For decades now, decentralization has been a recurring theme in Lebanese politics. That it is “administrative” does not make it any less “political” in a country where even minor technicalities can easily turn into major controversies. Yet decentralization is still perceived as one of the key reforms that has yet to come about.
Since the Taif Agreement in 1989 — the agreement that ended Lebanon’s war and paved the way for the 1990 constitutional amendments — decentralization managed to become universally accepted among various political groups. For some, it was the victorious outcome of a long and difficult struggle. For others, it was seemingly the lesser of two evils inasmuch as it put a damper on the quest for federalism. For all groups, however, decentralization is not neutral: it adversely affects the “sacred” political arena by shifting the balance of power from the central to the local government and hence limits the provision of resources that are vital to politicians’ interests. This goes some way toward explaining the willful failure to implement widespread administrative decentralization as a reform more than three decades after Taif.
No matter its form, decentralization is characterized by the establishment of locally elected legal entities, each having a legal personality and enjoying administrative and financial autonomy. So far, administrative decentralization in Lebanon has taken place at the municipal level only. In all other cases, any delegation of competencies has involved devolution from the central government to civil servants that it appoints.
The history of decentralization in Lebanon
Decentralization was first introduced into the Lebanese political lexicon by President Émile Eddé in the 1930s. In the 1960s, the Lebanese National Movement and Kamal Jumblatt rallied and advocated for it. In the 1980s, decentralization was seen by the Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces as an alternative to federalism, which had failed to crystallize into an integrated project. Despite support from various actors in the many decades since the proclamation of the Republic of Lebanon, decentralization never managed to materialize.
In 1989, the Taif Agreement gave decentralization a new push, attempting to enforce it as part of a fairly broad national consensus. To a limited extent, this meant it could be perceived by political, partisan, and sectarian groups as neutral in that it did not upset the balance of their “vested rights.” This partly explains the stalemate that decentralization has historically faced and still faces today: some would like to see it narrowed down to a minor technicality, while others believe it could bring about a major shift in Lebanese politics. In the former sense, it could be neutral. In the latter, however, it is certainly not, as decentralization could reshape the national landscape, give rise to new dynamics, break the grip of the central government, and bring about broader participation in democratic governance. It is also perceived as an important anti-corruption strategy as it would improve accountability and reduce the discretion of political elites.
Despite the unanimous understanding on decentralization in the Taif Agreement, the stalemate described above has prevented Lebanon from benefiting from a comprehensive decentralized system since 1989. At least five proposals and draft laws have been put forward since then. None of them led to a vote. Some of them were badly flawed and closer to a chaotic misperception of what decentralization really entails.
In 2012, Prime Minister Najib Mikati formed a special commission tasked with preparing a draft law on the enforcement of administrative decentralization. The commission accomplished its task and submitted the first comprehensive draft law with a detailed report delineating and explaining the strategic choices it made. This draft law — the most recent of its kind — does not pretend to be perfect and is open to additions and further development, but it undoubtedly offers an integrated platform for decentralization. The draft had to wait until 2016 before reaching the Lebanese parliament. Five years later, it is still “under discussion” in an ad hoc parliamentary committee, which says a lot about the pace of reform in Lebanon.
The case for decentralization
Reforms are not and should not be neutral. As far as decentralization in Lebanon is concerned, it is a matter of major choices, not minor technicalities. The latter were in fact studied in detail. Being one of the major local governance tools does not make decentralization any less political. If centralized policy-making has unquestionably failed to provide minimum levels of political, economic, and social stability, then decentralization is widely expected to provide alternatives worth considering. For decentralization to be successful, however, it also requires consistent financial decentralization. The prerogatives given to local elected bodies must be matched with appropriate revenues.
Some politicians and scholars put forward federalism as an alternative to decentralization. This is a non-issue. While it is totally legitimate for supporters of federalism to call for and defend it, the two concepts are fundamentally different — as are the mechanisms involved and, most importantly, the degree of local autonomy. The case for decentralization is supported by two major considerations: the unanimous adherence to it since the Taif Agreement and the fact that federalism cannot offer better answers than decentralization in three key problematic areas, namely foreign policy, defense strategy, and monetary policy. In both systems, all three remain in the hands of the central government.
Decentralization is not an end in itself; it is a means of ensuring greater local participation, more accountability, and a more sustainable and enduring democracy. The current Lebanese crisis has created strong momentum for revisiting decentralization, particularly as the notion gains traction in Lebanese civil society. It should be seen as the gateway to structurally reforming the system from within. By not being neutral, decentralization is a statement in itself, through the fundamentals it entails, the dynamics it creates, and the results it brings about. Over the years, efforts to delay the adoption of decentralization were never innocent. However, at a time when state institutions are ceasing to function or collapsing altogether, the consequences of this delay make it borderline criminal. Today, Lebanon needs a revolutionary, nationwide change with a new system of governance that is transparent, participatory, and representative. Decentralization can support the much-needed reemergence of the country’s institutions from the bottom up.
Ziyad Baroud is the former Minister of Interior and Municipalities of the Republic of Lebanon between 2008 and 2011 in two cabinets. A court lawyer and arbitrator, he lectures at the Faculty of Law of Université Saint Joseph. He served as the chairperson of the Special (governmental) Commission on Decentralization, which prepared the draft law that is currently under discussion by parliament. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images