Lebanon’s power sharing scheme is no longer sustainable
By Ghassan Michel Rubeiz
Here is a recent Lebanon headline: Optimism on government formation surges. Over the last year, news about cabinet formation has run like a weather forecast.
More than ever before, people inside and outside Lebanon are asking if the state is approaching total collapse. James Zoghby, a well-known Lebanese American, conveys pessimism over his beloved Lebanon: “The Lebanon I love is dying”. (Common Dreams, 8/16/21) Similarly Nasri Sayegh, a well informed Lebanese commentator wonders: “If Lebanon is capable of survival?”(Alhewar, August 17).
Najib Mikati, an ex-prime minister and the richest man in Lebanon, is the third prime minister designate who is trying hard to get President Michel Aoun’s approval on a cabinet list. Mikati’s latest line-up of ministers will probably soon receive Aoun’s consent.
Further delay in the formation of an emergency cabinet has become too risky for President Aoun, who is under great pressure to stop the haggling over which ministry belongs to which religion or to which political faction; and to stop micromanaging the formation of the next government to suit the future of his party. Aoun is rapidly losing political capital.
Lebanon’s political impasse is partly a result of conditions in the region. Arab regimes have never been comfortable with the presence of a small neighbor state that is both secular and liberal. When Great Lebanon was created by the French Mandate in 1920, having “confessional balance” in governance was agreeable to the rest of the Arab states. France branded Grand Liban as a “democracy”, offering the power sharing among religious communities as well as the protection of minorities. However, with changing times and demography, confessional democracy devolved into a suitable system of “balance of graft” among corrupt leaders who claim to represent the true interests of their religious communities.
This confessional democracy, which distributed power according to sectarian quotas, worked relatively well for nearly half a century. Lebanon served the region and the world as a place where Christians and Muslims worked and lived together, Western and Eastern cultures blended, education thrived and business prospered. Arab tourists spent their summers enjoying good weather, food, entertainment, as well as free exchange of political ideas. This bright era of Lebanon could only last a few decades.
Since the 1960s Lebanon’s stability has been eroding. To start with, the creation of Israel reinforced tension among religious communities in the entire Middle East and led to the 1967 war- where Lebanon’s most exposed territory served as a place of refuge for masses of Palestinian refugees, and later, as a central political stage for Palestinian militancy.
Moreover, the idea of creating a Jewish state on the border of Lebanon, which has received immediate support from extreme Evangelical leaders, added fuel to the mobilization of Islamist politics, as well as to Christian “jihad”, in Lebanon and elsewhere.
In addition to the Arab-Israeli factor contributing to the destabilization of Lebanon, serious domestic problems were at play: political corruption, rapid demographic change and the emergence of militia culture within the major religious communities. A fifteen year civil war ended in 1990, leaving militia leaders in powerful political positions. Today’s political leaders are the same warlords which fuelled the civil war.
The latest regional blow to this fragile country less than a decade ago was the displacement of a million Syrians on to the Lebanese territories. Lebanon has a refugee burden much beyond its demographic, economic and ecological capacity.
The most significant debate about Lebanon is no longer about the chances of Prime Minister Designate Najib Mikati to form a cabinet, the possibilities of having parliamentary elections in May 2022, or the election of a new president on time, come December 2022. Rather, it is the many future existential threats to Lebanon which are most concerning to analysts today.
To recover from a looming collapse, the Lebanese must form a cabinet immediately and tackle the emergency needs of the people, then start addressing long-term issues. To reform their economic and political system they must conduct a free national election and bring effective agents of change to the parliament. In turn, a legislative body with new faces must elect a strong and dedicated president to lead the reform.
As the situation has rapidly deteriorated over the past two years, sectarian debate has surfaced with a new level of acrimonious vulgarity. Ironically, while sectarian debate is rising at the top, the people are becoming more and more secular. During the civil war the tension was largely between Muslim and Christian militias; today the tension is largely between the people and their political parties who have emerged from the civil war.
I doubt that parliamentary elections will take place on time, given the fear of those in power to lose their positions through the ballot box; the warlords could face accountability for crimes against humanity. There are other obstacles for these elections. The current electoral law is very controversial. Its confessional character stimulates corruption, and the arbitrary distribution of power is out of sync with the facts. The Christian community has become a minority since decades, due to migration and lower birth rates. Many leaders in the Christian community insist on retaining half the seats of the parliament, not to mention the presidency of the republic and the leadership of the armed forces.
Lebanon will not disappear from the map, but the current Aoun republic is doomed. The Lebanese are socially ready to leave sectarian power sharing. However, while Lebanese society enjoys a secular lifestyle it is saddled with a sectarian political system which is hard to relinquish, given the interference of neighboring states, which are sectarian in their own different ways.
All attempts to reform the Lebanese political system have failed so far. The current confessional system has nearly reached the end of its shelf life. But the better alternative is still suppressed. It has to be woven with local hands. Lebanon does not have to become another authoritarian Arab state. With a better regional political climate, particularly in Syria, this well-educated and resourceful nation should be able to reform and rebuild. But reform, if it takes place, will be slow, taking years or even decades.
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