Lebanon’s Confessionalism is a Bulwark Against Democracy

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Thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in April to call for an end to the country's sectarian system of governance | Photo courtesy of CNN

Thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in April to call for an end to the country’s sectarian system of governance | Photo courtesy of CNN

Two years, six months, and eight days. That was the amount of time needed for the Lebanese parliament to elect a new president. On October 31, after 45 sessions, the parliament filled the 29-months-vacant presidential seat by nominating former army general and Christian Maronite Michel Aoun. It was the last hope to fill the presidential vacuum, a “coalition of convenience” to resolve over two years of argument within the parliament in a country where the majority of political parties are determined along religious lines.

Lebanon’s presidential stalemate impeded policy-making on a spectrum of issues from the trash crisis to the war in Syria. But political crises in the country aren’t new. When the National Pact established Lebanon’s independence in 1943, it proportionately allocated political powers to the different religious groups in the country: the President must be a Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim. But behind the system of confessionalism, political deadlock is common and expected to occur on a regular basis—the policy is seen by some scholars as the catalyst of the 15-year-long civil war, from 1975-1990. More often than not, parties hold clashing, if not ideologically antagonistic views. Confessionalism, while theoretically representative of Lebanon as a multi-denominational country, breeds instability and should be abrogated.

Confessionalism balances power, but it also paves the way for regional actors, especially the Shia Islamic Republic of Iran and the Sunni Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to leverage religious groups in the country and successfully capitalize on the friction and suspicion between Lebanon’s Shia and Sunni groups. Enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia has translated into proxy conflicts in Lebanon. As a result, Lebanon’s policy, which holds the potential to unite and strengthen, is instead ushering the country towards sectarianism and state failure.

The involvement of Iran and Saudi Arabia also exacerbates mistrust between Hezbollah and the Future Movement in Lebanon. In part, it was the rivalry between Hezbollah, an Iran-backed, Shia organization, and the Saudi-aligned, Sunni-led Future Movement, which prevented the parliament from reaching an earlier consensus. Still, while a new president has been named, the decision is a short-term solution—President Aoun is sympathetic to Hezbollah’s political agenda, while the new Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, has close connections with Saudi Arabia.

While Lebanon managed to end its presidential vacancy this time, tensions in its religious-based political system will continue to hinder government decision-making and development of a national identity—two projects integral to Lebanon since the civil war ended.

So far, confessionalism has worked as a bulwark against democracy, dividing the Lebanese population along religious lines and allowing sectarian political parties to monopolize power. If power rested in the hands of the people instead, it could eradicate the problem of sectarian isolationism and allow the Lebanese people to build a national identity, beyond religious considerations.

The election of Aoun to the Lebanese presidency was celebrated for resolving two years of political standoff. But while his nomination was a multi-ethnic compromise, it does not address issues deeply rooted in the Lebanese political system, one that political scientist Michael Hudson calls a “weak edifice” and sees as inherently “fragile.” Aoun’s appointment will only postpone the threat of another civil war in Lebanon.

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Soraya Hamdan

Soraya Hamdan is a Master student in International Relations interested in Near Eastern Politics and particularly the question of the relation between Religion and Democracy in Lebanon.

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