Lebanon After the Beirut Explosion
The massive explosion that rocked Beirut on Aug. 4 was felt some 160 miles away in Cyprus. It killed at least 180 people, wounded 6,000, and displaced another 300,000. Beyond the human toll, the city itself is devastated, with large swathes of the capital destroyed and gutted. The blast was the result of government incompetence: Nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate were being unsafely stored at the port of Beirut since 2013, meters away from densely populated neighborhoods.
The blast is the latest in a series of crises created and perpetuated by an anachronistic system of governance. At the heart of this system lies a social compact that divides and connects individuals to political leaders based on sectarian identity — Maronite Christian, Sunni Muslim, Shia Muslim, Druze, but to name a few of the country’s 18 different religious sects. If Lebanon is to truly rebuild and move on from its latest calamity, a new social compact will need to emerge from the capital’s rubble, one that moves away from the political leader and towards a state that recognizes, but does not succumb to, communal pluralism.
Rewriting the social compact will not be an easy task. The current one between state and society has been around for nearly 200 years. Yet much like what propelled it into being, political and economic changes over the last 15 years have gradually chipped away at its foundations, allowing nascent notions of civic-mindedness to emerge that challenge the current sect-centric compact tying communities to the state via their political leaders. More specifically, new civil society and media organizations have emerged that are directly and indirectly pursuing transformational outcomes as opposed to single-issue reforms that simply reinforce the existing confessional system and compact.
These gains within civil society are in need of structural changes to further incentivize the emergence of a new social compact and system. To date, the international community has put unprecedented pressure on Lebanese leaders to enact anti-corruption reforms, an effort that recently saw the country establish its first National Anti-Corruption Commission. In the wake of the Aug. 4 explosion, this pressure has only increased. Yet solely focusing on anti-corruption and economic reforms will not induce the transformational changes to the social compact and confessional system that are needed to put the country on a more stable footing. In order for this to occur, the international community must also insist on the implementation of dormant constitutional articles and changes to the electoral system, which would reduce the zero-sum nature of reform to the political establishment while also producing the transformational outcomes desired.
How Lebanon Got Here
With independence from the French Mandate in 1943, Lebanon institutionalized a social compact (i.e., norms that govern the relationship between rulers and communities) around sectarian identity. It did so by distributing political authority along confessional lines. As a result, each community’s attachment to the state was through a social compact with their sectarian elites, who saw the state not as a consolidated source of authority that would equitably provide for all its communities but rather as an extension of their communal power. The state, in essence, became an arena for competition between sectarian elites all vying to steer state resources to their respective communities, per the inherited social compact.
The country’s civil war (1975 to 1990) put to rest questions about the state’s legitimacy. However, it did little to establish a peace that would strengthen the state and improve state capacity. Instead, successive governments since the civil war have failed to deliver the most basic of utilities — the country routinely experiences electricity blackouts, water shortages, and inconsistent trash collection. Solutions to more complex challenges like environmental degradation, economic stagnation, or the rebuilding of Beirut after the explosion appear even more distant. Because of the confessional system and social compact underlying it, state ministries, municipalities, and other administrative units are unable to provide essential services. Instead, they have become the fiefdoms of whichever sectarian party controls them, doling out resources (public sector jobs, investment projects, etc.) to their loyalist communities, all under the guise of power sharing and in neglect of broader development objectives benefiting the public at large.
By the early 2010s, the system started to fray around the edges due to the diminished saliency of the March 8 and March 14 political division, which pitted pro-Syrian and anti-Syrian political coalitions against each other in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. This dichotomy initially acted to strengthen sectarian parties and distract communities from governance inefficiencies. The softening political division combined with the 2011 Arab Spring, Syria’s subsequent decent into civil war, and economic shocks and stagnation to cast doubt on the existing social order. As the state’s coffers plummeted, so too did the political establishment’s ability to steer public resources to their own communities. After an interminable garbage crisis in 2015 that saw mounds of trash pile up around the country, more people were willing to criticize the sectarian elite and the system keeping in power.
All this came to a head in October 2019. On the heels of a catastrophically inept response to wild fires that engulfed sections of the country, the government, desperate for revenues in a sinking economy, imposed a tax on WhatsApp, a widely used messaging application in a country with one of the highest average costs of mobile internet in the region. This in turn triggered widespread demonstrations against a disconnected and affluent political class unable or unwilling to see the suffering afflicting the majority of the population. Protesters, echoing the Arab Spring’s chorus of “the people demand the fall of the regime,” sought to dismantle the existing order and replace it with one that was more equitable, inclusive, and responsive to the needs of the citizenry. More specifically, their target was political sectarianism and the exclusionary nature of the system that coupled identity and opportunity — be it social, political, or economic — and purposefully kept the state and its institutions beholden to the sectarian political class.
Those that benefit from the status quo are fighting hard to preserve it. These supporters continue to benefit from sectarian patronage, believe that their sectarian leader is above reproach, and continue to consider sectarian identity as the paramount marker of Lebanese identity. Even after the blast, videos posted on social media showed some sectarian leaders visiting areas around the city surrounded by loyalists praising and defending them from enraged onlookers. These are the same loyalists who have been mobilized by their political parties to attack and undermine the protest movement opposing their rule over the course of the last few months. If one of the most destructive non-nuclear explosions in history won’t uproot their loyalty, other incentives should be created and supported to usher in a new political order rooted in an inclusive social compact.
Empowering Lebanese Civil Society
Lebanon’s social compact will be difficult to change given the obstinacy of the existing pact and the entrenched legacy of the country’s sectarian institutions. Yet, the process that has been unfolding over the course of the last decade has produced a solid foundation for change to materialize. Take, for example, the emergence of a multitude of grassroot organizations outside the influence of the political establishment reimagining what it means to be part of the Lebanese community. They include the Volunteer Circle, which promotes civic duty by connecting volunteers to needed causes; Daleel al-Thawra, an online platform for citizens to organize around and support non-sectarian issues; Lebanon Support, a non-governmental organization focused on increasing the skills, knowledge, and connectedness of the country’s civil society; Muwatn Libnan, an online organization promoting collective civic actions outside the confines of sectarianism; and the Nawaya Network, a nonprofit that supports innovative entrepreneurship among the country’s youth. These organizations represent a new wave of groups — many of which have spearheaded volunteer efforts to clear and clean the rubble engulfing the city post-explosion — that are transforming the concept of Lebanese citizenship by putting civicmindedness over sectarian considerations. They are joined by a new media landscape comprised of citizen journalists and online outlets, such as Megaphone News and the Beirut Report, that are veritably independent of sectarian loyalties.
Though these bottom-up efforts are critical to the emergence of a new social compact, they are insufficient on their own. Indeed, these organizations are in need of structural reforms that can spur forward the dismantling of political sectarianism. Luckily, some of these reforms already exist in the Lebanese constitution. Article 22 of the constitution calls for a bicameral legislature to be established, with the lower chamber free of sectarian considerations and given the mandate to deal with every-day governance imperatives. Though reserved for sectarian elites, the upper chamber would be stripped of decision-making responsibilities outside of major national issues like declarations of war. This would essentially transform sectarian elites into symbolic vestiges of a bygone era. In addition, Article 95 of the constitution calls for a transition plan to end political sectarianism. Given that these articles would erode the power of the sectarian ruling elite, it comes as no surprise that they have never been implemented.
New economic policies are also needed to transform the current dysfunctional establishment and catalyze the consolidation of a new social compact. Even prior to the explosion on Aug. 4, Lebanon has been mired in an economic crisis so severe that the national currency has lost up to 60 percent of its value, decimating the savings of the public and pushing nearly half the population under the poverty line. The crisis is the product of an economic model that relies heavily on international remittances and rents, and patchwork policies meant to enrich the sectarian elite instead of find lasting solutions to the country’s crumbling infrastructure. The state-run electricity company, for example, is responsible for 40 percent of the country’s massive public debt, which stands at 150 percent of gross domestic product. And what has this debt delivered: a country 30 years removed from its civil war that still experiences power cuts lasting up to six hours per day.
Electoral reforms and early elections have been floated as a way out of the current imbroglio. Despite trappings of democracy, Lebanon’s electoral laws are devised to keep the sectarian elite in power, often without any genuine competition for parliament’s 128 seats. The key precept of this formula has been to make electoral districts match community and political party demographics to allow political parties to simply mobilize their supporters to the polls through sectarian rhetoric. These laws have ensured that any political movement outside of the traditional sectarian establishment is kept out of the system. If early parliamentary elections are held, there should be an equitable electoral law that levels the playing field and gives new political forces an actual chance at entering the system. One particular change that is needed that would allow new groups to enter the political system is to abolish the requirement that citizens must vote in their ancestral towns and cities. This stipulation has the impact of precluding the emergence of new electoral constituencies as like-minded citizens seeking changes to the system have to vote in their areas of origin dominated by the traditional political establishment. Instead, citizens should be able to register to vote where they actually live. Lower electoral thresholds — the minimum amount of votes needed to gain a seat in parliament — would also be a boon for new political groups. Additionally, enough time must be given for the protest movement and other independent figures to politically organize. Otherwise, early elections will result in the same sectarian elite as before.
The international community, which for years has seen its aid misappropriated by Lebanon’s governments, has finally taken an unyielding position: no more aid to the government unless economic reforms are enacted that curtail corruption. A donor conference organized by France on Aug. 9 to support recovery efforts in Beirut, which raised $300 million, also pledged to bypass the government and give the aid directly to trusted non-governmental organizations until the government can demonstrate its will to weed out corruption. One step towards this occurred in April, when in the face of mounting international pressure the government finally passed a much belated anti-corruption law establishing the country’s first Anti-Corruption Commission. The body has several positive aspects to it, including membership criteria, at least on paper, that puts expertise — financial, legal, and investigatory — over political affiliation. Yet its limitations are a cause for concern, especially the provision that selects members from the country’s professional syndicates and administrative units, both of which are home to party loyalists. The international community should support civil society efforts to monitor and inform the work of the commission in addition to providing technical support to the body. Future aid to the country should also be contingent on the progress made by the commission. These efforts will help bring about a new compact where accountability, a key demand of protesters since last October, is central to the relationship between citizen and state.
Additionally, the international community should also insist on a plan to implement Articles 22 and 95 of the constitution and start to support technical and grassroots efforts around these reforms. There should also be a firm stance on the need to make elections truly competitive so that they can produce results reflecting the country’s new non-sectarian movements. Making future aid contingent on the formation of an independent electoral body comprised of international and domestic experts tasked with drafting a new electoral law would help bring this about, as would the withholding of international recognition and support to a new election held under the same old rules.
To be sure, the old sectarian elite won’t lose influence or power overnight as they still have considerable support bases nurtured by their patronage. This should be welcomed as it makes change more palpable to those elites most resistant to it by continuing to give them a stake in the system, especially when faced with an unprecedented situation where both international and domestic pressures have put their backs against the wall. Indeed, the abovementioned reforms would help foster processes to gradually dilute the authority of the traditional political establishment and thrust the country towards a more inclusive and responsive social compact and governing system.
There is some concern that the sectarian political elite will still be strengthened if international assistance to Lebanon is strictly conditioned on political reforms. The fear is that international pressure might make the economic situation in Lebanon even worse, driving communities into the arms of sectarian parties that can still provide basic welfare services. Yet economic and political sanctions being developed are targeting specific Lebanese politicians for human rights abuses and corrupt practices. This would be a welcome development that would close off vital economic lifelines that are used to keep patronage alive. This carrot and stick approach makes reforms more appealing to the ruling establishment as their private wealth and privileges are threatened. Moreover, unprecedented international and domestic scrutiny has put political elites into an unfamiliar position where economic and electoral reforms are seen by some as a way out of multiple crises that have inundated the country. These reforms would reduce their power but not eliminate them from the political scene, hence minimizing the zero-sum nature of reform.
Lebanon’s current social compact has its origin in the economic and political changes that occurred during the 19th century, which engendered the primacy of sectarian identity and political structures. Nearly two centuries later, this pact and the inimical sectarian system consolidating it are finally beginning to unravel. After a deadly explosion ripped through Beirut on Aug. 4, an opportunity has emerged to establish a new inclusive relationship between the Lebanese state and its people.
Osama Gharizi is a senior program advisor at the United States Institute of Peace’s Middle East and Africa Center, and a non-resident fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi). He is proudly based in Beirut. The views presented here are his own.