For over two months now, the Lebanese people have been protesting for a complete overhaul of the political system, calling for the end of sectarian political power sharing and elite corruption. The protests were prompted by the introduction of austerity measures including a $6 tax on WhatsApp phone calls to generate an approximate $250 million annually. These taxes come amidst a scenario of economic downturn, rising unemployment and a state that is failing to provide citizens with basic services. Increasing power cuts from 3 hours a day in the Lebanese capital of Beirut to up to 12 hours a day in other parts and the lack of drinking water are but a few of the woes of the country. These growing sorrows of the people that have translated into nationwide protests can be attributed to the dismal state of the institutions in the country. For an example of how institutions have deteriorated, one need not look far; days before the WhatsApp tax was levied, wildfires erupted in mountains in the south of Beirut. However, the state lacked capacity to fight these fires and the three firefighting aircrafts, Sikorsky S-70 model helicopters that had been donated to the country from a private fundraiser, sat on the tarmac of the airport, un-operational because of a lack of maintenance. Cyprus, Jordan, Turkey and Greece came to the aid of Lebanon. Not only have the institutions been inefficient, they have succumbed to the games of the political elite as was evident in 2016 when garbage piled in Beirut as the rich and powerful squabbled over a lucrative waste management contract.
While elite corruption exists to some degree in almost all countries, Lebanon, in particular seems to be severely condemned, thanks to a power sharing deal, the Taif Agreement of 1989 reached to end the civil war (1975-90).Lebanon has 18 religious communities: 4 Muslim, 12 Christian, Druze sect and Judaism. Briefly stating, the Taif Agreement reinforces the National Pact of 1943 and divides the political power proportionally based on the demographic weight and geographic distribution (Calfat, 2018). All the sects are represented in the legislative and executive branches of the government and possess full judicial autonomy; while the main political offices are divided amongst the three biggest communities in Lebanon. According to this consociational political system, the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of the Parliament must be a Shia Muslim and the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim. At the outset, such a division of power seems novel and often, Lebanon has been hailed as a successful pluralistic democracy in a region fraught with violence. However, over time, it has led to the entrenchment of the sectarian identity, even over national identity (Khatib, 2015). Since public sector recruitment is divided along sectarian lines according to the pre-determined quota system (although this was annulled in the Taif Agreement), it has become a tool to extend power in the hands of elite political leaders of each sect. According to Salloukh (2019), the public sector has increased in number from 175,000 in 2000 to 300,000 in 2017. Patronage networks dictate how government contracts are awarded. As a result, the state institutional apparatus is rife with corruption, with the country ranking 138 out of 180 in the Corruption Perceptions Index of 2018 by Transparency International. Salloukh (2019) notes the paradox of the post-Taif Lebanon i.e. a seemingly balanced sectarian power-sharing has led to a build-up of inefficient and corrupt rentier state divided between sectarian and clientelist lines. It is this sectarian power distribution that has led the Lebanese economy to nose-dive.
Today, Lebanon has third highest public debt to GDP ratio at 150 % and it is predicted that the country will default on a repayment of 1.5-billion-dollar Euro bond loan due in March 2020. While the country is hard pressed by its own woes, including unemployment rate of 25%; it also hosts over one million refugees fleeing war in Syria. In addition, $ 11 billion in international aid intended to boost economic growth of Lebanon and help in dealing with the refugees is on hold by the international community until the political and economic reforms are implemented.
It is in these prevailing conditions that a call for reformation and an end to sectarian power sharing has arisen in Lebanon. For a nation fragmented by sectarian identities, it is this unified call for an end to sectarianism that is a unique feature of the latest uprisings. The protests witnessed the resignation of the Prime Minister Saad Hariri on 29th October and the appointment of Hassan Diab as the new PM. However, the latest protests have asked for removal of the new appointee who is seen to be a part of the political elite. The demand is for the creation of a transitional government with people unaffiliated with the traditional politics.
From a development perspective, institutions are primary to good governance. It remains to be seen if the Lebanese people will be successful in forming a government free from sectarian politics and should such a government be formed, what will be the impact on institutions.
Calfat, N.N., 2018. The Frailties of Lebanese Democracy: Outcomes and Limits of the Confessional Framework. Contexto Internacional 40, 269–293. https://doi.org/10.1590/s0102-8529.2018400200002.
Khatib, L., 2015. Sectarianism Is Not Part of the Solution for Syria [WWW Document]. Carnegie Middle East Center. URL https://carnegie-mec.org/2015/05/13/sectarianism-is-not-part-of-solution-for-syria-pub-60037 (accessed 12.30.19).
Salloukh, B.F., 2019. Taif and the Lebanese State: The Political Economy of a Very Sectarian Public Sector. Nationalism and Ethnic Politics.