By Songül Arslan.
Lebanon, a small, cosmopolitan country on the Mediterranean that shares borders with Syria and Israel, has been suffering from political deadlock countless times in its political history. Apart from the current decisive external sources of instability—the conflicts raging around both the Syrian and Israeli borders—Lebanon also has internal political problems worth considering, which are independent of external crises.
For example, in 2013 the causes of Lebanon’s internal political instability, which saw the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Miqati’s 30-member cabinet in March, even predates the Lebanese civil war (1975 to 1990) and the rise of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). To understand the Lebanese political system, one has to look back further in history, before the creation of the Lebanese Republic.
The history of Lebanon makes it a very interesting country. Various civilizations have left their mark on the region throughout the centuries: the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Roman Catholic nations from which the Crusaders came, but also the Ottomans and the French. These have given the region a rich cultural and religious diversity. The voicing and practicing of these religions remains an important part of Lebanon’s politics through their denominations or sectarian groups. Today, Lebanon’s religious groups include 18 denominations, such as Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics, Armenian Orthodox, Sunni Muslims, Druze, and Shii Muslims, among others.
After the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon emerged as a state and was brought under the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon. France established the Republic of Lebanon in 1926 as a democratic republic. In 1943, during the Second World War, France granted Lebanon its independence. The Maronite Christians, the largest demographic group, closely allied with the French and the only Eastern Christians never to break communion with the Roman Catholic Church, assumed the largest representation in government.
In the tripartite political system that has existed since then, the President’s office remains mandated to be filled by a Maronite Christian, while the Prime Minister is a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the House a Shii Muslim. This would be an awkward and uncomfortable arrangement even under the best of circumstances, but in Lebanon’s case it has became the source of growing antagonism as the region’s demographics have changed dramatically. Sunni Muslims now outnumber Maronite Christians, and yet they remain underrepresented in government and barred from the presidency. Moreover, Syria’s influence on Lebanon’s politics has persisted, even after the withdrawal of its troops in 2005. Now with the crisis in Syria, Lebanon has been once again affected, through more than a million Syrian refugees.
Lebanon’s democracy could be described as a “consociational democracy”—a term coined by the Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart to denote a government whose political elite negotiates the politics of accommodation between different groups or “pillars” of a fragmented society, a ‘multiple balance-of-power’, in order to achieve a stable democracy. A consociational democracy seeks fair representation for minority groups, but Lijphart has always held that a consociational democracy is inherently less stable than a liberal democracy.
One of the preconditions for the success of such a democracy is an effective working relationship of political elites, which functions to ensure a balance of power among multiple subcultures. This is problematic in the Lebanese system, in which there is often more disagreement than agreement on major issues because balancing the power-shifts between the different denominations is understandably cause for conflict. However, unbalanced political power also gives rise to conflict. In addition, there is more room for conflict when the fact is being taken into account that related positions such as Cabinet ministers or a head of the Central Bank are also chosen through the same denominational distributions.
Another condition is that there must be a relatively low total load on the political decision-making apparatus. According to Lijphart, in 1968 there was a relatively low total load on the political structure in Lebanon, but in 2013 that was not the case. In 2014 the political load only increased. Lebanon with a population of about 4 million people harbours more than a million Syrian refugees which bring their own problems to the already internally conflicted political system of Lebanon.
It is because of the above mentioned conditions which have not been met that Lebanon experiences increased internal instability. While external regional tensions at the Israeli and Syrian borders (including threats of ISIS) increase overall instabiliy, the hardening sectarian positions of the denominations within Lebanon exacerbates the internal struggles. However, the cooperation of these same denominations are the ones who could actually help focus the government’s priorities inwards on creating the conditions necessary for improved democratic and overall internal stability.