How Lebanon’s Sectarian System Can Lead to a New Civil War

Lebanon has not only avoided the Arab Spring, it is hurtling down the completely opposite path, writes Talal Salman. The sectarian system that has plagued the country for half a century, and led to horrific acts of violence, is only growing more entrenched into life, leaving its citizens as good fodder for communal quarreling in the so-called democracy.

al-monitor Lebanese Sunni Muslim Sheikh Mahmoud al Sheikh speaks to people performing Friday prayers in northern Lebanon, in front of an ad depicting a semi-nude woman. June 8, 2012, as they block a main street during a protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad and what they say is the killing of people in the Syrian town of Homs. Photo by REUTERS/Jamal Saidi.

Topics covered

sectarianism, lebanonization, lebanese civil war, lebanese army, internal security forces, internal, general security, democratic transition, arab spring, arab

Jul 12, 2012

As Arab lands from the east to the west creak under the weight of the opposition movements that took a stand against oppressive and backwards regimes which had been blocking their people from achieving progress and erecting states built on democracy and competency, Lebanon finds itself heading down the exact opposite path. In Lebanon, a sectarian system based on a religious quota scheme is blocking the road towards change.

The polarization of sectarian fervor has led to a disintegration of the “state,” which is already absent of all of its unifying institutions. The office of the president is no longer seen as an impartial authority — even some from the president’s own sect view it with enmity. Meanwhile, other sects and religious groups are busying themselves with much more severe and violent antagonisms.

The circumstances surrounding the current prime minister’s rise to power seem to have left it vulnerable to attack. Indeed, the current Lebanese government was formed at a very specific, peculiar point in time, one marred by a sectarian-religious grab for power. Well, this is at least the view of those who lost control over this prominent post. This situation has in turn led the embattled prime minister to openly and over-zealously defend his sect’s interests so as not to risk the wrath of his own constituents. This has left him incapable of making tough, necessary decisions. 

It seems as it has also become acceptable to accuse the speaker of the house of having sectarian tendencies, and that the parliament, in its capacity as a legislative institution, be left completely paralyzed. No one seems to mind that the “state,” which hides behind a cloak of democracy, has been crippled by sectarian divisions!

The most dangerous recent developments were the attempts to hobble the nation’s military, that all-unifying institution that everyone has taken great care to isolate from political, sectarian and religious conflicts. It has taken a lot of work to maintain its status as a preeminent authority that can guarantee stability and garner national consensus, a rare thing in the Land of the Cedars!

This came on the heels of numerous attempts to paralyze the Internal Security Agency by accusing it of making decisions based on sectarian tendencies, while its true role and position in society is to ensure public security for all of Lebanon’s population.

The same thing then took place with the General Security Agency. Some have attempted to cripple its authority and sully its reputation, perhaps because of the fact that its role has almost grown equal to that of “nations.” This has all been taking place at a time where it is needed more than ever given the pivotal political moment Lebanon and the region are witnessing.

Because the Lebanese cabinet is divided along religious and sectarian lines reminiscent of feudal times, the clashing interests of its constituents has disrupted the work of the state’s civil institutions. The fact that high-ranking judicial positions have been left unfilled are a result of the conflicts spreading throughout each sectarian community’s spheres of influence. Considerations like experience, competency and reputation have fallen by the wayside. This phenomenon has extended beyond the judiciary, and can explain the high level of vacancies in administrative and executive decision making posts, along with the complete paralysis of all state institutions.

However, the fall of the Lebanese state as described above, which would open the gates to the hell of civil war, would in no way weaken the country’s sectarian system. In fact, it would bolster and reinforce it, especially seen as how polarization has been added to that sectarianism’s lethal arsenal.

The Lebanese system thus finds itself at odds with the new, prevailing tendencies in the region. It gnaws at the state in its capacity as the political embodiment — albeit symbolic — of national unity. It fragments and marginalizes its institutions so that they may become incapable of safeguarding even the basic privileges of the government’s “subjects,” namely equal rights, justice and progress.

This sectarian system is beyond repair, as has proven by the enriching experiences endured by the Lebanese people during the second half of the previous century. Every time demands were made for change, reform and the recognition of citizen's rights in their state and country, the system answered these calls with the most lethal of weapons. Sectarianism led to civil war. The “subject's’” dreams then became more modest as a result of the compromises necessary to quell the fighting, regain a semblance of normalcy and put an end to the bloodshed. The state was thus restored according to the predilections of the same old system, which was now even stronger given that the polarization of the communities during the conflict. The people of Lebanon thus became a multitude of “peoples,” and the interference of other “nations” grew. The country, small in territory, grew bigger to accommodate many cantons, each with their own “borders” and “demands.” These demands necessitated the amendment of laws.

Here, now, we stand witness — as a result of the deteriorating situation in Syria and its regime’s blood-thirsty behavior — to high walls being erected in the name of “independence” in many a Lebanese “canton.” Animosity against the army is on the rise, which will endanger its unifying role. The impartiality of the judiciary has been called into question, and it is improbable that this situation was brought about by chance given the fact that this is all occurring at the same time. The parliament’s role has been paralyzed, and it faces a fate similar to the one that befell the government of disassociation [from the Syrian conflict]. This government has grown disassociated to the point of failing to fulfill its responsibilities of safeguarding the nation’s security and guaranteeing a normal daily life for the people of the country.

Within the current context, nothing becomes easier than to arrange for the assassination of this or that politician. This kind of action has the potential to expose the state’s inability, and undermine its credibility, or what is left of it. It would justify each faction seeking refuge behind its own sect or religion and open the door for other “states” to come on in and offer the system a helping, protective hand, at the expense of Lebanon’s crumbling state institutions and the unity of its people. It would open the door for divisions to quickly mutate into armed confrontations between sects and religions.

A harsh irony thus reveals itself: while the Arab peoples — armed with a sense of democracy-enhanced national unity — fill the squares of revolution, by the hundreds of thousands, to rid themselves of tyrannical ruthless regimes, regain their right to live in dignity and build free countries unencumbered by foreign mandates, the Lebanese system is devolving its people into mere subjects for quarrelsome sects and religions. These groups fight in vain over the ruins of a state incapable of even protecting its own unity, let alone the country and its inhabitants. The sectarian realities in Lebanon mean that the dream of becoming true and equal citizens grows ever more distant — at the speed of light.

In this sectarian system, revolution is called strife. May damnation await those who attempt to light its fuse!

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