Cypriot Federalism: A Nonstarter in the Shadow of Erdogan’s Turkey – Professor Habib Malik, Lebanese American University, 16 March, 2017

by on March 30, 2017

Cypriot Federalism: A Nonstarter in the Shadow of Erdogan’s Turkey
Habib Malik
Associate Professor of History
Lebanese American University
16 March 2017


George Pelaghias (G.P.): Today we have the pleasure of welcoming back Professor Habib Malik who will be talking to us about the recent developments in Lebanon. Professor Malik is an Associate Professor of History at the Lebanese American University. Professor Malik, welcome back to ERPIC.

Habib Malik (H.M.): Thank you. Very happy to be here.

G.P.: Professor Malik, we’ve seen in Lebanon last year in October that the presidential post was finally filled with the election of Michel Aoun as president. Where do you see Lebanon go from here now when the presidential post has been filled?

H.M.: For a long time, almost a little more than two years before last October, there was a complete political paralysis in the country. Lebanon is a country that often functions on arrangements and mutually agreed upon compromises. And we seem to have hit a point where such compromises were frozen. But then, finally, because the real issue here is that the Sunnis and the Shiites in Lebanon, the two major Muslim denominations, have been able to bring forth their strongest leaders to represent them. It was the Christians that for a long time were deprived of fielding the strongest leader. And the strongest leader happened to be general Aoun who commanded the greatest support among the Christians. And we’re talking really about a situation, where Sunnis, Shiites and Christians more or less composed about a third of the country each at this point in time. There was obviously an imbalance in the fact that the Christians were not able to bring forth their strongest leader to fill the highest post that’s apportioned to the community.

You know, Lebanon also for a long time had an oral agreement which has finally become written in our constitution, which is that the post of president goes to the Maronite Christians, the post of prime minister goes to the Sunni Muslims, and the post of speaker of the parliament – the House – goes to the Shiites. That’s roughly the arrangement. It was oral, as I said, and followed without being a written requirement. Lately, after 1989, it became part of the constitution. The problem, as I just said, was that the Christians were not able for a long time to bring forth their strongest representative. Finally, the ice on that one was broken this past summer and elections brought forth General Aoun who is now president of the country.

Now, you also have to keep in mind that since the Lebanon war ended in 1990 with the Taif Agreement in the fall of ‘89, the presidency, which was the prerogative of the Christians, has been stripped largely of many of its powers. And the prime ministership has been given most of those powers, if not the prime minister himself then he and his cabinet – the government, that is. So, that was one of the results of the ending of the war – a kind of diminishing of the powers of the Christians. Now, keeping that in mind, having someone like Michel Aoun as president does not really change the fact that the president’s powers are restricted, circumscribed. But the mere fact that Aoun has a wide Christian representation helps to bolster the position somewhat and redresses a little bit the imbalance.

Once we had the president in October the ball started rolling, as it were, in political terms. Now, there are preparations underway in earnest for the parliamentary elections this spring and there’s work going on on the electoral law that should be followed and there’s a lot of haggling there because, you know, gerrymandering the district and knowing which community remains hostage to which other community in terms of the voting and so on – this is a very complicated can of worms that involves horse trading, as it were, among the various communities and their leaders. But eventually something gets hammered out and elections take place. So this in a nutshell is where Lebanon is right now. Since the paralysis that lasted for two years was broken with the election of a new president, matters have started to move forward and we’re hoping, we’re pretty hopeful that we will have an electoral law which will allow us to have parliamentary elections this spring. Now, the government that will be formed after the new parliament is in place will be the real effective government. There is a government right now headed by Saad Hariri, but its main job is to prepare for the elections, so we shall see after the elections what kind of government will emerge.

G.P.: You mentioned that the Christians were not able to bring forward a presidential candidate. Why was that?

H.M.: Well, because essentially, to put it in a nutshell, the Christians lost the war. And they lost the war to the combination of the Shiites and the Sunnis. Now, the Sunnis are supported by Saudi Arabia and the Shiites have Iran behind them, and also on the ground the paramilitary group Hezbollah. So, in that sense there is considerable political clout that emerges from these two supports, these two, if you will, dimensions of Sunni and Shiite power. The Christians don’t have anything like that. Before the war of 1975 the Christians through the powers of the presidency had a lot of political influence in the country. That has been eroded gradually throughout the war and the final agreement that was brokered to end the war pretty much emasculated the powers of the Christians.

We also have demographic changes. Before the 1970s the Christians were more than fifty percent of the country. Now they are somewhere around one-third. So there’s been emigration, deaths during the war, all sorts of things. Also, the community doesn’t seem to experience population growth at the same rate as other communities do. So there’s a variety of reasons that have caused this to happen. Now interestingly the new constitution which ended the war pretty much states that Christians and Muslims are regarded as fifty-fifty – fifty percent each. Now, this is of course a numerical fiction. But it’s there in order to imply that the rights of communities will not be affected by the diminishing of their demographic numbers. That’s the intention, but, as I said, it’s a fiction because at the end of the day you know Christian powers have been eroded as a result of the outcome of the war.

G.P.: You said that now with the election of the president there may be hopes that things could move forward. Are there also measures being taken within the Constitution to avoid a similar incident in the future?

H.M.: The constitution is not tampered with at present. There are some people who are calling for reforms and revisions of the existing Constitution. The Constitution, which is based on what is known as the Taif Agreement – Taif of course is a town in Saudi Arabia where many Lebanese politicians met to pretty much end the war under Saudi auspices at the time – the Taif Agreement which is the basis of the newly constitution empowers the Sunnis at the expense not only of the Christians, but also to some extent of the Shiites. So there has always been an unease among both Christians and Shiites with the current arrangement and there have been calls for amending it. Now, whether that will ever materialize without a fight is a big question. I can assure you that most Lebanese, and certainly on the level of the leadership, are not interested in revisiting the horrors of the recent past. So, nobody really wants to open up the issue of re-writing the constitution or reforming (inaudible) because it could lead to a renewal of conflict that nobody really wants. In other words, Lebanon prefers drift and open-end paralysis to decisive tinkering or changes with existing situations that may not be very congenial to some of the groups. It’s the old issue of sweeping problems under the proverbial rug for another day, or kicking the can down the road as it were – you can use any one of these metaphors – rather than actually facing and solving problems and having to pay whatever price is demanded by such radical solutions.

G.P.: So, if I hear you correctly, the Christians not only have become a minority, but their political rights despite having a fifty-fifty power-sharing arrangement have in fact diminished, and will most likely continue to diminish because there is no real interest to alter the constitution in a way that would safeguard their fifty percent interest.

H.M.: I think you have summarized it very accurately with these words. Yes, matters don’t look very encouraging down the road and the best that the Christians can hope for – and again it’s not something in the cards at the moment – is some kind of federal arrangement. You know, creative federalism can in theory ensure the rights of all communities regardless of the ups and downs of demography. But at the moment this remains, even for Lebanon – which is, you know, a heterogeneous and divided society – it remains a distant solution. Nobody is really interested in going down that road. And there’s tremendous misunderstanding of federalism. As soon as you mention the word people immediately think it means fragmentation, it means the dissolution of the state. They don’t understand that some of the most successful countries in the world are federal and they happen to be unified states.

But you know, herein really lies the problem for a place like Lebanon. All the communities, once Lebanon was put together as heterogeneous state of many communities, all of the communities really lost a great degree of their autonomy, their previous autonomy. Even under Ottoman rule in the Ottoman days the millet system gave a certain degree of local autonomy to communities that once they were put together and forced to, you know, hammer out a system of coexistence. These autonomous areas and spaces – they don’t have to be physical spaces, but, you know, autonomous existential, if you like, realities – began to erode. Since the creation of Lebanon it’s been a slippery slope of compromises all along.

G.P.: Cyprus, as you know, is currently negotiating solution to its problem along federal lines. Maybe a bi-zonal bi-communal federation. What is your opinion on that development?

H.M.: Well, let me tell you. In a sense, Lebanon is a sad vision of a possible future for Cyprus that I personally don’t hope that Cyprus will try to achieve. What I mean by that is that right now the Greek Cypriots are in the position of controlling their own destiny on a piece of territory that is theirs exclusively and there is a great degree of communal homogeneity there. Now I know it’s not the entire island but it’s two-thirds of it. And that is something that the Lebanon model is actually a devolution from. In other words, when I say Lebanon is a kind of sad future for Cyprus, if Cyprus goes down the federal road it will be losing rather than gaining, unlike Lebanon, which would like to climb up the federal ladder to gain, because Lebanon has slipped much more than any of the communities would like, certainly the Christians. So in a nutshell, given the fact that the Greek Cypriots control a territory that is exclusively theirs with considerable homogeneity, I think there should be a resistance to this irredentism of wanting at any price to have the entire island, even if that means opening the Pandora’s box of compromises with the other Cypriots – the Turkish Cypriots. The problem is if the Turkish Cypriots and Greek Cypriots were together on Mars, or in a vacuum, this could work. But Cyprus’ neighbor to the north is an enormous, very powerful country, which obviously favors one side of the, you know, prospective federal arrangement, has demonstrated in the past that it is willing to take radical steps to bring about demographic changes – in 1974 thousands of mainland Turks were brought into the northern parts of Cyprus. And that country doesn’t seem to have on its agenda the welfare of, certainly not of the Greek Cypriots, but I don’t think of even a federally united Cyprus. So, given that kind of neighbor breathing down your neck it’s a very hazardous prospect frankly. It’s almost like I feel I’m talking to you from a future I don’t want you to have. Because that’s exactly what happened to us and we’ve ended in one compromise after the other. First we were required after 1943 to speak of Lebanon as having an Arab face. Then that changed with time to become “Lebanon is Arab”. And more recently there are questions about whether Lebanon shouldn’t be declared Islamic because of the demographic majority there. So, there’s a slippery slope.

We haven’t even been able to climb to the relatively safe ledge of federalism and for Cyprus, for the Greek Cypriots you will be stepping down if you went for federalism. You don’t need that. Overcome the irredentism of having one island and be very happy that you have two-thirds of it under your exclusive control, without any composite, or divided, or heterogeneous community in those two thirds.

One of the main arguments for allusion to the Cyprus problem is that it would bring more economic stimulus, that it would improve Cyprus’ role in the region, that Cyprus can be a model for other conflicts, and so on. You don’t seem to see that as a reality.

Not at all, no. I think it’s very enticing to focus only on prospects of economic improvement and so forth, and perhaps this whole idea of the model, etc., all of these are very attractive in the abstract, in theory. But the question every Greek Cypriot has to ask him or herself is at what price is this sort of promised Eldorado, at what price is it going to come, if it’s going to come at all. That’s the first thing.

Second, I don’t think countries should aim to become models of anything. I think countries and communities should aim to preserve their identities and freedoms – that’s the most important thing – and chart a course forward that would safeguard their interests, not aspire to become a model and then eventually fail as a model. We live in a very nasty neighborhood, where minority
communities tend to get trampled by larger powers. And the only way to avoid that is not to be in a situation to beg for federalism, but the only way to avoid that is, if you are fortunate enough, to already control a certain territory as a homogeneous community, then hang on to that, for God’s sake, whatever you do. Because the alternative that “we can serve as a model”, that there are economic benefits to be had, and so forth – all of these could amount to pipe dreams if one is not careful. And I think every Greek Cypriot should ask him or herself: at what price am I getting into this kind of federal arrangement? What will happen down the road five, ten years from now? Especially, given a powerful neighbor to the north that doesn’t necessarily have my interests in mind. So, once again, let me say Lebanon has been called a message, a kind of a model – the Arabic word is risala – for the region, as a one of coexistence among various religious groups. Frankly, this sounds more like an advertisement than a reflection of reality. In reality, it’s an endless series of compromises with not much appealing light at the end of that tunnel.

Now, let me just add here an important point. Lebanon does remain the freest society in the Arab world, despite all of the problems it has gone through in the last few decades – the wars and the foreign occupation, Syria, etc. – Lebanon remains the freest Arab society. But the reason for that is not so much the formula that puts Lebanon together. It’s the fact that the Christian community in Lebanon, unlike the Christians of Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, the Christians of Lebanon have managed against tremendous odds to preserve their freedoms and their way of life. And this has become over time infectious – almost like osmosis, you know, in biology – it’s become infectious to other communities, Muslim communities, that have lived and coexisted with Lebanon’s free Christians. So freedom makes all the difference, you see. And that’s why Lebanon’s Muslims are different from the Muslims in the Gulf or in other countries and they pride themselves on being different. And the reason, of course, why that is, as I said, that they have lived, and coexisted, and interacted openly and freely with the Christians. Not with dhimmi Christians – dhimmi being the category of reduction to second-class status under Islamic rule. So, to sum it all up, I don’t desire for my beloved neighbors, the Greek Cypriots – it’s a country I love to visit and I have many friends there – I don’t desire for that country going down this road, especially with the presence of powers in the region that have different agendas. And so if you control
the territory, no matter how small it is, and you are a homogeneous community, by all means stick to that. And that is your best option in an otherwise unpredictable and nasty neighborhood.

G.P.: Professor Malik, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure having you back and I’m quite sure we will be seeing more of you. Thank you very much for participating this evening.

H.M.: Thank you very much and thank you to ERPIC.