Lebanon’s fabric is fraying. This is why it matters
On May 25th, Lebanon marked one year without a president — the longest stretch the country’s top post has been vacant since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990.
Since president Michel Suleiman’s term ended in 2014, the Lebanese parliament, which is responsible for appointing the president, has met 24 times and failed to elect a new head of state.
The Lebanese political system functions on deals struck between its many political parties and religious sects — and their foreign backers. Consensus has been elusive as the most powerful blocs lined up behind opposing sides in the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Hezbollah, Lebanon’s dominant Shia political party and militia, has dispatched thousands of fighters to help President Bashar Assad’s regime, while Hezbollah’s Sunni opponents send funds and volunteers to Syrian rebels and jihadists.
Each Lebanese faction accuses the other of serving external masters — and they are right. Indeed, Lebanon is part of the proxy war in the region — pitting Iran, which supports Hezbollah and its Christian allies, against Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab regimes, which back a coalition of Sunni and Christian parties.
While external players have a hand in Lebanon’s latest political paralysis, they do not deserve all the blame. For the most part, the Lebanese did this to themselves, and they need to find a political settlement of their own, otherwise, the Sunni-Shia rift in Lebanon could explode.
Lebanon is limping along, as it has since the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in 2005.
The Lebanese presidency is important for symbolic reasons: The post is set aside for a Christian, and so Lebanon has the only non-Muslim head of state in the Arab world.
A previous impasse over a government went on for 18 months. During that time, Lebanon was without a president for six months. The stalemate was broken when Hezbollah ignited the worst internal fighting since the end of Lebanon’s civil war.
In May 2008, Hezbollah broke its post-civil war promise not to turn its weapons against fellow Lebanese. Hezbollah was infuriated by a government decision outlawing the militia’s underground fibre-optic communications network. The group dispatched hundreds of heavily armed guerrillas into the largely Sunni areas of West Beirut. Hezbollah’s fighters and their allies quickly routed Sunni militiamen, seized their political offices and shut down media outlets owned by Saad Hariri, son of the assassinated former prime minister.
Lebanon’s problems are rooted in a 1943 power-sharing agreement installed when the country won its independence from France. The system was designed to keep a balance among 18 sects, dividing power between a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shia speaker of parliament. Seats in parliament were divided on a 6-to-5 ratio of Christians to Muslims and that partitioning was extended to the lowest rungs of government.
The division was based on a 1932 census, which showed Maronites as the majority in Lebanon. Since then, the government has refused to have a new census. By the 1960s, when Muslims began to outnumber Christians, Muslims clamoured for change in the balance of power.
That didn’t come until the end of the civil war when the Taif Accord, brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria, restructured the Lebanese government by taking some power from the Maronites. The presidency was weakened, and most of its powers were given to the prime minister and his cabinet.
Parliament was expanded to 128 members, divided equally between Christians and Muslims. Taif also called for all militias to disarm — except for Hezbollah, whose military branch was labelled a “national resistance” against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.
All factions in Lebanon constantly affirm that they will abide by Taif, yet few acknowledge that the agreement also called for abolishing the sectarian system, although it gave no time frame for doing so.
The sectarian political structure leads to a weak state. It encourages horse-trading and alliances with powerful patrons, and it is easily exploited by outside powers, including Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, most of the current players are too invested in this system to really change it and foreign patrons do not want change because that could reduce their influence.
Eventually, the Lebanese will have to decide what kind of country they want: one built on sectarian gerrymandering or a more democratic way of sharing power. Otherwise, Lebanon will be dragged into the relentless cycle of sectarian violence sweeping the Middle East.