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Lebanon: Towards a new social contract?

T he ongoing overlapping economic, financial and political crises in Lebanon show the limits of the Lebanese political system based on consociationalism. A form of political system that can be found in countries that are deeply divided into distinct religious, ethnic, racial, or regional segments – conditions unfavorable for political stability or majority-rule democracy – consociationalism can no longer serve as a foundation for effective governance in Lebanon.

the 1943 Lebanese National Pact between Christians and Muslims was based on two central main characteristics: government by grand coalition, an institutional arrangement whereby representatives of all significant segments participate in common decision making  with regard to common concerns, and segmental autonomy for the remainder of issues.
the prevailing mechanisms of patronage and clientelism produced by this system, which lent relative stability in the past, has now ceased to function

Historically, because the social, religious and ideological cleavages in Lebanon were thought of as impediments to the establishment of a polity based on the principle of majority rule, the 1943 Lebanese National Pact between Christians and Muslims was based on two central main characteristics: government by grand coalition, an institutional arrangement whereby representatives of all significant segments participate in common decision making with regard to common concerns, and segmental autonomy for the remainder of issues. Since then, the Lebanese political system has been based on a sectarian division of constitutional powers and administrative positions, guaranteeing the representation of diverse groups while also contributing to decision-making paralysis. With time it has become evident that the prevailing mechanisms of patronage and clientelism produced by this system, which lent relative stability in the past, has now ceased to function. Worse, it has mutated into a driver of institutional fragility and political volatility.

 

A legacy of governance deficiency and successive development failures led to growing public discontent in Lebanon, ultimately resulting in the mass protests of October 2019

A legacy of governance deficiency and successive development failures led to growing public discontent in Lebanon, ultimately resulting in the mass protests of October 2019 as well as the violent clashes that followed the devastating explosion in the Port of Beirut on 4 August 2020. This blast, which caused the death of more than 150 people and left over 300,000 without home or shelter, suddenly vaulted Lebanon’s malaise to the attention of the world. It also rekindled a disorganized but nonetheless real political movement which demands fundamental political change; not the mere cosmetic reforms of the past which introduced the appearance of change so that everything remains unchanged. The Lebanese people are taking to the streets once again as the country, which was already in the middle of a severe economic and political crisis when the explosion took place, is dangerously spiraling down towards more chaos and violence.

 

The current crisis, which is so severe that it has resulted in mounting hyperinflation and wide spread hunger and multidimensional poverty, was not born out of this single unfortunate incident. Rather it is the lingering legacy of the religious-based consociational system in Lebanon, 15 years of civil war and the thirty-one year old Taif Agreement which failed to sustainably resolve the root causes of the conflict.  The Agreement negotiated in Saudi Arabia in September 1989 provided the basis for the ending of the civil war and the return to “a political normalcy” in Lebanon. Unfortunately, this power-sharing agreement was built on the flaws of the sect-based governance system; a delicate balance between different sectarian groups, led by warlords turned into political leaders.

 

The Taif Agreement merely reshuffled a political system which had been one of the triggers of the civil war in the first place

The Taif Agreement merely reshuffled a political system which had been one of the triggers of the civil war in the first place. Technically, the agreement transferred the power away from the Presidency and vested it in a cabinet equally divided between Muslims and Christians. It also included a Syrian-Lebanese security agreement to bring about the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Lebanese territory and called for the disarmament and disbandment of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militia. Over time, the agreement which should have paved the way towards statehood and citizenship-based national identity, fractured even more into narrower religious identities within the sects themselves, such as Shia and Sunnis, and weakened further the already fragile Lebanese State.

 

the Lebanese political system has been based on a delicate sectarian division of constitutional powers and political clientelism, guaranteeing the representation of certain groups while entrenching furthermore the institutional inefficiency.

Since then, the Lebanese political system has been based on a delicate sectarian division of constitutional powers and political clientelism, guaranteeing the representation of certain groups while entrenching furthermore the institutional inefficiency. The flaws of the sect-based governance system, which in part had led Lebanon into civil war, has deteriorated further since the 1989 Taif Agreement, which succeed in putting an end to the war, through reshuffling the same flawed system. Syria was made the postwar power broker and given trusteeship over Lebanon. After Taif, a divisive political tension arose between Lebanon’s two main Muslim communities, the Sunnis and Shia. The international community, while trying to manage the divisions, ended up exacerbating them further. Sunni-Shia political frictions worsened after the assassination of Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005. The Syrian presence, which was designed to provide the role of political referee and regulator then, is no longer after its withdrawal 2005, and even more so after the 2011 outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Today, the Lebanese State is deadlocked, if not clinically dead. Indeed, three decades after Taif, a majority of Lebanese who used to believe their system was the least bad option compared with their neighbors, are now skeptical as the state’s chronic dysfunction raised doubts about its institutional effectiveness. The Lebanese people are now demanding fundamental reforms which are tantamount to a complete overhaul of the system. The current crisis in Lebanon requires a new social contract that would lead to real change. Change which puts an end to the dysfunctional sectarian system of the past, builds a functioning Lebanese State and establishes a citizen-based national identity.

it is high time the international community recognized that both the consociational system and the Taif Agreement have outlived their initial mission

In sum, it is high time the international community recognized that both the consociational system and the Taif Agreement have outlived their initial mission as today Lebanon – and the region at large – finds itself in a completely different context. This calls urgently for a new political arrangement, capable of preventing a national and regional conflagration.

Efforts at preventing Lebanon from sliding into violent conflict can only be successful through systematic government restructuring and institutional reforms based on a new widely-agreed social contract among and by (or by?) the Lebanese people, without undue external intervention and meddling. To address this challenge, an inclusive and impartial national dialogue for all Lebanese is a must. To deliberate freely, agree upon and formulate a consensus-based social contract that outlines interventions and reforms geared towards rebuilding state institutions and establishing an accountable and effective system of governance, as a prerequisite for conflict prevention and national recovery. This new social contract, which should be the outcome of a genuine Lebanese-owned national dialogue, is to provide the pathway for shifting from a state of chronic social tension and conflict towards durable social peace and political stability based on a national citizenship identity and no longer on a sectarian-based power sharing system.
 

To address this challenge, an inclusive and impartial national dialogue for all Lebanese is a must.

Author

ICDI Admin