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Reform of the political system in Lebanon

Next step: The Referendum

Reform of the political system in Lebanon
Photograph: Thore Schröder

New elections in Lebanon would probably favor those already in power. Yet, the constitution offers an alternative to political sectarianism that would start with a referendum.

On 17 October a popular uprising began in Lebanon aimed at nothing less than a revolution. The often aggressive and vulgar slogans of the estimated 1.5 million demonstrators are explicitly directed against all representatives of the political elite that has been ruling the country collectively for decades. Since then, main and connecting roads have been blocked and public life has largely come to a standstill. Schools, banks and universities are closed. In contrast to earlier protest movements, the current one has a broader base. Protests and roadblocks are spread throughout the country and include all social classes and religious communities, except the upper class.


The protests have also been surprisingly peaceful so far. The state, which had shown its authoritarian face against the “You Stink” movement in 2015 and suppressed protests, is now largely allowing the protest campaigns. Instead, almost all parties are trying to jump on the bandwagon and show solidarity with the movement, as if they were not part of the problem themselves. Another peculiarity is that not only Christians and Sunnis are rebelling against their own political leaders, but also, for the first time, Shiites.


The popular uprising was triggered by the government’s decision to introduce a tax on WhatsApp messages to tackle the acute financial crisis. But that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. For years, the country has been experiencing a worsening financial and economic crisis, resulting in mass unemployment and a rising poverty rate. It is clear to everyone that the crisis is the result of years of corruption and mismanagement.


Only Hariri can generate the urgently needed foreign investments and IMF funds.


The country is still dominated by the warlords of the civil war that ended in 1990. For decades, this ruling cartel has plundered the state in the manner of feudal lords and ultimately brought it to the brink of bankruptcy.


Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who as head of government has hardly been able to assert himself against his strong rivals in the cabinet, quickly took the initiative after the protests began, set ultimatums, and pushed through his relatively far-reaching reform agenda in the cabinet on 21 October. Obviously, the political cartel fears the complete collapse of the system, a network of cronyism that has grown over decades. In addition, everyone is aware that only Hariri can attract the urgently needed foreign investments and IMF funds to combat the deep financial and economic crisis and prevent a devaluation of the national currency. However, the demonstrators’ tempers were hardly calmed by the reform announcements.


President Michel Aoun, who himself was involved in the civil war and at the age of 84 seems senile, proves to be completely incapable of stabilizing the country. His son-in-law Gebran Bassil is foreign minister and head of the largest Christian party founded by Aoun, the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). Bassil is a Christian-Lebanese nationalist who has played a decisive role in the state and economic crisis through his sectarian nepotist policy, which is why the protests are directed against him in particular.


In 2006, the FPM entered into an alliance with Hizbullah, whose General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah has been pursuing Iranian interests in Lebanon since the civil war. In the last elections, the party secured 13 seats in parliament and three ministerial posts and also got Michel Aoun elected as president. However, its participation in the government to date has primarily served the purpose of preventing decisions against its armed “resistance” against Israel. It has therefore not yet distinguished itself with constructive government work. Its ministers have also agreed to the WhatsApp tax. Consequently, the nationwide protests are also directed against Hizbullah, even in its own strongholds.


So far, Hizbullah has successfully cultivated a totalitarian political culture that demands the unconditional loyalty of its base. After the first violent clashes between demonstrators and Hizbullah supporters took place in Beirut on 25 October, Nasrallah called on his supporters to stay away from the protests, thereby at least preventing a greater escalation of violence. At the same time, Nasrallah prevented a government reshuffle proposed by Hariri and demanded by the demonstrators in order to keep Gebran Bassil in office.


In the Hizbullah strongholds, as for instance in Nabatiyeh, the protests are directed against the “Party of God”, as well as against the Amal movement allied with it. In these areas, Hizbullah maintains a state within the state, but is no longer able to maintain its costly social services due to US sanctions. This is precisely why their popularity is crumbling in Shiite areas.


Berri can quickly mobilize thugs and provocateurs to escalate peaceful protests.


Nabih Berri has been the head of the Shiite Amal party for almost 40 years. Berri can quickly mobilize thugs and provocateurs, mostly on motorcycles, to break up peaceful protests or cause unrest. Berri acts like a Mafia boss and at the same time, since 1992, he has been the speaker of parliament and thus ex officio guardian of Lebanese democracy.


Since taking office, he has accumulated great wealth and built up a patronage network that operates at all levels of the state administration. The fact that civil servants do not obtain their position on the basis of their qualifications, but through relations with party leaders, contributes to the general misery of Lebanon, because the bloated administrative apparatus is full of incompetent and often inactive employees. Berri’s most powerful pawn in government is Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil. The country’s other political leaders, such as Prime Minister Saad Hariri and his Sunni Mustaqbal Party and the Druze Progressive Socialist Party of Walid Jumblatt, are also known for their patronage and self-enrichment.


Lebanon’s basic problem, however, is not of a personnel nature, but of a systemic one. The Lebanese model of Consociational Democracy stipulates that the heads of the sectarian parties always must base government decisions on consensus. Their main concern is to get the largest slice of the pie, i.e. state resources, or to prevent competitors from taking the larger piece. The resources generated in this way are invested in establishing and maintaining their patronage networks.


The same politicians who decide on the budget and thus also sell state bonds, also own the banks, which provide the state with loans at enormous interest rates.


This model of governance has proved dysfunctional in many respects. For example, in the field of energy supply: For decades, electricity generation by the state-owned energy agency Electricité du Liban has been far from sufficient. This chronic shortage has created a diesel generator mafia, of with politicians taking their share in the business. Besides, diesel generators are the main cause of air pollution in urban areas.


Take the example of water supply: Instead of investing in the run-down water supply system and ensuring a sufficient supply, the water mafia is effectively tasked to close the supply gaps. This mafia often pumps contaminated water from illegal wells and takes it by truck to private households, where it sells it at high prices. As a result, groundwater levels continue to drop. But leading politicians protect this illicit business, as they get share of profits, as well.


The excessive national debt would also be manageable if solution-oriented action was taken. On the one hand, numerous Western states and the IMF are willing to invest in Lebanon, but only if structural reforms are implemented.


However, the government has not been able to agree on such reforms. The chronic debt crisis has another, deeper cause: the same politicians who decide on the budget and thus also sell government bonds, also own the banks, which provide the government with loans at enormous interest rates. The public debt burden thus becomes the business model of a small clique at the expense of the general public. Meanwhile, interests are eating up half of government revenue. This money flows into the vaults of the banks or the ruling elite and is lacking for investments and social services.


Finally, it would also be possible to reduce public debt and improve energy supplies by extracting the large natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Israel and Egypt are already earning money from those newly discovered gas fields. Lebanon, however, has so far shown itself unable to agree on the modalities, because every player in the cartel wants to secure as much as possible from gas profits.


Many Lebanese are fed up with these conditions and therefore demand the immediate resignation of the government, new elections and a revolutionary change of the system that does not involve sectarianism. But what realistic options are there to change the system? The resignation of the government alone cannot be the solution, because somebody has to govern. New elections don’t make much sense either, since barely a year ago, elections took place that were more democratic than all previous ones. In other words, the hated elites are democratically legitimized and new elections would probably bring the same people back to power.


A complete abolition of consociational democracy in favor of liberal democracy would probably lead to more conflicts in view of the deep division of the Lebanese population, because the religious communities not in power would not accept the majority decisions of the others.


The Lebanese constitution provides for the introduction of a bicameral parliamentary system.


However, two changes to the system are possible and important: firstly, the judicial system must be fundamentally reformed. In particular, the rule of law must be strictly applied, and the constitutional court must be strengthened.


Political sectarianism could at least be mitigated. The Lebanese constitution even provides for a procedure, namely the introduction of a bicameral parliamentary system. So far, parliament has only consisted of a directly elected lower house. According to Article 22, a senate would have to be established in the first parliamentary elections without denominational proportional representation, representing the interests of the religious communities and having a say in “important issues”.


Unfortunately, the constitution leaves crucial questions open, such as the size, composition, powers and decision-making procedures of the senate, whether it is directly elected or appointed, and if elected, on the basis of which electoral system. The political elites have so far shown little interest in this constitutional mandate and a consensual agreement on these details will probably take years. But it would be possible to set up a commission now with a mandate to submit a proposal within a certain period of time, which would then be decided in parliament or, better still, in a referendum.

Maximilian Felsch is an Associate Professor at Haigazian University in Beirut, where he has been Head of the Political Science Department since 2011.

Maximilian Felsch