A tale of two constitutions: Chile and Lebanon's newfound bond

After their respective revolutions, Chile and Lebanon have fostered a newfound bond [Getty Images]
12 min read
25 June, 2021

Almost two years after its popularly dubbed October 17 Revolution, Lebanon is still reeling from the devastating calamities of the Beirut Port explosion, a strained healthcare system in the face of COVID-19, and deliberate inaction during one of the most severe economic crises in global history.

With a plummeting currency, a fuel shortage that can no longer generate electricity for more than a few hours a day, and a tailback of cars queuing at gas stations in the early hours, the embers of a revolution that never arrived flicker in the dark.  Can Lebanon emulate Chile’s latest victory by providing its own reprieve?

On May 15, Chileans across the country cast their votes for an assembly of 155 delegates tasked to draft the country’s new constitution. The following Monday, in§dependent candidates claimed victory with 48 seats in total whilst the government-backed right-wing coalition unexpectedly received 37 seats, falling short of a one-third majority, and losing the ability to veto the assembly’s future proposals and reforms.

"Despite Chile’s success story as the region’s most prosperous and stable economy, the unjust social security mechanisms have bred inequality and have been ineffective at reducing the income gap. Although the poverty rate was driven down to 6.4% in 2017, 1% of the population still owns 33% of the country’s wealth"

The new assembly encompassed an inclusive vision for Chile with half the seats guaranteed for women and 17 seats reserved for the country’s Indigenous peoples who represent around 10 percent of Chile’s population. The results signify a historic feat for pluralism and democracy in the nation and the region.

The Constitutional Convention mandate passed in a referendum held in October 2020, one year after a proposed 30 pesos ($0.04) increase for the metro fare incited mass pushback nationwide. A student-led boycott of metro fares spiralled into chaos as protesters took to the streets setting ablaze 22 metro stations. The Carabineros, the Chilean police force, responded aggressively and disproportionately with rubber bullets and tear gas, the state violence was shared widely on social media. After weeks of demonstrations, thousands of citizens were detained, hundreds were injured, and dozens were killed.

Backed by 78 percent of voters, the mandate proved that the nation was ready and eager to replace the presiding document, which was written in 1980 under General Augusto Pinochet’s military dictatorship.

Despite Chile’s success story as the region’s most prosperous and stable economy, the unjust social security mechanisms have bred inequality and have been ineffective at reducing the income gap. Although the poverty rate was driven down to 6.4 percent in 2017, one percent of the population still owns 33 percent of the country’s wealth. Evidently, fiscal redistribution failed, ranking Chile the most unequal member-state of the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development).

The current constitution fashions a neo-liberal economic model for the ownership and distribution of resources, favouring a free-market, privatized approach that rendered public services, such as education, healthcare, and pensions, both unaffordable and insecure for the majority of Chilean citizens.

Concessions made to cease the demonstrations were rejected by protesters as their calls for a new social contract and an overhaul of the political framework produced by the Pinochet era were incessant. One particular slogan was seen across the country on banners and graffiti, “no son $30, son 30 años” (It’s not 30 pesos, it’s 30 years), a reference to Chile’s transition to democracy at the end of Pinochet’s rule and a reflection of the neglect and injustice felt by great swathes of the population. Only one month into the uprising, the Chilean government submitted to the public’s demands.

Meanwhile, across the world, “Solidaridad con Chile” was scribbled across Beirut’s walls as the city’s inhabitants gathered in Riad Al-Solh Square. On the heels of a pending economic collapse and amidst the flames of fires ravaging forests, hundreds of thousands of citizens crammed into public spaces to shed themselves of the sectarian straitjacket that impeded socioeconomic development and delayed intra-communal unification. In a matter of hours, Lebanese citizens gathered to protest the short-lived proposal of a monthly WhatsApp tax of $6. Like their Chilean counterparts, a seemingly insignificant cost epitomized the distance of the political elite from Lebanese citizens’ reality.

The state had failed to uphold its social contract: with garbage teeming its streets, no potable water, and regular electricity outages, incompetence permeated all facets of life. The endemic corruption, dysfunctional governance, and a banking system described by experts as akin to a Ponzi scheme had long held its people in a chokehold wherein their basic necessities could only be obtained through sectarian channels.

A new, national vision had finally broken through gates of fearmongering and taboo, much to the credit of the youth, far removed from the grievances and divisions of history kept tightly under wraps. Citizens openly and unapologetically vocalised their disdain towards all leaders and demanded their immediate resignation. Students and professors met in tents to share social democratic ideas to the public; banners and placards calling for sexual and reproductive freedoms were held high; the voices of refugees and migrants were amplified; the conviction in the crowds was palpable.

“The people have spoken and it’s clear that they want to change the ruling political class. Some may say there is no clear vision, but actually, it’s very clear: we want to apply the Constitution and Taef Agreement which include the establishment of a civil state, an independent judiciary, applying broad de-centralization, and arms and only in the hands of the State,” said Rindala Beydoun.

"While revolutions often call for a complete overhaul of the prevailing system, Lebanese activists looked to the past, drawing from the influential pool of ideas and visions that were at the foundation of the modern Republic"

Rindala is a Beirut-based international lawyer who has been very active in the Revolution since its first day on October 17, 2019.  In particular, she has founded with a few other people Nahwal Watan (Towards One Nation), a platform for “political change and socioeconomic renewal” with the initial purpose of facilitation the formation of  an electoral coalition to run together in the country’s parliamentary elections in 2022. She says that, unlike its Chilean counterpart, Lebanon’s revolution calls for adherence to the country’s current constitution.

“Our Constitution] provides us with a comprehensive process of how to move from a sectarian country into a secular one. Article 7 provides that “All Lebanese shall be equal before the law.  They shall enjoy equal civil and political rights …”. Basically, the Constitution mandates the passing of a civil personal status law and repeal of all laws that discriminate against women and other classes of society as otherwise Lebanese would not be equal.  

It calls in Article 95  for the abolition of political confessionalism, including the election of the Parliament on the non-confessional basis, according to a transition plan and in Article 22 for the establishment of a senate where the religious communities would be represented only to decide on major national issues. The Constitution gives us the entire road map. We just need to apply it.”

Live Story

First created in 1926 under the French Mandate, the Lebanese constitution established a parliamentary government in accordance with universal democratic principles, such as individual rights and freedoms, the separation of powers, and the rule of law. One of its main features was its confessional regime, wherein equal representation was given to the country’s various religious communities in public offices, the legislature, and the government. This provided the country with a legal and ideological framework to create a cohesive, national identity that both recognized and accommodated religious differences without discrimination.

However, future agreements, acting extra-constitutionally, would later expand the role and significance of religious participating in government, thereby violating the principle national objective described in the Constitution’s preamble: the gradual abrogation of sectarian rule.

While revolutions often call for a complete overhaul of the prevailing system, Lebanese activists looked to the past, drawing from the influential pool of ideas and visions that were at the foundation of the modern Republic. Article 95 of the Constitution describes such a process whereby confessional rule could be abolished.

Though a definitive timeline is not given, it outlines the formation of a National Committee, that would include the President, the Prime Minister, and “leading political intellectual and social figures,” to bring about a transitional plan. Accordingly, national reconciliation would render confessional representation obsolete, thus replacing religious affiliation with “expertise and competence.”

French President Emmanuel Macron’s plan and efforts to pave the path out of the Lebanese government’s impasse has failed. Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s reappointment in October 2020 was premised on the sole objective of forming a new cabinet, which has yet to materialise.

Instead, accusations and insults were exchanged between Hariri and President Michele Aoun as they reviewed candidate lists; the former accused the latter of proposing a cabinet that held on to political and sectarian affiliations, and the latter has publicly criticised the Prime Minister for his failure to form a government capable of salvaging the country from the avalanche of their failures.

The merits of competency and expertise espoused by the constitution would have rendered such a government illegitimate had its tenets been applied correctly. Both leaders are remnants of a bygone era and were amongst the four other leaders that were denounced in the 2019 protests.

Beyond the corruption, patronage, and clientelism, Beydoun mentions another roadblock that stands in the way of non-sectarian governance and equality among all citizens as clearly established in the Constitution. At present, Lebanon has 15 separate personal status laws, wherein an individual’s religious affiliation determines the extent of their rights and privileges, including matrimony affairs and inheritance rights.  There is no common civil personal status law.

“Our constitution declares that all citizens are equal, therefore it mandates this right. If  you and I  must be subject to different rules concerning marriage, divorce, and inheritance, then how can we be equal?”

"It is abundantly clear that the greatest violence that the regime has inflicted unto its people is depriving them of the right to imagine a future for themselves beyond the immediate needs of tomorrow"

The heads of religious communities are given access to the constitutional court, a court with the jurisdiction to protect constitutional rights and to rule on the constitutionality of laws drafted or passed by parliament; therefore, freedom of belief, religious rites, education, and an individual’s personal and legal identity are subject to religious jurisdiction. As time has shown, Lebanese women across all religions are subject to disproportional discrimination from such laws and procedures.

Sectarian entrenchment within Lebanese society once intertwined itself with individual identity; surnames were indicative of hometown and status, religious affiliation determined one’s understanding of the victors and losers in Lebanese history, and the quality of life depended on what necessities or privileges their zu’ama (a religious leader or political leader) could provide them with.

At a time where all but the ruling class must order their medications from family abroad and the prices of bread, fuel, and gas have exceeded the national minimum wage, such identities are made redundant. It is abundantly clear that the greatest violence that the regime has inflicted unto its people is depriving them of the right to imagine a future for themselves beyond the immediate needs of tomorrow.

Throughout the years, collective desires and ambitions for a country that does not force out its people in search of a better life elsewhere have been stamped on by threatening assassinations, suffocating conditions, and the intentional distortion of the truth. The regime has brought prideful people down on its knees and humiliated them in their desperate calls for the bare minimum. Ironically, a sense of unity has emerged from the camaraderie felt through collective suffering. There can be no more political apathy after decades of stagnation and complacency. 

Live Story

“The national identity has actually been accumulating since 2005 and it's due to all the activism we saw since then; these are all people from different communities, different regions, different age groups, different genders who all want the same thing– how could you say there’s no unity?”

Beydoun remains hopeful; she herself endured the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasion in the South in 1982, after which she migrated with her family in 1987 to the United States to pursue her education and made her way back to her home country in 2012 to raise her children and to work on social progress and political change. She has spent the last several months working, through Nahwal Watan, to build the electoral coalition that she’s hoping will oust the ruling regime in 2022.

On the organisation’s webpage, there is a countdown to the end of the parliament’s term and the complete electoral register to allow visitors to determine their eligibility for the vote. The organisation works with emerging political parties, civil society groups and independents to facilitate the formation of an independent list that will run for Parliament in 2022 on the basis of the national vision already enshrined in the Lebanese Constitution. Envisaged by experts in various fields, activists, and students, the plan places its faith in the hands of the Lebanese people, grounding the state in its people, as is prescribed in the Constitution.

Revolutions take years to achieve their results, but the important thing is to stay focused and persevere – and the work towards change here in Lebanon has not stopped as many fear.  Many of us are currently working in the background to build something solid. The Lebanese people cannot take another failure. We have no choice but to succeed.” 

Though the discussion and movement for a new constitution in Chile was not presented as a new idea in 2019– the Constitution was amended on multiple occasions by previous administrations and was a leading issue in former President Michelle Bachelet’s government — the determination and perseverance of Chileans to create a more equal and just country on its own terms and through democratic means is ground-breaking.

Although a complete Constitutional rewrite is not needed for Lebanon, Chile can provide the framework of a pluralistic and representative process that can allow Lebanon to break away from decades-long divisions and animosities. This united pursuit can create a new generation of representatives that will challenge the prevailing narrative that misery and misgovernance is the inevitable fate of life in Lebanon.

If you’re interested in reading more about Nahwal Watan’s vision, visit www.nahwalwatan.org

Tracy Jeff Jawad is a political researcher and writer who has worked for the United Nations in New York City and the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.