In 1989, representatives of the last elected Lebanese parliament ratified the Taif Accord (officially named “The Document of National Reconciliation”). Signed in Taif, Saudi Arabia, the accord was empowered and coerced by regional and international political and economic will and incentives, and buoyed by the exhaustion of people that had endured fifteen years of war. It was incorporated into the Lebanese Constitution in 1990. Thirty years to the day after its signing on 22 October 1989, it has yet to be fully implemented.
The warring factions of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990) killed upward of 150,000 people, mostly civilians, maimed many more, and led to massive levels of displacement and emigration. Thirty percent (about 772,800 people) of the pre-war population of 2.576 million emigrated, and another thirty-three percent (approximately 850,080 people) were internally displaced.
Independent research groups have estimated that four percent of the population, another 103,040 people, were wounded, and about 19,300 people were forcibly disappeared during the civil war. In fact, perhaps the strongest lesson of Taif is that if wars continue long enough, everything can and will be traded for a simple end to war. Much (though definitely not all) of what outsiders think of as “support” for this or that regime of peace is actually the desire for safety and a modicum of the ordinary that only those that have lived through a civil war can understand. Wars start with a bang of a gun or mortar. They end with the whimper of the people living under those guns and mortars.
The Taif Accord entrenched, though did not create, what we might call a temporality of the temporary. As a term, temporality draws attention to the ideological and political work of both the affective experience of time and of official ways of marking time. In both 1926 and 1989, the dates that the Lebanese Constitution was first adopted and the date that the Taif Accord was partially incorporated into that constitution, confessionalism (political sectarianism) was articulated as a temporary framework. This supposed “temporary” nature of political sectarianism, I argue in my work, should be understood as securing the liberal, redemptive, and pedagogical work of the Lebanese nation-state, as well as its futurity. In short, it actively reproduces the future tense of the nation-state precisely because it keeps citizens suspended within the temporality of the temporary, backed by a fear of the “tyranny of the majority” if political sectarianism is ended before national citizens have been successfully made out of sectarian citizens. In this logic, political sectarianism must end only when citizens are no longer sectarian, and the threat of ending it “too soon” is shaded in threats to secularism, liberalism, and Lebanon’s commitment to diversity. To be clear, the threat of direct democracy is unevenly distributed to Muslims, who form a demographic majority, and particularly to Shi’i Lebanese, whom classist and sectarian discourse considers to be particularly beholden to and controllable by patriarchal sectarian and religious leaders.
A fundamental contradiction lies at the heart of this logic: that politicians who owe their seats to a system of political sectarianism will work to actively dismantle it and the economic, social, and legal networks that facilitate it—but only in tandem with changing the hearts and minds of citizens themselves. This temporality of the temporary is grounded in colonial and mandate logics—that a group of people must be ruled until they are made “ready” for freedom and equality, expressed as citizenship in an independent nation-state, and citizenship in a direct liberal democracy. Mandate rule in the Middle East and its medium—the colonial nation-state—was thus framed as a civilizing mission. (Pursley, 2019) The independent nation-state has inherited the architecture and ideology of this civilizing mission through the temporality of the temporary.
A disingenuous reading and partial implementation of the Taif Accord has only exacerbated this fundamental contradiction between (1) cultivating sectarianism institutionally, economically, and bureaucratically in order to justify political sectarianism as an unfortunate but necessary “reflection” of that reality, and (2) framing and tasking political sectarianism with ending sectarianism, eventually. Political sectarianism has also traveled hand in hand with corruption and a bloated public sector, with politicians controlling and redirecting public funds and access to state services, including employment, into their sectarian networks. Most consociational democracies do not bother with the logic of the temporary—they do not promise a non-consociational future. What work does this temporality of the temporary do in the political life of Lebanon?
Forgetting Amnesty; Forgetting Sexual Violence
What is and is not in the Taif Accord is important because peace deals are performative; when successful, they often produce and curate hegemonic historical narratives of the wars they are drafted to end, and provide a roadmap for needed political reform.
The General Amnesty Law of 1991 facilitated Taif’s implementation. It granted amnesty to participants “for all crimes committed during the civil war from 1975 to 1990.” Specifically, the General Amnesty Law forgave all actions that were defined as crimes in the Lebanese penal code, the military penal code, and the law on munitions and explosives. In this way, the amnesty law forgave both political parties and leaders for wartime policies and individual and group militia members for rape, murder, torture or forced disappearance. But not all crimes were forgiven: amnesty was denied to those who had committed crimes such as forging currency or trading in antiquities, for example. Political assassinations were also exempted from general amnesty, but wartime murders and massacres of civilian populations were not. Many argue that amnesty laws are critical to ensuring an end to civil wars and represent political a political “buy in” to a post-war era. But civil war amnesty laws are most effective when passed enacted alongside truth-finding commissions and public processes of redress. They are rarely so all encompassing.
In particular, the amnesty granted for all acts of sexual violence during the civil war had effects that are rarely analyzed, if at all recognized, at the level of policy or political analysis. But when sexual violence by combatants is not recognized as a form of political violence during a civil war, victims almost never receive social or medical services, to say nothing of simple recognition, for and of their wounds. When sexual violence is not explicitly taken on by post-war reformers and analysts, they effectively collude in the silencing and the normalizing of sexual violence both in the past and in the present. These collusions may not be intentional, but they are a testament to the hegemony of masculinist political analysis of war and post-war Lebanon. It is not at all uncommon, for example, for conferences and workshops and policy groups to study sectarianism and political sectarianism exhaustively without taking into account the simple fact that sectarian citizens do not sprout like mushrooms from the ground. Instead, they are actively produced by a biopolitical system that emphasizes reproduction, sole patriarchal inheritance, and the regulation of sexuality by religious personal status and secular state institutions.
When sexual violence is granted blanket amnesty, war is reduced to a narrative of what armed men do to each other and/or vague narratives of civilian tragedies during a war. Some may argue that the silence around sexual violence during wartime is out of respect for the victims and cultural sensitivities, but this line has grown tired because it has never been backed by research. If anything, it has become an excuse to not think about, or incorporate, sexual violence into histories or analysis or policies directed at civil wars and post-war eras across the region. Massacres, displacements, and disablement occupy more space in the public imagination of the Lebanese civil war than rape, harassment, assault and sexual coercion do. But does anyone believe that being raped at a checkpoint because you are a woman and/or a Palestinian is a lesser form of political violence than being beaten or disappeared at a checkpoint because you are from the wrong sect or are a Palestinian refugee? Does anyone believe that sexual extortion by militia members is somehow less harmful than economic extortion? This willful forgetting not only excuses sexual violence during wartime, it makes it inevitable.
As a direct result of the amnesty law, many of Lebanon’s wartime leaders became post-war political leaders, and they (or their relatives) remain so. These are the men who were tasked with implementing the Taif Accord. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no program to suture the social, economic, and political wounds of war has been enacted. No official reconciliation, truth commissions, or forums for civilian redress have been created, and neither has comprehensive education reform been enacted—the history books taught in public schools, for example, still end in 1975. Far from enacting a series of laws and programs to abolish political sectarianism, as stipulated by the Taif Accord, Lebanese warlord-politicians are invested in maintaining and intensifying the sectarian and crony-capital /neoliberal networks through which they control access to the state. This is perhaps partly related to the structure of “consociational democracies” themselves, which some scholars have argued is more likely to lead to economic corruption and political gridlock.
Wars within Wars: Economy, Corruption, and Accountability
Several scholars have pointed to the ways in which the Taif Accord and corollary constitutional amendments were the constitutive moment for the pervasive corruption and neoliberal restructuring of post-war Lebanon. This was partly a function of the accord’s replication of the late civil war stalemate, preventing any domestic group from dominating the political process. This was also a function of the fact that the restructured political system granted the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament nearly identical powers. The resultant institutional gridlock could only be broken when deals were struck between the “three presidents” or the broader coalitions of politicians. It was in this context that the politics of muhasassa emerged, defined by the partitioning of “the spoils of public office, privileges, and resources”—to use the words of Reinoud Leenders
Yet the lack of accountability for economic corruption must be tied to a lack of accountability for participation in the civil war. After all, the Taif Accord enabled the transformation of warlords into statesmen. Those who actively destroyed and cannibalized pre-war institutions and resources while forming alternative political, economic, and social cantons were in the post-war era tasked with strengthening and shoring up national unity, state institutions, and economic development. Moreover, the Taif Accord, like most peace deals, neither addressed the economic causes of the civil war nor its effects. The economic inequality that existed in Lebanon before the war and was exacerbated during the war was not redressed. Doing so would have also necessitated addressing the vast sums of wealth accumulated by the war factions. Instead, a series of neoliberal reforms initiated by the post-war governments of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri only exacerbated wealth inequality and further destroyed the middle class and the purchasing power of a majority of the country. Land speculation, government bonds, and cycles of inflation further enriched a network of elites while at the same time circumscribed and eroded the middle and working classes. One must add to this dynamic the predatory profiteering of the Syria regime, military, and intelligence in this process up through 2005. In the thirty years since the end of the civil war, the economic “war within the war,” in Michel Rolph Trouillot’s words, only continued and intensified following the signing of the Taif Accord. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a context where the free market and private property are enshrined constitutionally, but not the right to employment, social welfare, affordable housing, or a dignified life.
According to Lydia Assouad, wealth in Lebanon is currently “on average extremely concentrated within the top ten and one percent of the Lebanese adult population gathering almost forty-five percent and seventy percent of total personal wealth respectively. These levels are substantially higher than in China and France and slightly higher than in Russia and the United States in the recent period.” Lebanon has one of the largest ratios of billionaires to population in the world, and one of the largest public debt to GDP ratios in the world. While the banking sector owns most of this debt, politician and their allies directly and indirectly dominate the banking sector, meaning that political and economic dynasties directly benefit and literally profit off the public debt and its prolonged servicing under unfavorable conditions. It should therefore not surprise us that those who were granted amnesty for conducting and/or ordering massacres and war crimes, for example, took this sense of entitlement and untouchability with them into post-war governments. In 2019 this sense of entitlement laced negotiations over an austerity budget, where—in the word of Sami Attallah—“Proposals to tax salaries, benefits, & pensions of current and former politicians as well as amendments to increase fees on tinted cars and license to carry guns used wisely by their security entourage were dismissed by parliament.” Similarly dismissed were ideas to institute a wealth tax or a tax on real estate speculation.
The amnesty law has made socially, economically, and politically addressing the civil war more difficult. This silencing of the civil war is as active as it is ideological. Earlier in 2019 a Lebanese MP was sanctioned for referring to a historical fact: that President-Elect Bashir Gemayel gained power through a wartime alliance with the state of Israel. This was said in response to another fact, that current President Michel Aoun was able to consolidate power through an alliance with Hizballah. The comment about former President-Elect Bashir Gemeyel was deemed “unacceptable” by his nephew and son, both of whom are current MPs. Hizballah censured the parliamentarian in question. What was unacceptable to members of the Lebanese Parliament, and what required an official apology, was not a wartime alliance with Israel, but rather, talking about that war time-alliance.
The Forever Temporary
The Taif Accord pledged that “The abolition of political confessionalism shall be a basic national goal and shall be achieved according to a staged plan” and that “There shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of mutual existence.” The accord, and the constitutional amendments that mirrored it, promised a political future where parliamentarians would neither be elected by a confessional nor regional electoral system. First, however, a new parliament was to be elected and a new cabinet assembled, this time on the principle of equal presentation of Muslims and Christians, amending a system that had previously favored Christians. This newly calibrated, equally divided parliament and cabinet were to work towards abolishing the electoral system that had brought them to power, political sectarianism, and regional representation. Once that happened, a senate with limited authority would be formed “in which all the religious communities shall be represented.”
The words “Maronite,” “Sunni,” or “Shi’i” do not exist in either the Taif Accord or the Lebanese Constitution. Despite this fact, many assume that the troika system, whereby the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister must be Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament must be Shi’a Muslim, is a constitutional stipulation. Instead, the constitution only contains the words Muslim or Christian four times in twenty-four pages, two of which are found in the current text of article 95, a Taif amendment:
The Chamber of Deputies that is elected on the basis of equality between Muslims and Christians shall take the appropriate measures to bring about the abolition of political confessionalism according to a transitional plan. A National Committee shall be formed and shall be headed by the president of the republic; it includes, in addition to the president of the Chamber of Deputies and the prime minister, leading political intellectuals and social figures.
The task of this committee shall be to study and propose the means to ensure the abolition of confessionalism, propose them to the Chamber of Deputies and the Council of Ministers, and to follow up the execution of the transitional plan.
Lebanese politicians have interpreted article 95 of the constitution as a felicitous contradiction: what if ending political sectarianism (too soon) itself damages the pact of mutual and peaceful coexistence?
The Taif Accord did not specify any time frame for its implementation, and thus neither does the constitution. Instead, both documents remain frozen in the present tense of a “pledge” and “commitment” to an undefined, ever differed non-sectarian future. In fact, to demand the immediate implementation of a thirty-year-old peace deal is understood as a threat to the post-war era, as there is an assumption that if direct elections were held tomorrow, people would still vote their sectarian identities, allowing for the terror of demography to rule. The threat of immediate and direct democracy is unevenly distributed to Muslim citizens, who are and would continue to be a large majority. Because neither the Taif Accord nor the constitution include a time-frame for the abolishment of political sectarianism, no sitting government can be held accountable for not moving firmly towards this goal.
Moreover, rather than passing a series of practical and effective procedural laws and commissions to enact the different parts of the Taif Accord (not only political redistribution in lieu of an end to political sectarianism), it was incorporated into the Lebanese Constitution, elevating it to the level of national ideology and effectively making it impossible to further amend or debate without causing a constitutional crisis. The temporality of Taif is the fore-ever temporary, allowing for and institutionalizing a sectarian present in order to facilitate a transition into an ever-delayed non-sectarian future. It is the temporality of the holding cell, of ransoming the present for a future that may never arrive and that few of us might actually see. It is the temporality of cruel optimism backed by the threat of war: We must endure the present in service of a greater future, but every day the future arrives, and it looks very much like the past
We are incessantly told by our political leaders that the only thing keeping civil war at bay is continued adherence to a partially realized Taif Accord and its limitless present.
The Magic of Mutual Coexistence
The xenophobia, violence, hate speech, classism, and right-wing populism directed at Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon has long been justified by fears of naturalization and calls to protect the fragile sectarian demographics of Lebanon. The birthrates and fertility of Syrian refugees, mostly Sunni, have been framed as a threat to Taif and its vision of “mutual co-existence.” Sectarian number crunching is also the reason why Lebanese women do not have the right to grant citizenship to their spouses and children. Thus, the violation of the human rights of Syrian refugees and of Lebanese women is repackaged into a public good: in service of mutual coexistence, in service of the Taif Accord. And herein lies another contradiction: peaceful co-existence requires the stability of political difference—different groups for whom co-existing is seen as an achievement that must be constantly monitored, tinkered with, measured, addressed and incited. It does not require the peaceful existence of the Lebanese nation, for example. It requires and enacts and demands a certain kind of co-existence, a particular form of political difference that must “co-exist” (or else); a sectarian one.
The hegemonic nature of the ethos of the Taif Accord can be seen through both its symbolic power and the contradictory, banal ways that symbolic power can be mobilized. Recently, the mayor of Hadath, an urban suburb of Beirut, made headlines by publicly stating a well-known secret: the buying, selling, and renting of real estate is and has been a technology of sectarian gerrymandering in post-war Lebanon. The municipality of Hadath, like many other municipalities in the country, had a policy of discouraging the renting or selling of Christian-owned apartments to Muslims. (Incidentally, the main campus of the countries’ only public university, The Lebanese University, is in Hadath. These policies’ effects on the student body and public education has yet to be addressed in the public sphere). When would-be renters exposed their experience of being denied the ability to reside in Hadath due to their religion, the mayor, George Aoun, publicly and loudly defended the municipality’s policy. The minister of interior, Rayya El Hassan, accused the mayor of violating the Taif Accord and the Lebanese Constitution, which promises Lebanese citizens the right to live anywhere in the country. The mayor, for his part, said that he would never change this policy and that in fact it was sectarian segregation and demographic “protection” that guaranteed “mutual coexistence,” the holy grail of the Taif Accord. Two constitutional principles, both of which were Taif amendments, were pitted against each other:
I. Lebanon's soil is united and belongs to all the Lebanese. Every Lebanese is entitled to live in any part of the country and enjoy it under the supremacy of the law. The people may not be categorized on the basis of any affiliation whatsoever and there shall be no fragmentation, no partition, and no settlement.
J. No authority violating the co-existence pact shall be legitimate.
If the debate over the use of real estate as a tool of sectarian red-lining in Lebanon revealed anything, it is the hegemonic, banal, elastic, and contradictory nature of the Taif Accord. Basically, in a country dedicated to coexistence between sectarian communities, one must have, maintain, and shore up well defined sectarian communities—a process in which the personal status system is central. Even if the Lebanese Constitution grants citizens the right to live wherever they please and is expressly against the idea of sectarian cantonization, sectarian redlining may be needed to shore up communities experiencing demographic change over “their areas” and potentially having their vote in a system of regional elections “diluted.” After all, to not actively protect against sectarian demographic decline would violate the constitution’s promise of mutual coexistence. This is precisely the argument advanced by George Aoun in the above video. In addition, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri (himself the son of a former prime minister) put the responsibility of a public and environmental health crisis caused by the fact that “Christians will not accept Muslim garbage, and Muslims will not accept Christian garbage.” Even garbage is imbued with the power to destabilize mutual coexistence. More recently, politicians attempted to imbue the October 2019 wildfires with sectarian threat and fear.
Today, it seems that the Taif Accord can be anything politicians want it to be; it can turn racism, sexism, and segregation into public goods wrapped in the rhetoric of “mutual coexistence”; it can be used to argue both for and against the freedom of movement and travel throughout the country by politicians; and it can ransom our present to the threat of future wars. It can be used for and against hiring civil servants who passed a government exam years ago but are not “diverse” enough to not cause a grave imbalance in the ranks of civil service. It can be used as an excuse to not once and for all root out and address chronic corruption by elected politicians and state officials. The fact that all sides of an argument cloak themselves in the symbolic power of the Taif Accord speaks volumes as to its importance in continuing to define and confine the terms of political debate in Lebanon, thirty years after the end of the civil war.
The Taif Accord ended the Lebanese Civil War and provided a roadmap to a different, if narrowly envisioned, political future. It was turned into a cage by those who directly benefit from its partial implementation and from canonizing a peace accord rather than enacting it. This cage, this temporality of the temporary, we are told, is safer than the alternatives: another civil war, sectarian and religious dominance over the country, direct democracy in a country not “ready” for it, or some combination of all of the above. We would do well to remember the words of Dr Martin Luther King Junior who wrote, in his letter from a Birmingham jail, that white liberals, who directly benefit from racism and thus are happy telling civil rights activists to “wait” until the larger population is ready for racial equality for fear of greater backlash. “This "Wait," he wrote, has almost always meant "Never."” After thirty years, Lebanese are still told to wait to end political sectarianism by those who directly benefit from it. We are taught to fear each other more than the system that produces and maintains sectarian political difference as its rationale. We are told to sacrifice gender equality, the rights of refugees, crippling economic inequality and corruption, and an understanding of our own history to the altar of “mutual coexistence.” Those that tell us these lies, that keep us in this holding cell of a political present, directly benefit from not implementing the Taif Accord, all the while paying lip service to it.
What is a regime? It is a ruling ideology, political logic, and incentive structure that courses through and unites different arms of formal and informal power. The status quo regime in Lebanon was constituted through the Taif Accord. This regime is, I and others have argued, is sectarian, masculinist, neoliberal, temporal, and includes within it a mandate of unaccountability and a silencing of the past. Above all, it is backed by fear while at the same time flexible and adaptable. The Taif Accord has become an excuse for inaction and the final card that politicians use to shore up support. For them, the Lebanese must maintain political sectarian difference and representation in order to maintain the unity and promise of the country; they need sectarian political difference in order to be a state where those differences “mutually coexist,” just as the growing bank accounts of the patriarchal leaders who lead those sects coexist mutually. As this article is published, a million people are on the streets of Lebanon across different cities and towns demanding the government resign. But that is not all. They are, in various ways, also demanding accountability for runaway corruption and a restructuring of fiscal and budgetary systems so as to redistribute wealth justly. The government has thus far responded with a list of economic reforms that all but admit their previous negligence of their public duties. Many are also calling for an end to political sectarianism and the adoption of an electoral law where the country is effectively one electoral district. The time has come not only for the final implementation of the Taif Accord, but also for our political imaginations to go beyond the Taif Accord and the war it was meant to ameliorate, and the wars within wars it has effectively silenced.
How beautiful it is to feel the potential end of Taif on its anniversary.
[This article was written to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Taif Accord before the outbreak of the uprising in Lebanon. It has since been modified to show some of the connections between the Taif Accord and the current protest dynamics.]