Hope and trepidation amid Lebanon unrest



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.

A man dances at an an anti-government protest on 30 October 2019 in Martyrs' Square, Beirut, Lebanon. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images)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 other Arab countries'. However, it also entrenches inequality and clientelism which are disadvantaging a large portion of the Lebanese population.


"The scars of the 15-year Lebanese civil war run deep and Lebanon cannot afford another internal conflict. Yet Lebanon has always been the pawn in the bigger geopolitical power game in the Middle East."


Furthermore, these writers point out that such a mix of inequality and sectarian identity politics is a robust predictor of conflict. The scars and traumas of the 15-year Lebanese civil war run deep and Lebanon cannot afford another internal conflict. Yet Lebanon has always been the pawn in the bigger geopolitical power game in the Middle East, whether that's between Iran and Saudi Arabia, between Israel and Syria or between America and Russia.

With a potential power vacuum in the making, external powers may seek to exploit the situation to their advantage, especially if the current government does actually implement a constitutional change to the sectarian power structure. Internal political players might even 'sectarianise', as Nader Hashemi terms it, the political situation if they feel that they will lose power in any new civil system.

So far Hezbollah, arguably the most powerful group in Lebanon, has supported the formation of a new government to re-establish trust with the people. But Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organisation by the US and a competent foe of Israel. So it is likely that they will be extremely cautious and mindful of the potential for external influence or interference. The hijacking of the Syrian protests in 2011 by foreign Islamists is all too close to home.

Sectarianism, with all its dangers, is however not enough on its own to foment civil war. There must be a political motive to 'sectarianise' the protests. Those political motives may come from beyond Lebanon from both authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Iran or democracies like America who want to reshape Lebanon for their own interests. Hashemi notes that 'sectarian conflict in the Middle East today is primarily about the perpetuation of political rule by ruling elites by means of identity mobilisation'. If the Lebanese political elites' rule is unacceptably undercut sectarianisation may lead to conflict.

Many Lebanese people, including myself, are hopeful however that Lebanon's social movement will not metamorphose into sectarian unrest but rather lead to an appointed expert government, one that can bring about meaningful change.

But with Lebanon you can never be too sure.



Daniel SleimanDaniel Sleiman is a freelance writer and journalist based in Canberra.

Main image: A man dances at an an anti-government protest on 30 October 2019 in Martyrs' Square, Beirut, Lebanon. (Photo by Sam Tarling/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Daniel Sleiman, Lebanon, Middle East



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Existing comments

The political outcome is indeed precarious. We can only hope and pray. But the cultural shift is firm and irreversible. Lebanese society has changed. Sectarianism has diminished. Michael@taouk.com
Michael Taouk | 09 November 2019

The constitution of Lebanon explicitly states that the confessional system is intended as an interim measure. It has served its purpose and is now nothing but a pathetic crutch. Unless it is abandoned Lebanon cannot develop a cohesive national identity.
Michael Taouk | 09 November 2019

Sadly, under its great families, Lebanon has degenerated into a kleptocracy. Secularism may very well be its salvation. The old template born from French colonialism out of Ottoman Empire was never going to work long term. God willing...
Edward Fido | 20 November 2019


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