For the past few weeks, Lebanon has been rocked by anti-government protests calling for a change in the ruling system and an end to corruption, economic decay and political stagnation. Analysts are trying to understand how the country has reached this position. They would do well to read the new paperback edition of Democracy in Lebanon: Political Parties and the Struggle for Power Since Syrian Withdrawal by Abbas Assi, who offers a comprehensive insight into Lebanese politics.
The current crisis is at least 30 years in the making. Looking at the issue of “democratisation” and its failure, Assi takes us from the 1989 Ta’if accords, which ended the 1975-1989 Lebanese civil war, to the Syrian civil war. Lebanon’s confessional-based political system is the cornerstone of the country’s dysfunctional governance.
There are 18 officially recognised religious groups in Lebanon, and everything from parliamentary seats to positions in the cabinet are allocated according to sect. However, as Assi argues, this system was meant to be temporary and should have disappeared within the first parliament after the civil war ended; this was outlined in the Ta’if agreement.
The agreement obliged parliament to establish a body for the elimination of the confessional approach, which would help the country move away from sectarian politics. Exploring why this never happened is looked at in Assi’s book, although, “The endorsement of the Ta’if Agreement was indeed based on the faulty assumption that national reconciliation between the communal groups had occurred.” Assi explains that most of the Christian political parties initially rejected the accords; many saw the acceptance of Ta’if as their undoing, partly due to demographic shifts that had occurred in Lebanon making Christians a minority. However, they were strong-armed into accepting the agreement by Damascus.
According to Assi, institutional sectarianism weakens the Lebanese state: “The sectarian distribution of state positions often encouraged political parties to widen their popular support within their communal groups in order to win elections as the main representatives of their community.” In other words, each political party viewed control over ministries and state bodies as a chance to plunder state resources and distribute them to members of the same sect in order to secure their loyalty. Patronage networks ensure re-election to government positions, so none of the elected parties has ever had a vested interest in what we might call “de-sectarianising” the system. They are willing to enhance social divisions and polarisation to secure their positions. The favouritism of different ministries towards certain sects, groups and areas, creates suspicion among all sects.
Sectarianism necessitates foreign interference, and Assi argues that Lebanon’s sectarian political system can only exist with the help of foreign powers. Between 1990 and 2005, for example, it was Syria which ran Lebanon: “The Syrian regime was able to manipulate sectarian divisions and the distribution of state divisions and revenues to enhance and legitimise its intervention in Lebanon’s domestic politics, and to ensure the compliance of the Lebanese political class to its own policies.”
In 1976, as Lebanon descended into a brutal civil war, Syrian troops — with the approval of the Arab League — crossed into Lebanon and began the occupation of the country. After the Ta’if accords were signed, Syria tightened its grip on its neighbour; it controlled the Lebanese security forces, decided who could run in elections, exiled political opponents — including the current Lebanese President Michel Aoun — gave seats in government to different factions based on their loyalty to Damascus and regularly arrested or killed anyone who disagreed with Syrian policies.
The dynastic Assad regime did this with Washington’s approval. Paraphrasing the former Lebanese Ambassador to the US, Abdullah Abu-Habib, Assi writes that, “US tacit support for a fait accompli in Lebanon is a policy the Syrian leadership has come to understand since the mid-1970s and has learned to turn to its advantage.” The United States only came to change its position in 2003 after it invaded Iraq; Syria opposed the war and supported anti-American Jihadi movements in Iraq, prompting the US Congress to pass the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. In 2005, Lebanon’s then Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was killed in a car bombing, for which Syria was held responsible. After international pressure led by the United States, France and Saudi Arabia, Syria then pulled out of Lebanon.
The Syrian withdrawal could have been a watershed moment and the promised democratisation as outlined in Ta’if could have been realised. Instead, the withdrawal intensified sectarian divisions and led to in-fighting between the different groups, whereupon the political parties turned to foreign powers to secure their positions within Lebanon. These divisions and increased tension have led to consistent political deadlock and poor governance. Assi’s Democracy in Lebanon… should be required reading for anyone looking for a thoughtful and serious analysis of Lebanese politics. While not covering the current protests, it provides critical insight into how a crisis like that being challenged on the streets today can emerge.