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Trust: the absent keystone in Lebanese democracy?


Matilda Allen explains why trust between Lebanon's citizens is essential for the state's democracy to thrive.

Strengthening and enhancing democracy in Lebanon is often seen as one of the main priorities of political progress. The dialogue about democracy building, within Lebanon and abroad, tends to focus on processes (such as elections) and institutions (such as the parliament or judiciary). The reasons for this are clear. When the focus is on elements such as voter turnout, success can be easily explained, quantified and measured. It can also be ‘exported’ from other countries—it is easy for foreign charities or NGOs to provide and justify advice on improving the institutions and processes of democracy. The focus on these elements of democracy is important for any country to grow in strength and stability; it is particularly important for Lebanon, where the confessionalist political structure creates extra pressures and complications.

However, focusing on just these elements limits the scope for strengthening democracy, because it fails to address issues of trust. There are three relevant ‘types’ of trust in this situation. Firstly, there is the trust citizens have in their political system. Measures that seek to improve political processes, capacity building, and systems within government can increase this type of trust. Secondly, there is the trust citizens have in their specific leaders. Attempts to improve accountability and legitimacy, and to tackle corruption, are all partly based on the recognition that citizens must trust their elected leaders. However, these both focus on trust that is directed vertically—from the people upwards to the government. The third type of trust, the trust people have in their fellow citizens, is hardly mentioned, either in Lebanon or abroad. This is a ‘horizontal’ type of trust between all the people within a country.

Horizontal trust is important. The sociologist Georg Simmel writes, “trust is one of the most synthetic forces within society”[i] and Kenneth Newton argues that political trust “is a necessary condition for democracy.”[ii] All political systems require some sacrifice of self-determination—to have others rule over us is, in one sense, to ‘lose’ our freedom. In autocratic regimes, we have little choice about this, but democracy is defined by the equal right of each citizen to determine the collective future of their society. Democracy requires not only that we allow our rulers to determine parts of our life, but that we allow every other person a right to decide who those rulers are and what they will do. In order for democracy to thrive, there must be generally high levels of trust so that people will live by the regime that others choose.  In a democracy, it is not enough to trust people only to the degree that you can share a country with them; you must trust them to make political decisions that have an impact on your own life.

It is also interesting to note that the development of horizontal trust in a society does not just improve the quality and strength of democratic processes, it also has additional social benefits. As the philosopher Sissela Bok writes, “whatever matters to human beings, trust is the atmosphere in which it thrives.”[iii] There is evidence that high levels of social trust result in reduced crime and corruption—the two were highly correlated in the 2007 PEW Global Attitudes Survey.[iv] The opposite also holds true: Simon Haddad (of Notre-Dame University, Lebanon) writes that mistrust in Lebanon “can prevent people from cooperating when it would be mutually beneficial for them to do so and encourage[s] them to compete in ways harmful to their own interests.”[v]

Although Lebanon is a small country, it is still large enough that this trust must be of a general type. The population of Lebanon is split between religious groups: Christians (predominantly Maronite), Muslim (both Sunni and Shi’a), and Druze, as well as many smaller groups. The Lebanese constitution recognizes 18 religious groups, and most political parties have a religious identity. The political system reflects these divisions—the president must be Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi’a Muslim. While there may be high levels of trust within particular religious groups in Lebanon, this is not sufficient. In order for Lebanon’s democracy to thrive, there must instead be trust between all Lebanese people, regardless of which religious group they belong to. When these levels of trust are high, and occur across the religious divisions within society, there are many horizontal channels of trust intersecting the vertical channels and creating a stabilising ‘web’ of trust.

However, levels of trust in Lebanon are not high. In the 2007 PEW global attitudes survey, only 33 percent of people in Lebanon answered yes to the question ‘are most people in society trustworthy?’ The only countries with lower percentages (out of the 47 included in the survey) were Kuwait, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, and Kenya. [vi]

The relationship between trust and democracy is not straightforward: people can have high levels of trust in each other in autocratic regimes (the highest score in the PEW survey was in China, for example), and trust is not the only ingredient needed for democracy to thrive. However, while low levels of trust do not necessarily destroy a democracy, they can prevent it from growing and stabilising over time. Democracy in Lebanon is not full, stable and healthy. In the 2010 Democracy Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit, it scores 5.82 out of 10, a ranking of 86 out of 167 countries worldwide, and is classed as a ‘hybrid regime.’[vii] In the last five or so years, democracy has not improved in Lebanon; instead, it has instead stalled. While elections in 2009 were generally peaceful, it took five months of negotiations for the Prime Minister Saad Hariri to form a government. Similarly, when Emile Lahoud’s term as president came to an end in November 2007, the polarized government took until March 2008 to choose the new president—Michel Suleiman. By this point, there had not been a parliamentary session for 18 months. At the moment, democracy is again threatened with stalemate or breakdown amidst the rising tensions surrounding the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which will shortly release the findings of its investigation into the 2005 assassination of the then prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

The origin of the deep distrust present in Lebanese society is not difficult to identify, but it is challenging to overcome. The 15 year long civil war that resulted in the death of an estimated 144,000 people,[viii] and many more injuries and disappearances, was both a result of and a contributing factor to the high levels of distrust and division within the country. These problems will take time and creativity to repair. The fact that Lebanon is a relatively young country that has not experienced a long period of peace and prosperity means that the Lebanese have been given little chance to carry out this reparation work and build trust and identification with their fellow citizens. However, Lebanon’s difficult past is also a potential source of future friendship and trust between citizens, particularly in the face of foreign pressures and interference. Lebanon has had a very small amount of time without foreign occupation—Syrian military presence in the country lasted from 1976 to 2005. This probably had a mixed effect on the country, both stalling the development of an independent and functional Lebanese democracy, but also uniting many sectors of society in their rejection and eventual expulsion of the Syrian military in 2005. Despite this, current divisions within government can still be defined as ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Syria. In any case, it is unlikely that Lebanon will be free of foreign interference in future, meaning that building trust (and therefore a strong, resilient, national democracy) is even more important as it will help insulate and protect the Lebanese from the negative effects of future intrusion.

There are differing opinions on how best to treat the past within Lebanon. Some believe that it is best to forget negative events and move forward, thereby hopefully leaving behind the mistrust, anger and grief that people feel. Others, such as the Lebanese scholar Samir Khalaf, have called this a “collective amnesia.”[ix] There is a risk that by being too eager to leave the past behind, the Lebanese will not resolve past issues and divisions, and these will therefore continue to be problematic in the future. It seems that there must be some recognition of the past. For example, the current policy of not teaching modern history in schools seems unlikely to allow children to freely move forward and instead encourages them to inherit their parent’s positions (and therefore prejudices) unquestioned. As Ghassan Salame explained to Al-Nahar in 2004, “we should find a balance between the right of remembrance and the duty of forgetfulness.”[x]

Addressing the past while looking to the future is probably only one element of increasing trust, but it is an important one. Increasing trust may also require the growth of political participation that does not divide citizens on the basis of religious identity, and is almost certainly dependent on a period of calm and non-violence. In many European countries, trust has been developed over many years of national sovereignty, and also evolved simultaneously with the growth of democracy during the Enlightenment period. Citizens therefore started trusting each other partly because they began to trust in the power of humanity and logic to effect progress. Once people trust each other to bring about progress in a country, democracy appears as a logical and necessary step. However, this process was a long and naturally occurring development, and countries like Lebanon, with newer identities and different problems, may need to pioneer new approaches to building trust and identification between citizens, such as building understanding and co-operation between young people from different religions. However, developments that may decrease mistrust will be slow and possibly ineffectual unless people start talking about trust first. Including discussions about trust in the dialogue about democracy is the necessary first step to recognising its importance and the contribution that increased levels of trust could make to the future development of Lebanon.


[i] Simmel, G. in Newton, K. 2001. “Trust, Social Capital, Civil Society, and Democracy”, International Political Science Review. Vol. 22, no 2, pp. 201-214.
[ii] Newton, K. 2001. “Trust, Social Capital, Civil Society, and Democracy”, International Political Science Review. Vol. 22, no 2, pp. 201-214.
[iii] Bok, S. in Baier, A. 1986. “Trust and Antitrust”, Ethics. vol. 96, no. 2. pp. 231-260
[v] Haddad, S. “The Relevance of Political Trust in Postwar Lebanon”, Citizenship Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, (2002), p. 203.[vi]
[viii] According to Lebanese security sources cited by researcher Amal Makarem in the introduction to ‘Memory for the Future’, proceedings report of a conference held in Beirut on 30-31 March 2001 (Beirut: Annahar, 2002).
[ix] Quoted in Barak, O. War and Memory in Lebanon (review), The Middle East Journal, Vol. 64, no.4, Autumn 2010, pp. 669-670
[x] Quoted in Barak, O. "Don't mention the war? The politics of remembrance and forgetfulness in postwar Lebanon”, The Middle East Journal, January 01, 2007.


0 # Alejandro 2011-01-04 11:55 Well observed. It seems to follow that in periods of conflict, populations look for stability among their religious cohorts. In a country as diverse as Lebanon it's easy to see how this can segment a country along religious and political lines. A period of peace does indeed appear to be a precondition to the dissociation of the two and a shift away from confessionalism .

" Addressing the past while looking to the future is probably only one element of increasing trust, but it is an important one. Increasing trust may also require the growth of political participation that does not divide citizens on the basis of religious identity, and is almost certainly dependent on a period of calm and non-violence."
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