Lebanon’s harsh reality: The end of compromise
Many argue that the conflicts in the Middle East represent the end of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. Countries, such as Syria and Iraq in particular, are fragmenting, therefore borders drawn by the colonial powers to subdivide the former Ottoman empire are no longer valid.
That may be true, even if Sykes-Picot was never really implemented. However, a more accurate conclusion is that states themselves, built on unjust and defective social contracts, are collapsing from within, regardless of what happens to their boundaries. What we are witnessing is less the final nail in the coffin of the region’s colonial legacy than the seminal failure of the political orders that came afterward.
In this context one country, Lebanon, holds an anomalous position. The foundations of the Lebanese social contract put in place in 1943, known as the National Pact, were surprisingly durable, even through years of war. Those foundations, outlining a system of sectarian power-sharing, have also created a fairly liberal order, albeit one that has been dysfunctional.
Sectarian power-sharing predated 1943, however. Its roots can be found in the arrangements for Ottoman Mount Lebanon dating from the 1830s, through to the Mutasarrifiyya that followed the civil war of 1860 and, after that, political practice put in place during the French Mandate.
Lebanon has often been regarded as the personification of state breakdown. Its civil war of 1975-90 seemed to illustrate the country’s impossibility. Yet Lebanon put in place a system in which society and sects were stronger than the state. This meant that when the state collapsed sects were able to fill the void, reviving the shell of the state once the conflict ended.
This has made for an incidental state, to the chagrin of many Lebanese. But it has also led to the introduction of reflexes of compromise outside the state to manage differences. The system is far from perfect and the state has had to maintain a strong army to keep social peace but the army can only be used sparingly as it reflects the country’s volatile social cleavages.
However, today Lebanon has never been tenser since its civil war ended. The habits of compromise have broken down; the legitimacy of the state is increasingly questioned by a society that does not see its basic needs fulfilled and accuses politicians, reasonably, of corruption, and there are political forces who gain more by undermining the system than by defending it.
Among the latter are Hezbollah and their Maronite Christian ally, Michel Aoun. Hezbollah never embraced the post-1943 system, even if it has usually respected its rules.
Partly that is because, initially, the party advocated an Islamic republic and saw the Lebanese state as contrary to this, and partly because when Hezbollah more fully integrated into the system after 1992, it viewed it as weighted against the Shia community.
Aoun has long been focused on becoming president, an ambition he first had when heading a military government in 1988-90 and that he never abandoned, even during his exile in France. In 2005 he returned to Lebanon and won a significant parliamentary bloc in elections. This he did again in 2009 and therefore considers himself the most popular Maronite, the religious sect from which Lebanon’s presidents are chosen.
Since Aoun’s return, Hezbollah has spurred his presidential drives, to prevent the anti-Syrian majority from consolidating its power. By using Aoun to shatter all consensus, Hezbollah has kept its opponents destabilised. Since May 2014 it has backed Aoun’s refusal to send his bloc to parliament to elect a new president, unless it is himself — preventing a quorum and prolonging a vacuum Hezbollah seeks while engaged in Syria.
Hezbollah has said that its candidate for president is Aoun. While many believe Aoun is being used, this seems only partly true. Rather, the party would like Aoun in office because it believes he will push for an amendment of sectarian shares in the constitution in a way that benefits its interests, and by extension those of its regional sponsor, Iran.
Under the present arrangement, seats in parliament, the government and the civil service are divided according to a 50-50 ratio between Christians and Muslims. Hezbollah would prefer a 30-30-30 breakdown between Shias, Sunnis and Maronites, with smaller communities redistributed within this framework. The main idea is for Shias and Maronites to form, together, a structural two-thirds majority over Sunnis.
Aoun appears ready to accept this, because he too fears Sunni mobilisation from the Syrian war and may negotiate Maronite advantages for giving up representation. But if Aoun were to follow this agenda as president, he could well undermine the consensus upholding the system, alienating Sunnis.
Irresponsibility, rather than colonial borders, is the curse of the modern Middle East. Lebanon ranks among the freer of Arab societies, yet the effort to impose a new social contract against one community may create a serious backlash, as the Shias of Iraq learned. But in the region mistakes are rarely righted.