Switzerland and Lebanon are both complex multi-communal societies.  They both have a long history of trying to manage pluralism, sometimes with more success than others. In a conference organized by the Carnegie Middle East Center and the Swiss Embassy in Beirut, political leaders and constitutional experts gathered to examine the Swiss model of state-building in a pluralistic society and to discuss implications for the Lebanese political system.  

In his opening remarks, Francois Barras, the Swiss Ambassador to Lebanon, spoke about the role that the Swiss embassy in Beirut can play in helping Lebanese political and thought leaders understand the Swiss political institutions for managing cultural plurality, power sharing, defense, and neutrality. 

In his remarks, Carnegie Director Paul Salem argued that Switzerland can provide valuable lessons for Lebanon, although the model cannot be transplanted as is.  Lebanon needs to develop its consociational democratic institutions in ways that reflect its unique circumstances. 

The Management of Pluralism in Switzerland  

The former president of the Swiss Confederation Mr. Pascal Couchepin gave the keynote speech. He examined the social divisions that have historically faced Switzerland:

  • Religious differences, which resulted in several wars between Swiss Catholics and Protestants during the 19th century. 
  • Social differences between the rich and the poor, which were alleviated by the creation of a mixed economy and the development of rural areas; 
  • Linguistic and cultural differences, which are reflected in geographical distribution and have gradually become accepted by Swiss citizens.

The other panelists pointed out some of the chief differences between the situations in Switzerland and in Lebanon:

  • Geographic Location: Mr. Yassine Jaber, a member of the Lebanese parliament, stated that the geographic location of Lebanon has resulted in the country being drawn into several regional conflicts. Such regional tensions, including the status of Palestinian refugees who settled in Lebanon and the ongoing wars between the Arabs and Israel, have created internal and external pressures in Lebanon which have contributed to violent domestic conflict.
  • Sectarianism: Jaber pointed out that the 1989 Taif agreement, which ended the Lebanese civil war, was intended to end sectarian conflict. However, many of its terms have not yet been implemented  
  • Lebanese Democracy: Dr. Daoud Sayegh, professor of constitutional law and advisor to the Lebanese Prime Minister, explained that Lebanon needs a parliament that caters to all Lebanese citizens without sectarian prejudices. Both Sayegh and Jaber stated that a system of proportional representation and popular referendum would prevent majority rule over the minority.    

Conflict Resolution in 19th century Switzerland

The University of Fribourg’s Irène Herrmann discussed the external and internal factors that contributed to the success of Swiss democracy. Her historical background provided the foundation for a discussion of whether it is valid to compare Switzerland in the 19th century with modern Lebanon.

  • Lebanon in Conflict: Historian Massoud Daher suggested that there are a number of factors that contribute to Lebanon's recurring state of conflict, including: 

    • the inclusion of non-Lebanese districts to the Lebanese state in 1920;   
    • the nature of Lebanese citizenship, which, among other problems, can only be passed on through the patriarchal line;   
    • the historical rise of sectarianism;
    • the problem that the Lebanese leadership is more interested in preserving its own interests than in fostering political stability. 

  • Perpetuation of Violence: Jean Aziz, news director at Orange Television, argued that Lebanon's history keeps repeating itself for four chief reasons: 

    1. a political culture that favors religious and confessional loyalties over voting based on issues, and that portrays politics as a tool to obtain services and not as a means for national reform; 
    2. persistent economic problems;  
    3. The geographic and political positioning of Lebanon. Lebanon is bordered by two problematic states: Israel, whose recognition is difficult for the Lebanese political system to accomplish; and Syria, who does not effectively recognize the territorial sovereignty of Lebanon;   
    4. The religious conflict intrinsic to Lebanon's pluralism.      

  • Lebanon and Switzerland: MP Atef Majdalani argued that Lebanon lives in a condition that is similar to Switzerland two centuries ago. He added that the only way to lift Lebanon from its current situation is for its citizens to put their country first, focus on development, and maintain neutrality within the region, except in regards to Israel. 

The Culture of Compromise in Contemporary Switzerland

While Switzerland has developed a culture of compromise based on institutions that allow diverse groups to feel represented and active in their government, Lebanon struggles with a problematic regional environment and citizens uncertain of how to define their identity.

  • Power Sharing Institutions: Wolf Linder from the University of Berne listed five institutions that characterize the Swiss political model: 

    1. a multicultural state that recognizes and serves all of its citizens;  
    2. the federal system, that allows the Swiss cantons to enjoy autonomy;  
    3. the bicameral parliament;  
    4. proportional representation that prevents the majority from ruling over the minority;  
    5. direct democracy that ensures the inclusion of Swiss citizens in governance. 

  • External Support: MP Farid Al-Khazen stated that the support Switzerland received from Europe helped the country become what it is today. In comparison, Lebanon is surrounded by authoritarian regimes and besieged by new regional sectarian divisions.
  • Identity Conflict: American University’s Samir Khalaf argued that the conflict in Lebanon revolves primarily around issues of religion and identity rather than socio-economic concerns, leaving Lebanese youth struggling to define their identity.

Institutions for Finding Common Ground 

A comparison of Swiss and Lebanese processes for making political decisions revealed some of the problems in the Lebanese system, including the heavy role played by both regional and personal interests.

  • Decision-Making in Switzerland: André Simonazzi, Vice Chancellor of the Swiss confederation, said that despite the Swiss system's slow-pace, it has proven to be effective. In this system, both citizens and politicians take part in the process.
  • A Governance Problem: Lebanese Constitutional Council member Antoine Messara pointed out that Lebanon does not suffer from constitutional problems but rather governance problems, resulting from regional influences. He called for isolating Lebanon from the surrounding region.
  • Personal Interests: Balamand University’s Nawaf Kabbara argued that the political decision-making process in Lebanon cannot be explained as easily and as clearly as the Swiss process because it is based on personal interests. However, he added that the Lebanese citizen is far better off in comparison to those in other Arab states.  But he emphasized the need for Lebanon to be an active part of the Arab world rather than pursue isolation.