The Lebanon protests have already achieved some successes but ending sectarianism will not likely be one of them
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Tuesday announced his intention to submit his resignation to President Michel Aoun – one sign of the success of demonstrations that have continued for almost two weeks and that have ground the country to a halt. Demonstrators have demanded social and economic changes and have made some accomplishments, including the passing last week of a series of government reforms that would, among other things, cut lawmakers’ pay in half. However, the protestors’ principal demand, to end Lebanon’s sectarian system of government, appears less likely, at least in the immediate future.
Lebanese politics have been organized along sectarian lines for many decades. The 1943 national pact reserved the position of prime minister for a Sunni, that of speaker of the house for a Shi’ite, and the presidency for a Christian.
However, according to Dr. Malte Gaier, a resident representative to Lebanon for Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS) in Beirut, a German political foundation close to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, Lebanon’s sectarian system became more formalized after their civil war, which ended in 1990.
“The sectarian system defines your whole life, even if you’re a child – where you go to school, whether your parents get money from the head of the political party,” Gaier told The Media Line. “We are at a breaking point, at which people not only question but challenge the whole system.”
Dima Sadek, news anchor at Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International (LBCI), says that Lebanon’s economic crisis has led to the people losing faith in the political parties that represent each community, or confession, in government. They are the ones that provide services that the government normally would, like health care and jobs.
“The [political system] has functioned very well for the parties because it gives the party the upper hand over its community or confession and the loyalty of the people to their party more than the state because the state isn’t delivering the services,” Sadek told The Media Line. “With the economic crisis, the parties lost the strongest card they had in their hand because they were no longer able to deliver social services.”
Sadek contends that since Hizbullah and Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) became a ruling coalition in 2016, Lebanon’s weak economy only became worse.
“Hizbullah is mainly fighters, they are not people with a strategic economic plan. The FPM didn’t do anything better [and] there was more corruption,” Sadek said.
The government recently introduced legislation that would tax free internet services, such as WhatsApp. This was the last straw for many citizens, particularly those in the lower and middle classes, and drove them to the streets – even after the legislation was rescinded – demanding an overhaul to the whole political system that would end the sectarianism.
“The wall of fear has been broken,” Joey Ayoub, a Lebanese writer and researcher who is also protesting, told The Media Line. “The overt anti-sectarian nature of the protests is difficult for the sectarian oligarchs to go back”
Still, experts are skeptical that the protests will bring an end to confessional government.
“This is the biggest turning point in the recent history of the country after the civil war. But it might not be enough to change the sectarian composition within a few weeks or days,” KAS’s Gaier said.
Gaier asserts that the problem is compounded by the fact that nonsectarian politics has yet to be created in Lebanon. Even if all the politicians left office, there is no one to take their place.
“Civil society is not developed enough to replace them tomorrow, so it will be really interesting to see who emerges as the new potential political voice, and the protestors don’t have much time. They need to deliver soon.”
LBCI’s Sadek agrees that an overhaul of the political system is unlikely. “Thinking that this uprising will lead to the resignation of the president of the republic … is a bit unrealistic,” Sadek said. “I know that these protests will not lead to a collapse in Hizbullah … but it cracked a taboo against saying that Hizbullah is part of the system of corruption, which is huge.”
Researcher Ayoub contends that a more likely scenario for political change would be an increase in the number of independents serving in the government. “When the next elections are held, then you might have more independents in parliament as opposed to one or two now,” Ayoub said. “That will be the first time in three decades of postwar history that the government will be overtly anti-sectarian.”