Lebanon risks sliding into prolonged chaos and violent conflict unless the political elite manages to update the post-civil war political system based on sectarian power-sharing.
At the end of the civil war in 1989, the surviving warlords and political parties met in Taif, Saudi Arabia, to sign the Taif Accords, which put an end to the civil war, but did not create mechanisms for good governance, accountability, or checks and balances. Such considerations seemed almost quaint in the aftermath of the brutal civil war. Now, decades of mismanagement enabled by the sectarian system have produced an economic and fiscal crisis, one for which the Taif Accords have no solution.
Taif was designed to keep Lebanon’s elites from battling one another, but beyond ensuring physical security, it did little for ordinary Lebanese. Today’s non-sectarian protest movement is demanding the state do what Taif failed to: commit itself to improved governance. To signal their demands, they are escalating the protests in ways that threaten Lebanon’s security. Such tactics are an expression of widespread frustration and a cogent desire to force the Lebanese government, and in particular the government of nominated Prime Minister Hassan Diab, to show real progress in the post-Taif update that the country desperately needs.
Yet good governance is a huge ask in Lebanon. The country’s parties and militias are addicted to state spending to maintain political coherence and reward loyalists – one big reason why they haven’t managed to unlock the $11 billion of international aid pledged at the 2018 CEDRE conference that promised aid on the condition of systematic changes in state spending. Beirut has dithered for nearly two years in enacting those changes.
Hezbollah, the country’s best-armed faction, is also a major obstacle. The group watches its foes in the March 14 alliance with worries they might try to pare back Hezbollah’s gains in the May 2018 election. Back then, Hezbollah managed to gain hold of the lucrative Health Ministry. Reforms are unlikely to leave that ministry untouched, which for Hezbollah is a threat. With Iran under sanctions and Hezbollah having to pay for the dead and wounded from its intervention in Syria, the group needs alternative sources of income to keep its partisans loyal. In a sign of their dire financial need, the group has turned to asking for handouts from Shia Lebanese and have even received aid from Yemen’s Houthis. To prevent that erosion in their spending power, they will do what they can to ensure that austerity falls on anyone but themselves.
Beyond the big parties, there is a nascent concern that the non-sectarian nature of the protests could eventually build to viable political opposition from within the established sects. Lebanon has no shortage of political parties, even within the sects. This is one reason why the country has yet to consider an election as a solution to current political paralysis: with a new protest movement on the ground, no faction can be sure they will do as well in a fresh election as they historically have. That’s a notable threat to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s Future Movement, which did poorly in the 2018 elections, but all the factions will have to contend with a grassroots challenge that could chip away at their dominance of the political system.
Compromise or be compromised
With the country’s first international bonds due for repayment in March, Lebanon will enter a new period of acute economic stress, and even imports of food and medicine will come under threat. That will further inflame the public against the government, and different aspects of the protest movement will consider further, increasingly violent escalations to punish the state for its inability to govern.
That will push Lebanon’s political parties into a more difficult position. They could put together a viable government and embark on austerity to start to right the economic ship. But without accompanying political reform, few Lebanese would buy into the necessary pain of austerity, especially because without political reform it’s probable that the top echelons of Lebanon’s society will remain untouched.
Lebanon’s state and security forces would also take increasingly stern measures to prevent an escalation of the protest movement. But that is dangerous for the country’s security outlook. Many protestors have ties to the armed factions of the sectarian system. Violence against them could spiral into a cycle of violence that deeply undermines the security situation.
A final option is that Lebanon’s factions begin the long-needed update to the country’s political system. Rule by sect is an outmoded form of governance, but little pressure has existed within the country to challenge it. As the Lebanese increasingly see themselves in nationalist, rather than sectarian, terms, the sectarian system is uniquely weakened. An early election is the first step toward updating the sectarian contract, allowing new blood into politics, followed by a government with a mandate to examine not just how to stabilize the economy but also ensure politics does not undermine such stability in the future.
Political reform is the least bad option for Lebanon. That does not make it easy or without pain. For Lebanon’s leadership, they’ll need to decide in the coming months if they want to control events or let events control them.
Ryan Bohl (@Ryan_Bohl) is a Middle East and North Africa analyst at Stratfor.