Lebanon's sectarian social contract that united the country for ages is being undermined

The behaviour of some Lebanese senior leaders is destroying what remains of the Taif Accord

Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, right, at a meeting with Jean-Yves Le Drian, former French foreign minister and special envoy for Lebanon, in Beirut on May 28. EPA
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On his most recent trip to Beirut, France’s presidential envoy, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has been trying to resolve Lebanon’s nearly two-year presidential vacuum, declared that if the country did not elect a president by November, he had fears for its continued political existence.

Mr Le Drian is right to be worried, but his anxieties come late. For all intents and purposes, the sectarian social contract that has kept Lebanon together for about a century no longer has meaning for many communities. The country is operating on auto-pilot, as the political class continues to rule over sectarian outposts, with no interest in resolving Lebanon’s problems, let alone reimbursing the hundreds of thousands of people who lost life savings in the financial collapse of 2019.

The fact that Lebanon’s parliament and politicians cannot agree on a president is more a sign of a breakdown that has already occurred than an omen of a situation that may take place in the future. A primary reason for this is that the Lebanese state is co-existing uneasily with a sectarian armed militia, Hezbollah, that is more cohesive than the weak central government and whose primary loyalty is to an outside power.

As Hezbollah has imposed its priorities on Lebanon’s other communities, it has provoked widespread doubts about the continuation of the sectarian social contract. In 2019, the party protected the political class that had plundered the country, fearing that if the population succeeded in overthrowing the sectarian leaders, this would undermine Hezbollah’s instruments of control over the political order.

Hezbollah also derailed an investigation into what was probably the worst crime in Lebanon’s history, when ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut’s port in August 2020, destroying a significant portion of the capital. When the investigation got too close to the party and its partners, Hezbollah and the allied Amal movement showed they were willing to provoke a sectarian civil war if the inquiry went ahead.

In October, a day after Hamas attacked Israeli towns and bases near Gaza, Hezbollah opened a front against Israel from south Lebanon. This has led to widespread destruction in southern Lebanese villages, but almost no one has challenged the party for dragging Lebanon into a war it should have avoided.

And finally, and most revealingly, Hezbollah and its allies have refused to allow the election of a Maronite president other than the candidate they endorse, Suleiman Frangieh, who has little support within his own community. In other words, a Shiite party now has arrogated the right to impose a Maronite whom most Maronites reject. In a sectarian system, such arrogance is potentially very risky.

It’s little surprise, then, that most Maronites today no longer seem to identify with the state. Talk of introducing a new political system in Lebanon is rife among Maronites, with some advocating for administrative decentralisation, others for federalism and yet others openly calling for partition. Few seem to have any attachment to the largely dysfunctional unitary state that is barely surviving.

However, at the heart of this discontent is another problem. Lebanon’s Second Republic was established after the so-called Taif Accord, which introduced constitutional amendments that served as the basis of a new constitution after August 1990. These gave considerable power to the Sunni prime minister and Shiite speaker of parliament at the expense of the Maronite president, whose authority was curtailed. While this was necessary in light of Lebanon’s demographic shifts, many Maronites perceived Taif as a defeat for their community.

Since the departure of the last president, Michel Aoun, Taif has been used and abused in such a way that it may no longer serve as a foundation upon which to rebuild the state. The Speaker and caretaker Prime Minister have made the situation worse.

The Speaker, Nabih Berri, a noted Hezbollah ally who supports Mr Frangieh, has ignored clear constitutional provisions forcing him to keep Parliament in session until a president is elected. Instead, he has proposed a national dialogue over the presidency, which he would lead, to set up a parliamentary vote for a pre-agreed candidate. There is no basis in the constitution for this undemocratic innovation.

Similarly, the caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, has continued to run the government in the absence of a president. While the government can only function in a caretaker capacity in the absence of an elected president, Mr Mikati has interpreted his margin of manoeuvre widely. He is managing the country in such a way that he has implied that filling the presidential vacuum is not absolutely necessary.

Both Mr Berri’s and Mr Mikati’s behaviour has alienated many Christians. More dangerously, by so radically, and unjustifiably, reinterpreting the Taif constitution, which maintains the president as an axial player in the system, both men are undermining the bases of what remains of a consensual political order.

Mr Berri may have no problem with this, as Shiite parties would certainly like to rework the constitution to their advantage. But Mr Mikati, a Sunni, certainly should. With the erosion of Taif, a text that has given the Sunni prime minister major power in the system is being undermined.

If Taif no longer serves as an acceptable underpinning to revive the moribund Lebanese state, Lebanon will fragment even more, with violence increasingly a possibility.

Published: June 05, 2024, 4:00 AM