Lebanon’s Sects Game: The Problem With Its Byzantine Political System

The appointment of a new Lebanese Prime Minister illustrates the arcane complexity — and absurdity — of the country's sectarian politics

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ANWAR AMRO / AFP / Getty Images

Lebanon's newly named Prime Minister Tammam Salam arrives for an interview following his official appointment at his home in Beirut on April 6, 2013

What is the worth of religion? In Lebanon, it is everything and nothing at all. The country has 18 constitutionally recognized sects, and those sects dictate marriage, divorce, inheritance, political position and votes. Yet sect is mutable. It doesn’t necessarily reflect spiritual belief, or any belief at all. And the right to change sect is enshrined in the constitution. Catholic and want a divorce? Convert to Islam. Don’t like Sunni Islam’s inheritance laws? Become a Shi‘ite. Just don’t choose “none of the above.” That threatens a political system so deeply intertwined with religion that agnosticism becomes an existential threat. Like an injection of steroids that initially revived Lebanon after a debilitating civil war, continued use of religion in politics has rendered the country’s government bloated, impotent and subject to unexpected eruptions of rage.

Nowhere is that more apparent than over the current debacle that has deprived Lebanon of a government just two months shy of parliamentary elections. After two tension-filled weeks, Lebanon’s fractious political parties have agreed upon a new Prime Minister to replace Najib Mikati, who abruptly resigned in protest on March 22 over parliament’s inability to agree on a new law to govern the upcoming elections. Incoming Prime Minister Tammam Salam, a former minister from a prominent Sunni Muslim political dynasty, has to form a Cabinet, implement — if one can be agreed upon — the new election law and open parliamentary polling by June 9. At which point he will be out of office.

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Unless the current law is amended, the next parliament is likely to look like this one — leading to a carefully calibrated balance of opposing parties that maintains political stability at the risk of getting absolutely nothing done. But if the electoral law changes to reflect another political consensus, it could have knock-on effects not only for the balance of power in parliament, but on whom parliament elects as President next year. If, for example, the Hizballah-aligned bloc loses its standing in parliament and in the Cabinet, and then finds itself up against an adversarial President (instead of the neutral one currently in place), it could once again take to the street with a show of force, as happened in 2008. With tensions already at boiling point over the sectarian conflict in Syria next door, the need for consensus is paramount.

But consensus in Lebanon is an unruly construct based on multiple players in identity politics. Accept, for the moment, that no description of Lebanon’s complicated political system makes sense. Not to outsiders, and not to Lebanese themselves. “I’m in politics, and I still don’t understand our system,” says Carlos Eddé, head of the Lebanese National Bloc party. He’s only partially joking. Lebanon’s 128 parliamentary seats are divided into 26 districts. Each district’s multiple seats are apportioned according to religious representation down to the sect level, ensuring that even though Christians only make up 39% of the population, exactly half the seats in parliament go to Christian sects (divided among Maronites, who recognize the Catholic Pope, Greek Orthodox, Armenian and so on), and half to Muslims (broken down between Alawite, Sunni, Shi‘ite and Druze). In theory, this is designed to ensure that Lebanon’s cosmopolitan makeup is reflected in its political status quo. In reality, it is the only thing guaranteeing a thriving Christian community in a post–Arab Spring Middle East that has grown increasingly intolerant of religious minorities.

By an ironclad tradition, Lebanon’s Prime Minister must be Sunni, the President Maronite, and head of parliament a Shi‘ite. All the other sects are assigned supporting roles, depending on how coalitions are built in parliament. In a case of affirmative-action ad absurdum, those sect-based appointments go all the way down to the diplomatic corps. To avoid sect favoritism at the ministry level, the deputy cannot be the same religion as his minister. Politics, not merit, defines leadership at key posts throughout the country. It’s no wonder most Lebanese treated the collapse of the government last month with a shrug. The country has long learned to work without one.

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Not only that, Lebanese don’t vote in the districts where they live. Instead, they must return to the district where their families were first registered, back in the 1930s. (Married women vote at their husband’s point of registration.) For those Lebanese who have left their ancestral villages, there is seldom any reason to do so. Why waste time voting for a representative who will have no actual bearing on daily concerns, who will not have any say over local development projects, trash collection or zoning? And why would representatives elected then feel accountable to their out-of-town electorate, who are not there to witness their efforts? All that is left is to vote along sectarian lines. Parties, meanwhile, don’t need to develop political platforms as much as capitalize on identity politicking.

Most Lebanese agree that the electoral law needs to change; they just can’t agree how. Under the current law, voters cast their ballots across sect lines, a system designed to maximize cross-confessional cooperation, so that while candidates compete only with their co-religionists, they must get outside support to win a seat. But Lebanon’s Christian parties say the current setup allows non-Christians, who make up the majority of the population, a disproportionate influence over electing even Christian parliamentarians. They have proposed a draft law that restricts voting along sect lines. Not just Christians voting only for Christians or Muslims for Muslims, but by the even finer-toothed 18 strata that make up Lebanon’s multiconfessional population. This draft law is commonly referred to as the Orthodox Gathering Law, after the Orthodox Christian political groups that proposed it. Politician Eddé calls it the Apartheid Law. He says Lebanon would never recover from even one election run under the proposed law. “The most terrifying aspect of the confession-divided vote is that you will only have extremists arriving to parliament. Everyone will want to be his community’s champion against the other. It will be a disaster.” He proposes dividing Lebanon into 128 districts, where each has one seat in parliament. At the beginning the 50–50 division between Christians and Muslims will need to be maintained in order to prevent a sectarian shock, he says, but that can be achieved through “positive gerrymandering.”

His proposal, however, is unlikely to come to fruition. There is simply too much at stake for the politico-religious leaders to risk open competition. Not only that, says Said Sanadiki, election program adviser for the U.N. in Lebanon, an election system based on interlinked coexistence is the only thing keeping the country from shattering along sectarian lines. It also protects minorities, guaranteeing them a voice, while strengthening the country against too much foreign influence. “Yes, sect divides Lebanon, but if you took sect away, the country would collapse,” says Sanadiki. Consensus brings stability. It also makes the country impossible to govern. Given the country’s violent past, it doesn’t seem like such a bad trade-off. Moving toward a rosier future, however, may be impossible.

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