Posted by: sean | January 25, 2011

Consensual sectarian rage

Over the last couple of months, there have been a lot of things within this blog’s purview that have gone uncommented here. The situation in Lebanon, the uprising in Tunisia and the Palestine Papers are just a few of them. I haven’t been blogging for a number of reasons I won’t get into as well as the fact that I’ve been so sick of Lebanese politics that I’d rather not read the newspaper, much less blog about it. But the situation today warrants comment for my pairs of loyal readers, so here it goes.

To bring those who haven’t been following Lebanon up to speed, the Hezbollah-led opposition (which for simplicity’s sake we’ll call March 8) quit the government last week when first Saudi-Syrian then Turkish-Qatari mediation efforts broke down. The government was one of “national unity,” following the Lebanese mantra of La ghaalib, la maghloub, or no victor, no vanished. It was led by March 14, which had won a majority of seats despite losing the popular vote in 2009, on one side with March 8 on the other. Somewhere in between, but leaning towards the opposition since shortly after the 2009 parliamentary elections, was Walid Jounblatt (often called the “Druze Chieftan”), who had been a vocal member of March 14 before swapping camps.

So back to the fall of the government. Lacking a parliamentary majority after the defection of Jounblatt, the March 14 government was vulnerable to a toppling of the government, and that’s what happened. When the two sides failed to make a deal primarily about distancing Lebanon from the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) –which has allegedly indicted members of Hezbollah for the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, father to current leader of March 14, Saad Hariri — the Hezbollah-led opposition ministers resigned from the cabinet, which according to Article 95 of the Lebanese constitution has to represent all the “confessional groups” in “a just and equitable fashion.” Also, according to the Ta’if agreement, when a third of the cabinet resigns, then the government dissolves.

With the resignation of March 8 minsters, along with a Shi’a minister allied with the President, there were enough ministers who resigned and no more Shi’a representation, so the government fell. The problem is that since the defection of Walid Jounblatt, March 14 no longer had enough votes to nominate Saad Hariri.

Got that?

So by exercising their constitutional (and Ta’if-al?) rights and recent parliamentary majority, March 8 decided to vote in its own candidate for Prime Minster. Enter Najib Miqati.

So why are members of the Future Movement, Hariri’s party, in the streets closing streets, burning tires, cars and trash bins and generally raising a ruckus throughout the country in what’s being called a “day or rage”?

Due to a 68-year-old “gentleman’s agreement, ” the high posts of government are divided amongst the three largest sects: President for the Maronite Christians, Prime Minister for the Sunnis and Speaker of the Parliament for the Shi’a. So while Miqati is a Sunni, the protesters today, and March 14 more generally, claim that he isn’t representative of the sect, calling the elective move a coup d’état.

While the coup language is kind of silly, they are right about the first part, since Lebanese Sunnis overwhelmingly prefer the Future Movement to any other party. (I can’t find the exact stats for that one, but please leave a link in the comments if you can.) So the Future movement is arguing that Miqati, despite being a Sunni Muslim, doesn’t not represent the community.

This is important, because as I commented over at my friend Exum’s site, the whole point of March 8’s toppling of the government in 2006-2008 was to claim that when Amal and Hezbollah ministers resigned, the Sinoura government would no longer represent Shi’a, since Amal and Hezbollah represent that sect. March 8 absolutely refused to accept a government in which their ministers were replaced with Shi’a from March 14. Likewise, when March 8 lost the elections in 2009, there was never any way that March 8 would have accepted a March 14 candidate to replace Nabih Berri as speaker of the parliament.

Elias, beating me to the punch, sums up the issue succinctly:

  • In 2005, after winning a majority in the elections, the March 14th coalition wanted to nominate a Shiite Speaker of Parliament other than Nabih Berri. The main Shiite parties, Hizbullah and Amal, made a big fuss over this and claimed that such a move would violate that infamously vague clause of the Lebanese Constitution (Preamble, j), which states that “there shall be no constitutional legitimacy for any authority which contradicts the pact of communal existence.” March 14th acquiesced and appointed Berri.
  • In 2006, Hizbullah and Amal withdrew from the Siniora government and then called it illegal and unconstitutional because of the lack of Shiite participation. Speaker Berri then refused to allow Parliament to convene for over a year and a half, so as to prevent the body from ratifying the Lebanese government’s cooperation agreement with the UN Special Tribunal (later passed via Chapter VII), and voting on Emile Lahoud’s presidential successor

In the end, March 8 only rejoined the government after taking over West Beirut in May 2008 and then from their position of power forcing a larger stake (and veto power) in the “national unity government.” Hariri is following Hezbollah’s lead from several years ago by playing the sectarian card and going to the street.

So this leads back to the initial question of what the problem is. One could point to the STL, but really, that’s just the catalyst. It could just as easily be another issue, as it has been in the past, and it will be something else later down the road. The problem here is structural. In order to accommodate the National Pact and the Ta’if agreement,  this paralyzing “consensus” has become an unwritten rule. It’s only really become an issue, though, since the Syrian withdrawal, since under Syrian tutelage from 1990 to 2005, Damascus had the last word, making consensus kind of a  moot point. But without an external moderator, the balancing act has become much more difficult.

Personally, I think the idea of “no victor, no vanquished,” which has been used to justify paralyzed governments of “national unity,” is stupid — at least when it comes to coalition politics. I think the best thing for Lebanon would be to have a proper government and proper opposition, meaning when one side loses, they bow out of government leaving their opponents to govern and trying to do better in the next elections.

The problem here is that 2008 showed that while Hezbollah is generally willing to forget about how the country is ruled, as far as things like the economy and other details, that does not extend to question of the “Resistance.” There are certain lines that cannot be overstepped by whatever group is in power without Hezbollah resorting to force of arms, which is clearly a problem since the Party of God is the most powerful military force in the country.

So what choice does that leave for Lebanon? In the short term, the best thing would be for March 14 to let March 8 have its government and then join the opposition. However, if March 14 were to win the next elections and March 8 were to agree to not have a say in the government (neither a foregone conclusion), the problem of the state versus the resistance would still exist. Hezbollah has made it clear that when there is friction between the two, it is the state that must yield. So unless, Hezbollah controls the state, something it does not seem interested in doing, this is a problem that will continue to plague even a government that works on a majoritarian basis.

In the meantime, Elias is right on the money here:

Obviously, what I would like to see happen is for this new method of choosing prime ministers (and speakers) to be enshrined in the Constitution, such that we don’t keep flip-flopping between consensual and majoritarian procedures every other year. A precedent has been set. Let’s stick with it. But you can bet that won’t happen.

I highly recommend reading the rest of his piece.

Finally, one last point. While Elias and I definitely agree on the democratic value of a majoritarian system versus a consensual one, I’m not really sure how much of a difference a majoritarian system makes (or if it’s even possible) when the scaffolding of the sectarian system remains in place.



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Sean Lee, Annikki Whidden. Annikki Whidden said: RT @humanprovince: My take on today's day of rage: #Lebanon […]

  2. […] This post originally appeared on Sean Lee's blog the human province. […]

  3. […] the President has to be Christian, the Prime Minister Sunni and the Speaker of Parliament Shia.) As Sean writes: This is important, because as I commented over at my friend Exum’s site, the whole point of […]

  4. Thanks Sean for a nice post. The “la ghaleb wala maghloub” formula stops the proper functioning of institutions and governance itself. So we have to agree on the president before the elections. Both players in Lebanon are disingenuous. 14 of March failed to continue what the Lebanese started. They figured if they had the support of the Americans they can stay in power or the Saudis and could not produce a real agenda of economic and political reform which the Lebanese really want. I don’t blame them, they in fact don’t know anything other than confessionalism and corruption. On the other hand, Hezbollah and 8 of March although I like their stance towards Israel and the idea of building local power and strength which is in fact changing the whole historical christian right slogan “the power in lebanon is in its weakness”. But 8 of March is willing to destroy everything and use violence and weapons to affect change. This means that both don’t respect the constitution or the institutions and they are both guilty of destroying the state.
    These two movements have decided that Lebanon is a poliarchy and not a democracy. It’s just a non-state free trade zone. The Lebanese on the other hand, are too sectarian and insecure to think outside these political choices. We are desperate for a political change – for a new political movement.

  5. […] at The Human Province gives a much deeper analysis by emphasising Lebanon's structural flaws as at the core of its […]

  6. what is there to like about hizbullas stance on israel.. did you enjoy 2006?

  7. “No victor, no vanquished” is the one and only foundation for dealing with sectarianism in Lebanon. It does cause paralysis at times, but it is still by far the best foundation for everything. (The same goes for dealing with sectarianism in Northern Ireland, something I’ve more first-hand knowledge of). It is clear above that Sean is biased against Hezbollah. He says: “There are certain lines that cannot be overstepped by whatever group is in power without Hezbollah resorting to force of arms, which is clearly a problem”. I say No, it is not a problem. The Hezbollah people live in Lebanon too. Their sect does not aim to prevent the other sects from living life as they see fit; they’re sincerely signed up to the “no victor, no vanquished” foundation. The STL was unacceptable to Hezbollah for good reasons in my opinion. However, no matter whether the reasons were good or poor, the simple political fact that Hezbollah felt so very strongly about the STL was enough reason by itself to let them have their way on it. That is the nature of peace. It’s no skin off anybody’s nose when the STL goes down the toilet, whereas it would’ve been lots of skin off Hezbollah’s nose if the STL was legitimized.

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