To say that Lebanon has been through a lot would be an understatement. After a multifaceted civil war which ended in 1990, the country had to face a series of disasters including a major financial collapse, the emergence of mass protests and the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic. However, all the issues that Lebanon had to face seem to have their roots in a single predominant problem: Lebanon’s corrupt sectarian system.
When looking at the current situation in Lebanon, one question prevails: can it only get worse? The whole world wonders whether the Lebanese, and especially the youth, can remain hopeful for the future when everyday life keeps getting harder.
What went wrong?
As one crisis opens doors to others, Lebanon’s political leaders have thus far proved incapable of addressing the multiple health, economic, social and political issues that the country is facing. The devastating 4th August blast in Beirut port was the culminating evidence of the dysfunctional nature of the Lebanese state. This tragic event destroyed the heart of the city of Beirut and killed more than 200 people. It was caused by 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been stored in the port for more than six years. Looking at the explosion two months on, it is clear that ongoing corruption and negligence on the part of the Lebanese political elite not only caused the disaster but also prevented any effective reform to enable the rebuilding of the country afterwards.
The current Lebanese political system was codified by the 1989 Taif Agreement which ended the country’s civil war. It is entrenched along sectarian lines as it was designed to provide political representation to all Lebanon’s eighteen officially recognized religious communities. In Lebanon, the president (currently Michel Aoun, pictured above) has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim. The seats in parliament are split between Christians and Muslims and the seats are then proportionally divided between the different branches within each of the religions. Similarly, government positions are also divided among the different groups. Over time, this system proved flawed and created tensions between the different religious sects. The Lebanese people quickly realized that each sect’s leader or representative would prefer to use their powers to serve the interests of their community rather than those of the country. The Lebanese political system has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of the population because of the level of corruption and nepotism it encourages.
The flaws in the structure of the Lebanese political system and the incapacity of the Lebanese political elite were also highlighted by the multiple successive crises in government formation. A week after the Beirut blast, the prime minister Hassan Diab resigned while his government collapsed around him. His predecessor, Saad Hariri, had himself resigned less than a year before, on the 29th October 2019. Many thought that the 4th August tragedy would mark a paradigm shift and open opportunities for reform. It is true that such an event could have brought the whole country together and convinced all Lebanese that they needed to work together to build a bright future for their nation. However, this was not the case. The newly designated prime minister Mustapha Adib stepped down on the 26th of September 2020 having been unable to form a new government. More precisely, he stated that he could not find any compromise to resolve the disputes among factions regarding appointments to ministries. This failure shows that Lebanon’s political leaders are still not ready to give up on their corrupt practices and privileges. It seems likely that government formation will remain a cursed process in Lebanon. Indeed that incapacity to agree on a new government is preventing Lebanon getting an international bailout as some countries such as France clearly state that their help is conditional on a credible government being formed.
Nevertheless, no matter the amount of international pressure, Lebanon still seems far from successfully forming a new government. Moreover, many Lebanese believe that the mere formation of a new government would not be enough to save the country as it would not solve any of the corruption and inefficiency issues. Fundamental changes are needed in Lebanon.
Can Lebanon still be fixed?
The question that everyone is trying to answer is whether there is still a way to fix Lebanon.
When asked such a question, most teenagers and young adults seem pessimistic about the future of their country. Several young Lebanese who went on the streets on the 17th October 2019 told us they would not be willing to do it again. They explained that those mass protests did not bring any change and that they killed all hope of reform. Some also added that it is now difficult for them to believe that Lebanon will ever be free from corruption and nepotism. Such a feeling is understandable considering that, more than a year after the start of the protests, the Lebanese authorities have failed to address the people’s demands.
Although they are unsure whether it could still happen, the Lebanese youth agrees that a new start is necessary for the country. However, it is difficult to assess what exactly would be required as part of this new start. This is why the Next Century Foundation believes in the importance of creating forums and platforms for discussions that include Lebanese from all political, social and economic backgrounds as well as representatives of all religious communities. Such an idea might sound naïve to some, but we truly think it is crucial to listen to all parties’ views in order to create dialogue, find compromises and agree on potential solutions to build a better future for Lebanon.
When discussing attempts to bring serious reform to Lebanon, several key solutions and scenarios need to be mentioned and developed. Some of them were examined during the regular Lebanon working group meetings organized by the Next Century Foundation. The need for legislative reform has to be part of any discussion regarding Lebanon’s future. The creation of an upper house of parliament was suggested in the Taif Agreement but never properly considered nor implemented by Lebanon’s political leaders. A bicameral system could help Lebanon to move away from sectarianism. Indeed, the upper house could be established along sectarian lines while the lower house could welcome political parties and individuals regardless of their confessional affiliation. However, as the Taif Agreement lacks details beyond a basic description of such a legislative reform, trying to implement it would raise many questions regarding the respective roles and powers of the two chambers but also regarding the way in which representatives are elected or appointed. Another crucial point which should be examined when discussing reforms is changing the Lebanese electoral system. The current election laws allow established politicians to consolidate their power and disadvantage independent candidates or new smaller parties which cannot be adequately represented. Changing this electoral system is crucial if Lebanon is to move away from sectarianism and corruption.
One cannot predict what the future holds for Lebanon. The clock is ticking and the current situation could hardly be worse. However, it is not too late for Lebanese to realize that only a government willing to implement serious reform will be able to save the country. The issue here is that those who need to understand this and implement change are also the ones benefiting from the current corrupt system.
This article was written by the NCF Meetings Convenor Marie Colangelo and does not necessarily represent the views of the Next Century Foundation.