Scenarios of Change and Possibilities of Reform in Lebanon

By Paul Salem | Vice President for Policy and Research - The Middle East Institute | Jan 06, 2014
Scenarios of Change and Possibilities of Reform in Lebanon

The recent spate of bombings in Beirut underline the degree to which Lebanon has become entangled in the wider regional conflict being fought in and around Syria, but the paralysis of Lebanon’s political institutions indicate an equally deep domestic dysfunction. There is no doubt that part of Lebanon’s problems derive from its difficult geostrategic environment and require external developments and changes, and part of them come from the weaknesses of its domestic political and socioeconomic system and require internal reform. Of course, the two are also interconnected: external pressures exploit and exacerbate internal weaknesses, and internal weaknesses invite external influence and intervention.

During the 1960s and 1970s Lebanon suffered the external pressure of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the militarization of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon; internally it suffered the double consequences of sectarian imbalances over Muslim and Christian power-sharing and tensions over socioeconomic policy. Today, the challenges are different. Lebanon’s external pressures derive from two conflicts: Iran’s conflict with Israel and the United States, and the sectarian Sunni-Shi`i conflict that runs through Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq.

Internally, there are three challenges. First, the Taif formula that ended the Christian-Muslim dispute over power-sharing created a weak political system in which executive authority is not sufficiently concentrated in any one place to enable efficient taking and implementation of government decisions. Second, the Christian-Muslim disagreement over power-sharing has been supplanted by a Sunni-Shi`i contest. Third, the state has lost the basic element of statehood, that is, sovereignty or a monopoly on the use of force. Hezbollah is effectively an independent state with its own military and foreign policy.

Major political changes and reforms require special historical moments. The birth of “Greater Lebanon” in its current borders in 1920 came about after World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the establishment of European mandates. Independence, and the “National Pact” between Maronite and Sunni leaders in 1943, came in the context of World War II and the collapse of French power. The Taif agreement of 1989 came after a long civil war and coincided with the end of the Cold War.

A future reconfiguration of the Lebanese political system might also require a significant historical moment. The war in Syria and its future scenarios, as well as the beginning of rapprochement between Iran and the west, might provide the context for such change. The Assad regime inherited the management of the Taif system after 1990; it benefited from the system’s weaknesses—the excessive distribution of decision-making power and the absence of a clear and empowered executive authority—to maintain its influence in Lebanon, but it also prevented the system from complete paralysis because it had enough power to impose decisions on the system. The weakness and paralysis of the Taif system became more fully exposed following the Syrian withdrawal in 2005. We are left today with a system that is almost completely paralyzed, in which sovereignty is compromised and in which deadlines for parliamentary elections, government formation—and soon, presidential elections—come and go.

The war in Syria will take many years to wind down. It is likely that, as in the Lebanese civil war, no side will win. After fighting to exhaustion, the parties will have no alternative but to negotiate a power-sharing agreement in which the country’s major components and communities are represented. If and when this takes place, the conditions of negotiation and deal making in Syria might spark a similar revival of negotiation and deal making in Lebanon.

The regional and international context of this moment will be important. The Taif agreement took place at a moment when Soviet power was collapsing and the United States had overwhelming international dominance, and when regionally Iranian power was in remission as Iran recovered from nine years of war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. As a result, Saudi Arabia had fairly unimpeded dominance in the Arab world.

In the coming years, the conditions will be different. Russia has returned as a significant international player in the Middle East—particularly in Syria and the Levant—and Iranian power is now deeply entrenched. Unless there is a modicum of international and regional rapprochement, neither Syrian war-ending agreements nor Lebanese constitutional reform negotiations will move forward.

So far the trends have been negative, as the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran have been waging proxy wars in Syria and the Levant. However, the United States and Russia have moved from conflict to some cooperation with the chemical weapons deal in Syria and with their collaboration to hold a Geneva II meeting to try to end the war in Syria. The rise of al-Qa`ida in Syria has changed the calculus in Washington, and now both the United States and Russia see al-Qa`ida as the principal threat in the events in Syria. As the United States continues to reduce its presence in the Middle East, it will rely increasingly on international and regional agreements to manage Middle East affairs.

The recent nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran also indicates the possibility of a rapprochement between Iran and the west. The west, including the United States, is eager to defuse the nuclear issue and has common interests with Iran in containing al-Qa`ida, managing the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq after the U.S. withdrawal, finding a resolution to the war in Syria, and keeping a cap on Hezbollah.

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries fear Iranian influence. They were comfortable with the Bush administration’s aggressive policy toward Iran and were enthusiastic when Obama promised that he would bomb the Assad regime in Syria. But if the west continues its rapprochement with Iran and considers al-Qa`ida—not the Assad regime—the main problem in Syria, then Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries will have to rethink their policy. Gulf leaders in the UAE, Kuwait, and Oman have already reached out to Iran, and we might be entering a period in which Iran-GCC relations will have to improve.

The context of U.S.-Russian, U.S.-Iranian, and Iranian-GCC accommodation might create the conditions for a negotiated agreement to end the Syrian conflict. It might also create the context for real national dialogue in Lebanon in which reforms to the political system are seriously considered. A U.S.-Iranian rapprochement might particularly foster this context, as deeper cooperation between the two countries would put the issue of Hezbollah very much on the table. Iran would have to propose a way forward for Hezbollah in which it is no longer a state within a state in Lebanon, but folds its military capacities into the state and accepts the status of a more normal political party within the context of real Lebanese state sovereignty and politically agreed-upon rules of the game.

In the context of such a demobilization of Hezbollah, Iran or some Shi`i leaders might propose a recalibration of the power-sharing formula in Lebanon. This might include demands for muthalatha, a three-way balance of representation in parliament and government among Christians, Sunnis, and Shi`a, which has been occasionally raised by Shi`i and Iranian leaders to replace the current 50/50 representation between Christians and Muslims that was agreed in Taif. Or it might include simply lifting confessional quotas from parliament and letting elections take their course in terms of how many candidates from which parties and communities get elected. The 50/50 Christian-Muslim ratio would still be preserved in the upper house, the Senate, which was proposed in the Taif agreement but not established. On current voter rolls, which list all Lebanese citizens above the age of 21 residing in Lebanon or abroad, the balance is about 60-40 in favor of Muslims, with equal numbers between Sunnis and Shi`a. But as there has been no national census for many decades, there is no way to accurately measure what the current numbers are of different communities actually residing in Lebanon. Demands might also include the establishment of a National Guard or similar military institution to integrate Hezbollah’s armed wing. They could also include negotiation over the authorities of the prime minister and the distribution of key ministerial portfolios, including the ministry of finance.

A recalibration of sectarian power-sharing ratios, however, will not address the systemic weaknesses and dysfunctions of the Lebanese state. The reforms that the Lebanese state needs are: more concentrated executive power in the central state; the establishment of a bicameral parliament; genuine reform of election and political party laws; more decentralization in regional and local administration; a truly independent and empowered judiciary; a unified national security and defense policy; and agreement over “positive neutrality” in foreign policy.

In the Taif state, no one has the power to govern in the central state; hence very little can get done, and no one can be realistically held accountable for state failures. The president does not govern, nor does the prime minister, and the council of ministers is not a cohesive body that can effectively make decisions. What is needed is a radical reform of the executive branch to re-concentrate executive power in one body that can effectively govern and then be held directly accountable by the populace for its failures or successes.

There are several methods to strengthen executive authority. One method could be to re-concentrate executive authority in the presidency, but a presidency that would consist of a presidential council of seven individuals, somewhat along the Swiss model. The seven would run together on one slate against other slates of seven in open and direct presidential elections for a one-time renewable four-year term. The presidency would thus fully lead the executive branch for four years, and would then be rewarded for its successes or punished for its failures at the ballot box.

Creating a capable executive is important to get the state to function again; it is also important to empower the people on a national level to make choices about governance issues and to hold the country’s rulers directly responsible. Lebanese citizens today participate in no truly national elections; they don’t choose their president or prime minister, but only vote in local elections or parliamentary elections in which they choose deputies to represent their district and community in the national parliament. Further, Lebanon’s current democracy is one in which the citizenry effectively selects an oligarchy, and that oligarchy—represented in parliament—proceeds to protect and reinforce its own oligarchic interests through state institutions. This oligarchic system was devised in the 1920s when the vast majority of Lebanon’s citizens lived in disconnected rural communities; everything has changed since then. It’s time to get Lebanese citizens directly involved in their democracy through choosing their executive and holding them accountable.

A radical reform of the executive branch cannot be undertaken without simultaneously undertaking other reforms that would ensure more self-government at the local and regional level; give communal reassurances through the establishment of a strong senate; and provide more individual security and protection through enhancing the rule of law. No one wants to create an empowered presidency that would then proceed to oppress citizens or sectors of society.

Administration decentralization is long overdue and should include the establishment of elected regional authorities that can take the lead in local development. The establishment of a senate with authority over major issues that might be of concern to the various communities of Lebanon, and fixing the communal representation in that body on a 50/50 Christian-Muslim basis, will reassure fearful communities and will free up the rest of the political system for more direct representation and governance mechanisms.

These reforms would have to be accompanied by serious empowerment of the judicial authority as the third and truly independent branch of government. The judiciary needs to have an independent budget, independent internal governance mechanisms, the authority to defend and interpret the constitution, and the ability to ensure people’s rights swiftly and fairly. There can be no progress on strengthening executive authority, widening legislative representation, and deepening local governance without establishing this strong and independent third branch of government.

Finally, defense and foreign policy have to be part of any new national pact. We cannot continue to have two armies in one state, and we cannot continue with multiple and often violently conflicting foreign policies. There are many proposals as to how to merge Hezbollah’s army into the national army—whether as part of a National Guard or as part of a civil defense force—but all stipulate that it would be under the command of a national and accountable Lebanese state authority. Defense and security doctrine will also have to be agreed upon, with the only common ground being the defense of national borders and the maintenance of internal security.  

Defense policy would have to be closely connected to foreign policy. While Lebanon will continue to side with the Arab world until the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved and Israel accepts the Arab peace plan, on other foreign policy matters, including other regional or international axes or alignments, the necessary consensus would need to be non-alignment—a policy of “positive neutrality.”

I am not naively optimistic that these reforms will be accepted or adopted in the near future—Lebanon does not appear to currently have the leaders or political parties that are capable of envisioning and leading such major reform. Nor am I rosily expectant that the regional environment will push in such progressive directions. But it is important to present ideas that could be part of a national discussion and could generate movement toward positive change. The lifetime of nations is measured in centuries, not years, and one must always seek, even in the darkest of times, to shine a light on the way forward in creating a more functional republic.

An Arabic version of this article was part of a special supplement of the Lebanese Nahar newspaper, in which 17 Lebanese intellectuals were asked to map out their ideas about prospects for change and reform in Lebanon. The supplement appeared on December 28, 2013:, pp. 22-23.