During my first stay in Lebanon some three years ago, I was intrigued by the many billboards advertising “wedding packages” in neighbouring Cyprus. Friends explained to me that this was very common for couples from different religious communities in Lebanon to travel to Cyprus to tie the knot in a “secular” way. Indeed, in Lebanon, a multi-sectarian country (the Lebanese state recognize up to some 18 different sects), marriage and virtually every family-related issue like divorce, heritage or child custody are exclusively regulated by religious authorities. There is no legal framework for people marrying outside their sect. But while Lebanon doesn’t allow non-religious marriages to take place on its own territory, it recognizes civil unions that took place abroad. Thus, Cyprus quickly turned into a goldmine for travel agencies specialized in wedding planning.
Last month, Kholoud Succarieh and Nidal Darwish shook the established order and became the first couple to be wed in a civil manner on Lebanese soil. They took advantage of a forgotten law from 1936 established during the French mandate over the country. Elias Muhanna has more on the law in his article in Jadaliyya:
Decree No. 60 also states that if people do not belong to a particular sect, then they are subject to civil law, which—as it currently stands—does not exist for personal status issues in Lebanon. “It does not mention which civil law that they are subject to, but it is clear that the current practice of disallowing civil marriage in Lebanon is a clear contravention of Decree no. 60 and the Lebanese Constitution itself”
A largely symbolic event, this wedding could nevertheless be the start of something big. The Lebanese state is based from top to bottom on sectarianism. Political power is shared between the three main sects: the president (currently Michel Sleiman) must be a Christian maronite, the Prime minister (Najib Miqati) a Sunni Muslim and the head of parliament (Nabih Berri) a Shia Muslim. For some this consensual share of power between Lebanon’s religious communities is what keeps Lebanon from self-destruction. The country has a dark past and for fifteen years between 1975 and 1990 a vicious civil war tore apart its social fabric. To this day, the Lebanese are still licking their wounds. But for others sectarianism is the main responsible for the country’s woes. Indeed, this system doesn’t allow the building of a strong state and the nurturing of a strong national identity. Lebanese haven’t yet found an understanding between them regarding the identity and the values of their country. Moreover, the sectarian system has always weakened an already fragile country transforming it into a helpless prey in a very volatile neighbourhood. This system isn’t even home-grown. Indeed, it is the legacy of the former colonial power France who applied very thoroughly the famous recipe of “divide to conquer” to assert its authority (I will post in the future more extensively on the subject of confessionalism in the Arab world).
But as flawed as the political system is, it isn’t in its higher spheres that it is threatened. It is in the daily life of normal citizens that the sectarian system reveals its failures. As the parliament is divided along sectarian lines, civil functions are also roughly distributed between religious communities. This allows for the development of unhealthy nepotic and corrupt circles around the auto-proclaimed leader of the community. An illustration of this phenomenon can be seen in the continuing renewal of the same dynasties that control political parties (for more on this watch the documentary Lebanon: the family business). The Gemayels, the Hariris, the Joumblatts… Arguably the freest and most democratic Arab country, Lebanon doesn’t have one autocratic leader but many small dictators and warlords. Back in 2011 at the time of the Tunisian uprising, Lebanese youth and civil activists pointed to this fact by saying that it isn’t a man that they need to topple but a system and its network. As opposed to other Arab countries, Lebanon didn’t experience huge protest movements. Marriages might be the Lebanese way…
PS: I highly recommend checking out this very well done infographic on Civil marriage in Lebanon