SAT 18 - 5 - 2024
Date: Jun 23, 2011
Author: Ziad Majed
Source: Al-Majalla
What Went Wrong?
The demise of Lebanon's democracy

Six months after Hezbollah forced Lebanon's cabinet, led by Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, to resign, the Hezbollah-led alliance—March 8—has only just proved capable of forming a new cabinet. Regional calculations, clashes over key ministries and attempts by all major political actors to obtain a blocking third (allowing for veto right inside the cabinet) delayed formation. If it is true that foreign intervention, namely Syrian and Iranian, is decisive in cabinet formation, it is equally true that the Lebanese political system, traditionally based on delicate and rigid confessional balances as well as mutual vetoes, is not working anymore. Institutions are paralyzed and elites within each community treat state institutions as if they own them. Lebanon's traditional principle of power-sharing is turning into a “state-sharing” one, which fragments the state and turns it into small statelets.

In 1994, the Lebanese cabinet approved the first and only time the naturalization of 300,000 non-Lebanese residents. Iraqi-born 55-year-old Ali excitedly carried all the required documents to the country's Population Registrar in order to obtain his first Lebanese identity card. After sifting through Ali's papers, a middle-aged bureaucrat looked at him and said: "There is one more missing document." He added: "You have to go to the religious leader of your community and get us a certificate proving your faith."

Ali searched for the mufti of his sect and asked him for the missing document. Even though born from Muslim parents and professing Islam for all his life, the mufti asked Ali to repeat after him the Shahada, the oath non-Muslims have to take upon converting to Islam. Without his religious oath, Ali could have not obtained his Lebanese identity.

In Lebanon, the social contract is not between citizens and the state, but rather between subjects and their sects, which in turn is contracted with the government. Between the country's independence in 1943 and the outbreak of civil war in 1975, Lebanon was the envy of the region's countries for being an oasis of freedom and democracy. But the nation's democracy has proven to be a special arrangement between the different communal leaders that allowed for a zero-sum game between these leaders and their communal groups. Today, 21 years after the end of Lebanon's civil war, the original understanding between the different communal groups is proving unsustainable, or at least, judging by the country's ongoing crises, unfit for the current time and age.

And while some in Lebanon still argue that political assassinations, security threats and the Syrian regime's pressures have thwarted all efforts to restore Lebanon's democracy, others believe that the current failure of the Lebanese state is a structural one. As a result of the failure, Lebanon has witnessed long stretches of institutional paralysis, and the decline of consociational culture and practices.

How It All Started

The ratification of the first Lebanese constitution in 1926 was based on the concept of inter-communal power-sharing. On the eve of independence in 1943, a national pact between the Maronite president and the Sunni prime minister was concluded and further specified this confessional principle. In 1989, a national accord document, also known as the Ta'if Agreement, theoretically put an end to the civil war (1975-1990), and amended the constitution and its power-sharing formula.

Consociational democracy, which often means governance based on consensus among the communal groups rather than majority rule, has been the underlying philosophy of the Lebanese state. This is due to the fact that the principles of coalition governments, proportional representation of communities (confessions) and their right to govern or to veto government decisions, as well as institutional processes and agreements that guarantee the continuity of a self-propelling system (as presented by Dutch American scholar Arendt Lijphart when defining consociational democracies) feature in most Lebanese founding texts and legislations.

Elites and Foreign Policies: The Eruption of Crises

But even before Damascus' complete dominance of Lebanon, after 1990, signs that the Lebanese consociational model was declining started to appear as early as the late 1960s and became more visible with the outbreak of the civil war in 1975. Reasons behind this failure included rigid quotas applied in key positions, which proved problematic especially given an always changing demography. Other factors were linked to events throughout the Middle East and their impact on Lebanon. Yet other factors were related to the Lebanese war, the post-war hegemonic tendencies among the victors, and the different leaders' attempts to monopolize representation of their respective communities.

To better understand the impact of these factors, we should examine two phenomena. The first is domestic, and linked to the evolution of Lebanon's elite as a result of changes within the large communal groups. The second is foreign, and linked to worldwide and regional developments. The ongoing influence of foreign affairs on Lebanon can be in some ways compared to 1943, when Lebanon's "unique" national pact was based on the elites' determination to stay away from the prevailing conflict at the time between two projects: attachment to France, as a mandatory power, and Arab unity.

The elite that dominated Lebanon's political life until 1969 was, more or less, a traditional elite, restricted mainly to limited regions within Lebanon and often seeing leaders presiding over people of their community. These leaders, or Zoama, were successful in exploiting all the benefits that Lebanon's consociational democracy had to offer. Because of their privileged situation, these leaders often looked for peaceful settlements of their conflicts and insisted on avoiding violence. Their political culture was based on self-interests, inter-communal trade-offs within state institutions, and maintenance of their leadership based on ties of kinship and neighborhood.

A Broken Code: Foreign Influence and Domestic Confrontation

In his book, All Honorable Men: The Social Origins of War in Lebanon, Michael Johnson argues that even in the midst of the 1958 conflict, the Zoama neither killed nor called for the killing of other Zoama. There was almost an unspoken agreement, or an honor code, between these leaders that they would spare each other so that, when the time comes, they could negotiate a ceasefire and reign in their followers. The case has also been made that this honor code was respected in order to foment an elite solidarity that is central to the survival of the nation's consociational system.

The premise of such a system, as described by Johnson, is that an alliance of moderate communal leaders would acquiesce to the dominance of one of the communities, in the name of stability. Stability was a priority because the Zoama were often closely linked to a commercial financial elite that needed an atmosphere of stability in order to prosper. By the end of the 1960s, and as farming became mechanized and more capitalistic in nature, even the rural Zoama were absorbed into this alliance.

Political parties did not constitute in the 1940s and 1950s a source of anxiety to Lebanon's traditional elite until the Lebanese were confronted by conflicting choices over foreign policies, and foreign powers began to support and promote some parties over others. Prior to that, parties either had marginal influence or were linked to leaders whose power was independent of their help. The leaders, however, sought a modern appeal through their parties, and used them in order to stimulate local loyalties and as electoral machines.

By the end of the sixties, parties began to gain enough power to compete with traditional forces. Between parties calling for reforms, such as the Progressive Socialist Party and the Lebanese Communist Party, and those calling for the protection of the system, such as the Phalange Party and its allies, bipartisanship started to appear along previously unknown lineups. These alignments took a vertical shape, reflecting (with few exceptions) confessional, rather than socioeconomic rifts. Still, the prevailing political rhetoric continued to avoid confessional instigation.

At this point, the second phenomenon, that of foreign intervention became crucial. The 1943 Lebanese national pact and its consociational principles were based on avoiding domestic instigation or communal alignment with regional allies. However, starting in 1958, Lebanon's second president, Kameel Shamoun, decided to side with the Baghdad Pact, a US-sponsored alliance that included Turkey and Iraq, and was designed to counter the pro-Soviet Arab governments. Shamoun's alignment, however, came in stark contrast with the leanings of Lebanon's Muslim, mainly Sunni, leaders who were in favor of taking sides with Egypt's Gamal Abdul-Nasser. The consociational understanding was thus compromised in favor of so-called strategic alliances. In 1958, foreign events had pushed Lebanon away from implicit peace and closer to explicit confrontation. Many of the traditional leaders were forced to join one of the two camps in an attempt to catch up with their supporters who had already chosen sides. Hence, Lebanon's traditional elite were forced to follow the "street" and choose confrontation instead of leading it toward compromise.

The 1958 Temporary Fix

Instead of revising their positions and arriving at a comprehensive solution, Lebanon's leaders and their regional and international patrons came up with a short-term solution that included the election of army commander, General Fouad Chehab, as president. Stability followed, and so did economic development and administrative reforms or modernization. The same arrangement, however, did not allow for serious political reforms that would reconsider the confessional formula and its fixed institutional quotas. Mobilizations within different societal and political circles therefore continued.

Palestinian military activity in southern Lebanon, Israeli attacks, and the surge in the number of young activists joining political parties, or volunteering to undergo military training in the late sixties and early seventies, combined with the rejection of political and socio-economic reforms, all contributed to the buildup of an inevitable confrontation. Civil war broke out in April 1975.

War, Syrian Hegemony and a Changing Elite

Civil strife ended in 1990 with Syria winning the upper hand over post-war Lebanon. The country's Syrian rulers promoted civil war leaders, most of whom proved to be short-fused, always attempting to impose their stances on others, or at least obstruct state institutions if their opinion was not taken into consideration. Their leadership was vertical and ran exclusively along communal lines rather than horizontal divisions.

In fact, this elite is the product of the evolution of the war and the different foreign factors that influenced its different phases, especially after the Syrian invasion in 1976 that defeated Kamal Jumblatt and his National Movement. Jumblatt, the father of Druze leader and current lawmaker Walid Jumblatt, attempted to change the Lebanese system, but was confronted by Lebanese Christian right-wing forces and some Muslim conservative ones. After his defeat and assassination, Damascus imposed its will and thwarted Lebanon's political transformation.

The Iranian efforts to export the revolution after 1979, Israel's invasion in 1982 and its long occupation of southern Lebanon, combined with demographic and socio-economic changes among communities, made "vertical divisions" deeper and allowed for the emergence of new "warrior elites." These elites brandished the slogan of unifying their confession, or communal, especially among Christians and Shi'ites, to protect what they depicted as their "guarantees." The Shi'ites were especially outspoken about their rights or the liberation of their land.

Starting the early 1980s, consociationalism was unable to provide a solution for Lebanon's differences or prevent violent conflicts, let alone resolve these conflicts. The domestic situation was in constant flux, and the pressure on the system grew. Inter-communal agreements became difficult to reach, except when external forces intervened in moments of internal fatigue and forced deals on their respective Lebanese protégés. The different sides were increasingly refusing to concede to consociational requirements a prerequisite to making Lebanon's democracy work again.

The 1989 Taif Agreement, which ended the civil war and amended the constitution to modify the prerogatives of the Maronite president and the Sunni prime minister, among other modifications, stabilized the situation in the country under full Syrian hegemony. It appeared that the price of stability was the sacrifice of most aspects of national sovereignty and the political marginalization of large groups of Lebanese, especially Christians. In a way, the post Taif policies were coups against consociationalism, which were designed to be as inclusive as possible and help find compromises. The "Ta'if republic" proved to be about Damascus and its allies imposing specific regulations, thus creating winners and losers.

Post Syrian Dominance and the Rise of Hezbollah

It is hard to look at the years following the Independence Intifada, which broke out in the aftermath of the assassination of former Prime Minsiter Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 due to the consequences of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon in April that year, without noticing the major changes that had occurred in Lebanon's post-civil war political scene.

This change was mainly due to a shift in division from Muslim-Christian to Sunni-Shi'ite. The Sunnis are represented by the leadership of Hariri, and his son Sa'ad after him, and their sponsor Saudi Arabia. The Shi'ites are represented by the heavily armed Hezbollah and are allied to Iran and Syria. Christians are divided along these lines and are split between the two camps.This division has thus made it extremely hard for the foundation of Lebanon's political system, consociationalism, to work.  Implicit inter-communal respect has emerged into mutual veto rights, or blocking thirds within cabinets, rather than finding common grounds.

In fact, "veto" power has been at the center of all inter-communal disputes over the past four years. While such "veto" is supposed to reflect a desire to avoid clashes, it revealed in Lebanon the difficulty of keeping consociationalism as the guiding philosophy when vertical divisions are so steep and when external pressures keep these divisions violently opposed to one another.

If Hezbollah's weapons are added to Lebanon's mix, the survival of Lebanon's democracy will be at stake altogether. What seems to be keeping Lebanon's system alive, however, is more the fear of the consequences of a collapse rather than the urge to make it work. The current situation is not sustainable, volatile and might take dramatic turns in the case of regional shakeups.
Against this background, one can understand why Lebanon's cabinet collapsed in January, but could not be replaced until June.

Frozen System, Changing Society

Consequently, one could say after all experiences that Lebanon went though in the last 50 years that consociationalism in the political system seems to be an inert formula that has proven incapable of dealing with the transformations occurring in Lebanese society. The demographic balance started to shift in the 1950s in favor of the Muslim community, leading to Muslim calls for a greater share in institutions. With Muslims outnumbering Christians, and Syrians marginalizing Christian political forces, fault lines changed and divisions became focused on Sunni-Shi'ite instead of Christian-Muslim. Rigidity and rejection of reforms, modifications of quotas and power-sharing formulas seem strangely dissociated from a society that is moving and evolving demographically and socio-economically.

Therefore, Lebanon's consociational democracy is no longer able to moderate disputes or give recourse to constitutional mechanisms to settle differences. Foreign interventions and Hezbollah's arms make the country's arrangements more difficult to observe.

Perhaps the only way to keep the consociational arrangement alive until new rules of the game are defined, both regionally and domestically, would be to adopt a series of reforms that would allow the system to better function, handle crises and contribute to the production of a new modern elite. Such reforms should include the approval of a new electoral law, a new nationality legislation, a new decentralization law, the gradual de-confessionalisation of parliament (with the creation of a senate), as well as the approval of new (optional) personal status laws that would foster the principle of citizenship as opposed to confessionalism. Without such reforms, a lasting and stable government in Lebanon seems improbable in the near future.

Ziad Majed - Assistant Professor at the American University of Paris and coordinator of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy.

The views and opinions of authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy
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