Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.
After years of turmoil, and on the heels of the highly successful Lebanese National Dialogue held in Doha in mid-May, Lebanon’s leaders swore in a new president on Sunday under the banner of a broad-based coalition government. The government will include both Hezbollah – which led Lebanon into war with Israel in 2006 – and its allies, as well as Saad Hariri’s Western-leaning Future Movement; a diverse but necessary coalition to keep the country from splitting in two.
The coalition formula in the Doha Accord on Lebanon was just about the only thing that could have stopped the bleeding today, but Lebanon’s real problems are more fundamental; much deeper reform is needed.
The core problem is Lebanon’s electoral system, which is more feudal than democratic. This system has weakened the Lebanese state over the past half century to such an extent that groups like Hezbollah and the Palestine Liberation Organization have each been able to create a state-within-a-state, complete with weapons and communications systems that are stronger than those of the Lebanese government.
Imagine a system whereby the U.S. Constitution guaranteed that the U.S. president be white, the vice president be black and the speaker of the house be latino. That’s what Lebanon has, but along religious lines. And the effect is that the core of Lebanese politicking takes place along those sectarian lines with quasi, supra-tribal chieftain leaders emerging as the heads of the Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, and various Christian sects. This setup serves only to deepen the divide between religious groups, creating the conditions for never-ending sectarian tension.
This feudal Lebanese electoral system can and should be confined to the dustbin of history and replaced with a truly democratic electoral system. Lebanon may also need the help of an international consensus to end this system of apportioning seats in parliament along medieval religious lines and simply allow Lebanese to vote as Lebanese. Period. Not as Christians, Druze, Shiites or Sunnis. To vote for policies. To vote for the future and not the past. To vote for hope.
Imagine living in a country where a Barack Obama-style presidential campaign by a non-traditional candidate from a minority group would not just be improbable, it would be against the law. Those are Lebanon’s ancient rules that no longer make sense, that continue to lead to perpetual conflict, and that need to be discarded.
In 1994 in South Africa, the African National Congress finally handed over its weapons when its “one man, one vote” policy was adopted through a proportional representation system that had built-in structural guarantees for minority rights. In Lebanon, where no group has enough of a majority to dominate the other, a similar electoral system should be even easier to implement than in South Africa, where the minority white population could have easily feared being dominated by blacks who make up the vast majority. In Lebanon, the central problem has been fear – fear by each segment of society that it would be overrun by the others.
What the Lebanese people want most is a guarantee that minority rights, and the freedom to live their lives in a prosperous system, will be respected.
Part of the Doha Accord on Lebanon calls for the creation of “a dialogue on promoting the Lebanese state’s authority over all Lebanese territory and its relationship with the various groups.” Again, South Africa provides an excellent model: after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in 1990, the South African leadership set up a Convention for a Democratic South Africa shortly thereafter in which all citizen groups – not just political leaders – could sit down and debate the shape of their constitution and electoral system. What they came up with was an electoral system without sectarian quotas, but which guaranteed minority rights through provisions requiring minority political parties to always have a seat in government.
One hopes that factional Lebanese leaders could, for the benefit of their country, step out of the way just a bit, and allow a true roll-up-your-sleeves democratic debate to blossom in Beirut to agree on new rules to the game. The natural outcome of such a dialogue would likely be a new national accord in which Hizbullah and all other militias hand over all their weapons to the Lebanese army. This would be part of a new national pact whereby Lebanon embraces an entirely non-sectarian constitution, but one with guarantees for very substantial minority party participation in government. South Africans have done it. So why can’t the Lebanese?
The benefits would likely be many. The core result should be that all segments of society have faith in the state institutions, thus completely undermining the rationale for Hizbullah’s military – and making the handover of Hizbullah’s weapons to a strengthened Lebanese Army something that all Lebanese, including the Shiites, could support. This would also mean increased investment in government-run schools, instead of religiously-based schools.
There must be faith in the representation of the government across all spectrums in Lebanon. The Lebanese might then have a chance to finally address the country’s other core problems – like having the highest per capita debt ratio in the Arab world. Only then will true democracy blossom in the Arab world, in which citizens participate based on their hopes for the future – and not on how their parents pray. What could be better than that?