Lebanon: The downfall of a democracy model?

Term Paper, 2000
15 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)

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I Abstract

II Introduction

III Consociational Democracy

IV The Ottomans and the French: Influences

V Sectarianism

VI The weakness of the state

VII Economic Inequity

VIII External Influences

IX Conclusion

I Abstract

Starting from a description of a the theory of “consociational democracy” this paper will try to show how the Lebanese political system underwent severe systemic changes. It will be argued that a confessional structure can lead to an even higher level of fragmentation. The development of the post-independence phase until the civil war (1943-1975) will be looked at in this light and the main contributive factors that lead to the destruction of the Lebanese political system will be shown.

II Introduction

Few would argue with the proposition that Lebanon is a difficult country to govern. Outside rulers- the Turkish and the French- found this to be the case, and indigenous leaders from Ma’nid princes to modern-day presidents have had to cope almost continually with crises that threatened the very cohesion of the political order. The reasons, I think, have little to do with the political socialization of the “Levantine”. If they display a cynicism towards politicians, they got this attitude through experience. This cynicism has been caused by several important factors.

Firstly, it is clear that Lebanon is a divided society with a fragmented political culture. This means that there are numerous sub-communities whose members are locked in by what has been called “primordial affiliations: the kind one doesn’t choose to enter and cannot escape”[1].

The second factor is socio-economic inequity, a product of the inability and the unwillingness of the state to rectify discriminatory performance.

Thirdly, government in Lebanon is complicated by a history of external interventions. Modern Lebanese politics have been coloured by French, American, Egyptian, Israeli, Syrian, Palestinian and Iranian influences. Lebanese elites have faced growing de-legitimization in the eyes of important segments by their political, economic, and cultural relations with outsiders. This unsettled regional environment has contributed to the absence of a stable state system and has made Lebanon a field of competition for neighbouring states whose legitimacy and stability is not yet established.

The questions being raised in this essay are as following: Were the reasons for the breakdown primarily external or internal? If internal, were they mainly sectarian or socio-economic? If external, were the Palestinians, the Israeli or the Syrians mostly to blame? The main focus will be on the question whether confessionalism was as a political system a bulwark against chaos or actually a cause of it. Was the Lebanese elite skilled at conflict management or, on the contrary, so short-sighted and corrupt that it brought the destruction?

As a framework for the answers to this questions I will use the theory of “consociationalism” by Arend Lijphart[2].

III Consociational Democracy

The term consociational democracy denotes “government by elite cartel designed to turn a democracy with a fragmented political culture into a stable democracy”[3]. It was presented as a third option to the culturally homogeneous-majoritarian democratic model and a culturally fragmented type conducive to dictatorship. It was mainly based on the experience of the smaller Western European states which seemed to function with reasonable democracy, stability and efficacy. Consociational democracy is defined by four main elements:

1. Government by a “grand coalition”.
2. The mutual veto or “concurrent majority” rule.
3. Proportionality as the principle of representation.
4. A high degree of autonomy for each segment to run its own internal affairs.[4]

A consociational democracy will work if the following conditions are present:

1. Distinct lines of cleavage.
2. A multiple balance of power.
3. Popular attitudes favourable to a grand coalition.
4. An external threat.
5. Moderate nationalism.
6. Relatively low total load on the system.[5]

One of the most intriguing ideas in the consociational approach is the notion of political engineering: man-made formulas and procedures could mitigate the “blind forces” of society and culture.

Given these requirements, one could ask whether consociational democracy is the right term to describe the Lebanese political system. The literature favours a clear yes.[6] I argue that at least the “grand coalition” element and the proportionality element, through the national pact, are present, even though the problem with the latter was that the empirical basis for the actual proportions became increasingly less believable. The mutual veto is not apparent in a strictly legal way, but in an operative way, given the distribution of high offices among the major sects and the difficulties which an attempt from any side to override the other side would have to face. To summarize: Lebanon was, descriptively, consociational set up in the beginning of its independent period. The next paragraphs will show how these elements developed during the period from 1943 until 1975, which ones couldn’t be anticipated, and which ones were present from the very beginning and only played their destructive role at a later point.

IV. The Ottomans and the French: Influences

The emergence of Lebanon as a separate state can be traced back to the establishment of a principality in Mount Lebanon in the early sixteenth century. From 1516, when “geographical” Syria became part of the Ottoman empire, until the 1820s, no major internal crisis was recorded in Mount Lebanon, then ruled by the princes of the Druze Ma’ns and Sunni Shihabis. Only between the 1820s and the 1840s did the communal problem begin to be a dominant factor in Lebanese life, mainly because of the role of the local leadership and intervention by France, Britain and Russia on behalf of the minority communities.[7] The 1840s witnessed the end of the principality, the cantonization of Mount Lebanon and the establishment of the first confessional-based councils as governing bodies. These Ottoman measures proved a failure and led to the crisis of 1858-60, when Maronite peasants revolted against their Druze landlords, and thousands of Maronites were massacred by Druzes. This ended in 1861 with the establishment of the mitasarrifate, a system whereby the governor was to be a non-Lebanese catholic, assisted by a Maronite dominated council. The whole arrangement was to be under European power protection. This Ottoman experience, despite the era of peace that followed, left the various communities with a weakened sense of their links to a future Lebanese political entity. “Their collective identification had become oriented towards orbits narrower or wider than that of a nation state”[8]. In broad terms, the system reinforced communal awareness among the non-Muslim communities and the Shi’ite Muslims, while promoting amongst Sunni Muslims a sense of belonging to a larger Islamic empire. At the end of the 19th century the weakened Turkish Sultan revived Islam to ensure his dominion, which was steadily falling apart. This contributed to hopes among the Arab population for a Pan-Arabian State, but instead the Sykes-Picot agreement ordered Syria under French mandate in 1915. In 1920 the state of Greater Lebanon was established, in the context of a French move which divided Syria into a number of states. In addition to Mount Lebanon, it was to include the coastal towns and surrounding districts of Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre, Jabal Amil in the south and the Beka’a Valley in the east, the area constituting present-day Lebanon. In 1926 a constitution was promulgated, declaring Lebanon a republic. Its provision for a “temporary” and “equitable” distribution of sects in public office and the ministries constitutes the confessional basis for Lebanon’s current political and administrative system.[9] In creating this new state, completely unaware of historic boundaries, France had not only planted the seeds for an uneasy future relationship between it and Syria, but had also sanctioned Maronite predominance, accentuated sectarian consciousness, and laid the foundation for an uncohesive and vulnerable society that was confused about its identity. The Maronites were still loyal to a smaller Lebanon, the Moslems were loyal to the idea of an Arab or Syrian nation. In short, “what the nation gained in area, it lost in cohesion”[10]. The Sunni, accustomed to being the major sect, rejected the construction of Lebanon and asked several times to be annected by Syria; the most organized part of this was the “Conference of the coast” in 1936, which demanded unification and led subsequently to violent confrontations with the Maronite community.[11]


[1] C. Geertz, “The integrative revolution: primordial sentiments and civil politics in the new states”, in Geertz, “The interpretation of cultures”, New York, 1973, pp. 253- 310

[2] The description of the theory follows: A. Lijphart, “Democracy in Plural Societies”, New Haven, Conn., 1977

[3] A. Lijphart, “Typologies of democratic systems”, Comparative Political Studies, I.I, 1969, 3-44

[4] A. Lijphart, Democracy in Plural Societies, p. 25

[5] A. Lijphart, “Typologies of democratic systems”, pp. 25-30

[6] For extended discussions, see: M.C. Hudson, “The Lebanese crisis and the limits of concociational democracy”, in: Journal of Palestine Studies 5.3/4, 1976, 109-122 and

B. Barry, “Political accomodation and consociational democracy”, British Journal of Political Science 5.4, 1975, 483

[7] On this period see Albert Hourani, “The Emergence of the Middle East, London, 1981, pp. 131-133

[8] See Kamal Salibi, “The Modern History of Lebanon”, London, 1965, pp. 18-52

[9] Article 95. Text in Abid A. al-Marayati, “Middle Eastern Constitutions and Electoral Laws”, New York, 1968, p. 262

[10] Phillip Kitti, “Lebanon in History, 1957, p. 490

[11] David Gilmour, “Lebanon, The Fractured Country”, 1983, p. 64

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Lebanon: The downfall of a democracy model?
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Christoph Bertram (Author), 2000, Lebanon: The downfall of a democracy model?, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/96514


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