The Aug. 4 explosion that destroyed sections of Beirut left hundreds dead and thousands injured, homeless and traumatized. Less than a week later Lebanon’s prime minister, Hassan Diab, and his Cabinet resigned, blaming “chronic corruption in politics, administration and the state” for the disaster.
My research suggests that a straight line runs from this explosion back to the corruption and nepotism symptomatic of Lebanon’s postwar politics. The current political system rewards political mobilization along sectarian identities, where politicians use state resources to maintain the loyalty of their partisans. Since February, the Diab Cabinet operated much along those familiar lines, which meant it ultimately failed to agree on how to address deep political, economic and social issues.
The government’s disorganized response to the explosion underscores how Lebanese power-sharing has perpetuated a political system prone to institutional immobilism, and a lack of transparency and accountability. For example, a member of parliament proposed a law in 2001 to create a new centralized national body to coordinate all disaster and relief efforts. Some 19 years later, the law remains in limbo, as Lebanon’s parliamentarians disagree over the body’s prerogatives and its sectarian composition.
Will the explosion force a change in this system?
The failings of individual politicians are not the point — what’s important to understand is the systematic pathologies within Lebanese politics. The incompetence revealed by the storage of explosive materials at Beirut’s port is emblematic of the deep institutional weakness of the state. These problems cannot easily be addressed through conventional political reforms.
Earlier this year, a massive overlapping economic, monetary and banking “perfect storm” did not lead to meaningful change in Lebanon. Last October’s mass protests, amid impending economic and financial collapse, also did not bring about reforms.
How did Lebanon get this way?
There was nothing historically inevitable about the September 1920 creation of Lebanon in its present territorial boundaries by the French colonial authority. The borders primarily served French colonial interests, and met the demands of the Maronite Church for a country of their own among a sea of Muslim communities.
Nor was there anything inevitable about the emergence of sectarian identities as the main markers of political identity and mobilization after Lebanon’s independence in 1943. A combination of “mobilization from above” by colonial officials and sectarian elites, followed later by “mobilization from below” by marginalized communities demanding greater legal rights and communal autonomy converged to make sectarian identities the dominant — but never the sole — incentive structures for political representation and resource allocation in Lebanon. The result was an elite power-sharing arrangement in which the sectarian balance of power favored Christian political economic elites.
Fifteen years of civil war ended in 1990 by entrenching a new elite power-sharing arrangement that redistributed political office along the lines of a predetermined sectarian quota within the context of Christian-Muslim parity. Wartime militia leaders became politicians, monopolizing political representation and access to resources in the name of the sect. Other elites emerged after 1990 with dreams of reconstruction that ended up empowering systemic corruption, the hollowing out of state institutions, fiscal mismanagement and political non-accountability.
Political elites transformed government ministries into clientelist networks packed with sectarian partisans — and resistant to transparent policymaking. Every part of the public sector became entrenched in these networks, including the financial, security, judicial, health and educational sectors. A political economy of sectarianism took root, tying sectarian elites to their supporters, and financed by galloping budget deficits and an unsustainable debt/GDP ratio.
It’s not just the elites
My research explains how the technologies of the postwar sectarian system effectively blocked the emergence of political alternatives, through a mix of material incentives, ideological demonization, legal ambushes or brute force. The power of these political elites extended well beyond the public sector and the formal political system, blocking the influence of alternative avenues for political and socioeconomic opposition like labor unions and professional syndicates.
These practices distorted incentives for reform, hardening and reproducing sectarian identities and modes of mobilization. Every effort to mobilize large-scale pressure for change has thus far failed to produce alternatives to challenge the existing system.
Nascent opposition groups have new ideas, such as the demand by the opposition group Citizens in a State for an independent Cabinet with extra-constitutional legislative prerogatives to manage the transition phase toward the founding of a nonsectarian civil state. But they have found it difficult to assemble in broad coalitions and challenge the entrenched sectarian political system.
Hezbollah, both a dominant political player and a powerful armed militia active inside and outside the country, represents a particular challenge. Demands by local politicians and external parties, especially the United States, for Hezbollah to surrender its weapons, or pressure to exclude it from government, run up against the realities of the distribution of power on the ground.
It’s difficult to see beyond the impasse
Even before the explosion, foreign parties seeking to help Lebanon faced a paradox. They could prop up a broken sectarian power-sharing arrangement to address the genuine desperate needs of the Lebanese people. Or they could attempt to leverage financial aid to encourage deep political and economic reforms. Instead, Lebanon’s sectarian political elites converged after the explosion on a version of a National Unity government among themselves as a way past this stalemate.
However, such a government seems likely to continue the current political dysfunction. Perhaps post-explosion Lebanon will see a new type of power-sharing: between those who represent the political economic interests of the sectarian system and those who have been frozen out and served poorly by that system. How Lebanon could move toward this type of political system remains an open question.
Bassel F. Salloukh is an associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University. His current research interests include an intersectional critique of power-sharing arrangements in postwar states, the philosophy of reconciliation in divided places, and Middle East international relations after the popular uprisings. He tweets @bassel67.