What will 'fix' Lebanon? A century of sectarianism cannot be scrapped overnight – but it can be transformed

It is imperative any reforms are carried out while avoiding breaking the political system or causing its collapse

A protester waves a Lebanese flag during a protest against corruption and the failure of long-serving politicians to form a government, in Beirut, Lebanon, Thursday, Nov. 22, 2018. Lebanon is marking 75 years of independence with a military parade Thursday in Beirut, but many anxious Lebanese feel they have little to celebrate: the country's corruption-plagued economy is dangerously close to collapse and political bickering over shares in a new Cabinet is threatening to scuttle pledges worth $11 billion by international donors. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

For nearly a month, Lebanese citizens have been thronging the streets, making demands against what they view as a corrupt political class. While it might seem a familiar lament, this time the people are demanding a radical overhaul, not just of the government but the entire political system. The majority are fed up of the sectarian edifice of the state that is responsible, from the protesters’ perspective, for the predominance of a meretricious political class.

But it is imperative any reforms are carried out while avoiding breaking the political system or causing its collapse. Rule number one is "do no harm". If one cannot fix it, at least do not break it. Rule number two is to beware of the historical process that has given rise to the current system. Political systems are products of a historical process – or, to quote Karl Marx, "the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living".

Rule number three is if you have segmented society, the reforms have to be all-inclusive. You cannot afford to alienate certain groups. And rule number four is whatever reforms might be offered, they have to be based on what you got, with the necessary changes to keep the system stable enough for reforms to be implemented. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater would be perilous.

These rules are integral to any reforms because Lebanon is an amalgam of 18 sects, a product of its colonial legacy. Lebanon’s foremost historian, the late Kamal Salibi, called it “a house of many mansions”, which was also the title of his book.

PAAM65 216 Riad al-Solh with his daughters. Alamy

In that respect, Lebanon is not unique. Many Arab countries were the creation of a colonial past, such as Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Salibi argues that Lebanon was unique because it was “willed into existence by a community of its own people, albeit one community among others”. It was at the insistence of the Maronite Christians that the creation of Greater Lebanon was acquiesced by the French mandate authority on May 25, 1926, with its constitution. The first Republic of Lebanon was thus born.

Two decades later, the paramount chief of the Sunni Muslims, Riyad Al Solh, struck an unwritten deal with Maronite Christian Bechara El Khoury, known as the National Pact, which laid the foundation for power-sharing between different sects. The Christians (Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Greek Catholic and others), then a majority, and Muslims (Sunni, Shiite, Druz, Alawite) – who, according to the French census of 1932, constituted a minority - would divvy up power in a ratio of 6:5 in favour of the former. The Maronites, thought to have a plurality, would assume the presidency, the prime minister would be a Sunni Muslim, and the Shiite sect would head the parliament.

The formula ushered in what is known as a multiconfessional or consociational democracy; namely, one based on power-sharing. Arend Lijphart, a leading authority on consociationalism, outlined a few aspects that applied to Lebanon. One was an elite agreement on a power-sharing formula; another was the proportional representation of different groups within society; a third was consensus and mutual veto among major groups; and a fourth was autonomy for the constituent parts to exercise cultural or religious practice freely.

Lebanese ingenuity and resourcefulness transformed the country into a prosperous and stable one. However, what looked like a boon for the country later proved to be a bane. The rigidity of the system, plus the vested interests of the elite, who to borrow TS Eliot’s line, were as focused on citizens’ progress as foxes “have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry” did not bode well for the country. In less than two decades, the system faced its real reckoning in 1958 when different factions collided over Lebanon's identity and civil war was barely averted.

The accumulated burdens of the past, in addition to unpropitious regional politics and the presence of armed Palestinians, were too much for the system to bear. Lebanon had become a tinderbox waiting for the strike of the flint. That duly came in 1975 and the whole country exploded in civil warfare. Lebanon's first republic came tumbling down.

After weeks of street protests by multiconfessionalists and groups, the second republic is now over a barrel

Thanks to war fatigue and a helping hand from Saudi Arabia, the warring factions negotiated the Taif Agreement in 1989. The deal revised the National Pact of 1943. Christians and Muslims would now share power equally. Moreover, the post of the prime minister, still allocated to Sunni Muslims, gained more gravitas than had previously been the case. Lebanon's second republic, then, saw the light of day.

After weeks of street protests by multiconfessionalists and groups, the second republic is now over a barrel. The demonstrators are not letting up until their demands are met in full. Simply revamping the system will not do for the young people gathered in public squares.

Protesters chant slogans in front of police officers as they demonstrate outside of Lebanon Central Bank during ongoing anti-government protests in Beirut, Lebanon November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

So what is the solution? Political systems have elective affinity with social structures. No one can bypass them. Genuine reforms will have to take this into account. A century of sectarian politics cannot be disposed of at the drop of a hat. It is possible, however, to transform it to suit the new circumstances.

Lebanon’s third republic is now in gestation. It can incorporate the strength of consociationalism with majoritarian democracy. There are quite successful consociational democracy examples that Lebanon can borrow from. The late Lebanese-American political scientist Iliya Harik once pointed to Switzerland’s model for a possible post-war settlement. The Lebanese need not copy-paste from different political systems – but it can draw some lessons from a stable multiethnic country like Switzerland all the same.

In this scheme, Lebanon's third republic would have a bicameral legislature with an upper house featuring two representatives of each of the 18 officially recognised sects, and a lower house with proportional representation. Any legislation would have to pass both houses to become law. The majority party, or parties, in the lower house, would form a government. There would be no sectarian qualification for the post of the prime minister, who would serve as chief executive.

The 36-members of the upper house, which represents all sects, would nominate five of their number to form a presidential council. The chair of the council would rotate among members every two years. The chair would serve as the president of the republic but the council would be responsible for ratifying laws, calling parliament to session, declaring war and other constitutional responsibilities. They would be individually and collectively answerable to the upper house and could be impeached and removed only by the upper house.

As such, Lebanon can preserve minority rights while moving the ball forward on the sectarian issue. Lebanese institutions are too brittle to withstand a total transformation.

Albadr Alshateri is a former professor at the National Defence College in Abu Dhabi