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Hope and trepidation amid Lebanon unrest

  • 07 November 2019


Like many Lebanese Australians I've been watching the mass protests taking place in Lebanon with hope and trepidation. Hope that government reforms, or a change of government, will bring about meaningful transformation in economic management, transparency and the provision of public services. Fearful because of the possibility of civil war.

Having grown up in Lebanon's Tripoli I couldn't escape the images of poor street kids, beggars, and the collapsing infrastructure. I could escape Lebanon however. I was born in Australia and to many Lebanese people that's a winning ticket. With staggering unemployment, endemic political graft and high costs of living many people would leave Lebanon if they could.

Before the 17 October protests erupted, the government in its efforts to access an $11 billion pledge by international donors introduced further austerity measures including a WhatsApp tax. This was the straw that broke the camel's back. The people in Lebanon had been suffering silently for too long.

The protests have been unprecedented. They took place across the country with hundreds of thousands rallying around the red and white cedar flag, images of which have been circulating internationally and through social media. The protests were made up of people from across all religious and political divides. In a country with a system of confessional consociationalism that's a big deal.

Amid calls by protesters for a technocratic government, Prime Minister Saad Hariri has resigned and President Michel Aoun has even suggested that Lebanon shift from a confessional system of governance to a civil one. Many have criticised Lebanon's confessional consociationalism which mandates power sharing based on religious sects. It is commonly known, and constitutionally required, that the president must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minster a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of the House a Shia Muslim.

The sectarian system has, as Calfat writes, its origins in the Ottoman millet system which empowered local religious leaders with judicial power and divided resources accordingly. This system was further entrenched under the French mandate post WWII and then again under the Taif Agreement ending Lebanon's civil war in 1990.

The theory of consociationalism, first espoused by political scientist Arend Lijphart, is great in theory. It is pluralistic, compromising and politically expedient. Through such power sharing, a form of democratic stability was brought to Lebanon. According to Makdisi and Marktanner the benefit of this system was that 'it allowed for levels of freedom and civil rights that placed Lebanon well ahead of