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How to fix Lebanon’s political crisis

The Beirut port explosion exposed Lebanon’s deep political rot.

A flag flies over firefighters working at the scene of a warehouse fire at the Port of Beirut.
Firefighters work at the scene of a warehouse fire at the Port of Beirut on September 11, 2020, in Lebanon.
Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Beirut port explosion on August 4, which killed more than 170 people, wounded thousands, and made 300,000 homeless, encapsulated all that has gone wrong with Lebanon’s 30-year political experiment.

The explosion was an accident resulting from years of buck-passing and negligence in Lebanon’s public institutions, which somehow allowed 2,750 tons of explosive material to lie in a warehouse unsecured for six years.

Today, many of these institutions are barely functioning, and neither is Lebanon’s economy. The Lebanese pound is in free fall, banks have blocked people from accessing their accounts, unemployment is above 30 percent, and the import-dependent country is increasingly unable to secure the basic goods it needs. Infrastructure is at a breaking point, with daily power cuts lasting as long as 20 hours. Lebanese people are aware that their country is becoming unlivable.

What went wrong? And what can be done to fix it? The answers to both questions — like most things in Lebanon — are complicated.

A modern country with a deeply unmodern political system

Lebanon’s political system is the product of a decades-old power-sharing arrangement among leaders of Lebanon’s 18 religious sects, the most important being the Sunni and Shia Muslims and Maronite Christians. This system, known as confessionalism, parceled out political power according to sectarian quotas, with each sect usually led by one or several members of prominent political families.

Lebanon became a middle-income country with a relatively educated population living under a deeply unmodern political arrangement. The ruling factions preserved their positions by providing their constituents with jobs, financial support, and protection from other factions. In return, people provided their votes and loyalty.

That system endured until a convergence of regional and internal divisions plunged Lebanon into a 15-year civil war in 1975. Although the war destroyed much of the country and killed some 120,000 people, the confessional system emerged intact when the war finally ended in 1990. Many of the same people who led militias during the war dominated the postwar order.

The confessional system is alive and well today, 30 years later. It would not have lasted so long were it completely useless. It has helped mediate sectarian conflict, forced leaders to build consent among their constituencies, and prevented the heavy centralization of power that plunged much of the Arab world into dictatorship.

But this particular medicine has side effects. Political elites have used their positions to bleed the economy dry and monopolize control over public institutions. Parliament and many cabinets have been filled with some of the same faces for decades. The speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, has occupied the post since 1992. As members of the traditional ruling class age or die out, their sons often replace them, meaning politics has become a family business for the Gemayels, Hariris, Aouns, and Jumblatts, to name a few.

Many politicians have amassed great wealth by taking cuts of public contracts, facilitating bureaucratic processes, or directly siphoning public funds. Public servants are appointed by sect rather than on merit, and national loyalty competes with and often loses out to sectarian loyalty.

This has undermined civic life and turned politics into a zero-sum sectarian competition rather than a policy debate. Questions as mundane as where to build a waste incinerator or how to reform public utilities, for example, take on sectarian dimensions over who gets what.

Why, then, do people not simply vote this rotten elite out?

For one, they have played on sectarian insecurities to perpetuate distrust among the population, casting themselves as saviors of their community. Attempts to unseat a particular leader are quickly seen as attacks on the sect itself, leading to a rallying effect around said leader regardless of their performance.

For example, public pressure on a particular leader to resign leads religious and political figures to rally behind them in the name of defending the sect. Thus, pressure on the Christian president is met with resistance from key Christian politicians and the church, while targeting the Sunni prime minister is cast by political and religious figures as targeting the Sunni sect as a whole. Similarly, attempts to pressure the Shia militia Hezbollah to give up its weapons are quickly framed as attacks on the Shia community.

The political class has also skillfully used the state to provide constituents with jobs, financial support, and other privileges. And, of course, where persuasion fails there is always coercion. Parties routinely harass and intimidate those who seek reform or even dare to criticize their leaders.

All factions are complicit to some degree, but one in particular presents an altogether more difficult problem: Hezbollah.

Hezbollah is not solely responsible for Lebanon’s problems. But it’s a huge part of them.

Hezbollah maintains a formidable militia with direct support from Iran. It has turned Lebanon and its Shia community into the base of its “resistance” project of open-ended conflict with Israel and the West.

Hezbollah runs a state-within-a-state, complete with a military, security forces, and infrastructure; at the same time, it has penetrated Lebanon’s institutions through politics or by cultivating powerful allies. The Lebanese military lacks the will and ability to disarm Hezbollah. Those who present a serious challenge to its armed status are intimidated or killed.

Hezbollah is not single-handedly responsible for the sectarian rot and corruption that has infected Lebanon’s institutions, yet it is deeply implicated in it and its perpetuation. The organization’s decades of undermining the state and acting as a law unto itself has made a mockery of public institutions and state sovereignty.

In much of the country, Lebanese security forces operate at the pleasure of Hezbollah. Attempts to constrain its military arm are violently repressed. In May 2008, for example, a cabinet decision to dismantle the militia’s independent telecommunications infrastructure was met with a military takeover of much of Beirut. Hezbollah has also been implicated in a string of assassinations of political rivals, most recently through a United Nations tribunal that convicted Salim Ayyash of complicity in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Hezbollah is a reminder to all Lebanese that might is right. Its intimidation and killing of rivals have fed the lawlessness and impunity that define Lebanese public life. Hezbollah has also extinguished Shia politics through persuasion and force. Its heavy-handedness antagonizes other sects and strengthens sectarian leaders.

Hezbollah is also a chief obstacle to reversing Lebanon’s decline. The group does not want serious political reform, a state of laws accountable to empowered citizens and enjoying a monopoly over violence. It also has no tolerance for political challengers from within the Shia sect. Despite its professed radicalism on the “resistance” matter, in the Lebanese context Hezbollah is a status-quo player.

The shift to a genuinely pluralistic, sovereign state of laws therefore faces two formidable obstacles: the dysfunctional, corrupt Lebanese regime and its elites, and a powerful militia that is both part of and separate from this regime and cannot live with a truly reformed Lebanon. Lebanese seeking to reform this regime recognize this and tend to fall into two camps.

The first camp believes reform is impossible as long as a heavily armed Hezbollah is a law unto itself. Hezbollah’s military superiority means it can simply bully politicians, the security forces, and civil servants, and start wars at will. Hezbollah is also a stain on Lebanon’s international reputation, preventing Western and Gulf Arab countries from lending the country full support. At the extreme, Hezbollah will harass people lobbying for political change — and even kill its rivals if need be.

Members of this camp advocate constant pressure on Hezbollah, domestic and foreign, including practicing civil disobedience, lobbying for policies that undermine Hezbollah’s position, and urging the armed forces to take a more confrontational posture against it. If Hezbollah responds with force, so be it. It cannot control all of Lebanon or kill all of its rivals; forcing confrontations saps its energy, isolating it, demoralizing its supporters, and deepening international hostility.

It may well be true that reform is impossible until Hezbollah is disarmed. The problem with this approach is that Hezbollah may well get away with mass violence, even with directly seizing the Lebanese state. No one is in a position to stop it, and its Shia constituency may simply rally around it.

As for international hostility, there appears to be no appetite for rescuing Lebanon from Hezbollah. Instead, if Hezbollah retains or expands its strategic dominance of the country, Lebanon may end up viewed as a rogue state. Many Lebanese would then blame the country’s isolation and pariah status on Hezbollah, which would lead to severe Sunni-Shia polarization that could derail any reform efforts. The truth is that liberal reformers are (to their credit) not good at organized violence, while Hezbollah has mastered it.

This leaves one potential reform strategy, one that circumvents or “outflanks” Hezbollah, so to speak. Proponents of this strategy believe Lebanon’s opposition movement should put the Hezbollah question on hold and focus on building an effective civil society, organizing politically, and broadening support for the movement.

The focus is on practicalities, such as an electoral law that creates room for nonsectarian parties; a robust civil society that holds the government to account for governance failures; educating the citizenry about its rights and the technicalities of Lebanon’s economic crises; and building citizen journalism that can circumvent partisan media, scrutinize political elites and corruption, and so on.

The demand for a new electoral law through a transitional cabinet (the last one resigned after the port explosion) is central here, followed by parliamentary elections. This camp does not expect a sweeping reformist victory nor sweeping reforms: The establishment has an enormous head start and a resource advantage, and it can draw on older primordial sentiments and fears to counter the newer, less-tested ideals of the opposition.

But even a minor electoral victory that lays the foundation for a substantial parliamentary bloc can demonstrate that the old sectarian game is not the only one around. That would be an unprecedented achievement and a good start.

A reform strategy that focuses on creating a new political space and civic culture is a prerequisite for transforming Lebanese public life and creating a state of laws and citizens rather than subjects.

This strategy tackles problems that transcend sect and party — and while Hezbollah has already reacted with suspicion and occasional harassment and violence against activists, this is an awkward position for the party that takes it outside its comfort zone of violence and sectarian consolidation. It may attract broader support than a purely anti-Hezbollah drive, or at least prove less divisive. The flanking strategy is Lebanon’s best shot at becoming a real state.

The United States should provide enough humanitarian relief to avert catastrophe, as well as maintain pressure on local elites to open up the political system and on the military to exercise restraint in dealing with civil unrest in the context of economic calamity and deep popular alienation. Bankrolling the political class’s broken economic model is pointless and would probably undermine reform.

Pushing the opposition to single out Hezbollah is understandable given US strategic interest, but this should not be a precondition to US engagement. After all, successful reform is, by definition, bad news for Hezbollah.

Of these two reform strategies, I would classify the first as doomed absent a major geopolitical shift that either destroys Iran’s foothold in Lebanon or goes after Hezbollah directly and decisively. This does not seem to be in the cards, and it would be no panacea anyway. The “flanking” strategy is more promising.

It is, however, already facing a great deal of resistance from both Hezbollah and an entrenched political class. The situation is so bleak that the Lebanese are tempted to give up altogether. Who can blame them? But that would be abandoning an improbable mission in favor of certain disaster as Lebanon hurtles down the path of state failure.

Faysal Itani is deputy director at the Center for Global Policy’s Non-State Actors and Geopolitics unit. He is also an adjunct professor of Middle East politics at both Georgetown University and George Washington University. He tweets at @faysalitani.

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