Lebanon and on and on and on

January 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

So Lebanon has just, as I am writing this, changed Prime Minister. This is why.

The system

Lebanon is to a certain extent a crusader construct. It was a crusader kingdom for several periods in its history and it is where a lot of the Christian families, and native Christian converts settled. Centuries of interbreeding have rendered the population of Lebanon ethnically identical to their neighbours (and – whisper it – pretty darn ethnically similar to Israelis as well) but a partly Christian culture survived – making Lebanon the odd one out in the region in many ways.

Christians have dominated the politics of the country for much of this century. Whilst not a majority (they make up about 38% of the population) the almost exactly 50/50 (or 28%/28%) split between Sunni and Shia Muslims has allowed them to dominate by virtue of having a plurality. This led to several decades of bitter sectarian conflict – a conflict which became particularly brutal during the civil war in the 1980s.

The result was the Taif agreement of 1989 which led to the complicated electoral system they have now. There is a very good guide to that system here.

In essence the system guarantees parity between Muslim and Christian representatives. Christians are guaranteed 64 seats, within which individual denominations are guaranteed the following (the distinctions between denomination and ethnicity in Lebanon are kind-of fluid): Maronites (a Syriac-Lebanese branch of the Catholic Church) 34, Greek Orthodox 14, ethnically Greek Catholics 8, Armenian Orthodox 5, ethnically Armenian Catholics 1, Evangelical Protestants 1, and six other smaller denominations 1 between them.

Similarly Muslims are guaranteed 64 seats with individual schools being guaranteed the following: Sunni 27, Shia 27, Druze (the Druze are a predominintly Lebanese group who originated from the Ismaili or “sevener” Shia school but split from it in the 11th century – and so do not follow the Aga Khan – and now follow beliefs so esoteric that it is a matter for academic debate whether it is correct to refer to them as Muslims) 8, and Awalis (sometimes referred to as “eleveners”, the Alawi are a sect of Shia from Syria and Lebanon who accept most of the tenets of mainstream “twelver” Shia but not the primacy of the Ayatollahs) 2.

The Taif allocations were based upon the best demographic data which was available at the time – and the principle of parity between the major religious forces. Census-taking in Lebanon is not that thorough and religious identities are in any case not always clear cut so you can imagine some of the bun-fights Taif caused. However it has stood the test of time fairly well and there hasn’t been a civil war since (touch wood). Here’s a rough demographic map of Lebanon. I’m guessing the author was Shia as it seems to over-represent the Shia contingent compared to both the Taif allocation (21%) and the generally accepted figure (28%). However it seems to have got the geography of it right:


Electing these numbers of MPs is achieved by breaking Lebanon into 26 multi-member seats each of which elects a number of members broadly equivalent to its own religious makeup (but so that the numbers add up to those above). Thus the predominantly Shia region of Balbeck elects 6 Shia MPs, 2 Sunni, 1 Maronite and 1 Greek Catholic; on the other hand the predominantly Sunni town of Tripoli elects 5 Sunnis, 1 Alawite, 1 Maronite and 1 Greek Orthadox. Clearly not every group can be represented in every place. For example Kesrwan is overwhelmingly, but not exclusively, Maronite. Yet the electoral geography is such that Kesrwan elects 5 Maronite MPs and nothing else.

Candidates must clearly identify themselves with one of the religious groups. Voters however do not have to. Within each seat votes are then cast by multi-member first-past-the-post , in other words voters are free to vote for as many or as few candidates as they wish and don’t just have to vote for candidates of their own religion. Seats are then distributed according to the pre-defined quota. On other words they are placed in order of total number of votes received and then, in Balbeck for example, the top 6 registered Shia candidates, the top two registered Sunni candidates, and the highest registered Maronite and Greek Catholic candidates are elected.

This system has a number of consequences. Firstly there is a certain element of religion shopping: candidates with no particularly strong religious conviction (and as we shall see secular socialists are a powerful force in Lebanon) look around for the religion with the least competitive election. However religious groups, and the power of the surname, being a political behemoth in Lebanon, in actuality religion shopping tends to happen more in the candidate selection rather than by the candidates themselves. In other words party leaders, particularly leaders of parties not strongly aligned to a religious group, shop around for which group will give the easier elections and then go out and recruit members of that community as candidates.

Secondly it means there is a lot of crossover voting. Christian voters will not just vote for the Christian parties they support for the Christian seats, they will also vote for moderate or secular parties with Muslim candidates to keep the hard-line Islamist parties out of the Muslim seats – and Muslim voters do the same to keep out Phalange (hard-line Christian) parties out. It may be that this was in part deliberate – it encourages moderates and it encourages parties to look for support outside of their own religious group.

However it does have arguably unfair consequences. For one thing, those very small ethnic groups argue that none of their so-called representatives actually represent them – as most of the votes cast for that representative were actually cast by members of larger groups. Then there is the fact that the constituencies are crudely drawn, and some would say gerrymandered, in such a way as to result in many people having no candidate from their own group standing in the seat they live. And of course there is perennial quibbling that the Taif allocations over-represent some groups, under-represent others, and need updating in light of demographic shifts. Finally, overtly Shia groups such as Hezbollah argue that most of their seats are actually in Sunni areas – or are thinly scattered across the nation in such a way as to ensure that most voters within each individual seat are Sunni – with the result that overtly Shia groups have traditionally lost out to secular or moderate candidates for the Shia seats elected by crossover Sunni votes.

Some groups are better at playing the system than others. For example, Druze parties almost always win more seats than their allocation (clearly some must stand as candidates nominally of another religion) both because they tend to be moderates (and so attract crossover votes) and because Taif probably underestimates the strength of the Druze community.

A final consequence of the system is that, as the system can be potentially very confusing, Lebanon has allowed the controversial step of allowing voters to bring pre-prepared ballots with them to the polling station. These ballots are mass produced, often by political parties or community leaders, and handed out to supporters. When a voter turns up to a polling station with such a ballot, it is accepted as a valid vote. In many constituencies over 50% of votes are cast this way, prompting criticism that the system makes vote buying, vote rigging, and intimidation easy.

The politics

Lebanese politics is semi-group based. On the one hand religious groups are still a very powerful force, particularly when it comes to motivating the electorate. On the other hand party groupings are increasingly cutting across religious lines and moving beyond group politics. In this they are following a trend established by the many secular socialist parties who have always been fairly powerful in Lebanon and were a major fourth force during the civil war.

Coupled with the gradual (and by no means complete) decline of religious politics is a slight return to politics as usual: economic issues and the issue of how to rebuild the state after decades of war – should it be along state centrist or free market lines?

However the main issue, and the one which divides the government from the opposition, is that of international alignment. There are two sides: one is the March 14th alliance (March 14th was the date of the Cedar revolution – of which more in a second). They believe Lebanon should stand alone. They reject interference in Lebanese affairs by any foreign power: Israel, the west, but most particularly Syria. Indeed opposition to Syria, and Syrian domestic interference, is the primary raison d’etre for the party. As such it primarily supported by Christian, Sunni and secular socialist groups wary of Syria’s support for what they see as Shia extremists. However they also have some support amongst Shia who are wary of Syria as a Baath party (ie a firstly secular, secondly Sunni, and Shia never) regime with -regardless of the current convenient alliance – in the long term no great love for political Shiaism.

The other side is the March 8th alliance (March 8th was the day of a mass demonstration against the Cedar revolution). They believe that a close alliance with Syria is a good thing. A main part of the coalition are Shia groups which Syria actively supports such as Hezbollah. However the coalition also has support from groups of all religions and none who view becoming part of the Syrian sphere of influence as infinitely preferable to being part of the Israeli, western, or Turkish spheres.

The politics of the moment revolves around two recent events.

The Cedar revolution

Up until 2005 the March 8th alliance (obviously they weren’t called that at the time but in essence that is what they were and what they became) were very much in the ascendency. Lebanon had a pro-Syrian Prime Minister: Omar Karami, a pro-Syrian majority in Parliament, Syrian troops occupied much of the country, and Syria was entirely dominant on the political scene.

Then, on February 14th 2005, former Prime Minister, and leader of the opposition March 14th alliance (obviously they weren’t called that at the time either, but likewise that is in essence what they were and what they became) Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut.

The death of Hariri

Supporters were quick to point the finger at Syria and massive anti-Syrian demonstrations rocked the country. Hezbollah organised equally massive pro-Syrian demonstrations but the mood of the country was distinctly anti-Syrian, and in a matter of months Syrian troops had been forced to leave the country and, after a few swift changes of government, an anti-Syrian March 14th government was in power led by Hariri’s son Saad. Rarely had Syrian influence in Lebanon been so low.

The 2006 war

It is probable that the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel was deliberately provoked by Hezbollah as a way of rebuilding their popularity after the bruising they had received during the Cedar revolution, and the damage done to one of their main sponsors (Iran is the other sponsor). However what was clear is that once provoked, Israel rolled out a battle plan they had been itching for an excuse to use for many months. The idea, on Israel’s part, was to destroy Hezbollah once and for all and so secure the north of Israel from rocket attack. Rarely has a tactic proven so utterly counter-productive.

The damage done to Hezbollah’s infrastructure was immense, and they lost many personell. However, like any self respecting guerrilla group they were able to rebuild almost immediately and were back up to full strength within months – the personell replaced by that superb Hezbollah recruiting sergeant: the Israeli Defence Force. However, the long term effect of the war was to do, in one swoop, what the UN and Lebanese politicians had been failing to do for decades: unify all the many religious and ethnic groups. Over 1,000 civilians of all religions were killed, and so Lebanon came together in a furious rage against Israel.

In addition the bombing destroyed much of Lebanon’s infrastructure, and Hezbollah were able to earn many brownie points rebuilding it. Whilst they would reject the term, Hezbollah are effectively a Maoist organisation, their “army living amongst the people like fish in the sea” and much of their support stems from genuine and effective community politics; which in places extends to the provision of a fully functional parallel welfare state. The devastated landscape of south Lebanon proved fertile ground for this kind of approach.

And so, less than a year after the Cedar revolution, Hezbollah found themselves in a position of unprecedented strength – and so found themselves a more powerful force within the March 8th coalition than they had ever been before.

The 2009 general election

The 2009 election was incredibly close and incredibly competitive. The March 14th Coalition won 61 seats as follows:

Party name Number of seats Ideology Religious base
Future movement 28 Hariri’s party: centre –right, liberal Mostly Sunni
Independents 11 Independent pro Mar 14th Various
Lebanese Forces 8 Nationalist conservative Traditionally Christian, now reaching out to Sunni and Druze communities
Phalange 5 Right wing nationalist Maronite
Hunchak 2 Socialist Armenian groups
Islamic Group 1 Islamist Sunni
Ramgavar 1 liberal Armenian groups
Democratic left 1 Socialist secular
National Liberal 1 Christian Democrat Christian

The March 8th Coalition won 57 seats as follows:

Party name Number of seats Ideology Religious base
Free Patriotic Movement 18 Economic reform, centrist, secularist Mostly Christian
Hezbollah 13 Islamist Shia
Amal 13 Islamist Shia
Marada 3 Former Militia group, militaristic and some would say mafia Christian
Lebanese Democratic Party 3 Officially liberal, the party of the Arslan family Druze
Armenian Revolutionary Federation 2 Socialist Armenian groups
Syrian Social Nationalist Party 2 Pro a greater Syria, pro Syria but anti Ba’ath Pan Muslim
Ba’ath 2 Arab nationalist, socialist, the governing party in Syria Alawi
Solidarity 1 Christian Democrat, pro Palestinian Maronite

So, with 64  seats needed for a parliamentary majority that left the one party sitting on the fence, and its ten MPs, as the king makers. This was the Progressive Socialist Party, a social democrat secular party which draws its main support from the Druze community. They originally stood as part of the March 15th coalition, thereby ensuring a majority for them and a second term for Hariri. However, less than a month later, they pulled out of the coalition causing quite the panic. In the end they agreed to continue providing confidence and supply to the March 14th group … until now.

The politicians celebrated the return of politics as usual with a friendly kick around:

March 14th beat March 8th 2-0 with two goals from Phalange Party Central Committee Coordinator MP Sami Gemayel, who appears to be the only Lebanese Politician who knows how to kick a ball. The event was immortalised by someone with too much time on their hands who created a game of Lebanese Footballiticans.

The current crisis

Hezbollah were allegedly desperate to bring down the March 14th group rapidly, as Lebanon is currently co-operating with the UN enquiry into the death of Hariri and it is expected that this enquiry will accuse Hezbollah of carrying out the attack – or at very least of complicity in it. Hezbollah counter-accuse the enquiry of being an attempt by the west to frame them.

Read any of the western papers and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the current crisis was all Hezbollah’s doing, or that Hezbollah were now in charge of the country. In actual fact this crisis has nothing to do with Hezbollah, who did not initiate it, remain merely the joint third largest party in the March 8th coalition, and will not be providing the Prime Minister. However, what it does mean is that Hezbollah are in quite a powerful bargaining position (as are at least four other parties of course), a position they have used to ensure that Lebanon will no longer be co-operating with the enquiry into Hariri’s death. The timing has certainly been fortuitous for them.

That aside the Hezbollah hysteria really is getting a bit silly. Hezbollah are still only the joint fourth largest party in Lebanon with just 10% of the seats and, I say again, this crisis had nothing to do with them.

What happened is that March 14th lost their majority to March 8th, not over any disagreement about Syria, but over economic issues. Indeed this crisis can be seen as a reaffirmation of normal economic politics over the religious and geo-strategic politics that had previously dominated. What happened is that the Progressive Socialist Party and two Independents led by the multi-billionaire former PM Najib Mikati decided that, disagreements over the role of Syria notwithstanding, the economic reforms suggested by the Free Patriotic Movement made a lot of sense – particularly when contrasted to the moribund government of Hariri junior. And so they switched sides. Mikati himself will become the Prime Minister, but the main force in the coalition will remain the Free Patriotic Movement and its leader, former PM Michel Aoun.

What next

Whilst the role of Hezbollah has been greatly exaggerated in this they remain a growing and effective political force in the region. It remains to be seen what the effect of the Palestine Papers and the Sidi Bouzid protests will be on the wider region. My guess is that the Palestine Papers will be disastrous for Fatah, and great for Hamas,  but indifferent for Israel and irrelevant for the rest of the region as they will only confirm what we already suspected, that the Israeli establishment isn’t really interested in a deal. I’m much less willing to venture a guess on where the Sidi Bouzid protest will end, particularly given the gusto with which Al Jazeera appears to be ensuring the protests receive coverage. There will be big changes in Tunisia, it’ll be interesting to see what happens in Algeria, if anything actually changes in Egypt or Jordan I will be astonished, and if it goes further afield than that I will eat my hat.

One key question for the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, particularly if populist anti-dictatorial protests do start to topple regimes in the region, is at what point they accept that their eventual goals are in direct contrast to each other and turn against each other. Don’t hold your breath though, the relationship is too mutually beneficial for any one side to turn against the other for a good while yet


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