'A lot of freedom, little democracy'

In the light of current events, Menassat.com asked Sarkis Abu Zeid, editor in chief of the daily newspaper Al Watan, to explain Lebanon's weird version of democracy.
By Sarkis Abou Zeid
Democracy is not just about freedom of expression.

Indeed, talk shows often reflect misconceptions, the misleading of public opinion and the organized brainwashing of the audience.

Democracy is not just about an electoral process that is limited to the ballot. Not in circumstances where all types of intimidation and enticement tactics and blackmail are exercised on the voters.

PM Salim Al-Hoss said in this regard: “In Lebanon, there is a lot of freedom and little democracy”.

So we ask today: is Lebanese democracy in a predicament? What is this predicament? And how can we remedy it?

First, our country is capable of Lebanonizing everything, and the political system is no exception.

Democracy in Lebanon has its specificity and even its very own vocabulary.

Each team uses the expression “democracy” as a description or an adjective to refer to a regime, position or a group, while each has a different meaning for the term.

Hence, we often converse with words carrying opposite meanings because each side is carrying its own dictionary.

In general, Lebanese politicians tend to avoid explaining the meaning of their words or defining them so that their ideas remain vague.

Yes, Lebanese 'democracy' is in a predicament because it is a multiple and varied democracy that is facing implementation problems regardless of its theoretical and philosophical sources.

Lebanese 'democracy' has three different schools of thought.

1) 'numerical majority democracy', which is known worldwide but is impossible to put into practice in a country of sects.

2) 'National Pact democracy', which originally stemmed from the 1943 formula that resulted in a quasi-federal system of power-sharing between the sects. It was undermined during the civil war and revived in the 1989 Ta’if agreement. The Ta'if agreement succeeded in ending the war but failed in fighting corruption, securing social justice and building a state of institutions, law and citizenship.  

3) 'consensus democracy', which relies on a possible consensus between the religions, the sects, the current familial and feudal political class and the different confessions, communities and powerful figures. 

However, if this consensus were to fail or be hindered, what is the required mechanism to overcome the difficulties and obstacles? How can the institutions continue to work and interact when the consensus basis on which they are established is hindered?

Consensus democracy works perfectly when there are no disputes. It is a wonderful principle but it is impossible to implement in a pluralistic country located in a region awash with crises, wars and conflicts.

And once a crisis escalates, it becomes impossible to turn to the institutions, the systems and mechanisms for a solution.

A number of Western thinkers, included French Philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, assured that it was impossible to see “real democracy” on the ground. Real democracy is an archetype and a dream. In reality, it is a system that has its weakness points, its elements of corruption, its crises and predicaments.

In our countries, democracy must stem from our reality and specificity to serve our goals. We must first establish it on the basis of the unity of the community in order to allow national loyalty to prevail over familial, tribal, sectarian, religious and ethnic belonging.

This democracy does not prevent the respect of these groups’ specificities and their heritage.

Our democracy stands in respect of this plurality and difference within the unity of the community.

Our democracy firstly stems from the people and considers the systems, laws, institutions and the state itself as being at the service of the people and the community.

It also considers that all financial and psychological abilities are at the service of the development, well-being, happiness, freedom and quality of life that is chosen by these people.

These people can’t be mere consumers or bystanders or human beings serving tyrannical projects and oppressive authorities.

Our democracy is based on education, on raising awareness, on culture and on building new human beings who are free, autonomous and happy.

There is no freedom without free people and no democracy with democratic people. People are the scale on which values, ethics and morals are measured.

Democracy is not a religion. It is a means and a system aiming to serve the people.

Our democracy includes the people’s right to their land and to deciding their own fate in their country. It is linked to citizenship, social justice, development and social and political security rights.

Our democracy enjoys a social dimension based on dialogue and cooperation between the people, civilizations and nations.

Our democracy is about the liberation of the people from all restraints and about using their material and spiritual energies and capacities to serve the participation process and to convey the people’s interests and aspirations.

The democracy we want is one which organizes human relations in a circular way, including the horizontal level affecting the relationships between the citizens, the state institutions and ruling hierarchy, and the vertical level affecting the relations among the citizens themselves within the same community.

It is the democracy of participation and expression which we dream of for the free people and the freedom of the people, since there is no freedom without a fair democratic system and no democracy without a free citizen and a new human being.

Sarkis Abou Zeid is the editor in chief of the Lebanese daily Al-Watan, and of the cultural monthly Thawoulat. He is a former columnist for An-Nahar.