In a live speech broadcast last week, Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati presented his resignation as a call to action for other government parties, saying that “God willing it will provide an impetus for the primary political blocs in Lebanon to assume their responsibilities."
As mandated by Lebanon’s “confessionalist” political system, the position of prime minister must be held by a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of parliament must be a Shia, and the president must be Christian. The system is a mix of religion and politics designed to divide power equally among the state’s various sects, or “confessions,” affording fair representation to all.
The actual effect, however, has not produced the peace it was meant to bring about.
“The system has stood as a major obstacle to the creation of a functioning, healthy state,” said Randa Slim, a research fellow at the New America Institute. “It has perpetuated the primacy of the confessional identity over development of the strong national identity, or sense of belonging to a nation-state that transcends one’s confessional group.”
Past attempts at reform have been thwarted.
“All the political leaders who used to be warlords in the civil war and all the parties, including Hezbollah, benefit from this confessional system and definitely have an interest in maintaining it to some level,” Slim asserts. “Hezbollah has been heard saying that they’re opposed to the system, but at the same time their legitimacy as a political actor derives from the support they enjoy within the Shia community. And as a result of the confessional system, that kind of monopoly of support in the Shia community enables them to translate that into actual political power.”
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The divisiveness Slim describes was evident in the violent clashes which broke out in Mikati’s hometown, the northern coastal city of Tripoli, upon the announcement that the highest Sunni leader in Lebanese government had resigned. Tripoli is home to both Sunnis and Shia-affiliated Alawites, who support Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, a fellow Alawite, in his effort to maintain power. Sunnis there support the rebellion against Assad.
“There is still so much mistrust and fear between the different confessional communities, especially in light of what’s going on next door in Syria, that I think the instinctive reaction of each person is to fall back on their comfort zone, their safety net, and today the confessional group is the safety net,” said Slim.
The Syrian conflict is having repercussions throughout Lebanon, resulting in sectarian strife on the street and in the highest tiers of the political class. Hezbollah, the Shia political party which dominates Lebanese government, is closely linked with the Assad regime and has sent fighters to Syria to battle the rebels, who are mainly Sunni. Lebanese Sunnis, enraged that their government is assisting in the slaughter of their Syrian kin, had been increasing pressure on Mikati to intervene.
“The longer [Assad] stays in power and the worse things get in Syria, the easier it is for other Sunnis to say [to Mikati], ‘What have you done? What has your stance been on this issue? You’re on the wrong side of history,’” assistant professor of Middle East Studies at Brown University Elias Muhanna told World Politics Review.
In addition to feeling the heat from his constituency, Mikati found himself in a legislative stalemate when his Hezbollah counterparts refused to approve a law which would increase oversight of elections and to extend the term of security chief Ashraf Rifi, a Sunni. Without these agreements, according to Slim, Mitaki and Hezbollah both knew that “his stock as Sunni leader will suffer a major hit. So by not agreeing to his request, they were sending him a clear signal that they no longer want him as prime minister.”
Though Mitaki’s departure adds a new element of instability to an already precarious political situation in Lebanon, Slim emphasizes that no faction is interested in revisiting the wide-scale violence of the 1975-1990 civil war or the May 2008 conflict. Instead, she believes, there will continue to be low-level episodic violence in certain flashpoint regions around Tripoli, Sidon or West Beirut, but all parties have an interest in containing discord.
“Hezbollah would rather have stability within the government,” notes Muhanna, “because their situation is more precarious than usual in the sense that they’re taking a very unpopular line by supporting Assad, and that raises the prospect of Sunni-Shia strife in the streets.”
Though Slim cautions that “there’s always potential, every day, every minute, any crisis can lead to wide scale violence in Lebanon,” she sees in Mikati’s departure the possibility for reform.
“The question is, can the political class rise up to this challenge?” she asks, stating that in the turmoil, there is an opportunity to “enact the kind of political, constitutional reform that can move the country to the state of a true nation.”