Lebanon was created by colonialism, which began with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War 1. At the end of the war, in 1920 the League of Nations officially granted France a Mandate for Lebanon until Lebanon became an independent state in 1943. The nature of colonial power tended to rule through divide and conquer so that it affected the form of Lebanon’s political characteristic, including their divided ethnicity, race, and religion. The legacy of colonialism influenced Lebanon’s political system and its democratic transition.
The history of civil war (1975-1989) has proven the struggle of the Lebanese population in their democratic trajectory. The political dynamics remain unstable even though the civil war ended in 1989. Last year a massive demonstration by the Lebanon nationalist movement shook the political establishment. Citizens demanded improving good governance, equity, welfare, end to corruption, and increased employment. The ultimate demand of the demonstrators is to end the current political sectarianism.
Actually, the political sectarian is embedded in Lebanon politics since 1943 under the National Pact agreement. The National Pact aims to give rights to all religious groups and to share power among all of them. Important points of the National Pact are that Maronite Muslims do not invite (Western) foreign intervention, and accept Arab-affiliated Lebanon; the Muslims gave up their aspirations to join Syria; The President of the Republic of Lebanon is always a Maronite Catholic; Prime Minister of Sunni Muslims; The Speaker of Parliament is always Shia Muslim; Deputy Speaker of Parliament and Deputy PM are always Greek Orthodox Christians; Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Maronite Catholics; Army Chief of Staff of Druze.
The power-sharing arrangement based on sectarian in Lebanon has its own dilemma. Lise Morjé Howard (2012) mentioned the ethnocracy trap to explain the obstacles within the sectarian political arrangement. According to her, ethnocracy will only hamper the development of democracy because the state apparatus is controlled by a dominant ethnic group to further its interests, power, and resources. In another word, this type of hybrid regime is more prone to conflict among sectarian groups and lead to weakening the government and subject to democratic erosion. Regarding the ethnocracy trap, many also argued that the National Pact only perpetuates the power of particular elites because it was implemented with a clientelistic system.
Constitutionally, the Lebanese Constitution does not directly recognize the distribution of power among dominant religious communities, it emphasizes the need to establish “a communal coexistence pact”. In the Preamble of the Lebanese Constitution point, it simply states, “There will be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority that contradicts the ‘shared existence pact’.” However, identity in postwar Lebanon was formed primarily by affiliation of confessionalism (in political science terminology, confessionalism is a system of government that proportionally allocates political power between the people of a country – both religious and ethnic – according to their percentage of population) and sectarian.
Political mobilization and individual loyalty are often directed towards sects and political or religious elites rather than state institutions and symbols. However, this is not a consequence of static primordial identity or sectarian political culture. Sectarian identities are historically constructed and dynamically reproduced through very modern complex ensembles. The Lebanese Constitution of 1926 – and all subsequent versions – gives sectarianism a special place in private and public life (Bassel F Salloukh, Rabie Barakat, Jinan S Al-Habbal, Lara W Khattab, Shoghig Mikaelian: 2015).
Regarding the people’s movements, especially young people, come from various backgrounds. Nowadays, the demonstrators no longer followed sectarian lines or followed orders from sectarian leaders, but instead, they oppose all sectarianism, including class, religious, and territorial divisions. Lebanese people are now united in a wave of shared anger against oligarchs who are deemed incompetent, indifferent to the people, and greedy because of the sectarian political system that they hold firm. Indeed, political and government leaders fail to provide basic services, such as health care and the provision of clean water and electricity. This is why so many choose to dare to oppose their leaders.
Back to the fact that the demonstration was against political sectarianism, I argue that sectarianism is not necessarily a threat to democracy as long as the country can build vertical and horizontal accountability and enough state capacity to address people’s grievances. However, to avoid the risk of ethnocracy dilemma, Lebanese should improve their democratic system and sectarianism practices should be abolished. Many European countries entered the modern era with a clear separation between state and religion. In the Middle East, there were no similar distinctions.
Although the National Pact may be sufficient as a temporary measure in the nation-building process, it cannot be considered as a basis for the further development of sophisticated modern democracies. In other words, Lebanon may not be able to develop into a modern democracy as long as it has not been able to free itself from individual (and group) loyalty to religion and then adopt a uniform loyalty, one to Lebanon. This is a tough test for cross-sectarian young people who want to uproot old political practices and replace them with new democratic political practices that guarantee equality among people as individuals or groups.