian way of thinking in all the external verbal paraphernalia of the noblespeak of political correctness. The real number of these non sectarian Lebanese may be not as high as polls suggest. Such a survey, if taken today, might have discovered that the share of non sectarians shrank to a mere fraction of its former mighty self.

As the Lebanese internal crisis keeps moving through its ups and downs another factor seems to have been repeatedly stopping this country recently from taking the last step towards the abyss. Since their last civil war in which between 5% to 7% of the population perished, some Lebanese appear to be still rather clueless as to the real reasons their nation has ended killing so many of its sons while still others seem to be even less sure about their ability to stop themselves from doing it yet again. This nation may be in a constant paranoia about its neighbors yet its worst paranoia is about herself. It's the fear to cross some boundary or take a wrong step making all hell break loose that seems to be always making the Lebanese pull back at the last moment. This fear is strong and more effective than any amount of non sectarian rhetoric can be. Nevertheless those in the habit of playing with fire should know that their chances to end having their house burned to the ground are vastly above the statistical average.

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