A given number of parliamentary seats in Lebanon are proportionally assigned to representatives from different religious communities. In theory, this prevents any one group from dominating the political agenda and encourages compromise (though it’s not really working like that at the moment). It also, however, assumes that everyone is religious, and that they want the country to be governed accordingly. On 20 March, 30,000 people took to the streets of Beirut to call for secular laws to be applied to marriage, domestic violence, child custody, divorce and inheritance, currently under the jurisdiction of the separate courts of each of the 18 recognised religious communities.
The demonstration in March wasn’t the first of its kind, but it was the largest so far, and there are now several permanent protest sites. On 15 May I went to the annual demonstration organised by Laique Pride, an organisation with a broadly anti-sectarian agenda. The aim was to show support for two draft bills being considered by a cross-party parliamentary committee, proposing the introduction of civil marriage and the criminalisation of domestic violence. (Though since Hizbullah have, unsurprisingly, come out against the proposals, their chances of getting through parliament, assuming they get even that far, are close to zero.)
Most of the demonstrators who assembled on the seafront at Ain al-Mraisseh were young; some of them were dressed as brides and grooms. They handed out roses to passers by. The slogans on their banners and placards said: ‘Civil Marriage, Not Civil War’; ‘Secularism is the Solution’; ‘Laic me, Laic you, We are all Lebaneez.’ There was a band and everyone seemed happy; it felt like a street party.
The turnout was small, barely 700, many fewer than last year when 3000 people came. ‘Everyone has gone south,’ I was told, to the protest at the Israeli border to commemorate the Nakba. But scheduling conflicts aren’t the only reason the turnout at anti-sectarian rallies has dropped. Kinda Hassan, one of the organisers of the Laique march, told me that the movement has become fragmented: some factions, such as the Communists, want to promote a more explicitly political strategy; others are more focused on single issues. Hassan didn’t seem daunted though. ‘You cannot make a sudden, drastic change in the system,’ she said. ‘But you can make holes.’