Lebanon’s sectarian system leaves country ill-equipped to deal with coronavirus

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As coronavirus continues to spread around the globe, a starkly pessimistic statement from Lebanon’s Prime Minister on Monday underscored the fact that the country’s sectarian political foundations leave it ill-equipped to deal with another potentially crippling crisis.

“The state is no longer able to protect its citizens,” Prime Minister Hassan Diab said in a televised statement. “We are facing massive challenges as the mechanisms of the state are tied with sectarian restrictions.”

The spread of the potentially deadly virus is far from the only item on Diab’s list of concerns. The final decision on whether to honor a $1.2 billion Eurobond repayment that matures on March 9 will be made Friday or Saturday, Diab added.

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The devastating financial crisis was one of the primary drivers of months of anti-government demonstrations that began last October. But on top of concerns about economic mismanagement and between chants directed at particularly unpopular political figures, protestors also chanted, “No, no to sectarianism.”

Coronavirus in Lebanon

As of Tuesday evening there were 13 confirmed cases of coronavirus across Lebanon, according to the Lebanese Red Cross (LRC). Nevertheless, according to Rodney Eid, head of external communications for the organization, more emergency medical technicians are being trained every day, with 144 staff now trained in coronavirus response across the country.

The organization is equipped to tackle an outbreak, according to Eid. “We’ve done this before with Ebola and other viruses,” he said.

While the LRC, who provide much of Lebanon’s emergency healthcare response, appear ready to take on the challenge posed by the coronavirus crisis, officials in government appear less optimistic.

Hospitals face equipment shortages exacerbated by the financial crisis, and Health Minister Hamad Hasan told local media on Thursday that private hospitals may need to be called upon to receive infected cases.

“For me to say that we are ready for a big outbreak would be an exaggeration,” he said.

The crisis is further eroding the last vestiges of the public’s confidence in the government, Bassel Salloukh, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, told Al Arabiya English.

“The problem we are suffering from now [is that] a lot of people don’t actually believe the so-called state has the ability to control the situation,” he said.

Sectarian roots impact policy today

Lebanon’s current sectarian system was formulated in 1989, toward the end of the country’s brutal 15-year civil war. The agreement saw power shared among the leaders of the country’s largest sects and distributed among clientelist networks, often at the expense of the state and good governance.

“The Lebanese state is this very weird creature whereby sectarian parties that have their power outside the state claim control over big chunks of [it],” Salloukh said.

The predominance of such parties “creates a mongrel state to non-state relationship that confuses everything and makes it very difficult for you to have one policy administered from the top down,” he explained.

For some, the power of non-state actors over the government was evidenced by the failure to enact controls on flights from Iran. Lebanon’s government, which is backed by Iranian-backed Hezbollah and its allies, only last Friday said it would ban entry to non-resident foreigners from the four countries worst affected by the disease, including Iran. While Hezbollah holds a political wing, it also runs significant activities outside the state’s authority, including a powerful militia.

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Meanwhile, the erosion of the state’s authority and its inability to implement a unilateral policy was on show in recent attempts to shut down the spread of the coronavirus.

A directive from Education Minister Tarek Majzoub last Friday requested that all educational institutions close until March 8 to tackle the disease’s spread was initially met with short shrift from the prestigious American University of Beirut.

The school, clearly giving little weight to the government’s request, asserted it would remain open “based upon consultations with several experts in the field of infectious diseases,” before eventually changing its mind and agreeing to close for a week.

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