07.02.2019 Author: Seth Ferris

Putting it in Perspective: “Lebanon Takes its Time, and So it Should!”


So the agony lingers on in Lebanon. Yet again, it is taking months to form a government acceptable to everybody, or which the government can sell to everybody.

In public, the sticking point is the six Sunni MPs who are allied with the predominantly Shia Hezbollah. Having been the major gainers of the last election, they are insisting that one of their number, or one of three people acceptable to them, becomes a member of the cabinet

This has not happened yet because the previous nominee was deemed to be “unrepresentative” of the group as a whole. Whether any of the six MPs concerned will ultimately prove acceptable to the other five, or their preferred nominee will retain their confidence after he casts his first vote, remain matters for conjecture.

As ever, this deadlock is being blamed on Lebanon’s confessional system. This is the same system which once made Lebanon the Las Vegas of the Middle East, the most stable and desirable of destinations in the region.

When that was the case, every other interested party wanted to keep it going, for what they could get out of it. Only when other countries tried to address their internal problems by blaming them on Lebanon tolerating their opponents did the poor Lebanese see their country become the victim of its own success, and other countries’ failure.

Attacking Lebanon, under cover of attacking political groups allowed to operate within it, hasn’t helped Israel, Syria or Iraq. The so called “terrorists” allegedly undermining their countries still exist, whether or not they operate out of Lebanon is moot.

Indeed, no matter what has been done to them, the Lebanese have displayed their usual resilience and rebuilt their shattered country. For all its faults, would you rather have the politics of Lebanon or Syria?

Nor are Western interests served by the demonisation of whole populations. Apparently the US has still learnt nothing from the White Night Riots in 1979, in which San Francisco’s homosexual community went on the rampage after former supervisor Dan White got off with a lenient sentence after murdering gay activist Harvey Milk, one of those he blamed for refusing to give him his old job back.

The light sentence was taken as confirmation that gay lives don’t matter, and was delivered after White’s psychiatrist claimed he was depressed after eating too many twinkies (junk food). One of the rioters, asked by TV crews why he was setting fire to a police car, said “tell them I ate too many twinkies” in an obvious attempt to have the same standards applied to him as to other parts of the population.

Maybe it was the Las Vegas days which created this situation. Having become a rich man’s playground then, it has to remain one to serve the interests of those rich.

But now these rich aren’t holidaymakers and gamblers, but politicians who have to demonise people with overtly racist rhetoric to get their own populations off their backs. If Lebanon is a problem, why does everyone who has given it that problem say that they are the solution?

Medicines and brand names

The confessional system is indeed a hangover from Lebanon’s days in the Ottoman Empire, which divided up its people in this way. Each religious group was allowed to govern itself under its own laws, within the context of Ottoman supremacy, and thus the different confessions became different political groups, which partly accounts for the repression they all suffered at one time or another.

Lebanon is the only ex-Ottoman state to retain this system – because it still works on the ground. Gentleman’s agreements between different communities, whose balance changes over time, define the form of the state. There will always be disagreement over what sort of Lebanon different communities and individuals want, but even in the darkest years of the civil war all sides fought for competing versions of Lebanon, not separatism.

The modern fashion is for a form of homogeneity, in which such distinctions are abolished and the standard left, right and centre of political thought take over. That’s fine in theory, but there are too many examples of such systems working a lot worse than Lebanon’s ever did.

Nigeria opted for a Westminster-style parliament when it gained independence from the UK. This treated every voter as equal, but ignored the social and cultural differences between the largely Christian, educated and economically active Igbo and Yoruba in the south and the less educated, less economically active Muslim northerners.

It only took three years for this system to collapse, as the three communities still effectively acted as millets and a homogenous parliament would mean eternal northern domination for purely demographic reasons. Nigeria has had several systems since, but has never tried to replicate the original one, as it is still recognised as having done more harm than good to the people it was supposed to serve.

One of the objections to the Lebanese system nowadays is that each community has its own foreignsponsor, and these are vying to control Lebanese affairs. Iran backs the Shia, Syria the Sunni and Israel the Maronite Christians, or so it is said.

Consequently each decision on who to include in government involves a calculation about which foreign influence you want, which you don’t want, and whether you are more interested in promoting the positive one or excluding the negative one. As all shades of community need to be represented, there needs to be a balance of both these influences and positive and negative preferences.

The line generally taken on this situation is that it is an unhealthy by-product of the confessional system which is holding Lebanon back. Yet the same argument never seems to be advanced when new governments have to be formed in Western democracies. Even if they are made up of members of a single party, rather than a coalition, exactly the same calculations need to be made.

Every member of a proposed government has a “foreign” sponsor in the form of an external agency – a party grouping, a donor, and constituency of interest. These in turn generally align themselves with foreign political sponsors – some are in line with US or European political thought, some with Chinese or Russian, as their desired policies suit the interests of one foreign country or another.

Nevertheless, it is the accepted practice to include members with a wide variety of views in a government, simply to keep these external sponsors happy. Excluding their representatives would create a group of malcontents who would do nothing but cause trouble to their own side.

This is no different to what happens under the confessional system. But in a confessional system, you know who is sponsoring whom. In a Western system, do you really know who is pulling whose strings?

Some of the people can be most of the people

Though Western governments are usually formed within a few days of an election or change of leader, Lebanon has been trying to form one since last May. It does however have a President, Prime Minister and Speaker in situ, representing the major confessions, and thus some sort of government is being conducted in fact if not in name.

Lebanon has good reason to take its time dividing up the spoils of power in the most appropriate way. Even if the politicians are happy with the composition of the new government, significant sections of the public may not be, and it is harder to gauge what public opinion might be than assess the mood of the small number of people in a parliament.

Lebanon still has tens of thousands of displaced people within its borders, victims of the fifteen-year long civil war. It also has a large Diaspora community, many of whom also want justice for the crimes which made them flee. The war ended almost thirty years ago, but as long as Lebanon is different in the ways these individuals remember it, or how they would want it to be, their existence make it difficult for anyone to govern the country effectively.

Some will feel that what they once had, or felt they should have had, was taken away by the conflict itself. In these cases, any alteration in the complexion of the Lebanese government offers hope, not least for family members remaining in the country.

But as long as they can’t return on their own terms, these hopes are dashed. There are only so many times that can happen before the affected start trying to get rid of the system itself, and all those who are part of it.

Others will feel that their ongoing losses were caused by one side or another. In such cases, any perception that the offending side has greater influence will be seen as unhelpful. Satisfying electors with different economic and social interests is one thing, but satisfying electors who no longer have economic and social interests, and blame different people for that, is quite another.

People’s priorities change all the time. The US built itself on immigration, but has become increasingly hostile to it. Rebuilding Europe after the Second World War involved spending lots of public money to provide homes and jobs, but the recipients of those homes and jobs eventually decided that fiscal rectitude was more important, even though they wouldn’t have had their jobs and homes had that been the policy then.

However there are some things over which a consensus does emerge. Both republics and monarchies are generally happy to stay the way they are despite the presence of the other option, and countries which traditionally have coalitions, or don’t, usually see their own system as the best one.

Governments rise and fall based on what details people think are important at a given time, but those who advocate breaching a consensus are doomed to remain out of power unless that consensus changes. So is Lebanon unwise to wait for such a consensus to form, rather than telling the public what it thinks it should agree with, and hoping it falls into line?

A long time can be a week in politics

The long process of Lebanese government formation has brought all the issues the public are debating out in the open. Maybe today the priority is to support this or oppose that. Maybe tomorrow people will put up with the option they don’t like for the sake of addressing a more important issue. If that happens, whatever government is formed will have a better chance of surviving, and doing something positive during its term.

Lack of a government isn’t going to get foreign troops out of Lebanon, or stabilise its currency, or persuade its neighbours to respect its position. But having a government which isn’t backed by a general public consensus won’t do those things either. On the contrary, it will raise new issues, create new groups willing to be bought off and create greater instability, simply because it is easier to fight an enemy you know.

Prime Minister-designate Hariri can afford to wait until his people decide what is important before deciding the final composition of a government which will be expected to deliver that. He will let fewer people down, and rebuild the trust of the displaced and the exiled, the ones who have established “Lebanese” restaurants everywhere, without objecting to other Lebanese, from other parts of that community, calling theirs “Lebanese” too.

The ones who will always have a problem with Lebanon are those who always think they know best. They derive this perception from their success. Maybe they would like to explain why the same “problems” the Lebanese system has once made the country very successful, and it was foreign attempts to drive the confessions apart, by branding them in Cold War-era political terms, which changed that.

Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: