The Dilemma of Democracy in Lebanon

Elie D. Al-Chaer and Bilal Y. Saab
Bilal Y. Saab Senior Research Assistant, Saban Center for Middle East Policy

November 6, 2007

In the history of US-Lebanese relations, no American president has pledged to support Lebanese democracy more than G.W. Bush. No American president has invited Lebanese officials to the White House more than G.W. Bush. Why? Because there is no question in President Bush’s mind that Lebanon can serve as a great example of what is possible in the broader Middle East. Lebanon, as President Bush has repeatedly said, is at the heart of his administration’s Mideast democracy-promotion strategy.

Yet despite all this US attention and care for Lebanon, the biggest political coalition in that country – which has a majority in both the legislative and executive branches of government – has been powerless in passing laws and naming a president. Indeed, why has the pro-US coalition of parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri failed to rule like any other majority operating in a democratic setting would?

For many, the answer seems fairly simple and obvious: the pro-Syrian/Iranian opposition, spearheaded by Hizbollah (the US-labelled terrorist group), is preventing the pro-American coalition from ruling through a variety of pressure tactics. For example, how can the majority pass a bill when the pro-opposition Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri has shut Parliament’s doors? How can they elect a president when Berri refuses to convene a session in Parliament? How can the cabinet implement much needed economic reforms when six opposition ministers are boycotting its sessions? How can government generally function when the other side deems it unconstitutional?

But the situation is more complicated than that. The political objectives of Hariri’s anti-Syrian coalition, while perfectly genuine and noble, have failed to materialise largely because of the very nature of the Lebanese political system. Political sectarianism (which means that senior positions in the Lebanese government, Parliament and the administration are allocated on the basis of sectarian identity), not necessarily the opposition’s agenda, has let down the aspirations of all Lebanese who are calling for a free, democratic, and sovereign Lebanon. How so?

The Lebanese system sadly resembles that of world politics: it is essentially anarchic. In Lebanon, a delicate balance of power between different religious communities assures public security and political stability. While appealing on the surface, this system has its costs. Any alteration in that balance of power, whether caused by internal dissatisfaction or external intervention, can cause the government to disintegrate.

Since its independence from French mandate in 1943, government in Lebanon has been consultative. The founders of the Republic realized early on that the consultative system was best suited to lead to cooperative and stable life. The events of March 14, 2005 notwithstanding (when more than one million Lebanese demonstrated in unity against Syrian presence and control), attempts to arouse a truly national consciousness have so far failed to overcome particularistic suspicions.

Does this mean that Lebanon should return to, and settle for, consensus politics and abandon its liberal democratic aspirations? The answer is no. Lebanon is not destined to balance political stability with full-fledged democracy. No complex modern society can live and grow solely on consensus; it needs governmental institutions capable of making decisions which consensus alone cannot make.

But if we believe that anarchy is what states make of it, then we should have confidence in the Lebanese people’s ability to escape from this condition of non-statehood and peacefully transition from a limited democracy to a developed one.

The governing coalition in Lebanon should not be faulted for its aspirations, but for how it came about and tried to pursue them. By now its leaders should have learned the lessons of the past and appreciated the traps of the system. Simply put, Hariri’s coalition cannot rule without negotiating with the other and cannot impose its will or ideas on the opposition. This obviously goes for the opposition too. Hence the critical need to come out of this current mess by electing a neutral president who can oversee the transition from a system of particularistic politics (the current one) to majoritarian politics (the one aspired for). The United States can help Lebanon fulfil that project by respecting the balance of power between its religious communities and continuing to protect it from undue Syrian intervention.

Ambitious and wholesale changes of the Lebanese political system as proposed (whether consciously or unconsciously) by Hariri’s coalition cannot take place overnight or without elite consensus, since elites are the agents of change in Lebanon. Gradualism is the only steady and desirable path for Lebanon toward full-fledged democracy.