June 12, 2015


Lebanon's fabric is fraying. This is why it matters. (Mohamad Bazzi, June 11, 2015, Reuters)

Lebanon's problems are rooted in a 1943 power-sharing agreement installed when the country won its independence from French colonial rule. The system was designed to keep a balance among 18 sects, dividing power between a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni prime minister and a Shi'ite speaker of parliament. The system was enshrined under the National Pact, an unwritten agreement among Lebanese leaders. Seats in parliament were divided on a 6-to-5 ratio of Christians to Muslims, and that partitioning was extended to the lowest rungs of government.

The division was based on a 1932 census, which showed Maronites as the majority in Lebanon. Since then, the government has refused to hold a new census. By the 1960s, when Muslims began to outnumber Christians, Muslims clamored for change in the balance of power. When civil war broke out in 1975, the political imbalance helped drive the major sects to form their own militias. Because of the sectarian system, Lebanese political institutions never got a chance to develop; the country remained dependent on the powerful clans and feudal landlords that held sway in much of Lebanon. The zaeem, or sectarian leader who usually inherited rule from his father, became paramount during the war.

As the war waned in 1989, Lebanon's political class convened in the Saudi city of Taif to salvage the sectarian system. Brokered by Saudi Arabia and Syria, the resulting Taif Accord restructured the National Pact by taking some power away from the Maronites. The presidency was weakened and most of its powers were given to the prime minister and his cabinet. Parliament was expanded to 128 members, divided equally between Christians and Muslims. Taif also called for all militias to disarm -- except for Hezbollah, whose military branch was labeled a "national resistance" against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which ended in 2000. All factions in Lebanon constantly affirm that they will abide by Taif, elevating the document to the status of a Magna Carta. Yet few acknowledge that the agreement also called for eventually abolishing the sectarian system, although it gave no timeframe for doing so.

The sectarian political structure leads to a weak state. It encourages horse-trading and alliances with powerful patrons. And it is easily exploited by outside powers, including Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia. But most of the current players are too invested in this system to really change it. And foreign patrons do not want change, because that could reduce their influence.

Even if the various factions defuse the latest stalemate and reach a compromise on a new president, another political crisis is sure to emerge, unless Lebanon's leaders -- and its people -- tackle the root causes of the country's instability. Eventually, the Lebanese will have to decide what kind of country they want: one built on sectarian gerrymandering, or a more democratic way of sharing power. Otherwise, Lebanon will be dragged into the relentless cycle of sectarian violence sweeping the Middle East.

"fabric"?  What other undemocratic regime do we refer to as a fabric?
Posted by at June 12, 2015 7:27 AM

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