The Roots of Lebanon’s Failure: It Votes, But Is Not a Democracy 

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

AFP photo: Patrick Baz

Lebanon is a failed state. Everything that can go wrong, has. And then the country repeats every mistake one more time. From the near evaporation of the national currency, to the shrinking of its economy, to serial corruption scandals, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the wrong people are in charge. But here’s the problem, although the Lebanese think they need new leaders, too many of them are culturally incapable of committing to the right ones. And they hold back all the rest of Lebanon’s people yearning for a normal country.

When an alliance of secular civil society candidates shellshocked the coalition of oligarchs and Hezbollah in the election of the Union of Engineers, held last month, people thought maybe there might be hope. The union, one of the largest guilds, is responsible for setting construction regulations. More importantly, the election was a test case for parliamentary polls due next year. In the establishment’s defeat, the opposition saw hope of a breakthrough. Unfortunately, arresting the country’s further plunge into failure is unlikely to happen through the ballot box.

At the heart of Lebanon’s problem is an outdated political culture that renders change impossible. Although the country can claim a tradition of elections, it does not have a democracy. For to have a democracy, you need a “nation.” Lebanon, instead, is not so much a nation as it is a federation of tribal interests.

The Shia, for example, will vote for any Shia over a competent Sunni because the Shia blame the Umayyads of Damascus, believed to have been Sunnis, for the battle of Karbala in 680, during which their third imam, Hussain, was killed.

Similarly, Christians still hold a grudge over the Muslim Conquests of the seventh century, blaming Muslims for decimating a prosperous Phoenician civilization and then Arabizing and Islamizing it. Many Lebanese Christians still harbor antagonism toward Arab culture. And since the birth of modern Lebanon in 1920, they have associated themselves with Western Europe, mainly France. In Lebanon’s Christian circles, speaking French is perceived as being “authentically” Lebanese, as opposed to speaking Arabic. There is no hint of a discordant embarrassment in that colonial amnesia.

Tribal honor and endless vendettas, from centuries ago, inform the way many Lebanese make their political choices and vote. Even secular and non-sectarian Lebanese cast their votes mostly to spite the oligarchs and Hezbollah, not in favor of specific domestic or foreign policies.

Viewing the world through the lens of tribal honor, whatever such a subjective concept means, instead of thinking of concrete and measurable interests, is the problem that has already aborted two Lebanese movements for change.

In 2005, an overwhelming majority took to the streets and forced Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. They were about to force the resignation of president Emile Lahoud, who had become – at the time – the last fig leaf covering the unconstitutionality of Hezbollah’s armed militia. But the late Maronite patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir – one of the biggest supporters of the 2005 uprising, it must be said – opposed forcing the Maronite Lahoud to resign, fearing that setting such a precedent against the Maronite head of state was bad for the Maronites. Sfeir could not see the Lebanese forest; he was focused on the Maronite tree.

In 2019, Sfeir’s successor, Bchara Al-Rai, who toes to a reasonable policy of Lebanese regional neutrality, similarly stood against last summer’s protestors when they called for the resignation of Maronite president Michel Aoun.

The Lebanese people are unable to see things holistically, and are instead fixated on their tribal and sectarian shares, which they mistake for their true interests. Under Lebanon’s famously byzantine system of confessional politics, the presidency is reserved for a Maronite, the prime minister’s post for a Sunni and so on. How is such a set-up a democracy?

To fix their country, Lebanese must revise their social contract, the constitution, and rewrite it in such a way that connects the state to its citizens, individually, instead of the current arrangement that links the state to sectarian middlemen.

Populism and cults are not unique to Lebanon, of course. In America, both Donald Trump and leaders of the Leftist “woke” movement enjoy a cult following. The difference between America and Lebanon, however, is that whereas the cult of Trump makes up a third of Republicans, who are in turn less than half the population, and the woke generation make up a small fraction of the US electorate, tribal voters in Lebanon are the majority. As long as the majority of voters take orders from their tribal chiefs, instead of holding them accountable, Lebanon will not change.

Until Lebanon gets a majority that understands that elected officials should work for them, and that politics is about the whole nation’s interests, not a subgroup’s honor, the country will remain a failed state. But don’t hold your breath.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is a research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC.