Lebanon Has Suffered From Sectarianism for Too Long

Mass protests could put an end to the ethnic clientelism that has empowered corrupt leaders. But demonstrators must stand their ground or risk being co-opted like those who rose up in 2005.

A Lebanese protester confronts soldiers during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon on Nov. 1.
A Lebanese protester confronts soldiers during ongoing anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon's southern city of Sidon on Nov. 1. MAHMOUD ZAYYAT/AFP via Getty Images

The essence of Lebanon’s current uprising lies in the Lebanese people’s courage to name and shame the country’s sectarian political system—which was enshrined in the 1943 National Pact and reaffirmed in the Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war. While in theory it provides political representation of all Lebanese religious groups, which divide seats in parliament according to their size, the system has become a tool for powerful elites to monopolize the economy.

Protesters know that their leaders come from a network of sectarian militias and allied businessmen who took power after the civil war that ended in 1990 by replacing the state at the local level as the source of finance for reconstruction. These leaders used their patronage networks to dominate parliamentary politics. Later, they used their influence to create local party apparatuses that now control most municipalities. 

With Lebanon’s credit ratings hitting junk status, unemployment rampant, and environmental degradation reaching cataclysmic levels, the floor under the sectarian system has caved in. The sheer corruption, incompetence, and social injustice of the political class have destroyed the social contract. What remains now is to rebuild it based on a new legal and political order. 

The Lebanese writer Samir Kassir famously predicted in 2005, “When the Arab spring starts in Beirut, it will herald the blooming of roses in Damascus.” Although it might seem like a failed prophecy in 2019, with Bashar al-Assad’s regime on the cusp of regaining control over Syria, Kassir’s point was in fact broader. He knew that under the right circumstances, the Arab populations could translate their thirst for democracy into popular, revolutionary movements that cross borders. That was clear during the Arab uprisings in 2011, and it is visible again today. 

As 2005, 2011, and 2019 have shown, this struggle is not a series of failed springs but a long, hard push for representative governance in which protesters have to learn on their feet how to confront the state and organize movements under difficult circumstances if they are to succeed. Protesters in countries that have achieved some change, such as Sudan and Algeria, as well in countries where there is no clear result yet, such as Iraq and Lebanon, can learn from the mistakes and strategies of previous movements. For the Lebanese protesting today, 2005 in particular provides lessons for how to succeed with their ambitious agenda. 

Kassir was one of the intellectual leaders of the 2005 Independence Intifada in Lebanon. Sparked by the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri—the father of Saad Hariri, who just resigned from the same position—the uprising against neighboring Syria was unprecedented and eventually successful. After three decades in Lebanon, 14,000 Syrian troops and an extensive security apparatus pulled out in April 2005, and the Western-backed March 14 parliamentary coalition, named after the date of the largest rally, went on to win elections and form a national unity government. 

What happened from February to May 2005 gives an idea of the challenges that face Lebanon’s 2019 “Oct. 17 revolution.” The political class quickly co-opted the protests and made them platforms for their own power struggle.

The uprising started as more than just a rally against Syria. During the first month, Martyrs’ Square in Beirut, where protesters are also congregating today, became an open public space for members of all political and sectarian groups to meet, speak freely, and rediscover their commonalities. I remember how liberated people felt by showing a united front under the Lebanese flag, signaling that the divisions in society left by 15 years of civil war between 1975 and 1990 could heal. This feeling promised the possibility of a new political order.

What happened from February to May 2005 gives an idea of the challenges that face Lebanon’s 2019 “Oct. 17 revolution.” The political class quickly co-opted the protests and made them platforms for their own power struggle. The first lesson is to stay united and not let the sectarian leaders dictate the agenda. After the March 8 and March 14 protests in 2005, leaders from both sides of the political divide made the protests part of a geopolitical conflict involving Syria, Iran, and the United States. As a result, the secondary aims of reforming the system, fighting corruption, and overcoming sectarian splits, which civil society groups and intellectuals such as Kassir had championed, were pushed to the backburner.

The second lesson is to be prepared for violence and disruption. Kassir was assassinated by unknown assailants on June 2, 2005 a few days after the elections that signaled Syria’s exit, in a string of killings that targeted several other journalists and politicians. Most likely, Syria and its security network orchestrated these murders in order to destabilize the country. The same could happen today if Hezbollah, Amal, or other groups choose to up the ante and inject serious violence into the streets. Those who thrive on the system will defend their privileges tooth and nail, and they know that nothing disrupts like violence. 

The third lesson is to organize independently and form alliances that can secure support and protection from powerful players in Lebanese society. So far, the protest movement in Lebanon remains leaderless. That can be both a strength and a weakness. With a horizontal organization, the movement remains all-inclusive, popular, and spontaneous. All classes, regions, sects and age groups participate on an equal footing. Demands emerge organically in slogans, graffiti, and road blockades. As a result, geopolitical concerns have not overtaken its agenda of anti-corruption and fundamental political reforms. 

At the same time, the revolution may need leaders very soon in order to negotiate with the government. In that case, it will benefit from solid backing from labor unions, professional associations, industry, business, and even the army. The power it receives from the street is ephemeral and must eventually be exchanged for institutional power if it is going to lead a fundamental transformation. 

If Lebanon were to abandon its system of sectarian representation, that would mark a dramatic change. Sectarian leadership goes back centuries to a time when the Ottoman authorities relegated tax farming to local strongmen. More than just a system of power sharing, sectarianism extends to all levels of law, the economy, and politics in Lebanon. The country’s religious authorities control many civil affairs—including marriage, divorce, and children’s custody. A small politically connected elite appropriates the bulk of economic surplus and redistributes it through communal clientelism. This system has failed its promises of protection and prosperity, but replacing it is a tall order.

The odds are stacked against the protesters. Following Hariri’s Oct. 29 resignation, a caretaker government will likely remain in place, while the major Sunni, Shiite, and Christian parties could argue for months over appointing a new prime minister. This situation suggests an extended standoff between protesters and government similar to what happened in 2005. 

A standoff benefits the ruling class. From the beginning, the government’s strategy has been to wait it out, hoping that the protests will dissipate. Protesters therefore have to show stamina and stay on the streets. The longer they manage to demonstrate a united popular front, the better their chances of pushing for a new electoral law that does not favor sectarian parties like the current one does.

Electing groups that represent political rather than identity-based claims is a realistic first step toward reforming, or rewriting, the constitution. During this standoff, which may overlap with a severe economic crisis and capital flight from the country, staying on the streets in significant numbers will be a victory in itself. 

Sune Haugbolle is a professor in global studies at Roskilde University in Denmark and author of War and Memory in Lebanon.