30 March 2021

Dampening the culture wars, 6: Lebanon

The Middle East, at one time called the Near East, has been politically unstable for just over a century, when the victors in the Great War divided the territory of the former Ottoman Empire between them. France and Great Britain were the principal parties to this division, with the former receiving Syria and the latter receiving Palestine and Mesopotamia. The borders were artificial and did not correspond to the boundaries between the various communities in the region. Britain set up Iraq (southern Mesopotamia) and the Trans-Jordan as monarchies under the Hashemite dynasty. 

For its part France divided the former Ottoman province of Syria into two, with the southern coastal area, with its Christian majority, designated as Lebanon, or the Lebanon, as it was often referred to in English. France deliberately separated Lebanon from the remainder of Syria to accommodate this Christian population, who would otherwise have been a minority in a greater Syria. Christian communities survived in Lebanon because of their relative isolation in its higher-elevation topography. Nevertheless, Lebanon had a substantial Muslim minority who were more oriented towards their co-religionists in neighbouring Syria than to the west. For them the division of Syria seemed arbitrary and artificial.

In 1943 the leaders of Lebanon's Christian and Muslim communities settled on a formula for independence which came to be called the National Pact. The National Pact was not a written document, but an agreement to distribute the major political offices in the country amongst the separate religious communities. It was based on the 1932 census, which had determined that Lebanon had a population of 875,252, of whom 53 percent were Christians. Although the League of Nations had provided for a French mandate in Syria and Lebanon, it was understood that France was to prepare these territories for independence. In Lebanon this had been delayed because of the sectarian division in the population, requiring something other than majority rule. The new National Pact provided for the following:

  1. The President of the Republic and Commander of the Armed Forces would always be a Maronite Christian;
  2. the Prime Pinister would always be a Sunni Muslim;
  3. the Speaker of the Parliament would always be a Shia Muslim;
  4. the Deputy Speaker of Parliament and Deputy Prime Minister would always be Orthodox Christians;
  5. the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces would always be a Druze;
  6. Christians and Muslims would be represented in Parliament at a ratio of 6 to 5;
  7. Christians would acquiesce in an Arab-oriented Lebanon and refrain from relying on western assistance; and
  8. Muslims would accept an independent Lebanon and refrain from seeking unity with Syria.

From the outset the National Pact had its considerable flaws. To begin, its distribution of offices was excessively rigid and lacked the flexibility to accommodate the possibility of demographic change in Lebanon. Moreover, quotas of this sort tend to exclude considerations of competence and experience in the allocation of political leadership positions. Imagine, if you will, a constitutional requirement that the President of the United States must be a member of one of the so-called Seven Sisters of American Protestantism and the Vice President a Roman Catholic, the Speaker of the House of Representatives an evangelical protestant, and so forth. Even if the Constitution permitted it, most Americans would regard such an arrangement as unfair because it unduly constrained the preferences of voters at the polls.

Demographic change did indeed come to Lebanon. Over the decades the Muslim population grew at a faster rate than the Christian population. Lebanese Christians were more likely to emigrate to western countries, such as France, Canada, and the United States. If you enjoy eating a falafel or shawarma at your local Lebanese deli, you will likely find that the proprietor is part of the expatriate Christian community, whose migration helped to alter the demographic balance of his home country.

Lebanon's religious communities, 1991 estimate

During the decades following the National Pact, Lebanon appeared to be a paragon of stability in the Middle East. Its capital city of Beirut acquired the reputation of being the Paris of the Middle East. While Israel and its neighbours fought four major wars between 1948 and 1973, Lebanon remained calm, with foreign correspondents from western media routinely reporting from Beirut on the events in surrounding countries. But this calm would not last. Intercommunal tensions continued to grow until they burst into the open briefly in 1958 and then again in 1975 with the start of Lebanon's long civil war. Because the National Pact was etched in stone, and because Lebanon's demographic balance was not, the increasing disparity between the two made the country impossible to govern under the old rules, based on a census from nearly half a century earlier.

Nine decades later the 1932 census remains the last census to have taken place. During the 1950s it was estimated that the Christian population stood at 54 percent, but the most recent CIA estimates put the combined Muslim population at 61.1 percent and the Christian population at 33.7 percent, with the remainder made up of Druze and smaller groups.

In 1989 the Ta'if Agreement formally ended the civil war, making several changes to the National Pact, including the following:

  1. the Chamber of Deputies is equally divided between Christians and Muslims, replacing the 6:5 ratio of the National Pact;
  2. many of the President's powers are transferred to a Cabinet whose membership is divided equally between Christians and Muslims;
  3. the agreement set as a long-term goal the abolition of political sectarianism, but without providing a timeline; and
  4. the agreement abolished sectarian identity cards for citizens.

While the Ta'if Agreement brought an end to the civil war, political instability continues in Lebanon, with Syria and Iran constantly interfering in the country's affairs.

In my last instalment I noted that consociational arrangements tend to be temporary, with the classic era of consociationalism in the Netherlands lasting the half century between 1917 and around 1967. In Lebanon it lasted from 1943 to 1975, although power-sharing between Christians and Muslims formally remains in place. Lebanon is in the unenviable position of being a pawn of the various regional powers, including Israel, Syria, and Iran, with Erdoğan's Turkey increasing its influence. This makes any effort to bring about a modus vivendi amongst its religious communities precarious, as the outside powers can easily disrupt it for their own purposes. It is by no means clear that Lebanon can survive over the long term as a cohesive independent state. Although abandoning political sectarianism may seem the progressive thing to do in our age, when people's loyalties to their substate group identities continue to outweigh their loyalties to Lebanon as a political community, such a goal remains on the level of an unattainable ideal. Christians in particular, whose communities have been attenuated and all but eliminated in neighbouring countries, are fearful of their own vulnerability in a land in which they were once a majority.

I strongly believe that consociationalism is a significant advance over majoritarianism, with its assumption of a Rousseauan-style social homogeneity, even if the latter remains a significant temptation for constitutional architects and legislators alike, because of its greater simplicity. Where Lebanon failed, however, is in its leaders attempting to maintain a settlement that may have been appropriate nearly nine decades ago but lacked the flexibility to carry the country into the future.

Next: Belgium

Previous: Dampening the culture wars, 5: the Netherlands

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