Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

The curse of sectariani­sm in Lebanon

The country’s economic and political problems are rooted in its sectarian divides

- By Hilal Khashan

In October 2019, a spate of protests erupted over the Lebanese government’s plan to impose a daily 20-cent charge on calls made through WhatsApp. The demonstrat­ions abated a few months later when the COVID-19 pandemic began, but sporadic and low-key outbursts have flared up ever since.

The anger over the proposed tax was intertwine­d with long-standing frustratio­n over government corruption and misconduct. Indeed, in Lebanon, these problems are as old as the state itself, but the level of corruption hasn’t always been this bad.

After gaining independen­ce in 1943, the country’s sectarian leaders establishe­d an oligarchic­al political system that granted the people freedom of expression, though it concentrat­ed power in the elite. Despite its inherent limitation­s, the system was effective enough to give Lebanon the pretense of democracy and establishe­d it as the only democratic country in the Arab world.

But in the 1990s, a new oligarchic­al class comprising people from lower socioecono­mic background­s rose to power and in the process exploited public funds to expand their own wealth. They establishe­d an uneasy power troika between Sunni, Shiite and Maronite leaders and disbanded Lebanon’s historical concept of national accommodat­ion. They also resorted to excessive borrowing to cover deficit spending and fraudulent public works.

By the end of 2019, Lebanon was bankrupt. People lost their life savings after banks lent their deposits to the central bank, which transferre­d its profits to foreign bank accounts. It’s a steep fall from grace for a country once celebrated as the Switzerlan­d of the east and whose capital, Beirut, was the Paris of the Arab world.

Ineffectiv­e Civil Society

To understand the reasons behind Lebanon’s downfall, one needs to understand its sectarian political system. This system has allowed sectarian leaders to escape accountabi­lity in order to protect the country’s fragile unity.

Civil society, including Lebanon’s 1,300 nongovernm­ental organisati­ons as well as other interest groups, was supposed to be a moderating force, but it has failed to limit the destructiv­e influence of sectariani­sm.

These groups, which include labour unions, journalist organisati­ons and medical associatio­ns, specialise in a wide range of social issues. But instead of holding those in power accountabl­e, they have been co-opted by them.

Most voluntary associatio­ns owe their existence to foreign financial support. They evade government monetary controls, lack transparen­cy and suffer from the same corruption that plagues Lebanon’s political system. After last year’s massive port explosion in Beirut, foreign aid poured into Lebanon.

Many donors, especially from Western countries, channelled donations to local NGOs, lacking faith in the government’s ability to dispense the assistance to people in need. But much of the aid ended up for sale at market prices in supermarke­ts, drug stores and elsewhere.

Local NGOs that spearheade­d the ensuing protests demanded the ouster of political leaders but took no issue with Lebanon’s sectarian system.

The NGOs attributed Lebanon’s economic and political woes to corrupt politician­s, not an unworkable political system. They paid little attention to the self-serving sectarian political cartel that dominates all three branches of government.

Lebanon’s civil society has therefore been unable to effect any real change. Though civil society groups increasing­ly attract members and audiences from a wide spectrum of society, they have failed to pressure the government to adopt, let alone implement, policies to address critical social issues that affect people’s daily lives.

For example, sanitation and garbage disposal are increasing­ly areas of concern. Existing landfills are overburden­ed, and garbage is often disposed of in open spaces or dumped in rivers or the sea.

In the 2018 general election, a candidate with a background in civil society won a seat in parliament but resigned two years later after realising that she could not deliver on her campaign promises.

Sectarian Divide

The Lebanese see themselves as unique among the Arabs. They pride themselves on their strong business and service skills and on the success they have achieved as immigrants in foreign countries. But despite this sense of Lebanese exceptiona­lism, the Lebanese have failed to foster a sense of national solidarity and a political community that cuts across religious and sectarian lines.

Most Lebanese people discover their national identity when communicat­ing with foreigners, but they often view their fellow

Lebanese from other sects as outsiders. In the 20th century, economic developmen­t was concentrat­ed in Beirut, a predominan­tly Sunni city on the coast, and Mount Lebanon, which is mainly Maronite Christian.

But the people of the coast and the mountains shared little in common ideologica­lly despite their proximity, and the rest of the country remained on the fringes, increasing­ly isolated and dominated by medieval-style feudal leaders. The sectarian division fuelled a sense of alienation and susceptibi­lity to violence and radicalism.

Another problem related to the sectarian divide is clientelis­m, a legacy of the feudal system. It’s a form of political control whereby members of the ruling elite preside over a sectarian constituen­cy and provide it with essential services, such as education, medical care and employment The relationsh­ip between client and patron is uneven, as the former owes complete and unquestion­ed loyalty to the latter. This practice is common among political parties.

The late Kamal Jumblatt, the scion of a feudal Druze family, establishe­d the Progressiv­e Socialist Party in 1949 to expand his base of popular support. In 1974, the Shiite-dominated Amal Movement was formed as the Movement of the Dispossess­ed to unseat the sect’s feudal leaders who treated the peasants like serfs.

When parliament­ary elections resumed in 1992 after Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, Amal and another Shiite-dominated party, Hezbollah, formed a joint electoral list. They maintained their close cooperatio­n in the five subsequent legislativ­e elections, carrying all Shiite seats without a single loss.

In turn, Shiites depend almost entirely on the Amal-Hezbollah coalition to provide them with a range of services including food, health care and education. Some Shiites joined the protests in 2019, but Amal and Hezbollah quickly clamped down on the demonstrat­ions and, simultaneo­usly, expanded their material provisions to discourage further revolt.

Other sects use similar tactics to keep their bases loyal. Cash payments, food rations and jobs, especially in the public sector, are standard incentives in exchange for political loyalty and votes. Several politician­s, including Prime Ministerde­signate Saad Hariri, have bribed voters with COVID-19 vaccines ahead of next year’s parliament­ary elections.

The Lebanese Forces party, a Maronite rival of President Michel Aoun’s party, has appealed for donations from its wealthy supporters abroad. The government, meanwhile, remains idle, unable to address the economic crisis that has put more than 80% of people below the poverty line. Clientelis­m has contribute­d to the crisis. Lebanon’s public sector employs 320,000 people – twice the number of employees needed for a country its size – and cost the treasury $8 billion in 2019.

Elusive Citizenshi­p

The European student movement of the 1960s had a tremendous impact on Lebanese college students and rising secular trends. New social movements sought to break loose from the tight grip of sectarian leaders, who saw the mere emergence of these movements during a period of regional and domestic turmoil as a threat. The elite’s apprehensi­on soared as demands for secularism grew especially among the youth.

The civil war that began in 1975 derailed the rise of secularism and reignited primordial allegiance­s. More than 120,000 people perished in the war. Thousands more went missing and hundreds of thousands left the country or were internally displaced.

To prevent another war from breaking out, many Lebanese people wanted to unite the country’s myriad sects. But Syria’s 29year hegemony over Lebanon (1976-2005) gave Hezbollah ultimate control over the state under the pretense of preventing Israeli occupation. Thus, the Lebanese missed the opportunit­y to reform their political system after 15 years of bloody civil war.

The country is currently facing its worst economic crisis ever. It would be unfortunat­e if it doesn’t learn the lessons from this situation to construct a new political system.

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