Can Lebanon follow in the footsteps of Northern Ireland?

A deeply divided Lebanon must build stronger institutions in adverse conditions.

Though Lebanon is bound to be affected by the regional setting, it has the agency to craft its own political system, writes Fakhoury [AP]

After ten months of political paralysis, Lebanon finally had a new cabinet led by Prime Minister Tammam Salam. The Cabinet encompasses the country’s various political factions divided along the March 14 coailtion versus March 8 coalition rift. Two key variables have shaped this process. First, the bickering over ministerial portfolios reflected the sectarianisation of political agendas. Second, while the painfully slow process of government formation reflected Lebanon’s loyalties to external actors, the cabinet finally coalesced thanks to the green light of key regional powers.

Lebanon announces new coalition government

Some saluted the genesis of the cabinet as a pragmatic step with a view to paving the ground for presidential elections and to defusing Lebanon’s tensions. Others decried its short-termist vision positing that the political actors with dissonant visions would soon part ways.

Challenges that make this a Sisyphean task stem from the worsening security situation and from the deficiencies of Lebanon’s sectarian-based political system.

On the one hand, the string of suicide bombings, the last of which targeted the Iranian Cultural Center in Beirut on February 19, shows that Lebanon has become a deeply penetrated state against the backdrop of the Syrian crisis and its regional reverberations. On the other, although Tammam’s cabinet has put an end to a protracted institutional crisis, it is merely a platform accounting for the representation of sectarian interests. Furthermore, it mirrors existing antagonisms, making the prospect for reform elusive. It is worth noting here that the role that the 1989 Taif accords sought to assign to the cabinet has not materialised in the post-war period.

End of Taif formula?

The Taif accords which ended the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) aimed to increase the cabinet’s prerogatives and turn it into a power-sharing platform representing various Lebanese communities. In theory, the objective was to encourage a consensual rather than a hegemonic approach to politics. In practice, however, in light of the March 14/March 8 cleavage and escalating Sunni-Shia rivalries, Lebanon’s politics of accommodation have broken down.

The difficult formation of Lebanon’s long awaited cabinet is yet but an episode in Lebanon’s complex political history. The process leading up to its inception is reflective of an old recursive dilemma at the heart of Lebanese politics whereby political sectarianism feeds on external pressures and vice versa. 

Political science manuals generally frame Lebanon’s political model as a power-sharing system. Based on the 1943 National Pact and the 1989 Taif Accords, this regime type organises political relationships along ethno-sectarian lines. Before the outbreak of the 1975-1990 war, some scholars raved about the system’s merits. From this point of view, Lebanon’s political formula tamed the unbridled drives of sectarianism and enabled the emergence of democratic institutions in a region dominated by authoritarian regimes.

The 1975-1990 war however sharply brought out the deficiencies of the political system. Critics denounced it for its rigidity and incapacity to respond to communities’ grievances and demands. Furthermore, critics argued that power sharing along sectarian lines tends to ossify divisions and exacerbate their violent potential.

Some outlined the extent to which the dynamics of Lebanon’s sectarian system made external and domestic conflicts mutually reinforcing. Indeed, since 1943, Lebanon’s sectarian configuration has encouraged communal elites to search for external and domestic allies so as to maximise their gains and assert their predominance.


Sponsored by the international community, the post-war power-sharing Taif accords paved the way for what was initially framed as peace building and national reconciliation. Implemented under Syria’s guardianship, Taif nonetheless sacrificed the politics of accommodation for the sake of a security-imposed order.

For more than a decade, various scholars lamented the derailment of Lebanon’s so-called “pacted” democracy.They emphasised the extent to which political practices subverted the power-sharing features of the system. 

In 2005, against the backdrop of mounting tensions regarding Syria’s role, the slaying of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri marked the descent into the abyss of instability. The string of assassinations that began in 2005 has not abated since then, with the most recent being the assassination of former minister Mohamad Shatah in December 2013.

Syria spillover

While Lebanon was not a key actor in the 2011 Arab uprisings, its current situation holds various implications for social scientists working on political transformations in the region. Lebanon represents today a typical case of how the so-called Arab revolutionary wave has unleashed backlash effects in some polities. Indeed, the small republic represents a microcosm for broader regional struggles.

Syria’s crackdown on its uprising has spilled into the Lebanese borders, entangling communities and leaders into the wider Saudi-Iranian confrontation. What findings can we draw from this rather unsettling picture? Can social scientists contribute today to unravelling Lebanon’s conundrum?

Various analyses presently focus on how Lebanon’s relevant political players interact with the regional power configuration. Analytical frameworks tend to overemphasise the myriad ways through which broader confrontations among key regional actors negatively replicate on Lebanese soil.

It is worth noting here that various mildly or deeply divided societies have managed throughout history to build stronger institutions under adverse conditions.

We seem however to have forgotten one fundamental aspect that numerous schools of thought have sought to shed light on since the inception of the Lebanese state: How to contextualise the historical dynamics of political sectarianism on Lebanon’s conflict potential?

In Lebanon’s successive crises (e.g. the 1958, 1975-1990, 2006 and 2008 junctures), there is a recurrent pattern whose main features remain unalterable. Critical junctures, whether regional or domestic, have unsettled the dynamics of a precariously functioning political system. In fact, the system can barely perform a low threshold management of conflicts.

No sooner does the load on the system increase then its dynamics lose their ability to cope. Furthermore, by entrenching divisiveness, it makes policy reform almost unachievable. Illustrative examples are the inability of the National Dialogue to reach any decision that feeds into policy-making since 2006, and the recurrent breakdowns of the so-called “collegial cabinets” since 2008. Veto powers are negotiated in a tit-for-tat strategy. The incapacity of the system to cope with challenges encourages elite antagonisms. It further encourages domestic actors to seek to gain the upper hand on the one hand, and incites the involvement of foreign tutelage powers on the other.

A new political system

Scholars interested in the questions of institutionalism and constitutional designs in power-sharing studies should seek to produce research on how Lebanon’s political system can better respond to crises while strengthening its democratic potential. 

It is debilitating that we have to content ourselves with the conclusion that Lebanon’s upheavals will not calm down until the broader power struggles have abated. It is worth noting here that various mildly or deeply divided societies have managed throughout history to build stronger institutions under adverse conditions. Classical cases are Switzerland’s 1959 political formula, and Northern Ireland’s 1998 Belfast agreement which have been the outcome of historical struggles. Various examples come to mind as well. For instance, post-Apartheid South Africa, Malaysia, and Colombia (1958-1974) have managed to introduce institutional reforms to mitigate conflicts.

The objective is neither to compare political and sociocultural contexts nor to discount the various difficulties that such societies still confront. Rather, it is to show that institutional change is possible in various forms and different geopolitical regions. Though Lebanon is bound to be affected by the regional setting, we have the political agency to craft our political system and thereby better respond to external strains and channel the divisive drives of sectarianism.

Tamirace Fakhoury is assistant Professor of Political Science, at the Lebanese American University (LAU) and a lecturer in the GSP summer sessions at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a Global Migration Policy associate at GMPA, Geneva.