Decades of strife led to a system of patronage and foreign influence that provides major obstacles to reform.
Rabat – When on August 4 a gigantic explosion ripped through northern Beirut, a nearly century-old political system that attempted to balance the interests of Lebanon’s increasingly fractured society started to crumble before the eyes of the world. Frustrated people took to the street to demand an end to decades of political self-preservation within Lebanon’s complicated system of local, national, and international allegiances.
On August 10, Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s cabinet was forced to resign when a third of its ministers distanced itself from the government by deciding to step down. Few saw the move as a positive step towards progress because the cabinet will, in practice, continue as a caretaker government.
The next step for Lebanese protesters appears to be the fall of Parliament. Once enough parliamentarians resign, new parliamentary elections could provide a moment for the Lebanese people to express their political will. Yet, few expect any radical reform of the system to take place because of the entrenched nature of Lebanon’s political elite.
Origins of division
Lebanon’s complicated and self-serving political system has its roots in its colonial past. One century ago, in 1920, Lebanon was under the control of the Western forces who had emerged victorious following World War I. The former Ottoman-controlled region saw Beirut and large swaths of territory incorporated into the state of Greater Lebanon. A League of Nations mandate “assigned” the nation to the French colonial empire in 1923.
While the native Christian majority in Lebanon were mostly pro-French, the inclusion of new territories drastically changed Lebanon’s religious make-up. It became divided between two equally sized Christian and Muslim populations. Here starts the sectarian make-up of Lebanese politics, when the country’s first constitution institutionalized a power-sharing agreement between the two religions.
The president of the Lebanese republic would come from the Christian population, the prime minister would be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the chamber would be a Shia Muslim. The power sharing agreement provided a form of balance in which all sections of society held power, but foreign influences would soon put pressure on the agreement.
The first example of undue foreign influence over Lebanese politics materialized in 1943, when the French arrested the entire government after it had tried to reduce French influences in its constitution. The country declared its independence in 1943 but it took another three years for French and British troops to leave the region.
After independence, an official power-sharing pact settled the country’s power structure. However, outside forces would again strain Lebanese ambitions. Violence originating from the 1949 military coup in Syria leaked into Lebanon. The region saw the rise of Arab nationalism in the emergence of Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt and the rise of the United Arab Republic, when Syria and Egypt entered into a union in 1958.
Many in Lebanon saw a rising sense of pan-Arabism in the region, which caused new tensions between Lebanon’s religious groups. Manipulative interests formed several successive governments, providing the early foundation for today’s entrenched political system in Lebanon.
Throughout Lebanon’s post-independence history, Lebanese elites were divided on whether to realize a strong central state, or leave power and resources at a more local level, divided by sectarian groups. This disagreement meant Lebanon struggled to build a monopoly on violence, a key factor in realizing a centrally governed nation state.
In the absence of a strong national apparatus, each sectarian group maintained military capabilities. This led to each group on occasion using violent revolts as a means to influence state policy. Sunni Arabs used violence during the 1958 Pan-Arab revolt, Christians used violence as part of the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army during the civil war, and Shia Hezbollah used violence to gain political veto powers in 2008.
Foreign actors continued to influence Lebanese politics. This led to Syrian and Israeli military invasions during the beginning of the Lebanese civil war that would devastate the country from 1975 to 1990. The conclusion of Lebanon’s long and brutal civil war saw a system in which sectarian divides broadened and warlords became formal political elites, where most still are today.
The conflict left the country devastated, its infrastructure shattered and neighborhoods divided by their religious affiliation. There was no “Marshall plan” to support the rebuilding of the country. Lebanon was forced to take high-interest loans from Europe. The repayment of the loans continues to cripple the country today as Lebanon faces crises in finance, economics, healthcare, and inequality.
The end of the civil war saw the emergence of the “Second Republic” in which the nation’s power-sharing agreement expanded even further, dividing powers relatively evenly between the president, prime minister, and speaker. The war had produced strong local players, where a system of patronage provided many of the public services commonly within the state’s mandate.
Lebanon’s three large sectarian groups had themselves splintered into smaller factions. For example, Sunni Muslims, who make up roughly one-third of Lebanon’s population, became fractured. The demographic splintered into pro-Syrian, pro-Saudi, nationalist, and other factions that would fail to unite to produce functional policy-making parties in the national interest.
The three heads of Lebanon’s government currently function in a system where they act like neo-feudal leaders. They provide favors and resources to political players loyal to them, who in turn distribute resources in exchange for direct political support from citizens. For Lebanese people this means basic services such as receiving subsidies, finding work, or getting loans means contacting the local sectarian leader instead of any national institution.
Obstacles to reform
Many outside observers have hailed the August 4 explosion as a moment for change, including national leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron. After decades of inaction and political infighting in the midst of growing financial and economic crises, Lebanon’s political elite has hardened their resolve to maintain the system that benefits the status quo.
The former warlords that comprise much of Lebanon’s political system are likely to exploit the current chaos to make short-term political promises and manufacture consent. They may provide new “technocrats” from pre-existing political parties that will maintain the status quo in the long-term.
Over the last half-century foreign influence over Lebanon has expanded from French, Syrian, and Israeli meddling, to now include Saudi Arabia and Iran. The two see Lebanon as a key battleground in the cold war between Sunni and Shia countries in the region.
The United States has also become a major player because of international economics and Iranian influence on Lebanon’s Hezbollah faction. In Lebanon, the US selectively implements sanctions to pressure the Lebanese to oppose Hezbollah. Many Lebanese people still see Hezbollah’s presence as an important counterbalance against potential Israeli invasion.
The West, through the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, has been using Lebanon’s inability to repay post-war loans to force the “Washington consensus” on the country. These institutions aim to push the country’s politics to embrace free-market principles by reducing public services, deregulating financial institutions, and promoting privatization of state assets.
Lebanon now is caught in the middle of the ambitions of international players, the self-preservation of its political elite, and the genuine calls for systemic reform emanating from the streets. While an evolution of politics is unlikely to produce real change, a revolution brings back painful memories of civil war and sectarian violence.
It appears that national unity can only be produced through the emergence of a genuine reform party in Lebanon. It would need to encompass members of each religion and explicitly oppose the system of entrenched political power and foreign influence. Whether Lebanese people can overcome decades of sectarian infighting and establish a political platform a majority of the people support, remains to be seen.