Sectarianism is inbuilt into the confessional nature of the political system in Lebanon but recent developments have given it a new twist.
Over the years, the terms sectarianism and Lebanon have become virtually synonymous. The confessional nature of the political system in the country distributes public offices and national resources according to sectarian quotas. This has made the system susceptible to cyclical breakdowns; the civil wars of 1958 and 1975 epitomize this failure. Moreover, the interlude between each war often bears witness to instability and political turmoil — the latest being in 2008, when the country was on the verge of a civil war after sectarian clashes erupted between the two main forces in the country: the March 8 alliance and the March 14 alliance. The tensions continue today with the spillover effects of the increasingly sectarianized nature of the Syrian crisis in what can be referred to as “the Lebanonization of Syria.”
The political turmoil that followed the “Cedar Revolution” in 2005 reminded Lebanese of the impact that politicized sectarian differences has on their lives. Sectarian cleavages between Shi‘is and Sunnis have reached unprecedented levels. The 2006–2008 standoff between the Shi‘i-free government and the March 8 alliance (which included the two main Shi‘i parties); the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s (STL) accusation of Hizbullah’s role in the Hariri assassination; and regional sectarian tensions have deeply severed ties between the two Lebanese communities. This culminated with the ousting of Saad Hariri, Prime Minister of the Future Movement (the most popular movement among Sunnis), from government in 2010. Hizbullah was accused of orchestrating this move. The Future Movement and the March 14 alliance (except for Walid Jumblatt’s Druze party temporarily switching sides to the other camp) refused to participate in a government where March 8 had the majority, preferring to stay in the opposition.
With the disappearance of the Syrian coercive power post-2005 the Lebanese failed to replace it with consensual power sharing that favoured national interests. Instead, the elites relied on the support of external actors to gain leverage against one another. March 8 enjoys Iranian and Syrian backing, while March 14 is supported by the United States, the European Union, and the Sunni-led Arabian regimes. With this increased dependency and client-master relationship, the actors’ decision making abilities become constrained by external agendas and demands. Moreover, individual communities lost further control over their self-sufficiency. While the current reality of deteriorating security is very similar to the one preceding the 1975 civil war, the dynamics of Lebanese sectarian politics is changing.
All things considered, most influential actors seem to have an understanding of the cost of a civil war in Lebanon. When clashes erupted in 2008, Hizbullah and its allies could have overtaken Lebanon militarily; they did not. Undoubtedly, there were many international, political, and other factors that influenced its decision. Mostly, it was concern about re-igniting a civil war with unpredictable outcomes that added to the protraction of the conflict. This realization is most evident in a statement by the leader of Hizbullah, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, after the 2008 clashes: “We don’t want to have control over Lebanon, or to have governance over Lebanon or to impose our ideas over the people of Lebanon, because we believe Lebanon to be a special and diverse country that needs collaboration of everyone.”
Sayyid Nasrallah’s statement, like many others, mirrors a shift in the rhetoric of political elites regarding the Lebanese state, especially after the Taif Agreement that ended the civil war in 1989. The new rhetoric is mainly focused around the role of the state and not the identity of the nation, as was the case in the era prior to 1975. Back then, the ideologies and political rhetoric of the left and Pan Arab/Syrian forces believed that Lebanon was an invented nation (to a certain degree it is), and thus the Lebanese nation-state is a hurdle to Arab reunification. This evolution mirrors the acceptance of most forces to the notion of al-dawlah al-niha’iyah (the Ultimate State) for all Lebanese.
Although the fight over the nature of the nation might be over, the fight over the nature of the state is just beginning. Which state do the Lebanese want and how do they build it? March 14 is championing a governance model that allows the majority in parliament to solely control the executive power, while March 8 is advocating confessional representation on all levels. March 14 sees Hizbullah’s military wing as a hindrance to state building, while March 8 argues that it is for the defence of Lebanon in the absence of a strong army and state. In summary, one alliance is championing a system that broke down continuously, while the other alliance is championing a model that is difficult to implement in such a deeply divided society. Historically speaking, this is the first time that the Lebanese have had such debate in the absence of an institutional structural imbalance or foreign military presence. Henceforth, this must be considered a positive step, even if the parties have extremely divergent views.
The March 14 proposed model (one coalition ruling solely) was attempted by Fouad Seniora’s government (2006–2008), leading to the withdrawal of Shi‘i representatives from the government and henceforth rendering the government unconstitutional, as it failed to represent a major sect. Furthermore, the crisis developed into sectarian clashes in May 2008. The two coalitions, as well as other players, preach democracy and stress national unity. Even though their actions undermined democracy and national unity on many occasions, they still try to justify them on legal and constitutional grounds. Any action that defies democratic practices is exploited and milked by the antagonist party.
Another positive indicator in the post-2005 era is the formation of cross-communal alliances. The developments brought by the civil war, the post-Taif era, and the post-2005 era levelled the political influence of main sects (Sunnis, Shi‘is, and Christians). The Hariri assassination and the withdrawal of the Syrians exposed the country to instability and further foreign intervention. Needing all the support they could get, political elites and parties weaved inter-communal alliances. The FPM movement, mainly Maronite, is now allied with Hizbullah and the Shi‘is. On the opposite side, the Lebanese forces, the other main Maronite party, is allied with the Sunni Future Movement. The Druze stance is unclear, due to their leader (Walid Jumblatt) constantly switching camps, depending on domestic, regional, and international variables.
These alliances are undoubtedly the products of shared views on political issues concerning the country, especially with respect to international affairs. Both teams are openly supportive of regional and international antagonists: the Americans and the Gulf States on one side, and Iran and Syria on the other. Nevertheless, these alliances have lasted for more than seven years now and they eventually had a spillover effect on the popular base of each group.
Prior to 2005, it was inconceivable to see the flags of salafi forces and Christian-right Lebanese forces meet in one united rally. It was also unlikely to see a Christian woman doing her shopping in Beirut’s Dahyeh suburbs, a Shi‘i-dominated area. After 2005, these seemingly insignificant events have taken place on a regular basis. The wall of fear erected by years of civil war and exclusion between the Christian and Muslim Lebanese has been now torn down. Even if other sectarian tensions are rising, between the Shi‘is and the Sunnis, for example, they will no longer be conceived as intractable.
The open endorsement of one of the two camps (pro-American and anti-American) by Lebanese parties has a major influence on internal politics. The deadlocks that the country has experienced throughout the past seven years are numerous; however, so too are efforts to resolve them. One of these attempts included the process of national dialogue launched in 2005, to discuss contentious issues facing the nation. While still ongoing, this experience was not fruitful and is often replaced by bilateral and multilateral channels between the parties that maintained the lines of communication.
Lebanese political elites, however, are slowly changing their way of doing politics. Their cross-communal alliances and their agreement to build a “state” are both positive indicators. However, their client relationship to outside patrons and their linkage to regional and international agendas impose courses of action that may not necessarily be beneficial to Lebanon’s interests. With the regional and international confrontation reaching its peak at the time of writing, the political elites will be expected to show their support with decisions that might increase rifts within the country.