'Partition' Lebanon: Here's Why

Lebanon is in general crisis.  The economy is in free fall.  Hyperinflation has evaporated salaries and savings.  Half the population is in poverty.   Sectarian tensions could go “hot” amid economic collapse.  The central government is bloated, broke, parceled into sectarian fiefdoms, corrupt, not fully sovereign, resistant to reform, and unable to deliver basic services.  It is a mess.

The situation in Lebanon is so dire that it is essentially ungovernable. Its current arrangements as a state have failed. In fact, the old idea of reorganizing the country into cantons or federated states needs a closer look.  Under such a rearrangement, the present borders would be retained, but the state would be restructured into self-rule areas where Lebanon’s religious sects would live as neighbors but not as roommates. The federal option is not new but has long been thought impossible or undesirable. 

On the contrary, what has turned out to be impossible is the building of a centralized state in a multi-confessional society.  It is not Lebanon’s religious sects themselves that are the main source of tension.  It is the scale of government.  

The Lebanese government is held captive by six religion-based political factions: two Christian, two Shia Muslim, one Sunni Muslim, and one Druze.  These divide the bureaucracy among themselves.  Government ministries project the appearance of a normal government but inwardly they are platforms for sectarian power dynamics.  The Six are roadblocks to reform.  They are responsible for the country’s economic collapse, a “deliberate depression” stemming from sectarian politics. 

The strongest group is Hezbollah, the powerful Shia militia that has a political party annex.   It is the only faction that did not disarm when Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990.  It has been locked in a decades-long confrontation with Israel.  Hezbollah dominates Lebanon’s political scene by allying with other parties, particularly with an important Christian faction that styles itself as a power balancer.  Lebanon’s president, Michel Aoun, is a Maronite Catholic and a Hezbollah ally.  The arrangement raises the fair question as to whether Hezbollah constitutes a state-within-a-state or is the state itself.  

When a centralized system functions passably its parts move together in a coherent way.   In Lebanon, the parts paralyze.  There is no consensus on national priorities.  If the Big Six cannot agree on a major issue nothing happens.  Deadlock is a common bargaining tool and has led to prolonged vacancies in the presidency and prime ministership.  The process is zero-sum madness.  

The need for economic reform is so great that almost any reasonable statement about it is apt to be true.   Reforms can be grouped into two approaches:  Strengthen the center to make it more accountable and decentralize it.   Decentralization is a worthy goal and was highlighted as a national aspiration in the Taif Accord, the 1989 agreement signed by Lebanese leaders for ending the civil war.   Lebanon’s political class has never moved on it.  The case for decentralization rests chiefly on whether it produces efficiencies in administration, but it also does double duty laying the foundation for a system of cantons.  Decentralizing government services and authority could precede that outcome.

In Lebanon, religion and place go together.   Whenever someone refers to a certain part of the country, that place’s religious composition is understood along with its geography.  Many towns and cities have been inhabited for millennia and, in that sense, they show robustness to the center’s fragility, but the important thing is that local structures already exist for a new polity of religion-cut cantons.  The Lebanese know what they look like.  Ironically, Hezbollah sets a precedent; it is the de facto system of public order in a large part of the country south of Beirut to the Israeli border.  

Decentralization would be a “bottom-up” approach to a future federation.   Empowering the localities would be the building blocks for the exercise of that option.   Greater local autonomy has natural constituencies in Lebanon.  It is not a foreign ideology imposed from without, but something the Lebanese can do for themselves.   Localism accepts religious identity as something valuable and tied to the land; it de-emphasizes the vision of a secular state governing a secularized citizenry.  Decentralization could be a way to resolve deep-set sectarian blockages at the national level.  It should be noted that Lebanese voters tend to prefer a candidate’s qualifications over religion in local elections but, in national elections, they close ranks behind the major sectarian parties.  They do this in order to protect their community’s interests because the national center is where the big decisions are made and resources allocated.  The national scene would take on a different character if authority and resources were divested to the localities.

A “top-down” approach to solving Lebanon’s predicament would be less promising.  Something like that was tried earlier this year when the patriarch of the Maronite Church proposed holding an international conference to guarantee Lebanon’s neutrality in regional disputes.  His intent was to find a way of defusing sectarian tensions so that the Lebanese can get on with normal life.  It produced the opposite effect:  the idea entails an implicit criticism of Hezbollah’s "forever war" with Israel.   Hezbollah balked, pointing out that foreign interventions have failed elsewhere in the Middle East.  The idea went nowhere.   Nonetheless, the episode shows that the door is open for national dialogue but, to get traction, it needs a different topic.   “Neutrality” and international involvement should be taken off the table in favor of a new agenda based on decentralizing state authority and exploring ideas for a polity of cantons.    

A dialogue like this would require modifying the working assumption about “strengthening” the Lebanese state.  Calls for building a “strong government” in Beirut have lured Lebanon onto the rocks for generations.  It has never worked.  There is a tendency among both Lebanese leaders and outsiders to regard the country as a kind of equation in which the sectarian factions are variables and the central government is a constant.  The solution they come up with is that the government needs to bulk up in order to tame the sectarian factions, while the factions should be trimmed in order to fit within a modern state.  Efforts at post-civil war “institution building” are premised on this idea.  But decentralization reverses the terms of this equation:  the sectarian impulse is transformed into a constant, something worthy of accommodation, while the scale of government is seen as changeable.  Decentralization puts Lebanon in a different light.   New possibilities for problem solving come into view.

A dialogue on decentralization would require an honest answer to a dilemma that has defied solution for generations:  Lebanon can have a centralized state while trying to manage episodes of sectarian strife, or it could opt for a decentralized state with a better chance of social harmony, but it cannot have both a centralized state and social harmony.  The center is too big for such little trust at the top.

James Soriano is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

Image: Screen shot from Hindustan Times video, via YouTube

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