Just as reports from Lebanon were indicating that a cabinet would be finalized within days, the notoriously fickle Druze leader Walid Jumblatt announced, on August 2, that his Progressive Socialist Party would withdraw from the governing coalition. Jumblatt criticized his coalition partners in the March 14 alliance, which had claimed victory in the June 7 parliamentary elections, for a campaign “driven by the re­jection of the opposition on sectarian, tribal and political levels rather than being based on a political platform.”[1] This view could apply to the campaigns of both major alliances that ran in the elections. While there were spirited appeals to prevent unwanted foreign intervention or control by representatives of other sects, the campaign period was notable for its lack of attention to issues of real substance.

Six days before the elections, the Matn Salvation List, or the pro-government candidates running in the contested, predominantly Christian Matn district, held a rally where each of the seven list members delivered impassioned speeches to the enormous crowd about the need to save the country from control by the Hizballah-led opposition. The candidates warned that their opponents would bring rule by wilayat al-faqih, or the system of rule by clerics promoted by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran, and exhorted the crowd to recreate Lebanon as the “Switzerland of the East.” Similarly, on election day, voters at a precinct in the Sunni Tariq al-Jadida neighborhood of West Beirut called out to each other, urging fellow voters to vote for the pro-government list “so that Iran does not take over Lebanon.” At the border with Syria, a large billboard read, “They will not come back as long as the sky is blue,” in reference to the Syrian troops who were expelled following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005.

Even the opposition candidates from Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement did not articulate and disseminate concrete agendas for reform beyond broad appeals for “change” and “fighting corruption.” In conversations in Matn on election day, Aounists were hard-pressed to explain the specific elements of their party’s platform that they found most appealing.

In the Western media, many commentators devoured the campaign rhetoric and eagerly portrayed the elections as a de facto referendum on Lebanon’s geopolitical orientation. The election, which pitted the US-backed March 14 alliance against the Iranian-backed March 8 alliance, was widely said to be a contest to determine whether Lebanese foreign policy would veer west toward the US and Europe, or east toward Iran. Indeed, the two major competing coalitions take their names from demonstrations that called for differing geopolitical orientations in the aftermath of Hariri’s assassination. The March 8 alliance was formed following the March 8, 2005 demonstrations in central Beirut in which supporters of Hizballah insisted on the right of the “resistance” to maintain its arms, which it is said to receive from Iran via Syria. Days later, counter-protesters took to the streets, insisting that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon in what became known in the West as the Cedar Revolution. The March 14 alliance consists of some of those groups who find unity in their opposition to Syrian involvement in Lebanese political affairs.

When the June election results came in, the governing March 14 coalition headed by Saad al-Hariri, son of the slain prime minister and leader of the predominantly Sunni Future Movement, edged out the Hizballah-led March 8 alliance by 14 seats.

Western commentators billed the results as a victory for the forces of “moderation” and a rejection of Iranian and Syrian influence in domestic politics. It was widely posited that President Barack Obama’s address to the Arab world in Cairo on June 4 influenced the outcome in favor of the Hariri-led Future Movement. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman triumphantly reported: “President Barack Obama defeated President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.” On the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Egyptian political activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim referred to an “Obama effect” and opined that the results were part of a regional trend toward “moderation”: “The results of the recent parliamentary elections in Lebanon and Kuwait clearly indicate that Islamist parties have lost significant ground to their moderate counterparts.”

Such rhetoric, however, misinterprets the import of the elections because it misreads what democracy in Lebanon means. Lebanon’s electoral system is designed to ensure that some voters receive greater weight than others and its majoritarian district-level system means that even a small margin of victory grants the winner control over all seats in a district. Thus it was possible for the governing March 14 alliance to be declared the “winner” of the election, despite losing the popular vote by almost 10 percent, while the Hizballah-led opposition was deemed the “loser” despite gaining in total seats. [2] In fact, Hizballah won seats in all 11 districts where it fielded candidates and, where it prevailed. the Hizballah-led opposition won by higher margins than March 14.

Regardless of who “wins” or “loses,” the nature of Lebanon’s political system means that the outcome of the elections will have limited consequences for actual politics and policy making. Lebanon’s political system necessitates power sharing among religious groups so as to ensure government stability. Because the system functions by consensus, the opposition retains de facto veto power, bolstered by the threat of armed force. This threat was realized in May 2008, when Hizballah’s militia took to the streets in response to the cabinet’s decision to dismantle the group’s telecommunications network. When the standoff was resolved, the opposition secured a veto in the cabinet, effectively reasserting the system of rule by consensus. Thus, an electoral loss does not necessarily translate into reduced influence in the system.

The challenge of forming a cabinet after the elections demonstrates the limitations of an electoral victory. Despite March 14’s success in the June elections, it has so far taken more than two months for an agreement to be reached on the composition of a cabinet, as the opposition will need to be awarded significant representation in order to avoid the stalemate that plagued the previous government for four years. Reports indicate that such a cabinet will comprise 15 seats for March 14, 10 for March 8 and five “neutral” seats to be appointed by the president. This would leave the opposition with significant voice, but just one vote shy of the 11 required for a veto. Such a framework would make it unlikely for March 14 to achieve its goal of disarming Hizballah.

The tenuous significance of an electoral victory is further manifested by the change in fortune Jumblatt’s withdrawal from March 14 brought to the so-called victors of the June elections. If the proposed cabinet composition holds, Jumblatt’s defection would give March 14 little more than a third of the seats in the cabinet and only a two-seat lead over the opposition in Parliament.

Despite his denunciation of March 14’s sectarian discourse, Jumblatt’s decision to withdraw is illustrative of the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics. Politics in Lebanon is marked by transitory alliances between sects, with politicians jockeying to improve their sect’s position and protect its interests, often at the expense of national priorities. Dedicated first and foremost to his Druze constituents, Jumblatt has likely calculated that given the beginnings of a rapprochement between the US and Syria, remaining in the anti-Syria camp may not be the best long-term strategy for his community. Moreover, following the violence of May 2008, which was particularly fierce between Druze fighters and Hizballah in Mount Lebanon, Jumblatt may consider his community to be better protected if it takes a more neutral position. Distancing his party from March 14 will also serve to reconcile Druze factions in the aftermath of the May 2008 violence, which enhanced fissures between Jumblatt’s loyalists and the Democratic Druze Party allied with March 8.

Such sectarian maneuvers are not merely symptoms of a capricious politician weak in ideological commitment. They are characteristic of a political system that reinforces sectarian affiliation.

Institutionalized Sectarianism

Lebanon’s 128-member Parliament is equally divided between Christians (all denominations) and Muslims (Sunnis, Shi‘a, Druze and Alawites). Each of Lebanon’s 26 multi-member districts has pre-established quotas for candidates from different sects. Voters cast ballots for candidates from all sects—not just from their own sect—and the candidates with the highest number of votes win the seats allotted to their respective sects. In theory, candidates who run in districts with religiously mixed populations must appeal to voters from diverse sects. In practice, however, they rely on pre-election bargains with elites from other sects and create multi-sectarian lists, obviating the need to expend significant time or resources to actually woo members of other sects in most districts. As a result, competition is most intense among members of the same sect who run on competing lists. For example, in the largely Christian district of Jazzin in southern Lebanon, both the Shi‘i Amal Movement and the Christian Aounists ran Christian candidates for the district’s Christian seats—a fact that exposed cracks in the opposition given that both parties were technically allies in the March 8 alliance.

The district-level allocation of seats by sect based on the purported sectarian distribution of the population does not reflect the actual demographic distribution of the current population because the district-level seat allocations are based on the results of the last census, which was held in 1932. Variation in birth rates and emigration trends in different religious communities has resulted in the relative decline of Christians vis-à-vis Sunnis and, especially, Shi‘i Muslims. In addition, because citizens vote in their father’s place of origin (or, for married women, in the husband’s district of origin) rather than in their place of residence, there is a significant mismatch between where people vote and where they actually live. Similarly, other government offices are divided according to pre-established sectarian quotas, with the presidency reserved for a Maronite Christian, the office of prime minister for a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of Parliament for a Shi‘i, while bureaucratic and other administrative positions are also divided by sect. Thus, instead of distributing power proportionally, some groups are intentionally underrepresented while others are given a political weight that exceeds their demographic proportion.

Lebanon’s power-sharing system is founded on pacts among elites, who forge pre- and post-electoral compromises, thereby ensuring the stability of the overall system, with little opportunity for meaningful input on the part of the citizenry. Even Lebanon’s particular mix of electoral regimes, which combines a division of power along religious lines with majoritarian electoral rules, does not achieve its intended goal of fostering cross-sectarian cooperation in society because elite-level alliances among political leaders from different sects undercut the need to forge meaningful linkages with citizens from other sects in many districts. Thus, in the 2005 elections, Hizballah, the Future Movement and other parties fielded Sh‘i and Sunni candidates in a joint list in Beirut despite the absence of a shared ideological agenda, thereby eliminating the potential for real cross-sectarian competition. Where other sects constitute swing voter blocs, parties generally form alliances with local elites rather than direct linkages with voters but, if necessary, the political machines of wealthier parties may provide cash or foodstuffs to local power brokers, who then distribute these resources to their followers for vote-buying purposes. For example, it is widely alleged that both Hizballah and the Future Movement engaged in such efforts in competitive districts such as Zahle in the Bekaa or the Matn in Mount Lebanon.

Most importantly, because power is awarded based on religious affiliation, there is little scope for citizens to vote as citizens rather than as members of sectarian groups. All of these factors combine to distort the translation of voter preferences into electoral outcomes.

Citizen Priorities

Conversations with those outside of the wealthy, privileged elite reveal that citizens feel utterly disenfranchised and powerless to make their voices heard. In describing the Lebanese political class, people routinely exclaim, “All of them are liars.” A comparison between the priorities of ordinary citizens and civil society groups and the trends in parliamentary activity corroborates these impressions.

In 2006, a Lebanese non-governmental organization, Toward Citizenship, launched the Lebanese Parliamentary Monitor, which is an ongoing effort to assess the legislative initiatives of members of Parliament. According to its website, the project aims to “enhance accountability and transparency by establishing a monitor to provide citizens with concrete information on their representatives’ track record on key public policy issues.” The findings of the project indicate a wide gap between the policy priorities of citizen groups and legislation. Polls show that the majority of Lebanese non-governmental organizations prioritize policy areas such as energy and water, social development and poverty alleviation, government reform, social security and anti-corruption measures. Low- and middle-income Lebanese—regardless of sectarian affiliation—are overwhelmingly concerned with bread-and-butter issues such as access to affordable, good quality medical care and schooling, as well as employment opportunities to provide stable and adequate lifestyle for their families.[3]

But parliamentary activity has not centered on these citizen priorities: Between 2005 and 2007, over 18 initiatives submitted by MPs to Parliament related to justice (including institutional arrangements for investigating the assassinations of high-profile public figures such as Rafiq al-Hariri). Only one law proposed in this time period addressed social services. Justice-related proposals ranked first among MPs of the Future Movement, the Hariri family’s political base—not surprisingly, given the organization’s emphasis on an international tribunal to prosecute the perpetrators of Hariri’s assassination. Meanwhile, opposition MPs tended to propose legal reforms related to parliamentary reform and anti-corruption measures, which were key the foundation of the opposition’s critiques of the ruling majority. Legislation passed was even more removed from the priorities of the citizenry: Out of a total of 54 laws enacted in 2005 and 2006, the vast majority related to international pacts and agreements, while almost no laws concerned basic socio-economic issues that have more immediate effects on improving the lives of ordinary citizens. In 2005, no laws related to social services were passed and, in 2006, only one law was enacted in this issue area. As the Lebanese Parliamentary Monitor observes, “None of the top five priority public policies, as designated by civil society, appear in the top five legislated policies [sic].” (While Parliament was particularly ineffective in the period 2005-2007, due to political turmoil following the assassination of Hariri, the legislature had not achieved much in less tumultuous times prior to this period.)

In the June elections, at least 1.5 percent of Lebanese chose to protest the political system and the choice of candidates by casting blank ballots.[4] In the 2009 elections, the Ministry of Interior announced that it would count blank ballots separately from invalid ballots for the first time in Lebanese history. Unlike boycotting the elections, casting a blank ballot cannot be interpreted as political apathy. By making the effort to vote—which, in many polling stations was no small feat given hours of standing in long lines before reaching the ballot box—these voters chose to set aside apathy and the apparent “irrationality” of casting a ballot to convey their active opposition to the system. Still, absent a broader multi-pronged movement, this kind of opposition by individuals will have little impact.

Lebanese Civil Society

Lebanon is distinguished in the Arab world for its relatively democratic rule and vibrant civil society—characteristics that are largely a result of state weakness and social fragmentation. But an energetic and relatively unconstrained civil society does not necessarily translate into an effective civil society. The bulk of Lebanese civil society organizations are linked to religious organizations, family associations and political movements. The interactions of citizens with the state and civil society organizations are largely mediated by clientelist relations structured by religious sects, political parties and movements, or za‘ims (or individual, quasi-feudal leaders who tend to have regional power bases). Clientelist social relations are premised on exchange and, therefore, clients can derive benefits from patrons under such arrangements, but these benefits are not entitlements. Instead, they are contingent on the willingness of patrons to grant favors and on client compliance with the expectations of the patrons. As such, clientelist benefits are neither predictable nor reliable, nor are they subject to mechanisms of accountability, which would enable less privileged members of the population to organize in favor of their demands. Even in laissez-faire Lebanon, which institutes fewer public welfare programs than most developing countries, citizens view access to basic standards of living as entitlements of citizenship and, therefore, as one of the greatest failures of their state.

For example, the Ministry of Health guarantees coverage of up to 85 percent of hospitalization expenses for all citizens with demonstrated financial need. A budget crisis, in part induced by abuse of this policy, limits the ability of the state to fulfill its commitment: Because the Ministry of Health is in arrears, hospitals increasingly refuse to accept patients without private insurance or confirmation of their ability to pay. Patients have even died outside of hospitals because their families could not show that they could cover hospitalization costs prior to treatment. Political factors also undercut citizen access to this entitlement: In practice, individuals require personal connections to access the right to financial assistance for hospitalization, often via a political party or religious authority.

As long as citizens lack economic means, they are preoccupied with meeting the basic needs of their families, such as food, shelter and health, and therefore cannot devote precious time and resources to organize themselves in alternative forms of social organization. Under these conditions, it is virtually impossible for citizens to mobilize against clientelist social relations or to pressure elected officials to reform social policy, effectively locking low-income groups into a vicious cycle of dependence on patrons. If citizens somehow manage to join associations or engage in other forms of collective action that either directly or indirectly threaten the system, then powerful constituencies with vested interests in clientelist practices block their efforts. While wealthier individuals can afford to organize in independent, anti-sectarian associations, the majority of the population is too dependent on the intervention of elites for access to basic services or bureaucratic favors to risk jeopardizing relationships with their de facto patrons. Historical analyses suggest that economic growth and development, which enable people to amass sufficient resources to stake their own political claims, are important factors contributing to the decline of clientelism and machine politics. Yet given Lebanon’s massive foreign debt, persistent economic challenges and high levels of income inequality, economic development with real benefits for the vast majority of the population seems distant at best.

Civil society can be a vital arena for formulating and acting on different visions of the public good. These shared notions of the public good arise from deliberation among citizens. Since the creation of independent Lebanon in 1943, there has been no consensus on the country’s national identity, with some Maronite Christians emphasizing Lebanon’s alleged Phoenician heritage while others, including both Christians and Muslims, point to the country’s Arab foundations. These disputes are alive and well today, as reflected in the persistent failure to publish official textbooks on national history as well as the multiple, competing historiographies taught in Lebanese private schools, which educated over 60 percent of the children enrolled in primary and secondary schools in 2006. Debates over the nature of Lebanon’s national political community have also hindered the development of public welfare functions, in part because of strong “pro-market” pressures from the founding elites of the country and in part because of a lack of social cohesion and an associated ideology of national solidarity. The construction of a national welfare regime requires a sense of national solidarity, a point that was not lost on Fu’ad Shihab, the president of Lebanon from 1958 to 1964. Shihab recognized the importance of national welfare regimes to nation building, compelling him to establish the National Social Security Fund, which he saw as a way “to ground all Lebanese in a single society on which national unity is based—not as much on the basis of coexistence—but rather to make one complete people and to remain loyal to the country.[5] The Fund provides health coverage and other benefits to formal-sector employees. Although the Fund is virtually bankrupt and Lebanese complain about the de facto erosion of benefits, it remains a pillar of the Lebanese national welfare regime.

With profound differences over the contours of the national political community, and a political system structured on religious lines, secular or cross-confessional forms of social organization have little if any opportunity to compete effectively. The ex ante structuring of politics around religion simply increases and entrenches the political salience of religious identity and undercuts the influence of non-religious groups in the system. In effect, elections become contests over who can best defend the interests of her sect. Virtually all of the major politicians resort to sectarian appeals—whether overt or more discreet. For example, although Aounist officials and their supporters loudly proclaim their opposition to sectarianism, the movement’s candidates frequently resorted to sectarian language on the campaign trail by emphasizing the movement’s qualifications for protecting Christian interests in Lebanon. For their part, pro-March 14 candidates also resorted to sectarian appeals, as the Matn Salvation List rally attests. These strategies pay off: Christians, who constituted the real swing voters in the elections, considered whether Aoun and his cohort or the pro-government Christian parties and local leaders would safeguard their position in the country, despite their dwindling numbers vis-à-vis both Sunni and Shi‘i Muslims. In Sidon and Beirut, where independent candidates ran for Sunni seats with non-sectarian messages, the Future Movement’s implicit appeals to defend the Sunnis (not to mention vote-buying efforts) carried the day, while the Communist Party performed especially poorly in the handful of districts where it fielded candidates.

Beyond Sectarianism

Adopting a long-term perspective, some activists are challenging Lebanon’s sectarian culture by working through the nongovernmental organization sector to promote a “culture of rights” among citizens. For example, explicitly anti-sectarian NGOs such as the Amal Association or the Mouvement Social run social programs that offer medical care, vocational training and other social services. Embedded in their activities are larger messages containing their visions for social change, inter-sectarian tolerance and the establishment of a national citizenship. The Amal Association, for example, displays attractive posters throughout its facilities promoting a “culture of citizenship rights” alongside public service announcements encouraging mothers to breastfeed or families to remain up to date on childhood immunizations. The organization’s activities extend beyond the provision of services to community-based advocacy for human rights and inter-group reconciliation. In the religiously mixed region of Marjayoun, Amal runs a program that brings together Druze, Christian and Muslim youth to participate in dialogue and joint activities, with the goal of promoting greater tolerance and understanding in the community.

Founded in 1961, the Mouvement Social, which currently focuses mainly on vocational training and income-generation programs, was founded by Père Gregoire Haddad, who is sometimes referred to as the “red priest” because of his allegedly left-wing beliefs. Both of these groups make a point of establishing centers in areas that collectively encompass all of Lebanon’s major sectarian groups and emphasize their non-sectarian, non-discriminatory and secular values in every public communication and activity they undertake. With their national presence and established histories, the Amal Association and Mouvement Social are among the most important non-sectarian civil society organizations in the country, and yet representatives from both organizations emphasize the uphill battle they face in Lebanon’s political system. Their experiences underscore that such grassroots approaches will not yield rapid reforms. But local civil society organizations have been critical in overturning entrenched clientelism in other developing countries and are therefore likely to be essential components of a larger process of constructing substantive democracy in Lebanon—a goal that the current system cannot fulfill.


Daily Star, August 3, 2009.

Kamal Faghali, “Preliminary Analysis of the Parliamentary General Elections in Lebanon, 2009,” available online at http://elnashra.com/elections/articles-1-2991.html#file. [Arabic]

Based on author interviews in 2008 with 130 Lebanese citizens across sectarian lines.

Daily Star, June 11, 2009.

Albert Dagher, L’Etat et l’Economie au Liban (Beirut: CERMOC, 1995), p. 53.

How to cite this article:

Melani Cammett "Democracy, Lebanese-Style," Middle East Report Online, August 18, 2009.

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