Democracy has Never Worked in Lebanon. But it Needs to if the Country Is to Prosper

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Lebanon has never been a democracy. The problem is, the Lebanese don’t know it and actually think that because they hold sporadic elections that they choose their leaders. A proper understanding of the constant political flux of Lebanon can make the perennial state of crisis in the country a little less confusing, if not necessarily completely enlightening. Take for example the state of play with Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who resigned and then didn’t. Indeed, Hariri’s status is symptomatic of the confusion that is Lebanese politics. If Lebanon is truly to realize the potential it claims, something needs to be done to reform the state of its state. Elections, of course, are due this summer. Just don’t hold your breath.

To understand Lebanese politics, start with the name the Lebanese have coined for their system. “Consensus Democracy,” however, is an oxymoron. While consensus requires the approval of everybody, democracy is the rule of the majority, which can be as tiny as 50 percent-plus-one. Then again, Lebanon’s Consensus Democracy actually is neither a democracy nor a consensus. When the dominant Syrian regime instructed Lebanon’s parliament to extend the mandate of former President Emile Lahoud in 2004, one of the main Lebanese groups, the Druze, voted against this, alongside considerable Christian opposition. Nevertheless, the Syrian regime and its allies, first and foremost Hezbollah, argued that “democracy had spoken,” and that Lahoud had been legitimately given a constitutional exception to serve three more years. So, no consensus, then.

But Hezbollah was not so keen on democracy when its opponents, known as the “March 14” movement, won a parliamentary majority in 2009. Even though Hezbollah’s chief, Hassan Nasrallah, had said on the eve of election that his party would respect the decision of the majority, he walked back on his promise and demanded that March 14 concede to Hezbollah and the minority by forming a “national unity government.” After all, Lebanon cannot be ruled except by consensus, or so Nasrallah argued. And so adamant was Hezbollah on consensus that it forced March 14 to elect a Hezbollah protégé, former Christian General Michel Aoun, as president. So, no democracy this time.

Between consensus and democracy lies something else more potent. Lebanon, in truth, is a country ruled by force, and Hezbollah, with its formidable militia, is the one that decides when it is the turn of “democracy” and when it is that of “consensus.”

In May this year, nine years after the last parliamentary election – which are constitutionally required every four years – Lebanese will finally head to the polling station to choose their new parliament. This is principally because Hezbollah has finally determined that it is in a favorable position to win. So it is time for “democracy,” such as it is.

The new legislature, of course, will differ little from the outgoing one. Lebanese do not perceive of themselves as citizens of their republic, but rather as subjects of their respective religious groups, each headed by a patriarch, who commands a rentier network that he maintains with state resources. The size of the spoils each patriarch receives, and therefore can dispense, is decided in elections. The blocs of the big powerholders — Christian President Michel Aoun and his junior partner Samir Geagea, Shia Speaker Nabih Berri, Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Druze chief Walid Jumblat and a few other politicians with less weight — are secure, with minor adaptations here and there if an oligarch pick up a seat or two at the expense of another. Otherwise, little in Lebanon’s policies or politics will change after this year’s elections.

A few candidates, mainly young professionals with some experience in political organizing, have declared themselves “agents of change.” Yet, given how the state is designed and structured, any meaningful change will require much more than winning a handful of seats. Change in Lebanon requires redefining its social contract and amending the constitution to transform subjects of the state into citizens of the republic with full and equal rights. As long as non-Muslim minorities demand adherence to the rigid quotas that supposedly protect their share of the polity, Lebanese democracy will remain moribund.

Transforming the Lebanese oligarchy into a democracy also requires that Lebanese individuals acquire a better understanding of the state, its role and their expectations of it. Since Lebanon’s inception in 1920, most constituents have picked candidates based on obsolete criteria. Next to their demand that the state improves on its miserable provision of services in trash collection and electricity production, Lebanese voters often seek rewards of a vague nature from their representatives. Instead of demanding liberty, freedom of expression and the rule of law, for example, many Lebanese will elect candidates who promise to enhance things like “honor” and “dignity.” Aoun ascended the presidency on the back of Christians seeking to restore “their rights.” What rights, exactly, apply only to Christians but not their non-Christian peers remains a puzzle.

Because the Lebanese electorate is politically immature, too concerned about tribal honor and heeding populist rhetoric, Lebanon will remain an undemocratic oligarchic mess. Names that have dominated politics since at least the 1980s — Aoun, Berri, Hariri, Jumblatt, Geagea and Franjieh among others — remain dominant. They are also irrelevant to the nation’s pressing sovereign issues, such as foreign and defense policies, which are decided exclusively by Hezbollah.

Lebanon has long prided itself for being ahead of its Arab peers, in terms of its claim to a “vibrant” democracy, of its banking sector and of its tourism industry. But in 2018, it has fallen behind in all these areas. Lebanon’s democracy has always been an illusion. If it had ever managed to work, the country would not be in the mess it’s in today. Equally, to get out of that mess, democracy needs to work. But sadly, don’t count on it happening in May.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.