The Crisis of Power-sharing in Post-Syria Lebanon
Since returning to Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and the consequent withdrawal of Syrian troops from the country, Michel Aoun has argued that the domestic contest over post-Syria Lebanon between the main Sunni and Shia political protagonists—one that overlapped with a wider Saudi-Iranian geopolitical struggle unleashed by the 2003 US invasion and occupation of Iraq—relegated the country’s Christians to the status of an appendage rather than an equal partner in the postwar power-sharing arrangement. Aoun rejected the 1989 Taef Accord when he was caretaker prime minister because it lacked a fixed timetable for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. With Syrian troops out of the country, he claimed that it was being implemented in a manner that undermined a genuine Christian partnership in the postwar power-sharing arrangement, whether at the level of the decision-making process, fiscal spending, or public sector appointments. According to this view, then, the domestic struggle over the country was not just about who rules post-Syria Lebanon, but also how. In other words, the question to be asked is: What was the role of heavy-weight representatives of Christian communities in Lebanon’s delicate but corporate postwar power-sharing arrangement at a time when it seemed clear to all that their demographic proportion with respect to the total population was declining steadily?
To be clear, Aoun’s election has ended the country’s twenty-nine-month-long presidential vacuum and consequent political stalemate, but it will neither end the overlapping domestic and regional contest over post-Syria Lebanon nor the drive to recalibrate the postwar confessional balance of power that most Christian parties claim tilted sharply, first under the long pax Syriana (1990-2005), and subsequently since the withdrawal of Syrian troops, in favor of their Muslim counterparts. For a country anchored foundationally on the very idea of mutual coexistence and power-sharing, this sense of political marginalization among Christian communities has had the effect of nothing less than an existential crisis.
One can already hear in Aoun’s inaugural address echoes of future political battles pertaining to this deep sense of Christian disenfranchisement. “Lebanon’s uniqueness”, he declared in front of parliament, “is in its balanced plural society, and this uniqueness entails that we live the spirit of the constitution through genuine parity (munasafa), of which its primary prerequisite is the promulgation of an electoral law that guarantees fair representation.” This references the persistent complaint by the FPM and other Christian parties that almost half of postwar Christian parliamentary seats are located in electoral districts dominated by Muslim majority voters, and that the winners in these electoral contests do not represent Christian communities and public opinion. This demand for a genuine rather than numerical or symbolic Christian-Muslim parity in decision-making and political representation has hitherto defined Aoun’s political battles since his return to Lebanon. Will his election to the presidency establish a new postwar precedent where top public posts are reserved for sectarian elite heavyweights or their in-group designated representatives, as is the case among other political communities, and as the FPM and other Christian parties have demanded for some time now? This is an issue that goes to the core of the postwar power-sharing pact. Ignoring it is tantamount to placing the whole political system in perpetual jeopardy.
Another pertinent and crucial demand voiced in the inaugural address pertains to a measure of meaningful and real administrative decentralization that allows the multiple confessional and sectarian communities that make up Lebanon to express their different—in Albert Hourani’s poignant formulation—“visions of Lebanon”, each in their own unique way but without undermining the country’s tradition of religious pluralism and mutual coexistence. This strictly Christian demand these days, one that goes against the logic of a very centralized Lebanese state, is bound to become another site in the battle over political representation in post-Syria Lebanon. However, there is more than just confessional political weight and sectarian shares at stake here. It is about how we want to live differently but together as Lebanese citizens in a plural polity, or not.
There has always been an organic connection between the very centralized Lebanese state and the political economic hegemony of the sectarian system. The former places a whole repertoire of institutional and clientelist networks under the sectarian elite’s control in a straightforward neopatrimonial relationship. Consequently, political accountability suffers while sectarian identities harden. Decentralization is thus not just a Christian demand in the context of haunting demographic realities. It is also about loosening up the organic connection between the centralized state and the sectarian system, one that is bound to increase accountability at the local level and unleash new kinds of counterfactual cross-sectarian or anti-sectarian socioeconomic, regional, environmental, and gender identities.
If the protracted saga of government formation is any guide, we should expect a bumpy road ahead as the different confessional and sectarian protagonists continue their struggle over post-Syria Lebanon rather than consider seriously the country’s urgent political priorities. However, one thing is for sure, if there is a real winner after the presidential elections, it is the stubborn sectarian political system, which manages to always reinvent itself, especially when it is undergoing crisis, but invariably at the expense of those anti-sectarian and cross-sectarian civil society organizations and political movements tirelessly working for a much more accountable and democratic political system. Now that the presidential vacuum is behind us, both Aoun and his counterparts in the sectarian elite owe the nineteenth sect of Lebanese, who travel across and beyond sectarian boundaries, the kind of minimal reforms that may allow them to enter the institutions of the Lebanese state and express from within it their own civic, democratic, and polyphonic anti-sectarian or cross-sectarian “vision of Lebanon”. This may not be a priority for the postwar sectarian political economic elite, but it is a priority to salvage a postwar power-sharing arrangement in deep crisis, and to determine what kind of Lebanon will be left for us to coexist and live in.