Defining the Reality of Lebanon


By: Clovis Maksoud
American University’s School of International Service

Op-ed transcript

June 11, 2009


Recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon were free, transparent, and civil, and the participation was impressive and broad-based. However, the outcome confirmed the continuation of a democracy deficit. This is due to the stranglehold of sectarianism on the body-politic and in the state’s institutions.


The elections were free but not democratic. This paradox continues to be sustained through periodic distributive adjustments of sectarian shares in the various aspects of governance. Adjusted by regional players as occurred during the Taif agreement, supplemented and in parts amended by the latest Doha formula.


Does this mean that religious sects are inevitably a negation of democracy? Not necessarily. However if the political - or constitutional system defines multi-sectarian as “pluralistic” then freedom is available; if however the multi-sectarian reality is considered and treated as “diverse” then Lebanon would be defined as a state of citizens rather than a framework of multiple religious sects.




The democracy deficit that characterized the outcome of the elections was clearly demonstrated by the massive bloc voting of the Sunni and Shias with the Christian constituency divided among the coalition of Faad Hariri and the other by Hizbullah.


This Sunni-Shia split was further enhanced as it mirrored a regional divide between the US allies and Iran as a pivotal regional power.


What in fact is depressing, if not downright embarrassing, is that the leaderships of the contending groups admit and sometimes even pride in having their respective “outside” sponsors. Thus side-stepping the immediate needs, rights and priorities that the citizens seek.




When in early May of 2008 the Siniora government threatened to take measures concerning the airport security apparatus, in part intended to ensure protection for the Resistance movement, Hizbullah undertook a premature strike in Beirut. This was perceived as a coup which the Hariri constituency considered a deliberate attempt by Hizbullah to humiliate it. For a long time, this led to a breakdown in the discourse between the “May majority” group and Hizbullah and to a profound collective sense of grievance, especially among the Sunnis and explains the intensity of the Sunni participation in the electoral process, including a large one from the Lebanese diaspora. In districts where significant Sunni presence existed and Christian traditional leaders like Elie Skaff in Zahle were expected to win, Sunni’s unprecedented massive participation defeated the ally of Michel Aun reversing a historical record of the Skaff political dominance in Zahle. The same happened where massive and united Shiite groups led to General Aun dominance in the Maronite heartland of Kisrawan, Matu and Byblosin addition to Zgorta and Jezzine.


Furthermore, the Tashnag (Armenian Lebanese) party was a major factor in assisting the prevalence, although reduced, of General Aun’s share among Christians of Mount Lebanon. The financial flow, besides the Diasporas coming in unprecedented numbers, decidedly legitimized the victory of the Hariri Alliance not withstanding lingering questioning of the campaign’s methods.




Absent in elections were the competing economic, social and political plans and programs. The chasm was principally between the Muslim sects; the Sunni’s wrecking revenge for the May 7 humbling experience; the Shiites empowered by successful liberation of the South in 2006 and inflicting a dramatic military setback for Israel kept claiming the right to have ownership of its arms. The claim to ownership was in part reinforced by the Lebanese security forces capturing nearly forty Lebanese spies working for Israeli intelligence. While the presence of Israeli agents justified Hizbullah’s demand to keep its arms, it is expected that the successful capture of the network of Israeli spies will enhance the Resistance’s confidence and trust in the security agencies and further the prospects of political dialogue planned to be resumed by President Michel Sulaiman soon. This possible enhancement of trust between the State and Resistance can lead to a reduction of tension, bringing a government of national reconciliation. The feasibility of such occurrence can be facilitated by the policy changes envisioned by the US dialogue with Iran - probably will be more consequential in case of Ahmadinejad’s defeat – as well as the tentative normalization steps between the US and Syria . President Obama’s inclination to uphold principles of openness and dialogue and conflict resolution tends to  promise a reduction in tensions in the region. Obama’s policy of persuasion (rather than of dictation), collective (rather than unilateral), policies of confrontation will reduce regional tension and rearrange priorities. All these will contribute to a reduced confrontation.  




Finally, what challenges confront Lebanese in the short and long term? Perhaps the most urgent one is to reaffirm the commitment of both parties to a government of national reconciliation. That is urgent in view of the international - especially US - interpretation of the results in Lebanon in a manner that reinforces interventionist policies which in turn have caused ongoing heightened tensions that repeatedly morphed into civil conflicts.


Hence while I am convinced that Lebanon’s vulnerability has its roots in the sectarian architecture of its governance, a government of national reconciliation can provide a calming transition. This is an urgent precondition for the body-politic to regain its compass and prepare the ground to extricate Lebanon from being an arena to settle international and regional conflicts, disputes and competitive interests. Even more urgent for the transition is the imperative to give sufficient space to empower civil society, as it seeks to introduce the required changes, so that Lebanon does not remain the prisoner of a suffocating sectarian system.


The challenge becomes all the more relevant when, in the next four years, two new generations of young Lebanese will be eligible to vote when they reach eighteen. It is therefore crucial that a non-sectarian secular constitution by the year 2013 is in place; otherwise the promising new generations of Lebanese will be entrapped into the existing system that will reproduce the frequent conflicts and outside interferences that has stifled the potential mission that Lebanon is known for and is capable of undertaking. The full potential of Lebanon’s creative contributions has been stifled by the recklessness that sectarianism has inflicted.


It is crucial that Lebanon’s civil society join decidedly in the necessary task of insuring that the next elections will be a competition among alternative plans, programs and policies and people will choose amongst the candidates who can best articulate aspirations, realize their rights and deliver their essential needs irrespective of their religion or sectarian affiliations. This will restore the moral guidelines that the religious establishment can provide and cease politicizing their institutional platforms.




The thrust for a new non-sectarian beginning is promising by the new global atmosphere that President Obama has introduced. Although this change in tone and substance has not reached (certain) diplomatic quarters in the US State Department, judging by the zeal of the pronouncements that echo the moribund policies of the Bush era rather than the enlightened overall, and yet fully amplified of Obama rational emphasis on dialogue and persuasion.


Furthermore, the Iranian youth’s enthusiastic participation in the reformist movement is in turn a prelude to an end to the reckless rhetoric the Ahmadinejad.


There are promising new trends from the two powers who (were) excessively intrusive  in the sectarian politics of Lebanon. That can be the opportunity for Lebanon’s youth and its civil society to bring about the long awaited challenge that restores Lebanon as an authentic independent, Arab democracy. That will render Lebanon the civilized answer to Zionism and reckless obscurantisms. That in turn will define the reality of Lebanon.


Clovis Maksoud is the director of the Center for the Global South and a diplomat in residence at American University’s School of International Service.