No Democratic Miracle in Lebanon

6 June 2005

No Democratic Miracle in Lebanon

By Gwynne Dyer

For the past few months, we have been told by excitable Western journalists that the “cedar revolution” in Lebanon that drove Syrian troops from the country and the pro-Syrian government from office was the dawn of a new era in the Arab world. The old political class with its religious divisions and its corrupt deals was discredited, and a new, democratic Lebanon would emerge from the elections that began on 29 May and will end on 19 June. That would be nice, but it’s not true.

There was a sort of democracy in the victory of Hizbollah and Amal, the two main Shia Muslim parties, in all 23 seats of the largely Shia south of Lebanon last Sunday — in the sense that almost half the Shia voted, and that their votes were counted more or less accurately. The clean sweep of all 19 Beirut seats on the previous Sunday by the electoral alliance headed by Saad al-Hariri, son of former prime minister Rafik al-Hariri (whose assassination in February unleashed the current upheavals), was also technically democratic. But that’s all it was.

It’s actually back to the kind of democracy that Lebanon had from 1943, when it got its independence from France, until the civil war of 1975-90 put an end to normal politics. It was always a sham, because the voting system was shamelessly gerrymandered to ensure that the Christians always dominated and the Shia always lost. When democracy returned after 1990 it was further distorted by constant Syrian intervention, which has now been removed, but that just takes us back to the old system.

Nobody alive today is to blame for the fact that every Lebanese is defined politically by his or her religion – not just as Muslim or Christian, but as a Shia, Sunni or Druze Muslim or a Maronite, Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox Christian. It comes from the Ottoman Empire, which habitually divided its subjects up according to religion (“millet”) so that their community leaders could be held responsible for their actions. This divisive legacy is shared by Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Israel, but it is most crippling in Lebanon.

Lebanon was carved out of the Ottoman province of Syria in the 19th century by France, which made an alliance with the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon and forced Istanbul to recognise a sort of French protectorate over the area. After the First World War both Mount Lebanon and the rest of Syria became French colonies, and Paris forcibly expanded Lebanon to include practically the entire Syrian coast. It did so because its mainly Muslim subjects in the big cities of the interior like Damascus and Aleppo were often on the brink of revolt, whereas the Maronite Christians of Mount Lebanon were loyal subjects of the French empire.

The problem was that most of the new population of that expanded Lebanon, up and down the coast from the old Christian heartland in the hills behind Beirut, was Muslim. There may already have been a Muslim majority in “Greater” Lebanon in the 1920s, and there almost certainly was by the time of independence in 1943. But to ensure Lebanon’s loyalty, France imposed an electoral system that guaranteed half the seats in parliament to the Christians in perpetuity, and decreed that the president must always be Christian. (The prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim.)

There has not been a census in Lebanon for 73 years, because counting the Lebanese would demonstrate beyond argument that the whole electoral system is a lie. In reality, about three-quarters of the population are Muslim and under 25 percent are Christian. Moreover, while the rules assume that most Muslims are Sunni, the fact is that most are Shia. Indeed, Shia Muslims, generally the poorest Lebanese, may account for almost half the total population just on their own – but they get only 23 of the 128 seats in parliament, and none of the great offices of state.

It was the civil war, triggered mainly by the presence of many heavily armed Palestinian refugees, that gave the Shia of the south a chance to rebel against their subjugation. They were radicalised by the occupation of so much of their territory by the Israeli army, and Syria and Iran helped to arm and fund their resistance to the Israeli presence. The Shia emerged from their 22-year ordeal, when Israel was finally forced to pull back behind its own frontier in 2000, as a well-organised and heavily armed community with little patience for the Lebanese constitution and a strong affection for Syria.

The Shia shunned the mass demonstrations in February and March in Beirut that, together with foreign pressure, forced Syria to withdraw the troops that had effectively controlled Lebanon since the civil war – except once, when they put their own million-strong, pro-Syrian demo on the streets. Their political parties, especially Hizbollah, are also armed militias, and they will not disarm because the threat of force is their only real leverage against a rigged political system that excludes them. (One Maronite vote is worth about three Shia votes.)

All the familiar names of the political dynasties that vie to lead their various “millets” have resurfaced, and the incessant alliance-swapping of the country’s traditional politics has resumed. Hizbollah, condemned by the United States as “a terrorist organisation,” stands aside from the horse-trading and clings to its “12,000 rockets” (according to a recent claim by its deputy leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah). Lebanon is probably not heading back into a civil war, but it’s hardly surprising that so few people are bothering to vote.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 8. (“There…was”; and “It was…Syria”)