Lebanese Federalism and Decentralization: Its Proponents and Discontents
By Phillip Smyth
Additionally, many Lebanese Christians claim a separate non-Arab identity, namely the Maronites, who are of Syriac-Aramaean heritage.1 While there are many areas of mixed population, there are geographic zones that specific Lebanese groups inhabit. Maronites and other Christian groups mainly reside in the Mt. Lebanon area, north of Beirut. Shia Muslims have majorities in the northern Bekaa Valley and southern Lebanon, while the Druze predominate the Chouf District. These ethno-religious differences combined with regional realities continually contribute to conflict.
Often, the terms, “cantonization”, “confederalism”, “federalism”, or “decentralization” have been suggested by politicians as possible solutions to the ethno-religious problems of Lebanon. Even though there are marked differences in what these forms of national organization propose, they have often been grouped under the title of , “federalism”. Nevertheless, the push for federalism and what it would entail has changed over the course of Lebanese history.
In the eyes of many Lebanese federalists, a formula creating sectarian based states, with loyalty to a decentralized, Beirut based, national government would be the end goal. This appeal was bolstered by the fact that many stable and modern Western states are organized along federalist lines, namely the United States and Germany. A proposed federalist system may look and function much like the canton system in Switzerland. A confederation would theoretically call for an alliance of different, more independent sectarian states. Confederalists favor stronger state governments with a weaker central government. However, in a federal solution, the centrally based Beirut government would bequeath more powers to regional governing bodies. However, sectarian-state power would be shared with a central government. In any of these systems the central government’s power would be limited.
Lebanese federalism has not been with out its detractors. Secular nationalists don’t agree with any perceived partition of the country, especially on ethno-religious grounds. Many Arabists and Islamists believe that any federalism in Lebanon could bring down potential pan-Arab or Islamic unity. In fact, Arabist Syria, Lebanon’s neighbor and former occupier, sees any moves towards federalism, either in neighboring Iraq or Lebanon as an existential threat. Criticism of Lebanese federalism has also concentrated on the idea that it is merely an effort to preserve Christian power. Furthermore, to some, federalism was merely a method to fully-partition the country into separate confessional countries. William Harris notes that, “When … confidence [in maintaining Christian control over Greater Lebanon] declined, as after 1975, Little Lebanon resurfaced as an option in some quarters, under its new cover of ‘federalism’”.2 Matthew Preston wrote that amongst the Lebanese Forces, a Christian party which pushed for federalism, “the federalist position was a mere fig-leaf to cover the absence of a political project.”3
Federalism is promoted by some as the best solution to Lebanon’s ethnic and religious problems and safeguard Lebanese unity. It’s often looked at by proponents as not just a way to not only protect their group’s rights, but as a way to respect the rights of other groups. Interestingly, to those opposed to federalism, the word “federalism” has been turned into a epithet for partition, war and disunity. As a consequence, federalism in Lebanon will remain a contentious issue for some time to come.

The Christian Push For Federalism
Throughout the Middle East, some Christian political groups have either opted for complete autonomy or some version of federalism.4 This often arises out of contemporary and historic repression suffered by many Christians at the hands of hegemonic Muslim groups. Lebanese Christians have maintained a proud history of resisting Arab and/or Islamic foes. They are also unique in the Middle East for maintaining their political independence. Thus, in many respects federalism is has been seen as a way to preserve not just their culture, but also some level of political independence.
With de facto sectarian cantons already drawn, Lebanon’s first view of some form of federalism came during the 15 year long Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). As a result of the fighting, many Christians were forcibly expelled from their homes, finding safety with their coreligionists in Mt. Lebanon. During, and following the war, many Lebanese Christians viewed federalism as a legalistic way to preserve the state in its entirety, while still preserving their political rights and different culture in their respective zones.
The first real declaration of support for federalism by major Christian political parties came in 1980. This was at a time when some outside observers felt that Christians would adopt a fully partitionist outlook and declare their independence from the Muslim controlled areas of the country.5 At the time, the dominant Christian political grouping was the Lebanese Front. The Front was political grouping that represented two large Christian parties, the National Liberal Party (NLP) and Kataeb Party. The Front also included its military arm called the Lebanese Forces (LF). The LF, represented the Guardians of the Cedars, Tanzim, Kataeb and the NLP’s Numour (Tigers) militias. The grouping served a unique social-military function and would later be a main advocate for federalism. In the Front’s official manifesto, entitled, “The Lebanon We Want to Build”, federalism was strongly considered as a possible solution to the ongoing war,
The Lebanese Front believes in the necessity of reconsidering the structural formula which has determined the politics of Lebanon since 1943, with a view to modifying it in such a way as to prevent any friction or clash between the members of the same Lebanese family.
This reconsideration might issue in an alteration of the structural formula into some kind of decentralization or federation or confederation within a comprehensive framework of a single unified Lebanon. Such has been the trend of the modern constitutional systems throughout the world. The aim of the alteration is to ensure that no disaster like the many disasters which befell Lebanon since 1840 will recur in the future.6
Populist Kataeb leader and Lebanese Forces founder Bachir Gemayel suggested adopting federalism before he was elected to the presidency of Lebanon. Following his election he opted against adopting a federalist position, and instead, supported a strong central government in all of the 10452 km of Lebanon.7 His turn away from federalism had much to do with his political and military ascendancy. With the presidency in his hands, there was less of a threat to the Christian community, thus federalism was not seen as a pressing concern. However, in 1982, Gemayel was killed weeks after his election, by a bomb placed by Syrian intelligence. With the legacy of Bachir Gemayel an ever present reality amongst Lebanese Christians, his murder left the question open, as to whether federalism would be pursued.
In the years following the death of Bachir, some LF leaders such as Elie Hobeika, would adopt anti-federalist positions. In some cases this was due to many Christian leaders hoping to embody the legacy of Bachir, pressure from Lebanese president Amine Gemayel (who, at the time, was anti-federalism), or Syrian influence. In 1985 as Hobeika moved into the pro-Syrian camp, he signed the Damascus sponsored Tripartite Agreement. The agreement, “rejected all forms of partition, federalism, confederalism, and cantonization”.8 The signing of the Tripartite Agreement actually effected a coup inside of the LF, allowing Samir Geagea to take control of the organization. As the LF’s new leader, Samir Geagea adopted federalism and made it a main goal of the organization. In the late 1980s, with the ascension of secular nationalist general, Michel Aoun, the ideological differences between Christians in Aoun’s camp and the Christian nationalists that identified with the LF came to a forefront, often with deadly consequences.
As late as 1990, Geagea stated, “When we propose federalism, it is to move from partition to a more unifying step. I think other internal sides are now convinced that no one can dominate Lebanon.”9 Further complicating his position was Geagea’s approval of the Syrian and Saudi endorsed Taif Accord which ended the Lebanese Civil War. The Accord states, “[t]he State of Lebanon shall be a single and united state with a strong central authority.” Before Geagea was sent to prison it caused him to downplay the LF’s devotion to the federalist goal. Even following the Syrian invasion and signing of the Taif Accord, Geagea’s dream of a federal Lebanon only came to a de facto end when the Syrian backed government of Lebanon imprisoned him in 1994.
In 2005, after eleven years of imprisonment, his full adoption of the Taif Accord and immediately following his entry into the anti-Syrian, March 14th alliance (with the Sunni Muslim, al Mustaqbal and the Druze, Popular Socialist Party [PSP]), Geagea dropped all of his demands for a federalist solution in Lebanon. When Geagea announced this fundamental change in policy he said, “[w]e used to describe our territory in the past as stretching from Kfarshima to Madfoun [both areas in the former canton the LF controlled] and we can say nowadays it stretches from Kbayyet to Kleiaa [Kbayyet is in northern Lebanon while Kleiaa is on the Israel-Lebanon border]”.10
Nevertheless, even with Geagea’s public abandonment of federalism, much of the LF’s rank and file still support a federalist and decentralized Lebanon. This support was best personified by Antoine Najm, an original supporter of federalism and former advisor to both Geagea and Bachir Gemayel during the Civil War. As a writer for the pro-LF magazine, al Massira during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, his articles often dealt with the efficacy of federalism in Lebanon. These articles often found a wide audience among the LF base of supporters.
After the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005 and the subsequent deadlock between the government and pro-Syrian, Hizballah led opposition, a new push for what could be termed, “soft-federalism” has been adopted by many Christian leaders. The new soft-federalism is based around a policy of administrative decentralization for the central government. By empowering different locales, it is hoped by some that, gradually, Lebanon will be lead into full-fledged federalism.
Some Christian leaders in the March 14th alliance embraced the federalist concept, albeit in the soft-federalist form of promoting government decentralization as a stepping stone to federalism. As early as 1992 in his treatise on an improving Lebanese governance, former president and current leader of the Kataeb party, Amine Gemayel alluded to the need for a decentralized-federal solution in his book, Rebuilding Lebanon.11 In 2006, Amine Gemayel’s son, Samy, embarked on his own political exploit with a group called Loubnanouna (Our Lebanon).
At first Loubnanouna was a pro-federalist political organization and party proposing a new Lebanese constitution. Later it became a pro-federalism lobby group after Samy Gemayel rejoined the Kataeb Party. Even following Samy’s return to Kataeb, he continued to pursue the soft-federalism of decentralization as a Kataeb Party goal. Even Bachir Gemayel’s son, Nadim, currently the MP for Achrafieh, stated that if federalism was an answer for Lebanese problems he would accept it. Nadim also embraced the concept of soft-federalism, “in my opinion the application of administrative decentralization is the solution.”12 As recently as October, 2009, Interior Minister Ziad Baroud announced that his ministry would draft plans for administrative decentralization. NOW Lebanon reported that, “Baroud said administrative decentralization is essential to achieving balanced development in Lebanon”.13 Nevertheless, this hasn’t stopped some Christian leaders from publicly embracing the full form of federalism. Dori Chamoun, leader of the NLP even remarked that, “It is inevitable that the Christians will have a smaller share of the country. I only see one solution, cantonization. Everybody wants it. Nobody says it out loud.”14

Christian Opposition to Federalism
Regardless of the support it has received in Christian circles, Lebanese federalism does have its Christian critics. In Christian groups there is a marked difference in the perception of what Lebanon encompasses. For the Lebanese secular nationalists, such as in Michel Aoun’s mainly Christian, Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), Lebanon and the Lebanese people are one unitary entity. To the FPM, which currently has a strong alliance with Syrian and Iranian backed Hizballah, this has resulted in an anti-federalist outlook. While the Christian nationalist camp, currently represented by the Lebanese Forces, Kataeb Party and the NLP, sees Lebanon as the pluralistic home and safe haven for the consistently oppressed Christians of the Middle East.15
During the Lebanese Civil War, when Michel Aoun was fighting the Syrians, his closest ideological support from mainly Christian militias came from the secular nationalist Guardians of the Cedars and al Tanzim (The Organizaion). Both groups, while integral to the original Lebanese Forces, were, and remain anti-federalist. Also, despite their mainly Christian membership they maintained secular outlooks.
Because of federalism’s connection with the war and with possible partition schemes, it has been used as a rhetorical flourish by political groups to demonize their opposition. Suliemein Franjieh’s, Marada, a pro-Syrian Christian party and key Christian ally of Aoun’s, had an aversion to the concept of federalism as one of its founding principles for the party.16 While visiting Iran, Franjieh commented, with dismay, that Geagea’s leadership in March 14th alliance, “means the return of the projects of divisions and federalism.” 17
Currently, Christians that oppose a federalist solution belong to a number of different camps. Some groups, such as the independent, Jebha al Horriye (The Liberty Front) adopted Bachir Gemayel’s concept of a unified centralized Lebanon, albeit, they now support regionalism, as seen in Italy. Regionalism is actually a far-more centralized governing system when compared to federal or confederal models. In Italy the policy of regionalism has allowed for certain regions to remain loosely linked to one another, maintain their respective culture, language(s) and customs under a strong central government. One Jebha official commented that, “we believe that regionalism is the best alternative … the central government needs to be strong…[To make a strong central government work, we need to] remove the religious pressure on it”18 Although Jebha al Horiyye maintains their independence, the current trend in most anti-federalist Christian parties is one of being in the pro-Syrian camp.

Muslims, Arabism & Federalism

Arabism, while originally started by Christians, found a wider Muslim adherence during it’s over one-hundred year development as an ideology. Historically, due to their hegemonic position in the region, Islamic groups have rarely supported federalism.19 The Arabist ideology called for the unification of “Arab lands” and applied the label of being an “Arab” to whomever spoke Arabic or shared the culture (often this so-called Arab culture was intertwined with Islam). States embracing Arabism often included large non-Arab or non-Muslim minorities, creating a fear that any federalist reforms would further internal disunity.20

Syria, currently ruled by the Arabist Ba’athist Party, has long hated the prospect of Lebanon becoming a federated state. Damascus sees that in the event of a federation, their power and control over Lebanon would be greatly reduced.21 There is the additional threat that the autonomy gained through federalism may influence the many minority groups that reside in Syria. Syria’s former president, Hafez Asad saw any decentralization, cantonization or the adoption of federalism as a fundamental threat to his regime’s Arabist ideology, “[federalism or partition] is a conspiracy against Islam, and a conspiracy against Arabism”.22 Syria’s foreign minister, Abdul Khaddam stated in 1985 that, “Any partition or federalism or cantonization … is completely unacceptable to us -- we prefer to deal with one country with one head”.23

Regionally and locally there are numerous reasons for Lebanese Sunni opposition to federalism. In most Middle Eastern states Sunnis form majorities or, as was the case during Saddam Hussein’s rule of Iraq, formed the dominant sectarian group. In Lebanon this is hardly the case. Unlike the Sunnis of Iraq, who dominate al Anbar province, the Sunni Muslim population of Lebanon is concentrated in urban centers. In areas where there is a Sunni majority, such as West Beirut, often the neighborhoods are quite mixed. Outside of the urban environment, many more rural Sunni majority zones are geographically disconnected from other areas dominated by their coreligionists.

Opposition to federalism in the Sunni Muslim community has made the topic a somewhat taboo for Sunnis to embrace. Despite the fact that the Sunni leader of al Mustaqbal, Saad Hariri, has adopted an anti-federalism view, this has not stopped his opposition from accusing him of being a federalist. Following the May-June 2005 parliamentary elections, his opposition would accuse him of having federalist sympathies. Even before Michel Aoun officially cemented his alliance with Hizballah, Aoun’s reaction to the Mustaqbal-PSP electoral alliance was to accuse Hariri of trying to, “make true his dream of federalism.”24

Shia Muslims make-up a significant Middle Eastern minority that have, at times, suffered under Sunni dominance. Regardless, they, like the Sunnis, have refused federalism as a solution to Lebanon‘s problems. According to Augustus Norton, one of Lebanon‘s largest Shia parties, the pro-Syrian Amal Movement, “has expressly excluded federalist or confederalist solutions.”25 The Shia Islamist Hizballah, also rejects federalism because the group maintains a theoretical philosophy of attempting to impose the Iranian concept of an Islamist state (Wilayat-e-Faqih) on all of Lebanon.26
Interestingly, despite Hizballah’s anti-federalism, during the Civil War, it was actually looked upon by the LF as, “de facto allies, regardless of their public orientations, because of their sectarian character and usurpation of state functions.”27 Currently, the group functions in much the same way as it did during the Civil War, maintaining a militia and essentially militarily holding onto cantons. As with the example of Bachir Gemayel demonstrates, when a person or group has military or political superiority (as Hizballah currently maintains) it often rejects federalism.

Will Lebanon Choose Federalism?
With strong opposition to federalism in Lebanon, it may be difficult to pursue this goal. However, support is growing in many Christian circles. The new form of federalism that is being engaged in by some groups may not be as pervasive as anything proposed by Samir Geagea during the Civil War. Instead the push for a federal Lebanon has evolved into a step based plan. For the time being, parties that have shown an interest in federalism will try to attain a more decentralized government.
Federalism may in fact be a successful solution for Lebanon’s internal problems considering de facto federalist conditions presently exist. Loubnanouna’s public relations director, Jean-Pierre Katrib commented that, “[e]ven our basketball teams are divided along the confessions. The Christian Blue Stars played the Sunni Riyadeh team the other day, and to rile each other up, Christian and Islamic religious slogans were being chanted on either side.”28 Nonetheless, with strong ideological, regional and local opposition it is doubtful that federalism will find many sympathetic ears.
Hizballah’s deputy secretary general, Sheikh Naim Qasim once said, “federalism yields to devastation”.29 However, historically speaking, it seems that only out of devastation or deadlock does federalism come up as a solution. When a community feels its autonomy, rights, or security is under threat, federalism is an obvious choice. Currently, the myriad of centrally run Lebanese security services and the army have, in the eyes of many Christians, done little to safeguard the community.30 So long as different communities feel threatened, the option will still be on the table.

1 See: Matti Moosa, The Maronites In History, (Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press, 1986)
2 Willian Harris, The New Face of Lebanon: History's Revenge, (Princeton, NJ, Markus Wiener Publishers, 2005)P. 76
3 Matthew Preston, Ending Civil War: Rhodesia and Lebanon In Perspective, (New York; Tauris Academic Studies, 2004), P. 137
4 Examples include the Christian Sudanese fighting the central government in Khartoum for an independent state in southern Sudan. Currently, the Iraqi-Assyrian supporters of the Assyrian Democratic Movement (Zowaa) are supporting a federalized Iraq.
5 Samih Farsoun, Lebanon Explodes: Toward A Maronite Zion, MERIP, February, 1976, pp. 15-18
6 The Lebanon We Want to Build, 1980
7 Kamal Dib, Warlords and Merchants: The Lebanese Business and Political Establishment, (Reading, UK, Garnet Publishing Limited, 2004), P.8, footnote [8].
8 Kristen E. Shulze, The Jews of Lebanon: Between Coexistence and Conflict,(Portland, OR, Sussex Academic Press, 2001) P.171
9 Quoted in Charles E. Waterman, Geagea's Solution: Cantonization, Washington Report On Middle Eastern Affairs, April 1990, P.7
10 Daily Star, October 3, 2005
11 Amine Gemayel, Rebuilding Lebanon, (Lanham, MD, University Press of America, 1992), P. 13
12 Lebanon Files, March 7, 2009 <Link: http://www.lebanonfiles.com/news_desc.php?id=84017 >
13 NOW Lebanon, October 2, 2009 <Link: http://nowlebanon.com/NewsArchiveDetails.aspx?ID=117470 >
14 Washington Post, September 10, 2006
15 See: Ghassan Michel Rubeiz, Christian Politics in Lebanon, Mideast Monitor, January-March, 2008, for a breakdown regarding the difference in positions and actions by the Christian nationalist and secular nationalist camps. <link: http://www.mideastmonitor.org/issues/0801/0801_5.htm >
16 Lebanon Wire, July 1, 2006
17 Daily Star, April 24, 2008
18 Personal conversation with Jebha official, October 5, 2009
19 It’s important to note that at times the Druze, an esoteric offshoot of Shia Islam, and 5-7% of the Lebanese population have supported a more decentralized government. During the Civil War they controlled the Shouf region and ran it as an ethno-religious canton.
20 Daily Star, August 24, 2005
21 William Harris,“Syria in Lebanon”, MERIP Reports, Jul. - Aug,1985, pp. 9-14
22 Asad, Speech from July 20, 1976, P.2, quoted in Naomi Joy Weinberger, Syrian Intervention In Lebanon, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1986), P.279
23 As Safir, June 23, 1985, quoted in William Harris,“Syria in Lebanon”, MERIP Reports, Jul. - Aug,1985, P. 14
24 Naharnet, May 15, 2005 http://www.naharnet.com/domino/tn/NewsDesk.nsf/getstory?openform&ED5C009952435EE4C22570020021D271>.
25 Augustus Richard Norton,“Harakat Amal,” in Edward E. Azar (ed.), The Emergence of A New Lebanon: Fantasy or Reality? (New York; Praeger Publishers, 1984) P.191
26 H.E. Chehabi and Hassan I. Mneimneh, “Five Centuries of Lebanese-Iranian Encounters,” in H.E. Chehabi (ed.), Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon In The Last 500 Years, (New York, I.B. Taurus, 2006), pp. 40-41
27 William Harris, “Lebanon”, in Ami Ayalon, Haim Shaked (ed.), Middle East Contemporary Survey, 1988, (Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1990) P.625
28 Al Jazeera English, June, 2007 <Link: http://english.aljazeera.net/news/middleeast/2007/06/2008525184747179802.html>
29 Al Manar TV website, BBC Monitoring Middle East, December 1, 2008
30 Some of the more major instances have included the 2006 Hizballah backed protests that targeted Christian areas of Beirut following the airing of the TV show Basmat Watan, which featured a controversial skit involving Hizballah leader Hasan Nasrallah. Also in 2006, Muslim protests opposing Danish cartoon caricatures of Muhammed resulted in churches and Christian private property being attacked.