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As protests continue, Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing stalemate must end

Women have been at the forefront of Lebanon’s anti-government protests. Wael Hamzeh/EPA

As the Lebanese street protests which began on October 17 continue to rock the country, fears are deepening that the largely peaceful protests may yet turn violent. More than 130 people were injured in clashes between the protesters and the Lebanese security services on December 16 and 17. This came on the heels of confrontations between supporters of Shia and Christian political parties the previous week.

On December 19, a university professor called Hassan Diab was nominated as the new prime minister, after Saad Hariri, who resigned in late October, said he would not take up the position again. But he has not received unanimous support and it’s unclear if his appointment would stem the protests.

From the 2005 Cedar Revolution to the “You Stink” garbage protests in 2015, Lebanese citizens have often taken to the street as a way to air their grievances with political leaders. Yet the October 17 revolution – a sustained series of street protests across the country initially triggered by a proposed WhatsApp tax – somehow seem different.

The Cedar Revolution fractured amid considerable Sunni-Shia competition. You Stink split along class lines and disagreements over tactics and strategies. But these new protests have cut across both sect and class. Another distinctive feature has been the role of women, who have led the way, whether by forming buffer lines between security forces and protesters or by organising their own marches.

Women are also articulating key policy demands for the protests, which have so far been leaderless. Abaad, a local women’s rights group, organised a march in early December, inspired by a feminist flashmob in Chile that has gone viral around the world. In Lebanon, protesters reiterated long called for legal reforms that protect women from sexual violence. They also demanded the end to other rights restrictions.

Politics of power-sharing

Challenges lie ahead, however, as our ongoing research in Lebanon and other power-sharing countries indicate. These systems are often resistant to reform. Lebanon has maintained a carefully calibrated power-sharing arrangement since 1860 and its current configuration is enshrined in the 1989 Taif Accords, which ended the country’s 15-year civil war.

At the centre of the power-sharing pact are representatives of the country’s main sects – Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shia Muslims – though the constitution in fact recognises 18 different sects. This power-sharing is known locally as “confessionalism”.

However, under its guise the political elite now functions as “sectarian entrepreneurs” who carve up and distribute state resources and power among themselves, according to Ayman Mhanna, a prominent leader within Lebanon’s civil society who we interviewed for our research. This has brought the country to the brink of economic catastrophe and its credit rating was recently downgraded to “junk status”. It has also kept any meaningful post-war reconciliation between the communities at bay and has limited the space in which civic-minded leaders could emerge.

Protesters have called for an end to Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system. Wael Hamzeh/EPA

According to the protesters, an end to sectarianism is the only way for reconciliation, good governance, and economic recovery to come to Lebanon. As former combatant and now-activist Assad Chaftari explained to us, most countries need a coup d'etat to make a change or revolution, but in Lebanon “you will need 18 coup d'etats”.

This speaks to the durability of the system: groups guaranteed representation in government will not easily let go of their share of power.

Women left out

The current system fails to deliver in another crucial way too: despite the recognition of Lebanon’s 18 sects, not everyone feels represented by the current arrangement. This is a common feature of power-sharing arrangements, especially those emerging against the backdrop of violence, which often see all politics as ethnic politics. This risks leaving some at the margins of politics, with women and members of the LGBTQ community particularly sidelined in Lebanon.

With women front and centre in the protest movement, they have exposed the narrow basis of inclusion at the heart of Lebanon’s governing arrangement. Women have a limited presence in formal Lebanese politics: out of 150 parliamentarians elected in 2018, only six are women. By empowering religious leaders, the power-sharing system has also reinforced antiquated personal status laws which make it difficult for women to pass their nationality on to their children.

Start of a conversation

The question now is whether the protesters’ demands for better and more inclusive governance will be met by a new government.

The Lebanese constitution is worth revisiting. It already details some mechanisms, which have until now not been implemented, such as the creation of a Senate that could mediate between the need to ensure sectarian and civic representation. However, more constitutional reforms are needed to ensure that Lebanon’s conversion to post-sectarian governance is more than simply an aspiration.

Another suggestion coming from the protesters is to implement a new electoral law, one that is not gerrymandered to suit the current sect-aligned parties. This might allow the 18 recognised communities to benefit from the legal protections they currently enjoy, while also allowing those who have so far been excluded to have a realistic chance of electing leaders whose instincts are to serve national interests and not to maintain the primacy of their own positions.

Power-sharing institutions need not be as narrowly prescribed as they currently are in Lebanon. These protests are a critical moment for the start of a national conversation on how to expand the basis of inclusion in Lebanese political life. So far, protesters have joined up across sect, class and gender in a way previously considered impossible. It is this solidarity that may yet serve as the pathway towards a post-sectarian future, with or without power-sharing.

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