On May 21 2008, an agreement brokered between Lebanon’s feuding factions at Doha, Qatar ended days of armed unrest and 18 months of political stalemate.  For many, this was a welcoming development given the urgency of the situation.  Yet, for others, it evoked the bleak chapters that preceded the eruption of civil warfare in 1975.  In any case, the troubles of May, like related antecedents, exposed the shortcomings of the political system in solving disputes and preserving stability.  Given this reality and amid the current tense calm in Beirut, are there any other alternatives to Lebanon’s existing political system?  If so, could federalism be the answer to the country’s perpetual crises?  Or are the Lebanese destined to have momentary settlements every time a crisis unfolds and communal relations deteriorate?

A federal formula for Lebanon will not be a panacea for the country’s complex political problems.  Nonetheless, it will help the Lebanese deal with those problems more effectively. In theory, by combining regional self-rule with national shared-rule, it will ensure that there are the checks and balances required to prevent abuses of power.  It will encourage new voices to emerge by offering more leadership opportunities, enabling those who were “losers” at the national level to become “winners” at the regional level.  It will bring government closer to the people and encourage a more responsive administration.  As such, citizens will enjoy greater access to public authorities, and there will be no more remote or forgotten regions serving as hubs for extremism.

But to reach an effective federal solution, a set of factors must be present.  Primarily, Lebanon’s leading Christian, Sunni, Shia and Druze communities must reach an agreement on the federal project.  Other grappling federations, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, have demonstrated that the broader the consensus on federalism, the more viable the project would be.  On the other hand, while federalism should be nurtured on the inside, it should be equally encouraged from the outside. Wars after 1945 have been as much within countries as between them, with devastating results for peace and security.  It is in such a context, that the international community - and particularly its leading federations like the US, Canada and Switzerland - should weigh in with their shared experiences (successes and failures) on how to best administer composite and destabilizing societies like Lebanon’s.

In practical terms, and as with Belgium, which moved step-by-step since the 1970s from a francophone-dominated unitary structure to a bilingual federal arrangement in 1993, Lebanon could adopt a similar approach by implementing the long overdue notion of administrative decentralization as a gradual basis for an ensuing wider political decentralization. Administrative decentralization was specified in the reforms section of the Taif agreement, but has stalled ever since.  Last spring, President Michel Suleiman readopted the concept in his inaugural speech as one of his primary objectives.  And just recently, former president Amin Gemayel pressed the case for expanded decentralization at a rally organized by his Kataeb party.  Another practical measure could be establishing a government-appointed expert commission tasked with studying the merits and particulars of a federal option for Lebanon. And as with the Fouad Boutros electoral law commission of 2005, which drafted a new election law for the government, the suggested commission would include academics, civil society actors and constitutional experts.

Both administrative decentralization and a commission on federalism could be workable starting measures in the short and medium term. However they will necessitate constant encouragement from the international community.  If stability is to be reached in Lebanon and an all-out confrontation averted, then the time is ripe for the Lebanese, the Arab states and the international community to seriously consider new governing options for Lebanon, and that ought to include a federal alternative.

Lebanon’s political system and its limits

Lebanon is a unitary parliamentary republic.  It is the sum of eighteen heterogeneous religious communities- mainly Maronite, Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Christians, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Druze, and a host of lesser denominations. Since its first constitution in 1926, the political system has been characterized by the logic of proportional confessional representation within state institutions and under public administration.  This logic was predicated on a homegrown version of consensual democracy where the approach was one of forging political consensus among the leading communities within the Lebanese kaleidoscope.

When independence was gained in 1943, the unwritten National Pact determined the representation of religious communities in the state institutions.  Parliamentary seats and government portfolios were allocated on the basis of confessional proportionality, with an overall Christian-to-Muslim ratio of six to five, turned six to six after the 1989 Taif Agreement that ended the 15-year civil war.  The Pact reserved the presidency to a Maronite Christian, the post of prime minister to a Sunni Muslim and the position of speaker of parliament to a Shia Muslim.  Given the central role of all three posts in the political process, the constitution thus provides representatives of the confessional communities with the chance to block the political process.  While these safeguards may be reassuring for the confessional communities, they also facilitate political stalemate.*

Another limitation touches on the decision-making process within the government itself.  The constitution includes specific procedures for cabinet decisions on ‘national issues,’ such as constitutional amendments, general mobilization of the army, declaration of war and peace, etc.  Such issues should be decided by cabinet consensus, or by two-thirds of cabinet members who are balanced in terms of confessions.**  However, if consensus or two-thirds of votes is not guaranteed, decision-making would be stalled and the country prone to shakeups, as the constitution does not specify a clear-cut mechanism for redress.

Hence, what holds the Lebanese social fabric together is not the law, as is the case in the West, where law has become the supreme conscience of society, nor the central authority in Beirut, but rather the political consensus of its religious communities.  This formula, though potentially workable, remains delicate and exposed to periodic crises due to its intrinsic limits and the influence of regional and international forces.

The case for federalism

Following the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April of 2005, the failure of the Lebanese cabinet in fostering consensus on decisive and deep-seated issues has demonstrated that the retreat of the occupier is not enough to reunite the Lebanese around a common ethos.  Mainly because Lebanon’s society is inherently divided along communal lines exhibiting incongruous collective identities and divergent, if not clashing political persuasions.  Thus, even if the occupier retreats the country will remain vulnerable to political paralysis, or worse, armed hostilities as witnessed lately in the bloody clashes of early May 2008.  These clashes were precipitated by a protracted political crisis that paralyzed the institutions since November of 2006 and were only diffused through a Qatari-brokered compromise at Doha.  And if anything, this compromise has confirmed that in times of crisis it is invariably internal compromise and the direct intervention of the West and the Arab world that ultimately reconstitutes the Lebanese polity and decides its fate.

Essentially, Lebanon’s perpetual crises are organic- that is emanating from within.  They are the result of a unitary structure that is too centralized and limited to accommodate at par the socio-political grievances, existential fears and concerns of all communities, hence causing disenchantment and polarization.  This polarity, in turn, attracts external actors in a predatory fashion at times and benevolent at other, as each collectivity will seek foreign patrons to better the standing and welfare of its constituency.  Often at the expense of the central government and other communities.  In general, this is the case of the Sunni community with respect to Saudi Arabia and Iran/Syria vis-à-vis the Shia community.

In the wake of the recent crisis, there is a growing realization that increased territorial autonomy could give groups more confidence in their ability to preserve their distinctiveness, hence reducing polarization and enhancing political stability.  The key in mixed, divided or composite societies like Lebanon, emerging from a recurring history of conflict and mistrust, is to nicely combine national and communal interests and, at one and the same time, avoid both secessionism and the tyranny of one community over the other.  This is where a federal formula steps in as a middle-ground solution.  By dividing and sharing powers and responsibilities, federalism will enable communities to ensure effective representation through regional/provincial self-rule, while genuinely promoting unity and integration through national/central shared-rule.

It should come as no revelation to anyone familiar with Lebanon’s human geography, that the country is divided into de facto constituent units, where the predominance of one community is visible in each.  Christian predominance is highly visible in most areas of Mount Lebanon, such as North Metn and Keserwan, in addition to other areas in the North for example. Sunnis are primarily concentrated in the North in such areas as Tripoli and Akkar, as well as in main cities such as Sidon in the South.  The Shia are chiefly located in Southern areas like Nabatiyeh for instance, in addition to their significant presence in Baalbek-Hermel.  And the Druze are predominant in the mountainous areas of Aley and the Shouf.

Yet, while territorial divisions can provide a certain measure of autonomy for communities, the existence of groups that are not geographically concentrated means that other mechanisms are necessary to assure that the rights and freedoms of all are protected throughout the country.  In other words, what would be the status of the Shia in the predominantly Christian district of Jbeil, the Sunnis in predominantly Shia Baalbek, and the Christians and Druze in such areas as Marjeyoun, located in the heart of the predominantly Shia South.  Potential mechanisms could include the establishment of an Office of the Ombudsman (or mediator), as in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which works closely with the human rights chamber to ensure that the rights of the national minorities are respected and is answerable to the federal parliament. Or like in Belgium, where along with territorial federalism, a non-territorial “community” order of government was pioneered to handle matters pertinent to the “person,” such as education and health.

* The recent deadlock before the Doha agreement between Amal leader and Hezbollah ally Shia speaker Nabih Berri and the pro-March 14 Sunni premier Fouad Siniora serves as a stark reminder of the above.  Berri, for instance, closed the legislature for several months to hinder the so-called ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘illegitimate’ cabinet.  Further, before the end of his term, pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s refused to countersign on several ministerial decrees that required the signature of both the Sunni premier and Maronite Christian president to come into effect.

** This provision explains the rationale behind the Hezbollah-led opposition’s acquisition of one-third of cabinet members at Doha.

Jean-Pierre Katrib is a human rights activist and political analyst based in Beirut.


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