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How sectarianism affects Lebanon's foreign policy

December 6, 2021 at 5:46 pm

Lebanese Members of Parliament attend a parliament session to elect the house speaker in Beirut on June 25, 2009 [NABIL MOUZNER/AFP via Getty Images]

Lebanon has a confessional power-sharing system where representative numbers, political positions and power distribution are pre-determined among the religious groups in the country. There are 18 recognised religious communities in Lebanon, and with its sect-based, power-sharing system, an overarching Lebanese identity is not on the horizon.

Lebanon is among the most extreme communitarian countries in the world. Sectarian identities highly shape political allegiances as well as the public personas of individuals. As sectarian interests are linked to personal interests, there cannot be a robust collective national identity. As a result, the country’s foreign policy suffers from these fragmented identities. The last developments and diplomatic row between Lebanon and the Saudi Alliance revealed this fact one more time.

Lebanese power-sharing system

Lebanon’s religion-based political system is called ‘confessionalism’. This system was inherited from the French mandate period and updated when Lebanon declared its independence in 1943. At first, the parliament was divided into a 6-to-5 ratio of Christians and Muslims. Critical political positions are distributed among the communities; i.e., the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament must be a Shia Muslim.

Pre-determined power-sharing systems may work well when the demographics are stable. However, they are prone to create deadlocks in the system and political immobilisation as demography changes. In Lebanon, for instance, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War paved the way for a significant demographic change.

READ: Lebanon’s Hezbollah calls on PM to convene cabinet

Post-war immigration to Lebanon and Christian emigration to the West significantly increased the Muslim share in the population. The old division of power was far from satisfying communities, which then resulted in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).

In 1989, the Ta’if Agreement established peace among communities, changing the old representation ratio between Christians and Muslims to 50:50. The Agreement also enhanced the Sunni prime minister’s powers to the detriment of the presidency, which is reserved for the Christian Maronite community. Positions in the Cabinet are also allocated among sects, and sectarian identities help people to find jobs in ministries and other governmental institutions. There is significant inter-sectarian competition and nepotism in public institutions.

Sectarian identities over national loyalty

In Lebanon, individuals define themselves with their religious/ethnic identities, before an overarching national identity. The competition among communities can be observed both at the individual level and in the foreign politics of the country. All sects try to maximise their power and use their proponents to achieve this aim. Social inequalities also feed this fragmented political culture. Plus, all communities have their allies on an international level and thus, the country is highly affected by foreign interventions.

Major actors in the region like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, plus global actors like Russia, France and the USA, have either religious or cultural ties with the communities of Lebanon, turning the country into a proxy battlefield. Contrary to Turkey’s support for the country’s integrity, France, Saudi Arabia and Iran follow more aggressive policies in the country to extend their influence further. The communities are being used for these influence contestations.

The diplomatic row between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia

In the past weeks, Saudi Arabia cut ties with Lebanon after the Lebanese Information Minister, Kordahi’s comments on the Yemeni Civil War. The dispute started with Kordahi’s evaluation of the Saudi-led military intervention against Houthi rebels. Kordahi stated that Houthis were defending themselves, and he referred to the military intervention as “external aggression.”

Saudi Arabia responded by expelling the Lebanese ambassador and implementing an import ban on the country. The UAE, Bahrain, and Kuwait followed Saudi Arabia with similar sanctions. Qatar condemned Kordahi’s comments without imposing further sanctions, and Oman stayed neutral.

As a matter of fact, Gulf States’ response was not a result of one minister’s comments. The main issue here is the growing impact of Iran in Lebanon. The Kingdom and its allies do not want to lose their influence to a regional rival.

READ: Lebanon’s information minister resigns after sparking crisis with Gulf

After one month of this diplomatic crisis, Information Minister, Kordahi announced his resignation. “I refuse to be used as a reason to harm Lebanon and my fellow Lebanese in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries,” said Kordahi during a news conference.

France exerted considerable influence on this decision. “Lebanon would not be on the agenda of French President, Emmanuel Macron’s upcoming talks in Riyadh if Information Minister Kordahi does not resign by  4 December,” said the Lebanese Prime Minister, Mikati.

The country could have been drawn into a domestic crisis if Information Minister Kordahi’s resignation had occurred without reconciliation among the sectarian communities of Lebanon. Lebanese communities’ interactions have remained very little since the civil war, and they are easily affected by foreign problems.

Effects of the economic collapse

Prosperous countries are more likely to tolerate inter-sectarian disputes and less likely to be affected by diplomatic problems. However, Lebanon faces its worst economic crisis since the civil war. According to the World Bank, Lebanon has been experiencing one of the world’s worst financial crises since the mid-19th century. [1]

Social inequality, poverty, hyperinflation and high unemployment create a significant amount of unrest in society. This unrest solidified religious identities, leaving Lebanon with a dysfunctional political system and a fragmented national identity. The weak national identity is further threatened by the deteriorating economy. The system is unlikely to change soon and probably will create more issues in the future. Unfortunately, even if the economy is recovered in the country, the constitutional structure will continue to be the real threat in Lebanon. That is why a political reshape is what is needed the most in the country right now.

[1] World Bank report on Lebanon’s financial crisis ‘Lebanon sinking’

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