Lebanon must be allowed to break free from its political stasis

After eight months with no government, it is the nation's people who suffer most
A man gestures as he takes part in a protest over the Lebanon's economy and politics in Beirut, Lebanon December 23, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Lebanon must be one of the few countries in the world in which protesters take to the streets to demand not that a government falls, but that it be formed. It has been eight months since Lebanese Prime Minister designate Saad Hariri was tasked with forming a national unity government. He has yet to do so and Lebanon enters the new year with little prospect of an end to a crippling political impasse. Friday's strike was the latest protest by citizens outraged by the apparent inability of Lebanon's political class to look beyond self-serving sectarian squabbling and act in the best interests of the entire country.

A great deal is at stake for all Lebanese people, no matter their political or religious allegiance. Lebanon's economy is faltering but political wrangling over power sharing is stalling badly needed fiscal reforms. Lebanon is not the only democracy that struggles to function, as witnessed by the current shutdown of the US government over President Trump's plans to build a wall along the border with Mexico, and the ongoing Brexit chaos in the UK. But stasis is written into Lebanon's unique confessional constitution, a worthy but cumbersome attempt to ensure equality in government between Christians and Muslims.

Disagreements over the fair distribution of seats led to the 1975–1990 civil war, which in turn spawned the 1989 Taif Agreement, under which Christians and Muslims are each allocated half of the 128 seats in parliament. With 18 officially recognised religious groups, seven Christian and four Muslim and Druze political groupings in parliament, and a system under which the key posts of government are distributed between the country’s four main sects, the machinery of democracy in Lebanon has many moving parts.

This contributes to Mr Hariri's unenviable task but he says that he is entering the new year determined to form a government. After eight months of stalemate, few would disagree with his understatement that "we have fallen behind". In truth, Mr Hariri has been frustrated at every turn by the divisive machinations of the powerful pro-Iranian Hezbollah, enjoying a far stronger position preventing a government being formed than it would as a minority player in any administration.

But it is a task Mr Hariri must accomplish if Lebanon and its people are to be spared a looming descent into economic calamity. The Taif Agreement, crafted with the aim of returning Lebanon to “political normalcy”, enshrined the principle of abolishing political sectarianism as “a fundamental national objective”. This remains a principle to which all parties pay lip service. But 30 years on, such divisions continue to impede the competent governance of Lebanon and, to the great cost of the Lebanese people, inertia remains this country’s political norm.