• Avi Garson

Medium: ''Why Lebanon Cannot Afford to Let the Dust Settle''


The devastating explosion that wrecked the Port of Beirut on August 4 2020 serves as a severe reminder of Lebanon’s self-imposed economic implosion, its profound institutional malaise, and the malignant influence of Hezbollah. In the wake of the blast, President Michel Aoun declared a two-week state of emergency. The inescapable truth is that, even without the pandemic, Lebanon has been in a dire state of emergency for years. This tragedy which claimed the lives of hundreds, injured thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless is a very painful coup de grâce. The damages are expected to exceed $15 billion, an insurmountable sum for a collapsed economy in desperate need of external rescue. This catastrophe is asphyxiating a country already drowning in debt, corruption and despair.

So, what went wrong, who is at fault and what is going to change?

The Lebanese people are asking questions and demanding answers. Much has been said and written in the aftermath of this crisis and, inevitably, finger-pointing in all directions has ensued. The technocrats who formed the cabinet duly resigned with Prime Minister Hassan Diab claiming:

“I set out to combat corruption, but I discovered that corruption is bigger than the state”.

Earlier this week, reports came through linking Hezbollah and Iran to the ammonium nitrate despite secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah categorically denying ownership of the fertiliser also used for manufacturing bombs.

What is noticeable, however, is that many of the reasons suggested by journalists and politicians alike, point to symptoms of a root cause — consociationalism. Dysfunctional governance, rampant corruption, economic mismanagement, sectarianism, foreign interference, and a power-grabbing ruling class are all byproducts of the confessional political system re-established as part of the Taif Accords in 1989.

In order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the system precipitating the crisis, some background information is essential. Despite its small size, the social landscape of the Levantine country that rests along the Eastern Mediterranean coast consists of 17 religious sects, with the three principal actors being Sunni Muslims, Maronite Christians, and a growing Shiite Muslim population in the working class suburbs of Beirut, Bekaa Valley, and Southern Lebanon. Since independence from France in 1943, Lebanon has been a power-sharing experiment. By 1975, the tension that accompanies such a system snapped, and a protracted civil war that persisted for 15 years broke out.

In 1989, under Syrian auspices, an updated quota-based consociational arrangement was reached that bore into account demographic changes and allocated the highest public offices to the different sectarian groups. Key to the confessional arrangement is the “troika formula” under which executive power is distributed evenly: the Prime Minister must always be Sunni, the President Maronite Christian and the Speaker Shi’ite.

In the pursuit of immediate conciliation and stability, many conflict-ridden countries adopt a framework of confessionalism, a consociational model of democracy divided along religious lines. Although it can be instrumental in helping end war, its inner mechanics are highly problematic, as will be explained shortly.

The study of consociationalism was developed by Arend Lijphart, a Dutch political scientist, who introduced the concept to explain the stability of several ethnically divided European states. This non-majoritarian political arrangement has four key components: grand coalition, mutual veto, proportionality, and segmental autonomy.

These distinguishing features are a double-edged sword. Grand coalitions and mutual vetoes exist to protect the rights of each group. Policy can only be pushed through with full consensus. Due to fiercely conflicting agendas, the in-built veto actually becomes the reason Lebanon suffers from political stalemate and stagnation. Any form of progress thus relies on inter-elite cooperation. Naturally, this produces a network of patronage and a process of clientelism and kickbacks which forms a ruling elite cartel that represents the different segments of society and is committed to the preservation of the existing system.

Proportionality and segmental autonomy are mechanisms that grant a certain level of equity and control in matters that are the minority’s exclusive concern. Nevertheless, the side effect is that it reifies the sectarian divide, promotes inter-ethnic distrust, and essentialises group-identity to political disputes. The nature of the electoral system causes people to vote for their ethnic party which creates the conditions for a level of centrifugal competition that is not conducive to compromise. It fails to encourage cross-ethnic appeals and genuine cooperation in the way that it usually does in pluralist democracies. Another critical deficiency is that this system of governance has no room for a meaningful opposition in the legislature, as Professor Rudy Andeweg, an expert on political institutions from the University of Leiden points out, “the absence of true opposition within the system is likely to result in opposition against the system”.

Eventually, the dysfunction and economic repercussions are felt by the masses. Lebanese citizens, as a unified force, are beginning to realise that it is not sufficient that the elite is removed, it is the entire system that must be replaced.

This brings us to the last crucial point of analysis. A system that functions through extortion engenders a precarious culture of impunity that results in administrative breakdown; it fails to deliver basic public goods such as electricity, drinking water, rubbish collection, and telecommunications. These are the conditions that have allowed Hezbollah to flourish. With Iranian funds, it has gradually become the power-broker and king-maker in Lebanese politics and a welfare provider to many of the poorer communities.

The existence of Hezbollah, a state within a state under the guise of a legitimate political party is, beyond a doubt, a core part of the problem. On a Channel 4 interview with Jon Snow, Nadim Gemayel, a former member of the Lebanese parliament, son of the assassinated President-elect Bachir Gemayel, referred to the, “parallel structure” and stranglehold the “deep state of Hezbollah” has over Lebanon’s state of affairs, “from the presidency to the parliament”.

Scholars of Hezbollah have long been saying that it is an entity that operates above the rule of law and wields disproportionate control over the country’s infrastructure and major political decisions. Notwithstanding the so called “Lebanonization” of Hezbollah, ultimately, the Shiite group’s ideological affinity with Iran supersedes the national interest. It comes as no surprise that demonstrators in central Beirut have begun to hang effigies of Nasrallah, and are assigning blame on Hezbollah for all the state’s failures.

In conclusion, the consociational political system currently in place that helped Lebanon transition away from conflict has generated a venal culture of impunity and style of governance characterised by political gridlock. It has enabled a terrorist organisation subordinate to a foreign leader to drive its domestic agenda. Recent years have highlighted the underlying failure of consensus-based democracy.

The predominance of elites in the decision-making process has had a detrimental impact on the quality and vitality of Lebanon’s democracy that has completely undermined the stability and economy of the country. The mass indignation felt towards the ruling elite must result in significant structural reform.

There is always a trade-off but it is clear that more thought needs to go into shifting away from consociationalism and rigid quota-restricted sectarian representation and moving towards a more dynamic democratic model based on majoritarian and meritocratic principles. You can be sure that the powers that be and other profiteering stakeholders want to preserve the existing framework in which they are so deeply entrenched and will resist any considerable change, but momentum, external pressure and the determined will of a hurt Lebanese people should not be underestimated.

This article was originally posted on Medium.com, here.

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