Foreign Affairs

Sectarian Power Blocs Thwarted Lebanese Democracy

Recently I received an e-mail from a colleague in Lebanon. “It seems we have no future in this part of the world,” he said. “The region is full of feelings of hatred and grudge. We will never be able to solve our problems and build our countries politically, economically, or even socially with negative feelings and energy.”

Yet, Beirut has been touted as the Paris of the Middle East and as a democracy. How did we end up with two democracies, Israel and Lebanon, at war? Weren’t we told democracies do not go to war with one another?

One problem may be the way democracy is practiced in Lebanon. Would we really consider the United States a democracy if, for example, the Constitution said the President must always be Protestant, the Speaker always Catholic, etc. I doubt it. But this is how the Lebanese political system was designed.

As a result, Lebanese politics has never matured to a point where policies endorsed by political parties act to unify the country. As long as political parties have an incentive to focus on their narrow constituency groups, which tend to be sectarian, the development of a true democracy will be retarded.

Lebanese political parties must learn to compete for the entire Lebanese voting population, not just their own sectarian segment. But the Lebanese constitution promises sectarian groups a proportion of power no matter what. This helped empower Hezbollah, which managed to corner part of the market for Shiite support, never needing to appeal to non-Shiite Lebanese.

In 1989, the Taif Agreement amended the constitution and restructured the political system. Prior to that, a Sunni Prime Minister was responsible to a Maronite Christian President, and the Speaker was guaranteed to be a Shiite. The Taif Agreement maintained the sectarian division of the country’s leading offices, but made the Prime Minister responsible to the legislature rather than the President. Nonetheless, it still stated: “the Chamber of Deputies … shall be divided according to the following bases: a. Equally between Christians and Muslims. b. Proportionately between the denominations of each sect.”

Maintaining this fragmented political system has had a devastating effect on Lebanon, making it a state so weak it cannot protect itself from internal threats such as Hezbollah, let alone external threats such as Syria. That has led us to where we are today.

All Hezbollah needs to do to be perceived as the winner in the current war by its narrow Shiite constituency is to survive it. No matter what, however, Lebanon will not be a winner. It may take five to ten years for the Lebanese to rebuild what has been bombed in the last two weeks. If another civil war erupts, it could retard the country’s development as a democracy for far longer.

Hopefully, Lebanon will again become the jewel of the Middle East. But until it tackles the weaknesses of its sectarian political system, it will continue to be a pawn of more radical elements in the region.


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