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Lebanon’s Example to Iraq

Iraq’s voters have spoken. Now a new government must be formed and a new constitution written. Lebanon, argues Paul Salem, may provide a guide for those Iraqis who seek a constitution that can reconcile the country’s Shi-ite, Sunni, Kurdish and Turkmen communities.

Rebuilding a country devastated by war, riven by internal divisions, and plagued by foreign intervention in a part of the world as volatile as the Middle East is one of the most daunting tasks imaginable. Add to it a desire to create a democracy from scratch in a region characterized by authoritarian government and that task becomes almost impossible. But the challenge has been met before, in Lebanon after its nightmarishly long civil war (1975-1990). So perhaps there are lessons from that experience that can be applied in Iraq.

Both Lebanon and Iraq comprise ancient communities living within the borders of states outlined in the 20th century. Although a strong sense of modern nationalism exists in both, ancient ethnic and religious communities play a critical role in shaping political identities and public life.

Both countries also possess a fairly educated middle class and intelligentsia alongside more traditional elites. Both societies have a mixed history that included periods of peaceful, cooperative politics and periods of violence and bloodletting.

One lesson from Lebanon’s recent history stands out above all others: in divided political societies such as Lebanon and Iraq, coalition democracy is preferable to majoritarian winner-takes-all democracy. In Lebanon, the danger of one community monopolizing power over others is avoided because the Lebanese constitution imposes permanent power-sharing arrangements on all major communities. These arrangements apply both to parliament and the executive branch.

In Lebanon’s post-war parliament, seats are widely distributed among the various confessional communities, so that none feels excluded or fears losing political representation if it loses numerical superiority. In the executive branch, the council of ministers is balanced among Christians and Muslims in order to encourage, indeed force, cooperation and to avoid the risk of domination the fear of oppression by one group.

In addition, the three major posts in government—the president of the republic, the prime minister, and the speaker of parliament—are counterbalanced in power and are also divided among the three largest communities. Moreover, coexistence and cooperation among the various communities is enshrined as a basic principle in Lebanon’s constitution. Promoting any policy or law that increases communal tension is unconstitutional.

In Iraq, some of these steps have already been taken. The Governing Council and the interim Government are both coalition bodies of the Lebanese type, comprising studied proportions from the three main communities in Iraq—the Shia, the Sunni, and the Kurds. Iraq, however, still has neither a parliament nor a constitution.

With regard to parliament, there is no need to follow Lebanon’s rigid apportionment of seats according to confessional identity. All the same, Iraq’s parliamentary electoral law should be drawn up to take two important factors into account:

· First, districts should be drawn to ensure that all major communities in the country are amply represented in parliament and none feels left out;

· Second, electoral districts should be multi-member districts and should, as far as is possible, include populations of more than one community in order to encourage cross-communal politics and the election of moderate politicians that can speak to all communities and that know how to resolve tensions among them.

Until elections can be organized, it may be necessary to do what was done in Lebanon just after the war: appoint members to an interim Iraqi parliament. This could be described as a temporary advisory parliament, or ‘Shura Council,’ but it should include hundreds of figures from throughout the country and they should be selected through the Governing Council and interim Government after nationwide consultations.

Such a large Shura Council would provide a broad Iraqi face and body to the interim administration. It would also serve to create the beginnings of Iraqi parliamentary and local politics in advance of the elections, which should be held as soon as possible.

In terms of drawing up a new constitution, the Lebanese principle of government by power sharing must be a central pillar. Beyond the balance of representation in parliament and government, a balance might need to be struck between the highest offices of state.

As in Lebanon, Iraqis might need to create a balance between the offices of president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, and to agree that a leader of a different major community will occupy each. This would reinforce the need for inter-communal cooperation and minimize the risk of a return to any form of communal domination or dictatorship.

As someone who knew Lebanon in its darkest hours—when Lebanon was a by-word for chaos, violence, and political hopelessness—and who saw its rapid reconstitution as a functioning participatory political system and its astonishing return to normalcy, I know that Iraq can be politically rebuilt. Like the Lebanese, Iraqis have suffered enough. By recognizing a permanent say in politics for all of the country’s mutually suspicious communities, Iraqis can pull back from the brink and build for themselves an Iraq worthy of their talents and their history.