Lebanese seek to overcome sectarian divides amid call for a new government by John Cyprus

Image: Former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri at a September 2017 meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir. Hariri resigned from his post on October 29th, 2019 in response to widespread protests in Lebanon. 

John Cyprus is a sophomore at Tufts University studying International Relations and Computer Science.

In an age of increasing nationalism and calls for self-determination, the Lebanese government stands alone with a pluralist confessional government, continuously putting religion over national identity. It might be time for the country to flip the script on its 1926 constitution, and for once allow the Lebanese people, rather than faith, decide what is best for their country.

Lebanon’s confessional government fragments the country over deep sectarian lines. The current structure is designed such that the President is always a Maronite (a small Christian sect likened to the Catholics), the Prime Minister is always a Sunni, and the Speaker of the Parliament is always a Shi’ia. While this system has gone through some minor changes in the years since the constitution was first enacted, its essence has remained largely unchanged since the middle of the 20th century.

The rationale for having a system based this strictly on religion is that it supposedly provides each major religion of the country proportional representation in government so that none feel slighted. This might not seem important to the current sets of protests, but it is exactly because of this system that these protests make sense in the Lebanese context.

The current Lebanese government headed by PM Hariri recently imposed, then promptly removed, a tax on WhatsApp and other messaging services. Unexpectedly, the protests did not die down in light of the removal of the tax; instead, they evolved into a massive anti-government movement.

This isn’t the first time that Lebanon has seen anti-government protests since the 1975 Civil War, but it is one of the first times that the Lebanese have attacked leaders from their own community.[1] As mentioned before, it has been these very sectarian divides that have kept the government running for all these years as the very foundation of the 1926 constitution. However, now with chart topping corruption rates, record high unemployment, and a debt to GDP ratio forecasted to be 150%, the question has to be asked: is it time for a new government?

A sectarian divide made sense in 1926. Lebanon then was a country with slow methods of communication, no industrialized infrastructure, and a geographical barrier in the form of a mountain separating the country, ensuring representation for all religious groups and subgroups was near impossible; any method other than a sectarian government would’ve caused an  . On top of that, the system under the Ottoman Empire leading up to 1926 consisted of loosely contracted agreements between religious groups in the mountains, with general checks and balances   Lebanese infighting when a group was felt to be overstepping their bounds. If a group was getting to be too strong, say the Maronites, the Druze in the mountains would get a small coalition together and take them down a leg to ensure a multipolar power dynamic.  Under the Ottoman and post-Ottoman system, this old way of maintaining relative power was translated into the modern division of roles amongst religious factions.

However, in the modern day with lightning-fast communication technology and investment opportunities in infrastructure, is it time for religion to take the back seat behind a unified Lebanese national identity? Faith needs to be restored in the eighty-five percent of Lebanese who say that they don’t trust their government.[2] These protests have shown that citizens in Tripoli, Beirut, and Tyre all feel the same desire for the government to take themselves out of the politically corrupt quicksand that they are stuck in and move forward.

The IMF and other foreign countries have promised to give Lebanon a care package if they undertake austerity measures[3] and stop subsidizing industries that are scalping the country of possible revenue. Possibilities for privatizing have been discussed[4], but this does not solve the real problem. The Lebanese confessional system of government has put religion before national identity, allowing the government to run unchecked as citizens have been able to put faith before country. It won’t be until the Lebanese feel that their government puts nation over sect that there will be a chance for truly cohesive and unanimous steps to better the lives of their constituents.

This isn’t just being said on the streets; these sentiments are being expressed at the very highest levels of the Lebanese bureaucracy. In a speech given by PM Hariri, he talks about members of the government vetoing bills for personal reasons rather than passing bills that would better the country. This grassroots, seemingly populist, movement has the potential to restructure a government that is resistant to change. With little signs of slowing down, the question stands as to what the very top and bottom of government will do to meet in the middle.

[1]Karam | AP, Bassem Mroue and Zeina. “Lebanese Revolt against Their Leaders in Rare Sign of Unity.” The Washington Post. WP Company, October 20, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/lebanon-braces-for-massive-anti-government-protests/2019/10/20/2d50fba6-f31f-11e9-b2d2-1f37c9d82dbb_story.html.

[2]Akoum, Caroline. “85% Of Lebanese Don’t Trust Their Politicians.” awsat. Accessed October 23, 2019. https://aawsat.com/english/home/article/1603436/85-lebanese-don’t-trust-their-politicians.

[3]Speech given by Prime Minister Saad Hariri on October 18th 2019

[4]Khoury, Bachir El. “Hundreds of Thousands Take over Streets as Lebanon’s Protests Grow.” Yahoo! News. Yahoo!, October 20, 2019. https://news.yahoo.com/fresh-lebanon-protests-expected-party-quits-government-094518895.html.