The dynamics behind Lebanon’s trashed state
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”.