Lebanon: Turning Protests into Power


For nearly three months, massive protests have rocked Lebanon. Demonstrators have given voice to economic and political grievances, but this has not yet translated into structural or institutional change. The country, left without a government for three months and without a concrete economic agenda, has been suspended in revolutionary limbo. Although a new government was formed on Jan. 21, the crisis is far from over. The prime minister’s resignation in late October sparked a political crisis that, coupled with a severe economic downturn and a protest movement unsure about its tactics or priorities, gradually sapped the unbridled anger emanating from the street.

However, the new year has brought with it renewed momentum. Protesters took to the streets on Jan. 14, blocking roads and calling for the formation of a new government within 72 hours. The current unrest, unlike previous protests, is largely leaderless and challenges the core foundations of the post-war republic. Lebanon, therefore, stands at a historic crossroads. The consequences will not only determine the path the country takes domestically, but also its role in a corner of the Middle East increasingly encumbered by regional and international tensions.



Lebanon’s worsening economic situation and an inept political class are at the center of the street’s current ire. Yet, if genuine and lasting economic gains are to be achieved, the protest movement should not lose sight of the underlying political causes of the country’s malaise — political confessionalism (i.e., the proportional allocation of political authority to the country’s ethno-sectarian communities) combined with weak state institutions. These factors have made the country’s political system resilient to rapid changes and have been perpetuated by the country’s electoral framework. As such, if lasting structural change is to emerge, the protest movement would do well to renew calls for early elections under an equitable electoral law. This would give protest leaders the opportunity to convert the energy created by the protests into political success. It would also offer breathing space to an increasingly disconnected sectarian ruling elite that is running out of options.

The Origins of Discontent: Confessionalism and Weak State Institutions

Lebanon’s consociational system, in which political elites representing the country’s sectarian groups share power, seems perfect for a country with a heterodox society comprised of 18 different religious sects. It ensures communal representation and allays fears of political domination by any one group. However, the consociational ideal has become changed by a series of governance models generated over time that prioritize sectarianism and weak state institutions.

When Lebanon gained independence in 1943, the foundations of the country were built upon political confessionalism and elite autonomy. Both were rooted in systems of governance developed when the country was under Ottoman rule. Political confessionalism divided the main political positions in the country, the legislature, and the public sector along sectarian lines. Elite autonomy ensured that the state and its institutions remained beholden to the political elites of each confession. Strong and independent state institutions were seen as anathema to traditional confessional ruling elites, who stood to lose their power, which is based on clientelistic networks, if the state grew in authority and effectiveness.

While Lebanon’s brutal 15-year civil war (1975–90) chipped away at the ruling class’ stranglehold on political and confessional representation — the war-making process created new elites and undermined the authority of existing one — it did little to uproot the confessional system or enhance the effectiveness of state institutions. In fact, the opposite happened. The political settlement that ended the war, the Taif Accord, further entrenched confessionalism into the system by adapting it to demographic changes. Parliament’s representation was changed to an equal 5:5, Christian-Muslim ratio, while the powers of the Sunni prime minster and Shia speaker of parliament were enhanced at the expense of the once all-powerful Maronite presidency.

While the new order brought about greater political parity between confessions, it also meant that decision-making required an elite consensus that was impossible to achieve. Moreover, to help incentivize elite buy-in into the peace settlement, the state’s ministries and public sector continued to prop up the patronage system of political parties, which doled out public sector jobs and projects to supporters. These features, combined with Syrian suzerain rule — Syrian troops and intelligence agencies came to dominate Lebanese political life until they were forced out in 2005 — constituted the basic contours of the post-war political system, which was rooted in the modes of governance established more than 150 years before. As a consequence of all this, the consociational ideal contributed to post-war political reality mired in corruption, weak state institutions, paralyzed decision-making, sectarian narratives and, at times, inter-communal violence.

The mass demonstrations that began in October reflected the first major cracks of the post-war system as the economic crisis — an outcome of severe mismanagement by the entrenched political establishment — eroded the state’s budget, which in turn undermined the political elite’s clientelistic networks. The more constituents fell outside the patronage system, the more they felt frustrated and angry at the sectarian underpinnings of the system, which no longer provided them direct dividends and which hindered the ability of the state to provide the most basic of public services.

Exiting the Crisis: Early Elections and a Reform Agenda

The transformation of Lebanon into a deconfessionalized state with effective institutions will not occur any time soon. The legacy of the country’s political institutions and traditions, which were founded prior to the establishment of modern Lebanon, make it resilient to rapid change, even when the economic underpinnings of the system fray. The mass protests that emerged last October will not be enough.

One key step toward systemic reform would be to hold early parliamentary elections under new electoral rules. Electoral reform can engender change by allowing new political entities to enter the governing system. Lebanon’s political system has been perpetuated by laws and districting that largely predetermine the election results of its 128 seats in parliament in favor of established sectarian parties. Up until the 2018 parliamentary elections, the electoral system of choice was rooted in simple plurality. Voters cast ballots for as many seats as are allocated for their district, and candidates who receive the highest number of votes are elected.

Though the 128 seats are divided between Christian and Muslim sects, voters choose candidates for all seats in a district regardless of sect. This, in theory, would spark cross-sectarian movements to develop but the use of electoral districts that closely correspond to communal demographics, coupled with pervasive clientelism, have impeded this outcome. In fact, this system was favored because it makes each district’s demographic makeup the key determinant of the results, meaning parties and elites merely needed to get their partisans to the polls, and could neglect actually campaigning on issues or seeking to appeal across sectarian lines to gain votes. In mixed districts, where no one party or sect completely dominated, alliances were agreed to in advance of the election and supporters were instructed to vote in accordance with that pact. Minimal campaign rules and oversight ensured that vote-buying and other questionable practices endured.

In 2018, Lebanon held elections for the first time in nearly a decade under a new electoral law based on proportional representation. Political elites had agreed to postpone polls originally scheduled for 2013, fearing the spillover effects from the Syrian civil war. The change to proportional representation was partly in response to a long-standing civil society campaign that saw the system as more equitable for a country with a heterogeneous population. Yet, despite the shift, other features of the system that made it palatable for the traditional political forces to accept a change in the first place also meant that results would continue to be more or less predetermined and based on sectarian mobilization. These included the continued use of small district sizes where dominate parties overlap with their traditional constituencies, electoral alliances between parties, and the prevention of independents from standing as candidates without being on a coalition list. These characteristics guaranteed that outsiders would continue to be precluded from entering the political system in any meaningful way.

A full shift to proportional representation with large districts — or even with the country as a single constituency — along with other reforms, such as the establishment of an independent electoral commission with real enforcement authority to combat electoral violations, would go a long way toward opening up the system to the broad-based, non-confessional protest movement seeking to change the sectarian foundations of the political system. Indeed, had such an electoral framework already been in place, non-traditional political parties and individuals would already be participating in the system in consequential numbers.

In 2016, Beirut Madiniti — a movement comprised of academics, practitioners, and activists —contested the Beirut municipal elections on a platform focused on governance issues. This included fixing the city’s interminable garbage crisis, tackling Beirut’s stifling traffic jams, and promoting transparency and accountability in decision-making processes. Running against it was a coalition comprised of candidates from the traditional political establishment — including political rivals — who were wary of the threat the movement posed to their long-standing capture of political institutions. Yet, despite wining 30 percent of the vote — including over 50 percent in one of the three districts comprising Beirut’s electorate — Beirut Madiniti did not gain a single seat in the 24-seat municipal council due to the majoritarian election system. This outcome would have surely been different under proportional rules, even if municipal council elections differ somewhat from parliamentary elections in that seats are not allocated along sectarian lines.

A shift to a genuine, proportional representation system is the most feasible way for the mass demonstration movement to change Lebanon’s political system. The country’s constitution contains key provisions that are at the heart of the protest movement’s demands for deconfessionalization and more effective governance. The first is Article 22 of the constitution, which calls for the development of a bi-cameral legislature, with the lower chamber elected on a non-confessional basis and responsible for dealing with day-to-day policy issues, and the upper house elected according to confessional lines but whose authority would be limited to major national issues, like those involving war and peace. Complementing this is Article 95 of the constitution, which calls for the end of political confessionalism through a national transition plan. To date, very little progress has been made on either of these provisions by the political establishment — doing so would begin to dismantle the very system that preserves their authority. Through early elections based on an equitable electoral law, the protest movement has a genuine opportunity to convert its street power into a governance mandate that can push these constitutionally-sanctioned efforts forward.

The protest movement should renew its October call for an early election under a new law that allows for genuine electoral competition. Likewise, demonstrators ought to continue their appeal for new economic policies that can help stave off an economic collapse. Other demands, such as for a transitional government comprised of technocrats and a committee that investigates stolen state funds, while important, risk detracting from the one thing that can actually lead to the unraveling of the sectarian order. This is especially true the more time goes on as the movement risks losing momentum or fracturing because of diverging demands.

For its part, the ruling political class has few options. Pressure from the protests continues to mount, the economy is on the verge of collapse, and a precarious regional environment, highlighted by instability in Syria and Iraq and tensions between Iran and the United States, risks plunging the country into the unknown. The ratcheting up of sectarianism, a useful ploy used by confessional leaders in the past to consolidate community support and keep out-group adversaries at bay, has its limitations. It would risk violent sectarian conflict, an outcome that very few political elites have a desire for or the resources to engage in. Moreover, increased international pressure on Hezbollah, the most powerful domestic entity, restricts it from projecting its power in absolute terms lest it be seen to be controlling the Lebanese state. This makes holding early elections under an equitable electoral law a realistic concession. It would provide the political establishment a way out of the current imbroglio while also giving it some stake in the new legislature given the establishment’s sizeable, loyal support bases. This outcome, however, should not be deflating. History is filled with key moments that change the course of a country’s development. The entry into parliament of non-sectarian forces seeking a constitutionally-mandated reform agenda has the potential to be such an instance and could catalyze the receding of the sectarian order and the emergence of one founded on effective state institutions.

Implementing Structural Change

The October protests have shaken the foundations of the Lebanese state. Pushing for early elections under an equitable electoral law — once a remote possibility but now suddenly within reach — has the potential to truly bring about lasting revolutionary change to the system. In the short term, it would allow fresh ideas and leaders to enter an antiquated and hermetically sealed system of governance. It would do so without existentially threatening the traditional confessional class and their supporters. In the long term, it could allow a constitutionally-backed reform agenda to unfold, gradually bringing an end to an anachronistic order while allowing a new one to blossom.

Keeping the demand alive for new elections with a revised electoral framework would remind the political establishment that forming a new government with familiar political leanings and fixing the economy are not nearly enough. Real structural changes need to be implemented that address the root causes of the current crisis. Protestors and all those who support the establishment of strong, effective state institutions would do well to get behind this new course.



Osama Gharizi has worked on electoral issues in Lebanon, Georgia, and Egypt. He is currently senior program advisor for Iraq at the United States Institute of Peace and a non-resident fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute. The views presented here are his own.

Image: Wikicommons (Photo by Nadim Kobeissi)