The cedar is a rare point of national unity for Lebanon amidst the chaos of constant war, political deadlock, and crises such as mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic and Beirut’s recent explosion. It is a reminder of the common Abrahamic identity of the many confessional communities that call Lebanon home: the wood that built Solomon’s Temple, the tree that Isaiah used as a metaphor for the pride of the world, and that the Psalmist used for the righteous. The cedar represents resiliency, stability, and a commitment to the continuity of the oldest continuous Arab democracy. But, the division and destruction caused by Lebanon’s current multiconfessional political system beg the question: Should Lebanon relish in the resilience of its democracy to so many crises, or should it accept that it is a failed state and reconstitute itself accordingly?
Haig Sarrafian, former Canadian Ambassador to Lebanon, once said, “if you think you understand Lebanon well, it’s because somebody has not explained it to you properly.” And this is undoubtedly the truth. Lebanon is a unique blend of East and West, Maronite and Muslim, and prosperity and chaos, which cannot be easily defined.
Its government was created with this in mind, aiming to balance power through representative multiconfessionalism, a governmental philosophy that de jure ensures that each religious community is represented semi-proportionally in government. In accordance with the National Pact, an unwritten agreement made in 1943 which formed the basis for the Lebanese government, the president is always to be a Maronite Catholic while the Prime Minister will be a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi’a Muslim. Elections for the unicameral legislature, the Parliament of Lebanon, are done on the basis of universal suffrage, but each voting district is assigned a confessional group from which its representative must come. Half of the districts are Muslim, while half are Christian, and these are subdivided by Sunni, Shia, Druze, Maronite, Protestant, etc. The intention of this was that it would ensure that every religious group would be represented semi-proportionally in parliament while hopefully causing representatives to appeal to members beyond their religious community, making parliament more centrist and prone to consensus.
The reality of multiconfessional representation is that it has done the opposite: increasing corruption, making regional conflicts domestic, and enabling gerrymandering. The governmental designation of sects has enabled the growth of political patronage within and across confessional lines. The prominence of religion in politics has made international allegiances by political parties the norm. In terms of gerrymandering, some districts that are allocated to elect Shi’a politicians were drawn to disproportionately include Shi’a communities, allowing groups like Hezbollah to put forward extremist candidates because they do not have to appeal to members of all sects. Meanwhile, Maronite districts have been drawn in Muslim-majority regions, forcing the Maronite-allocated seat to represent interests that are not Maronite.
This kind of injustice inflames tensions along the boundaries of which the Taif Accord sought to prevent. Unfortunately, we have already seen multiple violent conflicts caused by this, such as a 15-year civil war, seizure of the capital by Hezbollah and the Amal Movement (Lebanese political parties), and prolonged occupations by Palestinian militias, Israel, and Syria.
The past year has been particularly poor for Lebanon, and it looks as close to cracking as ever. In 2019, wildfires, high unemployment, inflation, austerity measures, and an inability of the government to supply basic needs, such as 24-hour electricity and easy access to drinking water, has led to massive protests known as the October Revolution. This resulted in the resignation of the Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, who was replaced by Hassan Diab, a Sunni independent supported by Hezbollah and allies. Prime Minister Diab’s tenure was short, as he was forced to resign in August in the wake of the 2020 Beirut explosion, which killed over 200 people and displaced approximately 300,000. In October 2020, former-Prime Minister Saad Hariri was asked to return to the position after Prime Minister-Designate Mustapha Adib was unable to form a cabinet. This governmental dysfunction has led to widespread distrust of the central authorities and has been a major obstacle in the nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Protestors claim that the strict curfew imposed is primarily intended to silence dissent, while others have blamed Iran and Hezbollah for the crisis, inflaming sectarian tensions.
The massive, consistent failures of the government to meet the needs of its citizens and prevent violent conflict make it a miracle that the nation has been able to stand for so long. On this, Ellen Lust, renowned professor of governance at the University of Gothenburg, says in her textbook, “Lebanon is a failed state- a state unable to control its borders or its territory; but if it is a failed state, it certainly appears to be one of the most successful failed states of modern times.” But that success, the enduring of the multiconfessional system, does not outweigh the fact that Lebanon and its multiconfessional government has truly failed.
French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron, who is leading the international effort to assist Lebanon following the Beirut explosion, has called for a “political recomposition in Lebanon,” an implicit recognition that the Taif Accord and the general social contract in Lebanon no longer have force. This brings us back to the cedar: just as the forests of Lebanon are literally in rapid decline, the basis of Lebanese governmental authority is disappearing as well. And as it does, so do the chances of it ever rebounding. So then why is Lebanon so resilient and committed to multiconfessionalism in the face of such obvious failure? It comes from a general stubbornness and unwillingness of any party to give up power. While Hezbollah maintains a militia and series of foreign allegiances from which it is unwavering, the Maronite Patriarch Bishara al-Ra’i has made clear, “We are not ready to examine a change in [the Lebanese] system before all components of the country enter into the realm of legitimacy … There can be no change in the system in the presence of mini-states.”
The multiconfessional system is so resilient because it pits each sect against the other, creating unresolvable tension in the place of unity. Any change in the system would open the possibility of a power imbalance out of anyone’s favor, but it would also allow for much needed structural change and the alleviation of tensions. If Lebanon were to abandon confessionalism altogether, there is even the possibility that it could overcome its religious divisions and form political movements based on policy and practice rather than sect.
Woefully, the chances of Lebanon resolving its democracy deficit peacefully seem slim. With Hezbollah holding onto power in any way it can in the hopes of a windfall from a US-Iranian nuclear deal under the new Biden administration, Lebanon grows weak. We can only pray that, out of the chaos of 2020, the Lebanese government recognizes that the measure of a successful democracy is not resilience; it is peace.