The MENA and Southeast Asia regions have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions.  Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure” and the qualitative differences in both these regions. This essay series engages a variety of issues regarding the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...

It took an enormous amount of trash in Beirut to unlock a spiral of popular discontent that was unforeseen by most observers of Lebanon. Against the backdrop of the Arab uprising euphoria, Lebanon, where real change was almost unthinkable due to its particular political system, ended up witnessing one of the most remarkable popular movements, which encompassed all social classes and regions of the country. #YouStink’s powerful trademark is based on the notion that it is not political and functions outside of all Lebanese political parties––the main culprits in creating the disastrous status quo. 

There is something sensationalist, albeit attractive, about “civil society” voicing concerns against “the political” across the Arab world. But as these concerns claim or strive to be dissociated from larger political dynamics because of a genuine urge to denounce the old political class, the latter actually informs and dictates the fate of these movements. The denounced prevailing “system” ends up taking over through its security and military apparatus or its "old guard" (e.g., Egypt and Tunisia) or breaks down into a war over control of territory (e.g., Libya and Syria). The concerns of civil society seem to be hijacked by the oligarchs or the elites. There are various reasons for such fates, which vary across cases. One reason is that, because civil society has never existed outside of this political context, the struggle to dissociate from it has been in itself a political act that led to the consequences we are experiencing today. Moreover, because of this snubbing of the political, these movements often find themselves denouncing a whole range of unrelated political phenomena, such as saying that the “root of the problem is Nasrallah” (referring to the Secretary General of Hezbollah) or that “the Hariri project has been the source of corruption.” The #YouStink movement and its various associate movements have denounced “the system,” “confessionalism,” and “the political class” of all orientations, including the parliament, the cabinet of minister, the prime minister, and so on, without really showing an understanding of how all these institutional positions relate to one another, and to the problems of corruption and the poorly functioning public sector. By looking at the recent protests in Lebanon, this article proposes ways to avoid this slippery slope and demonstrates how to think of genuine change––and recognize its limits––given the prevailing political context.


The Lebanese system has been portrayed as a “consociational” democracy, in which different social groups are represented by political elites who govern through equally powerful coalitions. Since the signing of the Tā’if agreement in 1989 that sealed Lebanon’s political formula for the last two decades, people have been split between those who condemn it as having solidified a “politics of sectarianism” and those who, on the contrary, see it as an exemplar of co-existence between various communities that would otherwise fight each other over territory and resources.

Because the overwhelming academic focus was on how “democracy” works, people were mostly concerned with the mechanics of consensualism—with questions of representation and group identity—as opposed to focusing on its contribution to statecraft and institutional consolidation, continuity, and change. Besides, focusing on questions of identity inevitably led to seeing the political as a representation, or an “image,” rather than as “real,” meaning that affiliation, or identification to sect defined political action rather than the other way around.

If we take more seriously this question of statecraft, it becomes clear that the weakness of the state in the post-Tā’if period emanates mainly from a paralyzed leadership that in turn exhibited the greatest detriment of confessionalism since the founding of the modern state of Lebanon. The blurry division of institutional prerogatives between the Maronite president, the Sunni prime minister, the Shi‘i speaker of parliament, and by extension the parliament as a whole has brought corruption associated with the politics of sectarianism to a new level.

In the absence of any other form of authority that acts as a delegate to their demands, these groups-as-sects had to be at the center of political action at all times, i.e. they could only frame political demands through sects. This proved exhausting and paralytic, and more importantly, it invited political actors to engage in all sorts of piecemeal policies related to the various sectors of Lebanon’s economic and public infrastructure. This helps to explain the waste management crisis amongst many other crises such as the electricity sector, oil importing, illegal constructions, the shockingly high cost of the Internet and telecommunication services, etc.[1]

The civil war era (1975-1990) forced the various Lebanese sects to organize political parties around confessional denominations. What mattered here was not that they were confessional, but that they had to organize as a particular type of political party, which took on state functions such as the delivery of public services. Although the Tā’if accord produced the impetus for a cessation of violence, it also institutionalized the militia economy of the war while laying aside serious state building. While political parties based on confessional denominations were able to supply some of the public goods that the state usually supplies to the population, in the absence of an overarching authority, they also created a clear mistrust of "the Other." The civil war economy rationale continued in the post-war 1990s until the arrival of business tycoon Rafic Hariri, who served as prime minister (1992-1998 and 2000-2004) and initiated a massive national reconstruction project. Hariri was constantly pulled toward monopolizing the means of production, as any capitalist oligarch would be, but lacked what his counterparts around the world have, namely a functioning state that provides the institutional and executive clout to impose these monopolistic structures while at the same time protecting, at least to a certain extent, the supply of core public services. 

Hariri had to either operationalize the state or work around it and thereby create his own institutions. But what Hariri developed was essentially key organizations to shortcut otherwise paralytic state institutions, employing a strange mix of neoliberal economics. In and around the state, Hariri created companies that paralleled the already available institutions of the state, such as the private construction company Solidere, or empowered already available but dysfunctional institutions such as the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) that was designed to answer directly to the prime minister. In doing so, Hariri was not countering the politics of the sects prevalent in Lebanon but the lack of executive power that could have integrated large-scale national initiatives into state policies. Hariri applied a corporatist model to the problem of producing public goods by monopolizing the means of producing them but without really empowering the state as such.

The recent waste management crisis, and the bewilderment of observers due to the reluctance of authorities to empower the municipalities, is thus a clear example of this “oligarchization” in the absence of genuine state authority. The government recently ended its contract with Sukleen, the main company responsible for managing waste in Beirut and its neighboring areas and that was bought by Hariri in the mid-1990s. Since then, the government has failed to agree on issuing a new contract or at least to delegate this task to the municipalities. An environmental activist prophetically complained as early as 2003, when Sukleen’s contract was about to be terminated: “We need to know who is the environment minister ­ is it CDR, the Interior Ministry or the Environment Ministry?”[2] Ironically, such considerations have been lost in the recent round of events.

Hariri gradually became part of (for lack of a better term) "clan-based" politics along other oligarchs he associated or competed with, which irremediably threw him into using the politics of "sects" for political survival by trying to represent the Sunni community. For the same reason, the two successive presidents, Elias Hrawi and Emile Lahoud, tried in a different way to impose their political clout on the prime minister and speaker of parliament, which more or less focused on limiting Hariri's room to maneuver. But notice here how the politics of sectarianism is really the result of a lack of institutional empowerment rather than a generalized problem in the way political “identities” are framed around confessions. In the absence of a functioning institutional process that produces a strong executive power, it became a tug-of-war between the dynamics of the “parties” in place and the tempestuous relationship between “the three presidents” (including the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri) that produces politics or action.

These tugs-of-war between presidents (including the speaker of parliament), led to the regionalization of the conflict, of which a turning point was the assassination of Hariri in 2005, the withdrawal of the Syrian troops, and the dismantling of the Lebanese-Syrian security system. The subsequent paralysis that plagued the Lebanese political arena from 2005 onwards can be summed up as a struggle to fill this security void, in the complete absence of a dominant power. This is how one should read the run-up to the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and the political debacles that followed it, or the May 2008 military intervention in the heart of Beirut in order to dismantle al-Mustaqbal’s (Future Current) militia, and up to the recent events in Syria and Hezbollah’s decision to intervene in the Syrian conflict against the backdrop of political paralysis at the local level. Hezbollah’s primary concern has been to restore a modicum of security stability that it enjoyed when the Syrian regime kept a complex web of alliances with various Lebanese groups, keeping “the system” standing. With the withdrawal of Syria, Hezbollah faced a mounting attack against its mission of militant resistance. The interminable exchange of accusations testified to a climate of palpable mistrust between the different Lebanese protagonists.

The main problem is not that the state is ruled by an oligarchy or by a consensus between sects. The problem is that no one, at any point in time, really rules. The state as a set of institutions is run by a semi-anarchic interaction between the various parties that emerged from the civil war period. No one is able to rule and everyone is deploying all possible efforts to keep the other in check, by organizing, building, and trying to gain at least partial control of resources and institutions. In the absence of an overarching authority––found in every functioning state in the world based on relations of trust, which inspires respect––the state is paralyzed and emptied of its “spirit.” There cannot be a functioning political system without a clear line of authority whether institutionalized or through personalized channels. Trusting and respecting usually involves bringing together irreconcilable groups (e.g. sects) under a political framework where authoritative ruling is accepted. This is why sectarian identity is not really an issue if allowed to operate within the appropriate institutional channel (e.g., parliamentary representation) provided that it is abiding by authoritative “rules of the game.”

And yet authority cannot take place without some form of institutional empowerment either garnered by force or by agreement. As mentioned before, Tā’if did exactly the opposite. This is why after the Syrian withdrawal the Christian majority group, Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr (Free Patriotic Movement), along with Hezbollah, has sought to further empower the role of president. The al-Mustaqbal party, the largest party within the March 14 Alliance, has meanwhile been struggling to keep the prime minister as the main deal-maker in the country. For Hezbollah, a “consensual president” was a fine settlement as long as he, through Syrian backing, could protect the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon’s mission as a national security prerogative. After the Syrian withdrawal, the presidency became a position of pivotal importance in enforcing a new security formula. As for the March 14 Alliance, now that Syria was not forcing its entrepreneurs to work with a military-security complex, the consensual president was to remain as such because it enabled the prime minister to gain more power, if and only if Hezbollah’s political power could be curtailed through demilitarization.

Because of these political hurdles, since the end of the term of Michel Suleiman (the last president of Lebanon), dominant parliamentary factions have found it impossible to agree on a replacement. It is not the first time a ruling coalition has failed to agree on a president. There were months of paralysis before various groups and foreign sponsors settled on Michel Suleiman in 2008.  Ironically, Suleiman, an army general, was cast as being “close to the Resistance,” slowly Suleiman balanced his political affiliation by openly criticizing Hezbollah in order to attract Saudi Arabia’s goodwill, facilitating his election. Today, with the stakes being much higher than at the time of Suleiman’s election, Saudi Arabia is unwilling to accept Michel Aoun, Hezbollah’s choice, and indeed the only candidate they will accept.

This brief description of the main line of conflict that has paralyzed the country in the last few years is a clear demonstration that it is not sectarian identity as such that breeds divisions but different political or national visions, which may in turn involve sectarian politics given the opportunity. Some may still retort that sectarian identities are naturally prone to produce divisions and prevent the creation of trust. One argument against this claim is in light of the trash crisis, which has seen Lebanese across sectarian lines allied with one another for similar political visions. Again, the March 14 and March 8 divide rests on different orientations of what “the national” should stand for, especially on the question of what neighbors––which delineates the contours of the state––represent. Lebanese have mostly been divided on basic national questions such as representation of the other “from within” (the Palestinian) and the other “from without,” across the border (Israel, Syria).

While many think that confessionalism is the root of the problem, confessionalism is a type of political mechanism for manipulation; and it is really up to the people––those in office and the public at large––to make positive or negative use of it. For example, confessionalism was an efficient institutional novelty in stopping the bloodshed and providing a governing body in the late 1800s[3] . Before 1975, as an asymmetrical form of power, confessionalism was balanced by a strong executive power, even if it led to the various Lebanese wars and the breakdown of the state. President Fouad Chehab’s regime (1958-1964) has always been remembered as a golden era, not just because Chehab tried to transcend confessional sensitivity, but also because he asserted a more centralized type of authority over key issues. This led to the critiquing of his security system and to his eventual demise, paving the way for the parochialization of Lebanese politics, the rise of the Phalangist rationale of Pierre Gemayel's infamous statement: “la force du Liban est dans sa faiblesse” (Lebanon’s strength is in its weakness) as a substitute to statecraft, and the inevitability of the civil war.

Wherever “civil society” demonstrates for social and economic issues, especially across the Western world, this question of trust and of accepted authority is already resolved and is made possible because the overarching state and its security-police system delineates the perimeter of social action. In such settings, socio-economic demands can be voiced, as they are dissociated from larger political questions. But these questions were only resolved after centuries of war-making and state-building, which mostly involved producing stronger armies and security systems and that came at the expense of the eradication of numerous local languages, histories, and other cultural features. In the case of fragmented states such as Lebanon, however, the military-security complex is vulnerable or constantly challenged, while ultimate political authority­­––which permits the delineation of the community's management of territory and resources––is always in question.

By bringing the political back in, demonstrators must understand how their “civil society” concerns are embedded in a political continuum, so that any resolution of their grievances or demands involves thinking about how to  reform the “system” in a feasible way. The movement needs to carry the seeds to a post-Tā’if phase where the priority would be the restoration of executive power. But the mission is not as easy as “asking” for democratic demands––it involves political courage at the leadership level.

During the last few years the “consensual” president has been a catalyst for deeper political paralysis. Before 2005, it kept the (mostly) anarchic system running as it was and allowed the politics of sectarianism and corruption to become the only institutional behavior forbidding political actors to create a climate of trust. In turn, this forced political actors to branch out into their own parallel projects. The political parties in place need to be pressured to find this compromise and to permit this change in power relations, by letting one group actually rule. There is a need to build institutions that can create trust and respect between various groups, but this again can only happen if there is a strong executive power.

Some have suggested that the popular #YouStink movement needs to evolve into a political party. That is certainly one possibility. Yet another would be a specific organizational effort to serve as a "watchdog" on economic and infrastructure development. The “uprising” in the Lebanese case should be less about making leaders more accountable—indeed they should be—and more about letting one group govern within a specified period of time as determined by representative elections. This is why at the electoral level, majority rule should be translated into direct voting for president. This change, in itself, could produce the “authorized” leader that Lebanon so urgently needs.

[1] For a detailed account of corruptive practices in Lebanon and the structuring effects of the political regime that led to these practices see Reinoud Leenders, Spoils of Truce (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012).

[2] “Beirut’s waste policy: rubbish? end of Sukleen, Sukomi contracts raises questions,” The Daily Star, August 29, 2003,….

[3] See for example Usama Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism: Community, History, and Violence in Nineteenth-Century Ottoman Lebanon (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.