Lebanon has been in turmoil since a massive explosion rocked the Beirut port on August 4. This blast, which was blamed on a neglected stockpile of ammonium nitrate, has shaken the tiny country to its core. It has caused widespread destruction in a country which was already reeling under a crippling economic crisis.
Lebanon’s Power-Sharing System
The disastrous explosion has triggered a wave of public anger at political corruption and state ineptitude. This was mainly blamed on the country’s sect-based political system that laid the foundation of Lebanon as a multi-confessional state.
In 1943, Lebanon’s different sects reached a power-sharing agreement that guarantees the representation of every sectarian group. This agreement has shaped Lebanon to this day.
Under this pact, Maronite Christians agreed to accept an Arab identity for Lebanon, instead of a Western one, while Muslims agreed to abandon their demand to unite with Syria.
According to this power-sharing arrangement, the president and army chief must be a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. The agreement also stipulates that the Speaker of the Parliament must be a Shia Muslim, his deputy and the deputy prime minister Greek Orthodox Christians and the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces a Druze.
The flaws of this sectarian political system have been partly blamed for the country’s civil war that broke out in 1975. This war initially began as a conflict between Christian militias and Palestinian groups allied with Lebanese Muslim factions.
It quickly developed into a devastating conflict that lasted 15 years.
An Inconclusive Peace
Guns fell silent in Lebanon under the 1989 agreement that was negotiated in the Saudi city of Taif. This agreement has reshuffled the country’s sectarian-based political system by transferring many presidential powers to a cabinet divided evenly between Christians and Muslims. The agreement, however, failed to fix the flaws of the sectarian political system. Rather, it led to a divisive tension between Lebanon’s two main Muslim communities, the Sunnis and Shias.
The Sunni-Shia frictions sharpened after Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a Sunni, was assassinated in a massive car-bomb explosion in 2005. Many Lebanese pointed the finger at the Shia group Hezbollah over the assassination. A UN tribunal, however, ruled earlier this month that there was no evidence that the leadership of the Shia group was involved in Hariri’s killing.
The Hague-based court, however, found a Hezbollah member guilty in the killing. The Sunni-Shia rift further deepened with the outbreak of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions and the civil war in next-door Syria.
Lebanon is at its Breaking Point
Living under this system of political sectarianism for 77 years, Lebanon is now at a breaking point, with its economy collapsing and its government hardly functioning. And as the country’s sectarian-based pact failed to resolve Lebanon’s troubles, it has become a necessity to draft a new pact on non-sectarian lines to help prevent the country from collapsing.
Drafting a new political pact in Lebanon was first proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron, the first foreign leader to visit Lebanon after the port explosion. “I will propose a new political pact in Lebanon, and I will be back in September, and if they can’t do it, I’ll take my political responsibility,” Macron said as he was greeted by crowds during his visit to the blast-stricken country.
The French leader also called for urgent reforms to resolve the country’s problems. “Lebanon will continue to sink. What is also needed here is political change. This explosion should be the start of a new era,” Macron said.
The Urge for a Hopeful Future
The urgent need for a new political order in Lebanon was very evident when thousands of Lebanese – frustrated with their country’s political elite – signed a petition to put Lebanon under the mandate of France, the former colonial power.
Sensing the growing public anger over their failure to handle the country’s affairs, Hezbollah said it is “open” to discuss the French proposal for a new political pact in the country. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said his group’s consent was, however, conditional on the approval of all Lebanese sects.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun also backed the French call for a new political pact. He admitted that, “The current sectarian system is no longer valid and has become an obstacle in the way of any progress or reform.”
Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether these calls for a new political pact would be translated into action, or if they will remain merely wishful thinking.