Have the Middle East’s only two experiments in consociationalism failed? Demonstrators in both Lebanon and Iraq are demanding a change of their respective political systems. Yet, there are differences between the situations in the two countries.
Lebanese consociationalism, with its constitutional and informal regulations, has been somewhat dysfunctional since the civil war ended in 1990. Despite this, Iraq adopted many of the system’s defining features in 2005 - two years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Ever since, governmental posts have been divided among members of the largest denominational and ethnic communities.
In both countries, this governance model promised to secure the long-term stability of a post-war order, which was to include pluralism and democratic participation. As the uprisings of early 2011 swept through most of the Arab World, Iraq and Lebanon were left largely untouched. Seemingly they had passed the litmus test. Since statespeople in both countries were elected either directly or indirectly, in theory, they could be voted out of office at the next round of elections. Hence, any plan for revolutionary overthrow seemed to be absurd. Now the demonstrators in both countries are demanding exactly that.
Three possible explanations for the underperformance of consociationalism
Consociationalism has led to similar problems in both Iraq and Lebanon, especially concerning the legitimacy of such a system. The protesters’ demand for the abolishment of consociationalism as a form of democratic governance is in no small part due to the current economic crises in both countries, where rates of poverty and unemployment are severe.
However, even before these crises, both governments struggled to reign in their respective levels of national debt. The shortages of electricity and water, as well as a lack of waste disposal provision, serve as testament to their inability to fulfil basic governmental obligations. In the case of Iraq, this failure is all the more surprising given its enormous oil wealth.
Consociationalism, a model of democracy premised on the idea of decision-making with a broad consensus, apparently impedes the speedy resolution of acute problems. It also seems to facilitate clientelism. Maintaining a career in both Iraq and Lebanon often depends on having good relations with confessional or ethnic political leaders.
The reasons for the serious underperformance of the only two adopters of consociationalism in the Middle East remains an open question. There are three possible explanations. Firstly, consociationalism may be based on a false promise, because such systems always seem to consolidate and legalise social divisions rather than overcoming them. They may inevitably produce clientelism, corruption and inefficient decision-making as side effects.
Several journalists have resigned in protest from pro-Hizbullah Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar
Secondly, while the model in principle may foster stability and democracy in divided societies, it is possible that Lebanon and Iraq may have incorrectly applied it in practice. If this were the case, the problems could be identified and serve as a basis for reform given there was a willingness to do so.
A third reason may be that Lebanon and Iraq do not fulfil the cultural, structural or geopolitical conditions necessary for consociationalism to succeed. Lebanon and Iraq not only share systemic dysfunctionalities, but they both also exhibit several geopolitical similarities. In both states, Iran and Western states vie for political influence. The current administrations in Lebanon and Iraq are dominated by pro-Iranian forces, which is why Tehran fears that the uprisings may threaten its influence in the region. Iran is spreading the idea that the West supports the uprising to undermine Iran, in order to preserve the current governments of both countries. The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, recently accused the US of encouraging the protests in both countries to foment civil wars.
The attempt to brand the uprisings a Western conspiracy, however, have only gained traction among the most loyal supporters of pro-Iranian groups. At the same time, many Shia are abandoning the politicians claiming to represent their communities, having become disillusioned with their leadership. The extent of this abandonment of allegiances can be seen in the participation of many Shia in the uprising. Several journalists have also resigned from the pro-Hizbullah Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar in protest against the propagandistic coverage of the Lebanese uprising.
Suleimani even chaired a meeting of security officials in Baghdad in place of the Iraqi prime minister
Despite all the parallels, the uprisings in Iraq and Lebanon differ in two important respects. On the one hand, the Iraqi protests are much more violent because of the government’s forceful reaction to them. Several hundred people have died so far. In Lebanon, on the other hand, the security authorities were not as heavy-handed. The country has witnessed only limited riots between protesters and supports of Shia parties, Amal and Hizballah. These were quickly closed down by police.
The second difference is that Iran exerts a much stronger influence over neighbouring Iraq than Lebanon. In Iraq, where Shia comprise the majority of the population, there are numerous pro-Iranian parties and militias, more or less controlled by Tehran. Iran also influences the decision of government more directly. Unlike in Lebanon, the Iraqi protests are therefore directed against Iran's political leadership. The brunt of the criticism is directed at Qassem Suleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, because he is accused of being responsible for the government's violence against demonstrators.
Soleimani, renowned for taking charge of the military offensive against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq in 2015, has acted like an imperial governor in Baghdad since the protests began. On 2 October, a day after the protests began, Suleimani even chaired a meeting of security officials in Baghdad in place of the Iraqi prime minister, Adil Abdul-Mahdi.
It was not until the Syrian occupation ended in 2005 that Hizbullah joined the cabinet for the first time
In Lebanon, however, Iran is limited to acting through Hizballah, which it has armed and financed since the Lebanese civil war in 1982.
Hizbullah was originally intended to put an end to the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon by military means and then build an Islamic republic modelled on Iran. After the civil war, it remained outside the running of the government in Beirut and instead focused on creating its own quasi-state in Southern Lebanon.
It was not until the Syrian occupation ended in 2005 that it joined the cabinet for the first time. Since then, it has steadily expanded its involvement in the government. Now, Hizbullah enjoys an unprecedented amount of influence in Lebanon, but at the same time its reputation has dwindled. Their military intervention in neighbouring Syria, in support of the pro-Iranian regime, has already cost the party much goodwill, because its military wing had previously only been regarded as a means of combatting Israel.
Hizbullah remains insistent that is must participate in any future government. It is therefore preventing the formation of a non-partisan technocratic government which the demonstrators demand. No new government can be formed against the agreement of Hizballah. It is clear that in the current crisis, Hizbullah’s weapons are not protecting Lebanon from their sworn enemy Israeli, but instead they are shielding the country's corrupt leadership from its own people.
Maximilian Felsch is an Associate Professor at Haigazian University in Beirut, where he heads the Political Science Department.