Partition Is the Only Solution to Lebanon’s Woes
Hezbollah’s dominance has deprived non-Shiite Lebanese of a voice in their own country. It is time to reconsider a century of consociational democracy and return to a form of federalism.
A noose and gallows hang from the monument at Martyrs’ Square in Beirut on Aug. 9. Lebanon’s political elite faced pressure from all sides after a deadly explosion was blamed on official negligence. JOSEPH EID/AFP via Getty Images
Lebanon is an ancient land that is mentioned 71 times in the Old Testament; the current geopolitical entity that bears that name, which was created in September 1920 by the French government, has survived for a century—but barely.
Over the course of that century, Lebanon lived through two civil wars, two foreign occupations, and assorted calamities while being plagued by corruption and substantial losses of liberties. Regrettably, all nation-building efforts came to naught, as political and religious leaders raised fresh power-sharing formulas. These ranged the gamut from federalism to partition, as the Lebanese, Christians, Druze, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims repeatedly rejected “communal coexistence”—a colloquial expression that is frequently used but lost meaning some time ago. After 100 years, many Lebanese are asking themselves: Why continue to live a lie?
In 1920, French Gen. Henri Gouraud was optimistic and, along with the Catholic Maronite Patriarch Elias Hoayek and Sunni Grand Mufti Sheikh Mustafa Naja, expanded the predominantly Christian-inhabited Mount Lebanon by creating a new geographical entity, which the French official and the two clerics named Greater Lebanon. They added the coastal towns of Beirut (then chiefly Greek Orthodox); Tripoli, Sidon, Tyre, and their hinterlands (then mostly Sunni); and the Bekaa Valley(whose populations included Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians).
Overnight, Mount Lebanon’s 80 percent Christian majority was reduced to 55 percent, which was the basis of flawed political apportionments on Sept. 1, 1920. Importantly, a demographic parity was reached between Muslims and Christians as early as 1943, when Lebanon gained formal independence.
The country made a crucial error by preserving an unwritten sectarian system that granted the top posts of the presidency to Maronites, the premiership to Sunnis, and the speakership of parliament to Shiites. The French believed that power sharing would best serve the new republic, granting the three leading religious communities high-level posts.
All 18 officially recognized religious communities were allocated specific positions that, in effect, created a unique democracy based on consociationalism. A consociational state rests on a carefully divided internal setup along ethnic, religious, or linguistic lines, with none of the divisions large enough to form a majority group that would or even could dominate the rest, but which remains relatively stable because leaders consult among each other to maintain a balance of power. In Lebanon’s case, consociationalism was meant to maintain internal stability among the newly created state’s Christian and Muslim elites.
Christians promised to maintain distance from Western protectors, and Muslims pledged to forgo attachment to Syria, though only Georges Naccache, a Renaissance man par excellence, lamented this so-called National Pact as a “double negative.” In 1949, Naccache wrote that “two negations don’t make a nation,” an affirmation that was repeatedly overlooked during the country’s civil wars.
Over time, the Lebanese reached new accords, such as the 1989 Saudi-brokered Taif Agreement, which suspended the civil war and put an end successive Syrian and Israeli invasions. The Taif Agreement called for a return to political normalcy and reasserted Lebanese authority in southern Lebanon (then controlled by Israel and its South Lebanese Army allies). It also stipulated that the Syrian army withdraw within two years, though the actual withdrawal did not occur until 2005.
United Nations resolutions, along with U.N. peacekeeping troops that have now been deployed for more than four decades, mostly kept the peace on the southern border. Syrian occupying troops imposed peace from 1990 until 2005, even if Damascus emasculated every Lebanese political and security institution by encouraging the creation of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia as a state within the state.
Remarkably, after Syrian troops were withdrawn in 2005, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Baath Party retained its intelligence operatives in Lebanon who, among other things, dominated local politics. Their grip was so strong that Damascus surfed through its own post-2011 civil war relatively unscathed, using Lebanon as a conduit for every imaginable good and service while it relied on Hezbollah for both warfare and terrorism.
Unwilling to preserve and protect their country’s sovereignty, Lebanese merchant-politicians such as Walid Jumblatt and former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, both of whom owned dozens of companies and media outlets—saw fresh opportunities in Syria, while Hezbollah executed Iranian orders to provide troops and prop up increasingly challenged governments in both countries.
A century is a very long time for a failed experiment in nation-building. What 100 years of neglect and greed produced were immense contradictions, as relative poverty and extreme wealth existed side by side. When functional unemployment increased, for example, it was quickly camouflaged through sectarian corruption, as party bosses and other power brokers disbursed generous financial donations to smother social unrest. Simultaneously, most of the nearly 1 million Lebanese workers toiling overseas dutifully transferred hard-earned salaries year in and year out. Their remittances ensured the creation of a first-rate banking Ponzi scheme that enriched the superwealthy while it provided the illusion of prosperity to the middle class.
In fact, expatriate Lebanese workers helped keep their native land afloat, sending $7 billion to $8 billion in annual remittances—which amounted to 18 percent of gross domestic product when the economy was riding high in 2010 and were deposited in local banks or earmarked to buy property. Local banks offered high interest rates, ranging from 6 to 12 percent—and sometimes reaching 15 to 20 percent—with the full approval of the central bank that had kept the lira stable at 1,507 to the dollar since 1997, though the currency spiraled downward to around 10,000 to the dollar on the black market a few months ago (and was back down to 7,600 as of this writing).
Today, capital controls have locked up dollars in bank accounts, uniting both rich and poor in anger, with many businesses no longer accepting card payments. Most Lebanese believed that their steadily growing bank accounts were safe and that they would be allowed to enjoy life—oblivious to sophisticated mechanisms introduced by incredibly savvy pilferers. Organized corruption melted most savings as banks ran out of dollars and paid out dollar accounts in Lebanese lira first at the 2,600 lira rate before settling at 3,900 lira to the dollar, at a time when a dollar fetched 8,000 lira on the black market. Inflation galloped, prices skyrocketed, unemployment increased, emigration exploded, poverty settled in for at least 50 percent of the population, and the Lebanese lira lost nearly 80 percent of its value in less than a year.
Beyond the explosions that rocked Beirut on Aug. 4, beyond successive economic crises that impoverished a large majority of the Lebanese, and beyond the continued hijacking of political life by one of the most corrupt ruling establishments anywhere on the planet, Lebanon is now confronting its thirsty post-1920 demons.
In the words of Salim Badaoui, a French-educated Lebanese journalist, “the 1943 National Pact was dead and the 1989 Ta’if Accords were no longer viable,” even if Lebanese Shiites were now openly calling for a constitutional convention that would presumably reach a new power-sharing accord. “It was imperative … not to accept a new Iranian-sponsored Ta’if since that would be based on excessive Shiite power. Lebanon would disappear,” Badaoui wrote in his 2019 opus Marounia: Une identité en péril.
Of course, calls for a new pact today between Christians and Muslims did not mean that whatever emerged would favor Shiites, though the openly advocated associations with Iran by Hezbollah and, far more ominously, the unabashed desire to be part of the wilayat al-faqih —the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist council that maintains a supreme leader who must serve all Shiites everywhere—unsettled the rest of Lebanese society.
Hezbollah representatives and Shiite religious figures seldom missed an opportunity to reiterate their desire and duty to be part of the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist, which drew sharp criticisms from Christians and Sunnis alike. Maronite Patriach Mar Bisharah Boutros al-Ra‘i reacted strongly to such pronouncements and recently advocated neutrality to preserve the country’s political identity. Shiite officials promptly rejected his call.
For his part, Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian, the Sunni mufti of Lebanon, emphasized that there were no alternatives to the Taif Agreement, which Shiite clerics dismissed as a spent deal. Interestingly, a majority of Lebanese wished to see real technocrats in charge of their government, a desire expressed during the protests of October 2019 and more recently. Naturally, establishment stakeholders ignored all of these calls, unwilling to surrender lucrative activities that allowed them to remain in power and perpetuate their proven performances. One government resigned and was replaced by another, with the same political leaders manipulating the process. In reality, nothing changed.
Although Lebanese Christians, Druze and Sunni Muslims rejected Shiite jurisprudence, this did not and does not mean that they no longer wanted to coexist with Shiites. Rather, the overwhelming majority of the Lebanese, including Shiites not beholden to Iran, appeared to be aghast at how Shiite leaders positioned themselves in society in a way that made coexistence nearly impossible.
Admittedly, this was a difficult proposition to test, given that no scientific surveys on sectarianism were conducted or even allowed. Still, evidence that buttressed sectarian preferences proliferated, as Hezbollah coerced key Christian officials and corralled the Free Patriotic Movement of Gen. Michel Aoun, who only became head of state after Hezbollah forced a suspension of parliament for two years, eager to reach power and rule with impunity, thus ensuring that Aoun was beholden to them.
In the aftermath of the 2018 parliamentary elections—after the agreement between the militia and Aoun, now Lebanon’s president—Hezbollah was euphoric. Successful gerrymandering also played a role. In 2017, Lebanese politicians passed a new electoral law that allowed almost all political parties to engage in proportional representation, opening fresh fields of electoral competition, which had been previously confined to just a few constituencies. As a result, the country’s political architecture changed, with a new level of uncertainty that forced parties to build ad hoc alliances with a broad, shifting set of partners, established district by district.
There were numerous cases of new alliances crossing traditional lines, which prevented civil society candidates from winning all but a single seat out of 128. The gerrymandering upset every political apple cart, leading to then Prime Minister Saad Hariri losing 12 of the 33 seats his Future Movement held in the 128-member parliament. Hariri, the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, was one of the pillars of the March 14 Alliance, ostensibly opposed to Hezbollah but, in reality, a silent partner in several successive governments. The journalist Kim Ghattas reported exuberant celebrations as many chanted: “Beirut is Shia, Beirut is Shia.”
Shiite operatives posted video clips on YouTube and other social media outlets praising the sect and arguing the time was long overdue to rule Lebanon. Of course, there were hundreds if not thousands of such clips, even as leading Shiite religious leaders cautioned overzealous speakers to tone the rhetoric down. Sadly, the “Shiite, Shiite, Shiite” chants were repeated in the aftermath of the October 2019 uprisings that saw nearly 2 million protesters in downtown Beirut. In some cases, armed partisans attacked demonstrators, burned tents, and otherwise terrorized peaceful opponents of the regime. This was important because Hezbollah operatives were behind these acts, all to show who was in charge of security in Lebanon.
Lebanese public opinion solidified against Shiite community activities after villagers in Lassa illegally erected a building on land owned by the Maronite Church in 2011. The long-running dispute over land ownership in the mixed community, as elsewhere throughout the country, threatened to upset demographic conditions. Similar flare-ups occurred in several predominently Druze villages in the Chouf Mountains and resulted in deaths while government officials watched.
There was also a backlash from Christians. In mid-2019, the town of Hadath banned Muslims from buying property, which sparked a national outcry, though these developments illustrated Lebanon’s rapidly changing demographic makeup against the backdrop of deep-rooted sectarian divisions.
More recent attacks on the Maronite patriarch, who boldly called on Aug. 24 for state authorities to remove all illegal weapons, meaning Hezbollah’s weapons, further exacerbated conditions. For his part, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, whose almost weekly televised speeches were broadcast on all local channels, warned protesters who set up mock gallows for him in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square to watch it.
On Aug. 12, Nasrallah strenuously objected, adding: “We’ve seen all boundaries crossed. Who do these people represent? We respect those peacefully protesting not those who are backed by embassies,” insinuating the widespread anti-government protests were foreign-funded while his Iranian-funded militia was the genuine representative of the people’s will. Moreover, the secretary-general warned many when he stated: “I don’t say let go of your anger, hold on to it, but restrain it, because the day might come when you will need it to end all attempts to drag Lebanon into a civil war,” It was a warning to all, especially Christians, not to rely on outsiders to save them. There was some media outcry, leading top managers at TV stations to decide they would no longer broadcast Nasrallah’s orations.
It fell to a former minister, Pierre BouAssi from the Lebanese Forces party, to call a spade a spade. When pressed by an interviewer to clarify his criticisms of the Shiites, BouAssi bluntly stated that “we are different people”; he also called on Aoun to resign because of his deals with, and tolerance of, Hezbollah.
As Lebanon teeters on the brink of collapse, the country’s Christians, Druze, and Sunnis—along with some Shiites—are determined to preserve their freedoms. Many endured hardships for four centuries under Ottoman rule, and some have once again begun talking about federalism as an option to ensure their long-term safety, though how that would work in a sectarian society such as Lebanon is unclear, especially when Hezbollah is opposed to the very idea of federalism or partition.
Many wonder whether the Lebanese can survive with Hezbollah’s guns imposing Shiite minority rule over all other communities. Others deliberate how many more will need to perish before the Lebanese can truly be free. Partition is a serious option that would help avoid repeated mistakes that largely defined Lebanon during the past century. It was amply clear that while the Lebanese shared common attributes, they could not agree on basic political and social freedoms, which can only be preserved through a new political pact.
Without liberty, Lebanon has no meaning, since those who presumably created the current geographic entity intended to empower its inhabitants with the freedoms that were absent elsewhere in the region. Regrettably, the 1920 experiment failed, and the real question that confronts the Lebanese in 2020 is whether the country ought to go back to its pre-1920 settings.
Joseph A. Kéchichian is a senior fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
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