Lebanon has reached a watershed moment in its history where the masses are calling for the overhaul of a political system based on sectarianism, in which entrenched political elites have become grossly corrupt and externally manipulated. The result has been government theft, economic mismanagement, the entrenchment of patronage networks, soaring unemployment, and one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world. With the debt-to-GDP ratio expected to reach 180% by 2024, three-fifths of government revenue will be needed to service the debt.
In the midst of Lebanon’s economic crisis the government recently announced it would impose a US$0.20 daily tax on internet calls from apps such as WhatsApp, as well as new taxes on tobacco and petrol. Those ill-fated decisions mobilised protesters onto the streets over the past two weeks to demand not only economic reform but a new political system altogether, in essence: the deconfessionalisation of the state. Ultimately the economic and political crises facing the country will not be solved over the long term until the political structure is overhauled - that is in fact a prerequisite.
While some analysts have argued that you can’t deconfessionalise the state because sectarianism is the identity of Lebanon and the sectarian elites will cling to power, the people who have poured onto the streets over the past two weeks are demanding exactly that. It has been said that confessionalism must be eliminated from the hearts of Lebanese before it can be eliminated from Lebanon’s law. Currently there has emerged a public consciousness and groundswell of opposition to the current status quo. There are growing calls to bring in a political system based on proportional representation, with one single electoral district without confessional quotas.
The capitalist elites are the ones who have been pushing back the hardest against the protesters demands as they have a material interest in keeping the system the way it is. Banking, for example, is a major industry in Lebanon, but 18 out of the 20 biggest commercial banks are wholly or partly owned by politicians and well-connected families. What the people are calling for is a redistribution of the state’s resources. The political elite are arguing that it is simply not possible to deconfessionalise the state, and the most that can be hoped for is decentralisation - giving more power to the governors. Instead of backing the idea of new elections, the political elite argue that the parties will decide on new leadership. What is clear is that there can be no political revolution in Lebanon while the existing confessional system remains intact.
The sectarian system is based on a power-sharing agreement that dates back to French colonial rule, where seats in parliament are shared out proportionally among the country’s 18 religious groups. Government posts and public-sector jobs are also divvied up among the sects. The president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni, and the speaker of parliament a Shia. The National Pact of 1943 was always conceived as temporary in nature, and serving as a transition to a secular form of governance. Article 95 of the Lebanese Constitution had called for appropriate measures to realise the abolition of political confessionalism according to a transitional plan.
The Constitution had provided for a National Committee of leading political, intellectual and social figures to study and propose means to ensure the abolition of confessionalism. The confessional system had been unable to hold the sectarian tensions in check and the divided political system had led to the outbreak of civil war in 1975.
The Taif Agreement, which was signed in 1989 and ended the civil war, changed the power-sharing formula that had favoured the Christians to a 50:50 ratio, and enhanced the powers of the Sunni Prime Minister over those of the Christian president. Although the Taif Agreement identified the abolition of political sectarianism as a national priority, it provided no timeframe for doing so. The confessional political system has only served to reinforce sectoral divisions and been the heart of the problem, which is why its removal is a precondition for a stable and peaceful Lebanon.
The current system is also inefficient, time consuming, and makes political deadlock the norm. Cabinet decisions must be passed by a two-thirds majority, but according to an agreement reached in 2008, Hezbollah and its allies have a guaranteed third of cabinet seats, which gives them a veto. Reaching a conclusion on anything, including the formation of a cabinet, requires confessional groups to put aside their differences. It took two and a half years for the country to elect its current president, nine years to hold parliamentary elections, and 12 years to pass a budget.
Even the way citizens are registered in Lebanon is problematic, and binds them forever to their confession. Each citizen is put into a folder which is tagged by a religious confession, and numbers created for every extended family. The people on the streets want to do away with this confessional system and move to a system where they are recognised as individuals and anyone can hold political power. There is also, however, a fear that exists that change could lead to a return to bloody civil war. To avoid this there needs to be a managed process where there are inclusive talks on the way forward and a new constitution.
For the protesters to succeed in their demands will be a monumental battle against the entrenched political elites, the Christians who say proportional representation will marginalize them, and foreign powers who wield their influence through sectarian leaders. Autocrats and monarchs in the Arab world will want to see the protesters in Lebanon fail in achieving their demands, so as not to embolden opposition forces in their own countries. The odds are stacked against the push for real change, but it is nonetheless a defining moment.
* Shannon Ebrahim is the Group Foreign Editor at Independent Media.