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Transformation and Challenges of the Lebanese Political Parties

 radar-news This paper aims to shed light on the diverse political landscape in Lebanon.

Firstly, it dwells on the premises on which parties in Lebanon were founded, with their historical and conflicting messages. Secondly, it builds on the political limbo the state reached at the moment. And finally looks into the consequences of such status quo.

This paper analyses parties in post-civil war Lebanon, and highlights their challenges or success accordingly. Not all were able to pass through the transition successfully, and there is a consensus on the fact that the most important players receive external financial endowment.

The civil war ended in 1990 but Lebanon witnessed several other violent clashes and a fully-fledged war with Israel for 33 days in 2006. 2012 and 2013 witnessed notable turmoil on the Syrian border and several car bombs attacks (the most ravaging in Beirut and Tripoli).

The last census’ records date from 1932 at a time when the country had a Christian majority. Therefore, there is a feeling of under-representation of the Muslim community who outnumbers the Christian one in present. Such communal tension served the purpose of foreign states interference, giving a leeway for a battlefield of regional powers.

One of the biggest demographic changes came in with the plight of Palestinians. Now most of the Lebanese are alarmed at the potential of another change brought by the Syrian refugees. There is awareness that Syria continued to exercise political pressure in Lebanon even after the withdrawal of its troops in 2005, following the tension after the assassination of Rafik Hariri in the very 2005.The relation with Syria remains complicated at least, in the context of rampant violence on Syrian soil since 2011.

 

Keywords: parties, politics, sectarianism, communities, confessionalism, authoritarianism, representation, civil war, uprising, Syria, electoral law, reform, coalition, government, deadlock, refugees, international law

 

I. Regional and historical background

Shia Muslims, Sunni Muslims, Druze and different Christian denominations make up the population in a country that officially recognizes 17 religious sects.

Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire and subsequent to its fall, the League of Nation put the region under French mandate. The liberation from the French mandate took place in 1943.

A 1943 unwritten agreement, a national pact, divided the parliament seats according to sects’ representation. But this distribution happened by the 1932 census’ standards when the country had a Christian majority. By extension, the other public offices followed the policy, so that the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia. Political parties, the milieu from which the figures are drawn also comprise a sectarian policy. In fact, what was believed to be a minority democracy led to the maintenance of sectarian authoritarianism.

Lebanese has in place a so-called confessional democracy, assuring proportionally each religious sect a share in parliamentary, governmental, and civil service offices. All of them remain in a minority status, leaving the bigger communities eager to take over the others.  This arrangement makes it democratic in the sense that it gives representation for all minorities. Majoritarian democracy is not customary in Lebanon. Hence,”the confessionalism on the governmental level is to a great extent a reflection of the breakdown of society into numerous self-conscious religious communities anxious to maintain their identity and separate status”.[1]

Historically, political parties in Lebanon are not similar to their Western counterparts with respect to ideology and platforms. They are veritably displaying their aim (the influential person in the party) agenda. They may have vast titles that indicate some ideological appurtenance. An illustration for the idea would be the National Bloc Party or Progressive Socialist Party.[2] Even politicians who start with a political ideology, they end up holding to power because they have their sect’s backing. A Lebanese party usually absorbs the figure of an influential and charismatic politician, with the exception of the left wing movements which were extremely active in the 70s and had made useless of leading figures.

At the time of civil war, other political groupings emerged than those emanating in the dawns of liberation years. Disregarding ideology most of the time, they were militias with a political goal, sectarian views and a strong aim. However, some multi-sectarian groups have expressed causes of a wide range (nationalistic, leftist, and Marxist). The leftist parties participated in the fights with a slightly more moderate implication, mostly on behalf of Muslim front.

By 1987 political parties as means to represent people were left behind. With the use of the armed force exercised and not foreign from external funding, the militias broke down Lebanon into several semi-autonomous “cantons”, with their own type of eco-social policies.[3]

The UN has demanded the dismantling of all armed groups in Lebanon after the agreement marking the cease-fire of the civil war (concluded in Ta’if), including Palestinian militias and the military wing of Hezbollah, which was in control of much of the South Lebanon. In March 1991, the Lebanese government had the momentum to announce the dismantling of militias, which were given till April to hand in weapons. All militias, large and small, were dissolved except Hezbollah. Hezbollah kept its role in the southern frontier. Correspondently, Palestinian factions, especially those based in camps in the south, were not disarmed; they received a lease.[4]

 

II. Political parties

A.  General tendencies of the political parties

As Asad Abu Khalil puts it bluntly, the study of political parties in the Arab world was not of much interest, because it was assumed that there are not parties in the Western understanding (maybe with the exception of Israeli ones). He argues however that there should be more investigation into the matter “But even if parties in the Middle East do not manifest the same features as parties in the West, and even if most of them operate under political and military stresses, they still warrant study as examples of political behaviour, either by the regimes or by the public”.[5]

There is one exception that raises interest of the West, since it is linked to the powerhouse of Iran, namely Hezbollah.  Founded in the mid-1980s, Hezbollah is rather new to the political scene in Lebanon. It is a party that has arisen during the civil war. It sort of started as a counterbalance to Amal Shia party, and soon was to become the largest Shi’ite community party. Unlike parties that find difficulties to reorganize after the long civil war, Hezbollah has done much better. In pre-war Lebanon, the war militias were de facto ruling parties in the areas they controlled. There are parties that faced more challenges during the transition and they were not as successful. Hezbollah’s expansion was quite rapid and enjoyed a large amount of credibility in all regions. Moreover, it established later with financial endowment an influential TV station (Al Manar) and other media outlets.

The rise of Hezbollah heated the steam of a Sunni-Shia divide, the new cold war of the region. At the dawn of the new channels of communication with Iran, the stronghold of Shi’ite community and with the political emancipation of the Sunni prevalent Arab sheikhdoms, this divide becomes an Achile’s heel of the region.

As Asad Abu Khalil finely noticed “despite Qur’an references to the 'ummah, and despite the desires and wishes of ordinary Muslims, the Muslims were never unified, not even during the reign of Muhammad. Civil war, known in Arabic as al-fitnah al-kubrah (the Great Sedition), broke out among Muslims in the wake of Muhammad's death [...]Muslims have been at war against one another perhaps more than they have been against non-Muslims.”[6] Lebanon is well accustomed to a history of partition, each aim founded in early 50s his own political party, and this has not changed in the post-civil war era,[7] which is as divisive as back then.

On the other hand, Hezbollah’s success story involves ability to integrate in the political landscape. A comprehensive analysis provided by Hasan 'Izz al-Din, who is a member of pro- Hezbollah’s media outlets, demonstrates this point. 'Izz al-Din argues how the confessional democracy can be the best system for Hezbollah. According to him, freedom in its Islamic meaning is fundamental for the party. Hezbollah believes in “freedom of belief, practising religious rites and expression, freedom of political and trade unionist activity, and press freedom with adherence to identity and general norms”. Moreover, he notes in Hezbollah consideration for opposition. Finally, man’s creation itself lays the ground for “dialogue between religions and religious pluralism and coexistence” based on “humanitarian balance” relatively to the “balance of power”.[8]

This balance of power was played out in the parliamentary elections of June 2009, an election that saw an unchallenged number of the consecrated parties. Professor Sensenig notes in the same vein that despite an anti-western rhetoric, Hezbollah has demonstrated a unique ability to develop a wide range of institutional audacity, welfare and services for public that mobilized the population massively.[9]

The poles of power after 2005 redraw of the Syrian polarized around two blocs, one with a more Syrian orientation (8 March), while the other tends to seek Western preference (14 March).

In sum, after the 2005 eviction of Syrian the political scene is divided as such:

  • 14 March Coalition is composed of the following parties, with their leaders: Democratic Left [Ilyas ATALLAH]; Democratic Renewal Movement [Nassib LAHUD]; Future Movement Bloc [Sa'ad al-HARIRI]; Kataeb Party [Amine GEMAYEL]; Lebanese Forces [Samir JA'JA]; and Tripoli Independent Bloc;
  •  8 March Coalition is composed of the following parties, with their leaders: Development and Resistance Bloc [Nabih BERRI, leader of Amal Movement]; Free Patriotic Movement [Michel AWN]; Loyalty to the Resistance Bloc [Mohammad RA'AD] (includes Hezbollah [Hassan NASRALLAH]); Nasserite Popular Movement [Usama SAAD]; Popular Bloc [Elias SKAFF]; Syrian Ba'th Party [Sayez SHUKR]; Syrian Social Nationalist Party [Ali QANSO]; and Tashnaq [Hovig MEKHITIRIAN];
  •  Independent is composed of the following blocs, with their leaders: Democratic Gathering Bloc [Walid JUNBLATT, leader of Progressive Socialist Party]; and Metin Bloc [Michel MURR].[10] However Walid Junblatt, alternates preference to a coalition or another (pro-Syria or pro-Western allies).

2013 should have been the scene of new election. Notwithstanding a serious crisis across the border, there were voices advocating it is the righteous time for reform and holding elections on time. The political direction in Beirut decided security issues are of outmost importance, which let the electoral reform suspended.

 

B.  Electoral law dilemmas

The electoral law reform was curtailed of any effective value. Lack of consensus led to the halt of the elections in 2013.The proposal of law known with a sectarian triggered title as “the Orthodox law” failed.[11] The controversy is not new and dates back to the 2000s. “An older of a controversy having to do with an electoral law drafted in 2000 with heavy-handed Syrian guidance. Lebanon is divided into five provinces or governorates: Beirut, Mount Lebanon, North Lebanon, the Bekaa Valley and South Lebanon. According to a system laid out in the Ta'if agreement, every electoral district must send to parliament a certain number of members of each of Lebanon's 17 ethno-confessional communities that has demographic weight in that district”.[12]

In summary, the political system in Lebanon suffers from a weak legal framework and a political culture based on favouritism, inherited political rights, dynastic type of leadership and occasional threats used to win support. Nonetheless, there is a premise for competitive elections, as the Christian and Muslim parties tie and shift alliances so frequently. In this complex and contradictory arena of a plethora of parties, there is one able player keeping a predominant voice and that is Hezbollah.[13]

After the war, the competitive elections still involving former warlords and the limited parliamentarian evolution made it all possible to adjourn sessions and reforms. In addition, the patronage style and manipulation played out by the leaders forecasts the political deadlocks are here to stay.

 

III. Deterioration of the governance style in the context of profound regional changes

The Middle East is facing one of the most turbulent political phase in the recent decades and one of the biggest upheavals in the post-colonial times. Change in the region will reach out somehow to Lebanon and the traditional forces may pay the price of their foreign sponsors. It is appreciated by the youth voices that there will be nobody else to blame but the Lebanese themselves if there is no change.[14]

The really interesting part is to see rising sectarianism instead of countering its negative effects on effective governance. The sectarian machine in Lebanon has deeply embedded structure that prevents the flow of change. And with the shifting sands of the regional politics it seems the push for change is possible. But maybe not in the way citizens would like to see.

The complicated electoral system and the failure of electoral reforms happened because the entrenched sectarianism is satisfied in its role. It crafted a nice architecture to accommodate itself. No wonders why this outdated construction based on proportions of a last census carried out over 80 years ago do not stumble and fall.  For the un-initiated understanding of the country and the region, it sounds complicated to take so many steps under the cover of a democratic power-sharing just to preserve sectarian interest.

Among the entire regional tangle, the major threat for Lebanon’s security is that Syria started a descent into a savage war. Thus, clashes in northern Lebanon became the norm and raised assumption that Lebanon is again on the way to sectarian violence.

The absence of government, scattered tourists and investments’ loss gripped the economy, which seems in coma. In addition there is sizable Syrian population (may be equal to a quarter of the Lebanese one) living within Lebanon’s borders, using its stretched infrastructure.

According to Carnegie Middle East Centre,[15] and International Crisis Group, the presence of Syrian refugees and the bilateral tensions between Lebanon and different Syrian factions are increasingly posing a security and political threat to Lebanon.[16] The dissociation policy (aiming to be a neutral stands with regards to the Syrian crisis) put in place by the government works quite ambiguously.

While the gap in governance tends to extend a la longue, the estimation of the consequences is hard to make. The 70th Independence anniversary found Lebanon in a prolonged deadlock state, with over 8 months of syncope in the government.

To find a framework and a fit for all formula is deeply troubling in the region and where Lebanon stands (rather in the middle of regional power poles). International law has not proved fully effective, especially with examples in the region. Professor Gillian Triggs, in 2007, questioned whether international law can be described as fit for purpose.[17] The eventful region inclines towards a negative answer: the Palestine unresolved issues (i.e. the refusal by Israel to dismantle the “security wall” in spite of the ICJ Advisory Opinion); the constant wars; displacement mark the inability of international bodies to work in the best interest of international norms. We can add inadequate response to humanitarian crisis (Palestinian and Syrian refugees’ precarious living conditions). There is not a legal instrument framing terrorism, which complicates matters in Lebanon, just to name one an additional problem of the international law. Lately, Lebanon has been witnessing the rise of extremist groups, factions, cells who might fall into the terrorist category, but there is a predicament when it comes to differentiation.

The credibility of international law eroded in the region, and so is the authoritarianism governance as it was known in the 80s. One can notice a turning point that proves a transplant of western liberal democracy values cannot be enacted. The region might do better with a social contract citizen-state and increased value of citizenship status rather than sectarian and bloodline affinities at the account of governance. Lebanon is deeply moving towards dangerous phases that should be contained with a rapprochement of its communities and a mediation of its diversity. This should prove more satisfactory in the long run than sustaining the old apparatus of sects.

Bibliography:

International Crisis Group report: Too close for comfort: Syrians in Lebanon, Middle East Report N°141, 13 May 2013, as in: http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Lebanon/141-too-close-for-comfort-syrians-in-lebanon.pdf.

CIA World Factbook, Lebanon chapter, Political Parties and Leaders, as in: http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/le.html

Lebanon, Political Parties, as in: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/lebanon/political-parties.html.

Asad Abu Khalil, Change and Democratisation in the Arab World: The Role of Political Parties, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), pp. 149-163.

Ayman Mhanna, From the Tajaddod Democratic Renewal Movement in Lebanon, as in: http://www.tajaddod-youth.com/blog-page/6017.

Eugen Dabbous Sensenig, the Lebanese Political party system as in: http://mepei.com/in-focus/346-the-lebanese-political-party-system.

Farid el Khazen, Political Parties in Postwar Lebanon: Parties in Search of Partisans, Middle East Journal, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Autumn, 2003), pp. 605-624.

Gillian Triggs, Public international law: is it fit for purpose? Legal Information Management, (2007), p.114.

Jacob Høigilt, Islamism, Pluralism and the Palestine Question: The Case of Hizbullah, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Aug., 2007), pp. 126.

Joseph Alagha, Hizbollah after the Syrian withdrawal, Middle East Report, No. 237 (Winter, 2005), p.34.

Michael W. Suleiman, The Role of Political Parties in a Confessional Democracy: The Lebanese Case, The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Sep., 1967).

Mona Alami, Averting a crisis: Syrian refugees in Lebanon, as in: http://carnegie-mec.org/2013/05/28/averting-crisis-syrian-refugees-in-lebanon/g6wi.

Ruth Michaelson for RFI, Lebanese electoral reform stirs controversy, as in: http://www.english.rfi.fr/middle-east/20130515-lebanese-electoral-reform-stirs-controversy.


[1]Michael W. Suleiman, The Role of Political Parties in a Confessional Democracy: The Lebanese Case, The Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Sep., 1967), p.682.

[2]Farid el Khazen, Political Parties in Post war Lebanon: Parties in Search of Partisans, Middle East Journal, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Autumn, 2003), p.605.

[3]Lebanon. Political Parties as in: http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/lebanon/political-parties.htm.

[4]Farid el Khazen, Political Parties in Post war Lebanon: Parties in Search of Partisans, Middle East Journal, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Autumn, 2003), p.612.

[5]Asad Abu Khalil, Change and Democratisation in the Arab World: The Role of Political Parties, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), p.151.

[6]Asad Abu Khalil, Change and Democratisation in the Arab World: The Role of Political Parties, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Mar., 1997), p.152.

[7]Ibidem.

[8]Jacob Høigilt, Islamism, Pluralism and the Palestine Question: The Case of Hizbullah, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 34, No. 2 (Aug., 2007), p. 126.

[9]Eugen Dabbous Sensenig, the Lebanese Political party system as in: http://mepei.com/in-focus/346-the-lebanese-political-party-system.

[10]From the CIA World Fact book, Political Parties and Leaders as in http://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/le.html.

[11]Ruth Michaelson, the Lebanese electoral reform stirs controversy, as in: http://www.english.rfi.fr/middle-east/20130515-lebanese-electoral-reform-stirs-controversy.

[12]Joseph Alagha, Hizbollah after the Syrian withdrawal, Middle East Report, No. 237 (Winter, 2005), p.34.

[13]See supra 9.

[14]Ayman Mhanna, from the Tajaddod Democratic Renewal Movement in Lebanon, http://www.tajaddod-youth.com/blog-page/6017.

[15]Mona Alami, Averting a crisis: Syrian refugees in Lebanon as in: http://carnegie-mec.org/2013/05/28/averting-crisis-syrian-refugees-in-lebanon/g6wi.

[16]Middle East Report N°141, 13 May 2013, Too closefor comfort: Syrians in Lebanon, as in: http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/Middle%20East%20North%20Africa/Iraq%20Syria%20Lebanon/Lebanon/141-too-close-for-comfort-syrians-in-lebanon.pdf.

[17]Gillian Triggs, Public international law: is it fit for purpose? Legal Information Management, (2007), p.114.

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