Throughout its history, Lebanon has survived on political and social settlements and compromises. A familiar pattern has emerged: tussles, negotiations, and sporadic quarrels erupt and last for a while, followed by a compromise which produces relative stability for a short period of time until the premise upon which the settlement was achieved collapses, and chaos ensues once again. The factors influencing these settlements are usually internal ones; nevertheless, external powers and regional conflicts have also played a significant role in shaping the Lebanese state and ensuring its survival.
As Lebanon faces the worst economic crisis in its modern history, a central question that has always preoccupied the Lebanese people is coming to the forefront of the national debate: Is Lebanon at a crossroads that will lead to a radical change in the system of governance? Will the country ever be able to rid itself of the disintegrating and corrupt regime that has led the country astray for far too long? Answering these questions requires an examination of the establishment of the Lebanese state, as well as the internal and external factors that laid its foundations. Such an examination also provides clarity about the nature of the settlements the regime tends to make and the factors that might produce them.
First, the Lebanese regime is an edifice built on a delicate sectarian balance that, if shaken, can cause conflict and dangerous polarization that may easily lead to bloodshed. A case in point is the speech delivered by Michel Aoun, Lebanese president and former military general, upon his return to the country following the withdrawal of Syrian troops in 2005. In this speech, Aoun attacked the corruption of the then-ruling government and announced that any reform should begin by restoring the representation of Christians in all decision-making processes and in all state institutions. His announcement immediately led to a conflict within the ruling regime, resulting in government paralysis and producing the infamous presidential vacuum that lasted from 2014 to 2016.
Based on popular opinion, the entry into power of the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM), a Lebanese Christian political party founded by Michel Aoun, led to a change in the balance of the sectarian quota system that the state follows religiously. When Aoun demanded the restoration of the Christian share in the Lebanese state—a share that was overtaken by the political forces of the Future Movement, the Amal Movement, and the Progressive Socialist Party—it led to the outbreak of a fierce political conflict between these forces that persists today.
Second, there are several factors that determine the balance of power between the conflicting sects. These include the demographic size of a sect, its financial and military capabilities, its external alliances, and the ability of a sect’s political leadership to mobilize a united front. These dynamics affect the balance of power when a compromise or a settlement is being negotiated, and they also determine the distribution of political quotas among the sects. For example, the unity of a sect behind a single political leadership gives it the power to veto any political or economic decision. However, if the sect is divided into several poles, the approval of one of its poles for a government decision is enough to confer sectarian and national support. Similarly, if a party enjoys external financial support that enables it to improve the social and economic conditions of its community, its popularity increases as the community unites behind it. This strengthens the party’s negotiating position and allows it to impose its conditions when political settlements occur.
Third, experience has shown that changes in the balance of power lead to compromises in quota distribution, as illustrated by the Taif Agreement, the Syrian presence, and the Doha Agreement. The Lebanese would not have reached the Taif Agreement had there not been a shift in the balance of power at a regional level. The collapse of the Soviet Union and Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait prompted influential countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the United States to accelerate a settlement to end the Lebanese Civil War and to focus their efforts on the war in the Gulf.
The Syrian military and political presence in Lebanon—a direct result of an agreement between Syria and the United States which saw Syria support Washington's war on Iraq, with Washington handing over the Lebanese file to Syria in return—continued until 2005 and played a pivotal role in establishing the settlement produced by the Taif Accord. When the US declared its second war on Iraq, however, a rift in the relations of the two allies culminated in the expulsion of the Syrian forces from Lebanon after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
Furthermore, when in May 2008, Hezbollah Armed members raided Beirut and large swathes of Mount Lebanon in an attempt to dominate the decision-making of the Lebanese state, a new shift in the balance of power occurred, putting pressure on the regional parties to reach a settlement that deterred what they perceived to be “Hezbollah’s domination of the state,” especially after they failed to dismantle the resistance communications network. To avert the imminent danger of civil war and to end the crisis as soon as possible, the disputing parties were brought to the negotiation table in Qatar, and the Doha Agreement for Lebanon was reached. Thus, once more, it is clear that the desperation of a situation forces the involved parties to find an appropriate solution that allows the country to enjoy relative—albeit fragile—political stability that could last a decade or more.
A review of Lebanon's political and sectarian conflicts demonstrates that no matter the severity of the crisis, tensions between various religious sects remain the greatest obstacle hampering reform efforts. For example, the sectarian conflicts that erupted between the Druze and Christians in the nineteenth century led to the establishment of a sectarian custom by which political positions, public offices, and public funding were distributed among sects according to a specific quota system. Later, when the Lebanese civil war ended, no reform process was adopted to address the sectarian causes of the war. Ironically, Lebanon’s political system institutionalized sectarianism and enshrined it in constitutional texts, allowing the ruling regimes to persevere and become more powerful through sectarian conflicts. This strange phenomenon is even more evident when Lebanon is hit by a crisis, such as the current financial one, that forces the Lebanese people to turn to their sectarian leaders for protection, including social and economic services.
The effect of this long history of sectarian complexity was reflected in the failure of the cross- sectarian demonstrations of October 2019 to exploit a historic moment in which a wide swath of Lebanese were united in their demand for reform and political change. The leaders of these demonstrations were not attentive to the fact that the sectarian issue was lurking in the darkness, waiting to ignite like embers under ashes, and that the process of extinguishing it would require great effort, organization, and a clear vision. A few days into the demonstrations, the sectarian discourse returned, and the demonstrators began to retreat into their sectarian cocoons once more. In addition, bickering political parties and civil society associations tried to exploit these demonstrations to achieve political victory over their opponents, leading to their discreditation in the public eye.
As demonstrated by the results of the first parliamentary elections since 2019, there is no doubt that the economic and financial crisis that has assailed Lebanon in recent years will have a significant impact on the Lebanese political scene. The election results have yielded major political change as traditional political parties either lost their sizable representation or were forced out of parliament entirely. However, despite the severe economic crisis and continuing political turmoil, average Lebanese voters have remained loyal to the traditional sectarian forces—the same forces they have accused of enshrining corruption and of causing the crisis!
This paradoxical behavior is the direct result of the weakness of the Lebanese state and its inability to provide even the most basic services to its citizens who were left to survive a collapsing economy, decaying infrastructure, and a financial crisis on their own. In the absence of a strong centralized government, sectarian forces rushed to fill the vacuum left by the state by providing social, financial, and health services, while also restoring and dominating the sectarian discourse they revived after the demonstrations.
Michel Foucault argues that the success of political forces in subjugating the masses is rooted not in their ability to use military force or the force of law, but in what is termed “power/knowledge,” or the use of knowledge to convince people of their orientations and policies. Through this, the masses are dominated by an emotional mobilization discourse that mimics the collective consciousness of the sect and perpetuates a culture of fear of “the other” that enables politicians to pose as the saviors and protectors of the sect. Lebanese politicians usually benefit from the collective memory of their community by constantly invoking the heroism they claim to have exhibited in defending their sect during the civil war.
In conclusion, the intensification of the financial and economic crises does not mean that the sectarian Lebanese regime is dissolving or that it is on the verge of falling. Despite the demonstrations of October 2019, and the failure of the political class to develop a recovery plan in the three years since, the sectarian system remains steadfast, feeding on crises that, in turn, further entrench sectarianism. In fact, the system derives its strength and continuity from these very crises.
Abbas Assi holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Leeds in Britain, an MA in International Studies, and an MA in Political Economy from the University of Sydney in Australia. He worked at the Center for Arab Unity Studies, was a research associate at the Arab Council for Social Sciences, and has collaborated with several study centers to publish research on Lebanon.