Identity Crisis: Lebanon’s Sectarian Politics Continues to Hinder Formation of Government

Months after parliamentary elections, Lebanon remains without a government. Despite recent assurances from the country’s prime minister and Hezbollah that a solution is near, Lebanon’s rival parties continue to struggle to form a national unity government.
Identity Crisis Lebanon's Sectarian Politics Continues to Hinder Formation of Government
Image by Youssef El Qably/ Inside Arabia

Since 2013 the sitting parliament has extended its term three times, citing alleged security concerns and fear of political instability.

Since 2013 the sitting parliament has extended its term three times, citing alleged security concerns and fear of political instability. However, in May 2018, 583 candidates, spread across 15 districts, competed for 128 parliamentary seats in the first election since 2009. Last year’s parliamentary election in Lebanon represented a number of firsts.

It was the first time that Lebanese nationals living abroad were able to cast their ballots in a national election, according to the state-run National News Agency (NNA). Polls opened on April 27, allowing Lebanese expatriate voters in six Arab countries (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman) and 33 other countries worldwide, to participate in the historic election.

The 2018 election also ushered in Lebanon’s new electoral law, which passed with a broad majority in 2017. The law represented a new set of rules intended to promote diversity in Lebanon’s government by making “space for more independents and reducing the power of establishment blocs formed by the country’s multi-confessional political system.”

Unfortunately, the hope that prevailed during the election period has given way to anger and frustration, as Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has been unable to bring the country’s rival parties together in a national unity government. In response to widespread skepticism, Beirut’s leadership and senior officials from Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Shi’a paramilitary and political party based in Lebanon, stated that a resolution to the government crisis is on the horizon.

On the first of January, al-Hariri said that he and President Michel Aoun had met and were “determined to form a government,” according to NNA. Likewise, Mahmoud Qamati, deputy head of Hezbollah’s political council, suggested on January 2 that “the solution” to Beirut’s political crisis was “very close.” However, the complex nature of politics in the country makes achieving this goal seem nearly impossible.

Lebanon’s New Election Law

The Saudi-negotiated Taif Agreement of 1989 brought about the end of the civil war that devastated Lebanon for 15 years, between 1975 and 1990.

The Saudi-negotiated Taif Agreement of 1989 brought about the end of the civil war that devastated Lebanon for 15 years, between 1975 and 1990. The accords established a sectarian-based political system, dictating that the 128 seats in parliament be equally split between Muslims and Christians, following the National Pact of 1943. The pact also required that the country’s president be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament a Shi’a Muslim.

While Lebanon’s political scene has been strained for many decades, the assassination of late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 represented a breaking point in the country’s history. It catalyzed a grassroots political movement, the Cedar Revolution, which held the Syrian government responsible [for the assassination] and called for the end of Syria’s 29-year military occupation of Lebanon.” This marked the beginning of a political split in Beirut’s political arena, with some supporting the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led March 8 bloc and others supporting the anti-Syrian, Western-aligned, and Saudi-backed March 14 bloc.

Instead of serving a single four-year term that was supposed to end in 2013, the Lebanese parliament extended its term by an additional five years. The parliament justified the move by claiming it was necessary due to the instability caused by the Syrian war, on one hand, and the 2014 to 2016 presidential vacuum prompted by friction between the country’s various political factions, on the other. The Lebanese parliament finally elected Michel Aoun as president in October 2016, thus shifting the focus once again to the country’s electoral law.

The contentious majoritarian voting system, commonly known as the “1960 law” after the year it was passed, was frequently blamed for Lebanon’s decade-long inability to hold a parliamentary election. Although most of the country’s political parties agreed that the “1960 law” needed to be repealed they could not agree on a system to replace it until 2017. Passed with an overwhelming majority, Lebanon’s new electoral law reduced Lebanon’s number of districts and introduced proportional representation.

It also added intricate elements to the voting process, such as seats allocated proportionally to candidates’ lists. The 77 lists designed by Lebanon’s different parties epitomized the thorny maze of opposing political factions in the country. These lists could give minority parties and candidates the ability to disrupt the monopoly that the March 8 and March 14 blocs have enjoyed in recent years. Still, the government predicament is not the only crisis that Lebanese citizens have to worry about.

A Looming Crisis of a Different Kind

With a public debt that is estimated at $79 billion, or 150 percent of the GDP, Lebanon has the world’s third-highest ratio of government debt to GDP. Beirut’s ongoing political volatility is likely to threaten the country’s financial stability in the long-term. “The economic crisis is now turning into a financial one,” said Lebanon’s finance minister, Ali Hassan Khalil. “[A]ny further delay in forming the government will have a negative impact on the stability of Lebanon,” he added.

Last April, at the Cedre Conference, a major investment summit hosted in Paris, Lebanon received aid pledges exceeding $11 billion to finance development projects over the next five years in eight sectors, including electricity, water and irrigation, and waste management.

France’s ambassador to Lebanon, Bruno Foucher, said the pledges included $10.2 billion in loans and $860 million in grants.

In a tweet, France’s ambassador to Lebanon, Bruno Foucher, said the pledges included $10.2 billion in loans and $860 million in grants. Lebanese officials said the aid “included $4 billion in World Bank loans, 1.1 billion euros ($1.35 billion) in loans from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the renewal of a previously pledged $1 billion credit line from Saudi Arabia.”

But these pledges could all be for naught if Beirut is unable to form a government soon. “One of the main negative implications of Lebanon’s ongoing government crisis is the delay that it has caused in the introduction of much-needed reforms. Some of these reforms have already been legislated by the parliament and require the country’s executive branch to put them in motion,” Mohammad Ibrahim Fheili, an economics and finance lecturer at one of Lebanon’s American higher education institutions, told Inside Arabia.

The government needs to identify the infrastructure projects that will benefit from the promised Cedre financing, prepare feasibility studies, and pass legislation to provide the legal framework for this financing,” Fheili added. However, “in the absence of a government, none of this can happen.”

In addition to struggling with an enormous debt, fragile economy, and impotent governance, Lebanon also has to contend with power outages, high unemployment rates, pervasive corruption, waste management problems, and the highest number of refugees per capita in the world, among other things.

Other Political Challenges

While the complex political landscape of Lebanon is frequently blamed for the bleak current state of the country, sectarian politics are not the only forces that shape the country’s internal governance and economics.

“The problems and conflicts in neighboring countries, such as Syria, also negatively impact Lebanon’s internal politics. Beirut’s moves are frequently influenced by external politics, especially when it comes to its foreign relations and strategy,” another Lebanese academic (who preferred to remain anonymous) told Inside Arabia.   

Undoubtedly, the eight-year-long conflict in Syria greatly influences Lebanon’s domestic and foreign affairs as will any future reconstruction efforts in that country. Furthermore, the U.S. and Arabian Gulf states’ ongoing rivalry with Iran and their constant interference has turned Lebanon into a battleground for many of the Middle East’s conflicting religious ideologies and political agendas.

By backing and pitting Lebanon’s rival sects against each other, these so-called “foreign allies” are fighting a proxy war aimed at establishing their supremacy over their respective enemies. Meanwhile, Beirut is left to deal with the political fallout.

Hence, while Lebanon’s complex new electoral law has disappointed many, it is not the only culprit behind the current government crisis. The country’s long and painful history of sectarian politics and the ongoing foreign meddling is likely to continue to stymie al-Hariri’s efforts to form a government that can deliver the fiscal and social reforms that Lebanon desperately needs to move forward.