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Which MPs support optional civil marriage?

Summary: Once again, Lebanon is engaged in a fierce debate over optional civil marriage, sparked this time by new Interior Minister Raya El Hassan, who last week said she wanted to "make room for a serious and deep discussion" on the issue.

BEIRUT: Once again, Lebanon is engaged in a fierce debate over optional civil marriage, sparked this time by new Interior Minister Raya El Hassan, who last week said she wanted to "make room for a serious and deep discussion" on the issue. Civil marriage's constitutionality in Lebanon was established in 2013, and half a dozen such marriages were approved by then-Interior Minister Marwan Charbel before Nouhad Machnouk took over the post and ceased the practice in 2014. However, no law exists establishing the right to civil marriage as an option for Lebanese people.

Instead, so-called personal status issues such as marriage and inheritance are regulated by 15 separate religious courts.

Many draft laws on civil marriage have made their way to Parliament, yet none has ever gotten through, despite many MPs openly saying they supported the idea of civil marriage.

With the issue back to the fore, The Daily Star spoke with lawmakers from all major and most minor blocs in Parliament to find out how they would vote on a civil marriage law.

Free Patriotic Movement MP Alain Aoun said all 29 members of the FPM-led Strong Lebanon bloc, the largest in Parliament, could be expected to vote in favor of a civil marriage law if a vote were held now.

"It would be easiest if the national unity government endorses a text and then forwards it to Parliament for a vote to be held," Aoun said.

There is some precedent for such a Cabinet-based approach. In 1998, then-President Elias Hrawi drafted a bill proposing civil marriage. It was approved by Cabinet, but shelved because it faced opposition from then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and religious authorities.

Those same religious figures remain the prime opponents of civil marriage today. Lebanon's top Sunni authority, Dar al-Fatwa, issued a statement earlier this week saying such legislation would "contradict the provisions of Islamic law."

Backlash notwithstanding, many other groups also say they are in favor. Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Joumblatt announced in a tweet earlier this week that he supported civil marriage.

MP Bilal Abdallah of the PSP's nine-member bloc told The Daily Star, "We are a leftist, secular party; of course we are with this, with our respect to the religious authorities."

But Abdallah said dialogue among parties would be needed away from the media, and this would likely take time. "There are issues far less complicated than this that we were unable to solve," he added.

The Kataeb Party's three MPs would also vote in favor of civil marriage, MP Elias Hankash said.

The Marada Movement's three MPs would do so too, according to the bloc's leader, MP Tony Frangieh.

In addition to civil society MP Paula Yacoubian, this puts 45 MPs squarely in favor.

Then there are those who support it but who may be overruled by binding decisions made by their political blocs, and those who support it but on certain conditions.

Lebanese Forces MP Fadi Saad, the party's former secretary-general, said that while he personally supported a civil marriage law, the LF had not yet made a decision binding the 15 MPs in its bloc.

He said such a decision could be made at an upcoming meeting, though he declined to say when.

"The discussion is good; we shouldn't have things taboo like this in Lebanon," he said.

The 20-member Future Movement bloc had not yet taken a stance on the issue, MP Rola Tabsh said.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who heads Future, previously stated his support for civil marriage, and Hassan, the interior minister, is a member of his party.

Azm Movement MP Nicolas Nahas said he personally supported civil marriage, but that the four-member bloc, headed by former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, had not taken a stance. Mikati previously opposed the move. Still, Nahas said that if there were disagreement, the MPs might be allowed a conscience vote.

Amal Movement MP Fadi Alameh said he supported such a law, but the 17-member Amal-led Development and Liberation bloc's position was more complex. "We are with anything that can unite Lebanese people and root out the religious divide," he said, tying civil marriage to a national move to abolish institutionalized sectarianism.

Speaker Nabih Berri, who heads Amal, said this week that now was not the time for the divisive debate on civil marriage. He also said mandatory civil marriage was "not on the table, and no one will tolerate it."

On the other side of the debate, there is Hezbollah.

MP Nawwaf Musawi told The Daily Star that the bloc's 13 MPs would be bound to the opinion of the Higher Shiite Council, which opposes any form of civil marriage.

Unsurprisingly, the Consultative Gathering, a group of six pro-Hezbollah Sunni MPs whose membership overlaps with other blocs, has not taken a stance on the issue, two members said. But Abdel-Rahim Mrad, one of the MPs, said he was against civil marriage because it would lead to an "internal schism" in Lebanon, result in Christians leaving the country and "leave Sunnis and Shiites to fight each other."

"This is what Israel wants; they want Christians to leave Lebanon," he claimed.

Independent MP Jamil al-Sayyed said the debate over the idea of civil marriage was flawed and that MPs should be discussing "a text rather than just an idea." He said he was, in principle, in support of another marriage option, but would base his opinion only on a specific text.

But for Nayla Geagea, a lawyer and legal researcher, it is near impossible for Lebanon's Parliament, elected on a sectarian basis, to endorse a law that would undermine the powers of religious authorities.

Geagea said Hassan should in the meantime return to the practice instituted under Charbel of registering civil marriages until a law is endorsed. "The courts have her covered, and that's why we're submitting a petition to her calling for this. If she does, it will put more pressure on Parliament," she said.

The petition had attracted 5,800 signatures by Wednesday evening and would be submitted Thursday at noon, Geagea said.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7LEBA
Date:Feb 21, 2019
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