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Bassel F. Salloukh, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University, Beirut

February 2018
The Pleasures of Sectarianism

Its obvious material rewards aside, sectarianism must truly be a source of pleasure for Lebanon’s political economic elite. Only a combination of its disciplinary violence, ideological hegemony, and the promise of insinuating oneself into its vast clientelist networks can explain this obnoxious docility on the part of a majority of the population, even as they stare economic, financial, social, and environmental disaster in the face.

There is a brooding sense of trepidation descending these days, even upon the usually merry-going Lebanese. Developers complain of the lack of sales in the real estate sector. Rows of empty and monstrous new buildings occupy the Beirut skyline. Not even small-sized apartments—those between 110 square meters and 160 square meters—have an active market. And yet, prices have hit a glass floor and refuse to fall any further. Astonishingly, developers continue to build new apartment buildings, as if willfully digging their own graves. Only Banque du Liban’s constant interventions with housing loans and interest rates seem to protect the real estate sector from collapse. Other economic sectors are not performing any better, however.

The war in Syria all but destroyed the country’s already crippled agricultural sector, closing land routes that once carried the country’s agricultural exports to the Arab hinterlands. A rentier-based economy and a state versed in clientelism make for little incentives to invest in job-producing industrial and manufacturing sectors. The result is an unemployment rate in 2017 hovering around 25%, but rising to 37% among those under twenty-five years. Income inequality, a constant but sordid feature of the so-called Lebanese miracle, has reached dangerous proportions. A recent study concludes that the top 10% of income earners make the equivalent of 57.1% of GDP, while the combined earnings of only 1% of this group equals some 23.4% of GDP. These are not just economic indicators. They ultimately shape subjective perceptions of the postwar economy’s deeply discriminatory practices, spilling over into everyday life in the form of the endemic corruption and cross-class lawlessness that has become the norm in Lebanon. A combination of geopolitical regional wars and economic restructuring in the Gulf states compound Lebanon’s economic predicament, translating into shrinking employment markets and less remittances to shore up the country’s balance of payments. Then there is the country’s seemingly irreversible environmental degradation, a human-all-too-human disaster in the making. This Mediterranean country has discovered a magical solution to its garbage crisis: Reclaiming land in the sea by dumping old garbage waste in it. As a recent report puts it, ‘Lebanon is drowning in its own garbage’. And finally there is the everyday violence, especially against women and Syrian refugees, invited by weak and unaccountable state institutions and a patriarchal society allied to confessional institutions and ideologies.

And how does the sectarian political elite react to these difficult and dark conditions? They hire ‘McKinsey to Help Revamp the Economy’! As if Lebanon’s postwar economy suffers from a problem of diagnosis rather than the kind of rampant corruption that lubricates sectarian clientelist networks, and fiscal and monetary choices that consecrate its unproductive and rentier nature at the expense of investments in the real economy. They bicker over appointments in the public sector because they fail to pass the confessional parity test. They promulgate an electoral law tailored to reproduce wartime confessional fault lines among the Lebanese, and predetermined to make it difficult for cross- or anti-sectarian groups to enter the legislature and bring into it a dose of much needed accountability. They fabricate unnecessary and untimely constitutional crises aimed at mobilizing sectarian sentiments and demonizing the sectarian other.

One gets an eerie feeling that the sectarian elite’s fulltime job is to lob stun grenades to deflect attention from the socioeconomic, environmental, and monetary mess that has become postwar Lebanon, but one in who’s creation they have played an instrumental role. How else can we explain the sudden swing in the country, in the span of a couple of months, from the elite accommodation that insulated the country from an external attempt to torpedo the overlapping domestic and external political bargain that brought Michel Aoun to the presidency—an accommodation that also played a role in repatriating Saad Hariri to the premiership—to the political bickering over a host of issues, including the constitutionality of a presidential decree promoting some 200 army officers of the 1994 graduating class that elides the signature of the finance (read Shia) minister. Bracketing the mostly politicized arguments marshalled on both sides of the constitutional debate—most of which have more to do with the kind of sectarian discourse and mobilization preceding every parliamentary election—this swinging from a potentially foundational moment upon which one could have built a new national consensus insulating the country from external interventions as geopolitical battles peak in Syria, to sectarian business as usual, paralyzes state institutions and deflects attention from socioeconomic and environmental crises that are postponed indefinitely only at our peril. But this does not mean that the average Lebanese is exonerated from all this. Many willingly play their roles in these sectarian swings and invoke sectarianism to cover up their own transgressions. Others, long coopted by sectarianism’s clientelist tentacles, are docile accomplices in its reproduction, even at the expense of their own wellbeing. In the meantime, the country sinks deeper into garbage, pollution, debt, income disparity, traffic, violence, and lawlessness.

There must be a measure of pleasure reserved for those who can deploy sectarianism with such effectiveness and precision, who can switch the country’s public mood from one of national reconciliation to one of acrimony. There must be something pleasurable about seeing people suffer so much and yet rest assured that sectarianism’s disciplinary violence, ideological hegemony, and vast clientelist networks protect against any prospective popular uprising. The pleasures of sectarianism are indeed so injurious and woeful.

* I borrow, of course, from the title of the chapter entitled “The Pleasures of Imperialism” on Rudyard Kipling in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism.

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