The anti-government protesters filling Lebanon’s streets have been unappeased by proposals to cut politicians’ salaries, recover looted money and create a national anti-corruption commission. They’ve been unmoved by the ditching of a plan to tax phone calls over the internet and by the resignation of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri. They demand, instead, a complete rout of the country’s ruling class. Some want a redrawing of the entire political system that would eliminate the religion-based framework they blame for empowering inept leaders who serve themselves and perhaps their coreligionists rather than the country.
1. What is Lebanon’s political system?
Lebanon officially recognizes 18 religious groups or “confessions” — 12 Christian sects, 4 Muslim sects, the Druze sect and Judaism. A combination of traditions and laws dating back to French rule after World War I divide political power among them. High-level government offices, legislative seats and public-service jobs are divided equally among Christians and Muslims. By convention, Lebanon has a Maronite Christian president, a Sunni Muslim prime minister, and a Shiite Muslim speaker of parliament. The religious groups have autonomy over the personal matters of their members, such as family law, marriage and divorce.
2. What are the pluses of the system?
Many in Lebanon and outside tout the power-sharing as a model of coexistence. Pope John Paul II famously said during a 1997 visit that Lebanon offered the world a message “of tolerance and pluralism.” To be sure, Lebanese enjoy a high degree of freedom of expression and other civil liberties relative to their Arab neighbors. The country has been relatively stable throughout more than eight years of war in adjacent Syria fought largely along sectarian lines. Lebanon’s own civil war, from 1975 to 1990, ended with a peace agreement that adjusted the confessional system, which was modified again in 2008.
3. What are the complaints about it?
Detractors say the system encourages patronage and nepotism, with politicians using public funds for their own benefit and inflating the public sector to appease their constituencies. The World Bank estimated in 2016 that inefficiencies produced by the framework cost Lebanon’s economy 9% of gross domestic product as religion rather than competence is a prerequisite for government positions. The system has generated grievances in the past, but today the country is in a dire financial state, with one of the world’s largest debt burdens as a proportion of gross domestic product, a stagnant economy and unemployment hovering around 20%. The arrangement makes it difficult for executive and legislative bodies to make decisions, as they’re required to reach consensus first. Disputes have paralyzed governments and parliaments and resulted in prolonged power vacuums; it once took a designated prime minister nearly a year to form a cabinet.
4. What sparked the protests?
Protests erupted on Oct. 17 after the government approved a levy on phone calls such as those using the free WhatsApp service. The government has to cut spending, raise taxes and fight corruption to unlock $11 billion in promised international assistance. The protesters soon targeted political elites who they say have pillaged state coffers and neglected services and living conditions. Electricity is rationed and has become scarcer with the influx of more than a million Syrian refugees, and water supplies have deteriorated. One third of the population is considered poor, and inequality has surged. A lawmaker who represents Tripoli in Lebanon’s north, ranked as the poorest city on the Mediterranean coast, is among the Middle East’s wealthiest billionaires.
5. What do protesters want?
First, they want politicians who have stolen to be held accountable, although many express skepticism that the country’s judges are up to the task, as they are appointed based on political and religious affiliation. Beyond that, the protesters say the confessional system should be abolished to accommodate a younger generation that has no memories of the civil war and has broken away from religious affiliations. President Michel Aoun said that requires a change at the constitutional level and not on the streets.
The Reference Shelf
- A paper in the Brazilian journal Contexto Internacional on the outcomes and limits of Lebanon’s confessional system.
- A U.S. Congressional Research Service report on the protests.
- A World Bank report on Lebanon’s economy.