The dynamics behind Lebanon’s trashed state

Friday 04/09/2015
Lebanese anti-government protesters gather in downtown Beirut on Aug. 29, 2015.

Beirut - Deeply divided between rival sectarian groups, Lebanon has been ruled since independence in 1943 by a system of power-sharing among Muslims and Christians, but the system of allocating public office and elec­toral seats according to quotas has inflamed and entrenched sectari­anism.
A wasta, or “who you know”, system has emerged within the public sector nurtured by religious loyalties, while sectarian solidar­ity shields officials from public ac­countability.
Meanwhile, populist political patrons head sectarian networks of close-knit families which are protected by armed militias and sponsored by foreign states. These networks have come to penetrate every aspect of Lebanese public life.
Like its predecessors, the 2-year-old national government of Prime Minister Tammam Salam has failed to reach consensus on any major or minor issue of national interest. The ministers from across the sectarian spectrum, represent­ing different patrons, have been split on issues from Hezbollah’s military role in Syria, to managing basic services such as rubbish col­lection.
After all, any Hezbollah retreat from Syria could be interpreted as Shia weakness, while locating a waste landfill site in any area could be labelled a conspiracy against its inhabitants and their sect.
The rubbish issue is not the first crisis to have triggered public out­rage against government paralysis. Yet it is the first since the civil war began in 1975 to bring together anti-government protesters from all walks of sectarian and political life; a promising civil movement that presents itself as a unifying national alternative to the frag­mented sectarian order.
During an August 29th demon­stration in Beirut, called by the “You Stink” group, banners con­demned political tycoons pass­ing power to their heirs and long-feared sectarian were depicted in photos associating them with corruption. But despite the need to reform sectarian politics, the protesters have been conscious of their limitations and focused on demanding solutions to immedi­ate problems.
The growing opposition has nev­ertheless exposed a fast-decaying order that is neither able to accom­modate sectarian interests, nor respond to citizens’ grievances. Lebanon’s sects have meanwhile declined in their strategic impor­tance to regional powers.
With the exception of Hezbol­lah which is important to Iran due to its role in Syria and opposing Israel, the other sectarian parties have dramatically lost relevance to their sponsors. Perhaps that has been among the main reasons why sectarian elites have been in no hurry to hold elections, twice ex­tending the mandate of parliament and keeping the president’s office vacant.
To compensate for declining foreign support, the unchecked sectarian leadership has been im­mersed in private wheeling and dealing while using up public funds. So while fetid piles of rub­bish were suffocating the streets of their constituents, sectarian elites were locked in argument over awarding profitable contracts to waste collection companies.
The sectarian establishment is “stinking” and more Lebanese than ever are wondering whether this latest episode is the straw that will break the camel’s back.
It is evident that the confessional state is in a very precarious posi­tion. With a vacant presidential post and a parliament which has extended its own term, the resig­nation of the Salam government is sure to plunge the country into a constitutional crisis. Neither a new government can be formed, nor can a parliamentary election be convened without a president.
There are suspicions that Hez­bollah and its main ally, Christian leader Michel Aoun, intend to drive the current crisis towards an im­passe that necessitates a “national foundation conference” which they would view as an opportunity to tip the balance of power in their favour.
Hezbollah’s close ally and House Speaker Nabih Berri is testing the water by calling for a National Dia­logue Conference to address the stalemate. The gathering would re­flect changing sectarian balances of power with motions to revise elec­toral rules along with the powers of the prime minister and cabinet jurisdictions topping the agenda. Absent from the discussion are previous conference declarations which have stipulated Lebanese neutrality in the Syrian conflict and a national defence strategy to dis­arm Hezbollah.
In the meantime, the civil pro­test movement has gained ground and exerted more pressure for re­form. Disenchanted with sectarian­ism, the young “You Stink” protest­ers have revived hopes for a civil state and a “third way”.