Why Lebanese politics are so messed up

Hundreds of people demonstrate against Lebanon's denominational system on March 6, 2011 in Beirut, calling for a secular state.
Anwar Amro

BEIRUT, Lebanon — If you don’t “get” Lebanese politics, you are not alone. With a government divided between 18 sectarian groups, some of which have their own militias, there is nothing quite like it anywhere else in the world.

Last Saturday, after 10 months of negotiations, these divided parties finally managed to agree on a cabinet. This means for the past 10 months — while suicide bombers have struck on what has now become an almost weekly basis — Lebanon has been functioning essentially without a government. And this kind of thing happens every 4 years. So what kind of crazy system is this?

18 sectarian groups ... what the?

Sectarianism has been a key element of Lebanon's political makeup since the French set up this system on their departure in 1936. It ensures influence in government for all 18 recognized religious groups based on their percentage of the population. It also requires all public service positions to be divided equally along the same religious lines. Religious leaders control all aspects of civil life with their own individual civil laws and court systems that reflect their religious beliefs. Great idea in theory, right?

But in reality this quasi-federal religious state has kept Lebanese society deeply divided and has fueled sectarianism rather than nationalism.

The 18 religious groups recognized by Lebanon’s constitution include a Christian “majority” divided into 12 sects, four Muslim sects, the Druze religious community, and Judaism. The problem today is that this notion of a Christian majority, as well as the rest of this entire percentage system, is based on a census that was conducted 82 years ago. Christians stopped being the majority sometime in the 1960s, but there’s been no official national census to prove it. And the current ruling majority has no interest in conducting a new one.

Every 4 years when a new cabinet must be agreed on, each group make exorbitant population claims as they vie for an increased power share and squabble over key ministerial positions. If you add up the percentage of these various claims you'll pass 150 percent before you even start on the minorities – the Jews, Druze, Alawaites, Armenian Catholics, and so forth. But the most independent estimates place today's number of Christians between 35 and 40 percent of the population and Muslims at 54 percent, split equally between Sunni and Shia, leaving around 10 percent for the remaining minorities.

As a relatively small amendment, the parliamentary distribution between Christians and Muslims was changed from a 6:5 ratio to an equal share in 1989, but only after a bloody 15-year civil war.

When winning an election is only half the battle

"The US democratic system is very clear. Someone is president, someone is governor, there is a distinct opposition — their roles and jurisdiction are clearly defined so the decision making process is very fast," explained Lebanese political writer and lecturer Gaby Jammal in an interview with GlobalPost in Beirut.

Jammal explained that while in the US, the president is strong and influential, in Lebanon, he is no more than a "showroom." The prime minister is a product of the parliament, and is just as weak as the president. The parliament holds the real power. While it represents all the political parties, it is also a "victim of the tension between all these parties," Jamal said.

Regardless of who wins the parliamentary elections, no major decisions by the Lebanese government can be made without the consent of all major religious communities, even the election losers. So, unlike the parliamentary setup in the UK, for example, the country is not simply governed by an election-winning party or a coalition group and kept in check by an opposition. Nor yet is it a question, as in the US, of balancing majorities in Congress with a possible opposing party holding the presidency. Instead, the country must essentially be ruled by a coalition of all 18 religious groups.

And while in the US politicians tend to represent some combination of their own interests, their constituents’ interests, and their party’s interests (depending on your point of view), it’s clear that Lebanon’s system of distributing seats on the basis of religious affiliation means that politicians function more as representatives of the religious communities than as representatives of the whole nation or even of the districts that elected them.

Getting 18 groups and countless meddling foreigners to agree

Every four years, a new parliament is elected in a national election. The parliament elects a president every six years, and the parliament and president choose a prime minister. Sounds simple right?

But when any decision must be agreed on by representatives from 18 diverse religious groups, it leads to frequent deadlocks. Is it really so surprising it took 10 months for them to reach an agreement on the formation of a new government?

To throw an extra spanner into the equation, there are also the numerous outside influences.

“Everything related to Lebanese politics is historically influenced by international powers,” said Carnegie expert Mario Abou Zeid of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “Every party in Lebanon has international support from here and there so everything that is happening in the region will affect Lebanon. These regional powers can control and even change Lebanese domestic politics.

So essentially, not only do these 18 sectarian groups need to reach a compromise before a political decision can be made in Lebanon, but these international powers also need to agree.

The Lebanese identity crisis

Jammal describes these 18 sectarian groups as separate nations living under the umbrella of the Lebanese republic.

"The Lebanese do not have a national identification. They identify more with outside forces; like Shia with Iran, Sunni with Saudi Arabia, Christians with the Vatican and France," he said.

"They feel a closer connection to these outside nations than they do to their partners in the Lebanese republic; For example Christians are adamant 'we are not Arabs' and Sunni and Shia are like enemies these days. They do not behave with Lebanon like it is their eternal country, their homeland. It's a bus station that you wait in until you migrate. This is why there are 12 million Lebanese people living abroad."

Around 4.2 million remain in Lebanon.

The Syria backlash

When national unity is lacking, and international ties are strong, a nation becomes vulnerable to other people's problems.

Lebanon's biggest Shia political group Hezbollah have directly entered the Syrian conflict by sending in ground troops to support the interests of their international allies at the cost of further dividing their own nation.

Many Sunnis affiliate more with the Syrian rebel opposition than they do to their own Shia neighbors, which has led some to join extremist groups that carry out terrorist attacks like Wednesday's bombing in Beirut that killed 4 and injured 19 innocent Lebanese citizens.

In Tripoli, violent clashes erupt frequently between Sunni militants who support Syrian opposition groups and Alawite neighborhoods that hail Syrian president Bashar al-Assad as their own leader.

Now that the country actually has a government, will the situation improve? According to both Jammal and Abou Zeid, no.

“Yesterday we saw we had an explosion in the Hezbollah stronghold once again,” said Abou Zeid during a phone interview Thursday. “The key thing that would effect the security situation in Lebanon is the withdrawal of Hezbollah from Syria. In the general public opinion, they feel Hezbollah is fighting in Syria for their own interests, not national interests and in spite of the negative affect it is having on the general security of the nation.”

If Hezbollah did withdraw their troops from Lebanon, Abou Zeid believes not only would it reduce these attacks but it would also lead to a new unity among the parties and increase domestic public support for Hezbollah. But as long they remain a part of the Syrian conflict, the explosions and attacks within Lebanon will increase.