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Lebanon’s Sectarian Politics: A Path to Reform

Bakar Mohamad | Middle East & North Africa Fellow

Walking the streets of Beirut, one comes across landmarks, street names, and posters signifying tensions brewing beneath the surface. The first question one is asked when travelling to Lebanon is which city you will be staying in. But this question is not one that stems from curiosity. It is a question of classification. It is a question to determine the religious background you come from.

Sectarianism is the critical puzzle piece to understanding Lebanon’s political system. Though it is a small country with a land mass of only 10,452 km2, Lebanon is home to 18 religious denominations. From an Australian perspective, it appears to be a haven of multiculturalism. But unlike Australia, religion is the dominant factor in Lebanese politics. All political parties, except one, are based on religious representation. To illustrate, on the right is a flowchart developed by the United Nations Development Program of the 15 electoral districts and how their representatives are chosen.

For example, in the district of Mount Leb 1, if two Shiite candidates nominate and get the highest number of votes, only one of them can assume office, despite them beating other candidates. This is because the district has a quota of one Shiite Member of Parliament and seven Maronite MPs.

These sectarian divisions reach up to the country’s highest offices: the president must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim.

The Taif Accords solved nothing

Lebanon underwent a religiously-motivated civil war between 1975 and 1990. Initially sparked by clashes between Palestinian and Maronite groups, alliances quickly grew. On one side, the Lebanese Front led by the Phalanges party (Kataaeb), a group of Maronite Christians, and on the other, the Lebanese National Movement, a group of secular leftists and Sunni Muslims who supported Arab nationalism.

In the wake of 1989, the Lebanese parliament agreed to meet in Taif to discuss a resolution to the ongoing war. The Taif Accords, brokered by Saudi Arabia, attempted to resolve the sectarian conflict by stipulating a system of representation for the entire population. The Accords led to a sui generis solution for the Lebanese people, one which divided regions according to religion, and allocated seats in parliament based on religious quotas.

Contrary to resolving division in Lebanon, the new system exacerbated sectarianism amongst the population. It promoted adherence to a religious rather than a unified national identity. This is seen through ongoing regional conflicts such as the Alawite-Sunni wars of Bab Al-Tabbeneh (Sunni region) and Jabal Mohsen (Alawite region). More importantly, it divided politicians and promoted religious alliances which inhibit parliamentary efficiency to this day, most clearly demonstrated by parliament’s ongoing inability to elect a president for almost a year, an obstacle that isn’t new to Lebanon.

A process of reconciliation

The Lebanese Civil War can be likened to two kids fighting which were forcible separated by an adult. The kids remain at odds, and given the chance, they will likely restart the conflict.

A critical error during the peace settlement was the absence of a reconciliation process between the warring factions. Amidst the Taif Accords, the aim of Lebanese Parties was to end the bloodshed, but a secondary focus was to translate their military victories into institutional power. This halted the start of a social integration project between factions to achieve sustainable peace.

An ideal example of this reconciliation process is seen in Rwanda with the establishment of the Gacaca courts, a communal system to achieve retributive justice, or in Taiwan, with the establishment of the Compensation Act for Wrongful Trials during the Martial Law Period. In the Lebanese context, a court system for retributive justice would be necessary to compensate the sufferings during this period, but also to start a dialogue project.

The dialogue project would help shift Lebanon from a state of coexistence between its religious factions, to a state of unity. Instead, a state-supported amnesia exists amongst the populace and the question of even establishing a public process of memorialisation is denied due to the absence of political will.

A bottom-up approach must be coupled with political reform, one that starts with Lebanese institutions. This means electing MPs that are not part of traditional sectarian alliances.

This top-down approach started to take traction after the October 17 revolution in 2019, which was sparked by the government’s imposition of financial measures including a tax to use WhatsApp. The protests led to a united front of Lebanese citizens criticising sectarian rule and the establishment of the Change Bloc, a group of secular, independent MPs with the aim of opposing Lebanon’s sectarian politics.

Despite their disunity amongst each other in the policy space, the vision of dissolving sectarianism is what brings them together. In the most recent elections, 13 independent MPs were elected. Now, 13 out of 128 MPs is not much, but it’s a start to challenging the sectarian system that divides the Lebanese population and restructuring the divisive political system, post-Taif.

Bakar Mohamad is the Middle East & North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. Alongside his Master of International relations, Bakar is a content creator on Middle Eastern affairs and has a particular interest in Lebanon.

He recently completed an internship with a political party in Lebanon and is working on developing ties between local Lebanese and the diaspora for study and work exchanges. Bakar has also participated in a New Colombo Plan exchange in South Korea and a Western Sydney University sustainability program in Taiwan.


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