How sectarianism affects Lebanon’s foreign policy – Middle East Monitor



Lebanon has a faith-based power-sharing system where the number of representatives, political positions and the distribution of power are predetermined among the country’s religious groups. There are 18 recognized religious communities in Lebanon, and with its sect-based power-sharing system, a comprehensive Lebanese identity is not on the horizon.

Lebanon is one of the most extreme community countries in the world. Sectarian identities strongly shape political allegiances as well as the public figures of individuals. Since sectarian interests are linked to personal interests, there can be no solid collective national identity. As a result, the country’s foreign policy suffers from these fragmented identities. The latest developments and diplomatic disputes between Lebanon and the Saudi Alliance have once again revealed this fact.

Lebanese power-sharing system

The religion-based Lebanese political system is called “confessionalism”. This system was inherited from the French Mandate period and updated when Lebanon declared independence in 1943. At first, the parliament was divided into a ratio of 6 to 5 of Christians and Muslims. Critical political positions are distributed among the communities; that is, the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament must be a Shia Muslim.

Pre-determined power-sharing systems can work well when demographics are stable. However, they are prone to creating blockages in the system and political immobilization as the demographics change. In Lebanon, for example, the 1967 Arab-Israeli war paved the way for significant demographic change.

READ: Lebanon: Hezbollah calls on prime minister to convene cabinet

Post-war immigration to Lebanon and Christian emigration to the West dramatically increased the share of Muslims in the population. The old division of power was far from satisfying the communities, which then culminated in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990).

In 1989, the Ta’if Accord established peace between communities, changing the old representation ratio between Christians and Muslims to 50:50. The Accord also strengthened the powers of the Sunni Prime Minister to the detriment of the presidency, reserved for the Maronite Christian community. Cabinet positions are evenly divided among sects, and sectarian identities help people find jobs in ministries and other government institutions. There is significant intersectional competition and nepotism in public institutions.

Sectarian identities rather than national loyalty

In Lebanon, individuals define themselves with their religious / ethnic identities, before a global national identity. Competition between communities can be observed both at the individual level and in the country’s foreign policy. All sects try to maximize their power and use their followers to achieve this goal. Social inequalities also fuel this fragmented political culture. In addition, all the communities have their allies at the international level and thus, the country is strongly affected by foreign interventions.

Major players in the region such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as global players such as Russia, France and the United States, have religious or cultural ties with Lebanese communities, making the country a proxy battlefield. Unlike Turkey’s support for the country’s integrity, France, Saudi Arabia and Iran are pursuing more aggressive policies in the country to further extend their influence. Communities are used for these influence challenges.

The diplomatic quarrel between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has severed relations with Lebanon after comments by Lebanese Information Minister Kordahi on the Yemeni civil war. The dispute began with Kordahi’s assessment of the Saudi-led military intervention against the Houthi rebels. Kordahi said the Houthis were defending themselves and called the military intervention “external aggression.”

Saudi Arabia responded by expelling the Lebanese ambassador and putting in place an import ban into the country. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait followed Saudi Arabia with similar sanctions. Qatar condemned Kordahi’s comments without imposing additional sanctions, and Oman remained neutral.

In fact, the response from the Gulf states was not the result of comments from a single minister. The main problem here is Iran’s growing impact in Lebanon. The Kingdom and its allies do not want to lose their influence in favor of a regional rival.

READ: Lebanon: Information Minister resigns after triggering Gulf crisis

After a month of this diplomatic crisis, the Minister of Information, Kordahi announced his resignation. “I refuse to be used as a reason to harm Lebanon and my Lebanese compatriots in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries,” Kordahi said at a press conference.

France exerted considerable influence on this decision. “Lebanon would not be on the French President’s agenda, Emmanuel Macron’s next talks in Riyadh if Information Minister Kordahi does not resign by December 4,” Lebanese Prime Minister said , Mikati.

The country could have been drawn into an internal crisis if the resignation of Information Minister Kordahi had occurred without reconciliation between sectarian communities in Lebanon. Interactions of Lebanese communities have remained very limited since the civil war, and they are easily affected by foreign issues.

Effects of economic collapse

Prosperous countries are more likely to tolerate interfaith disputes and less likely to be affected by diplomatic issues. However, Lebanon faces its worst economic crisis since the civil war. According to the World Bank, Lebanon has experienced one of the worst financial crises in the world since the mid-19th century. [1]

Social inequality, poverty, hyperinflation and high unemployment create significant unrest in society. These unrest solidified religious identities, leaving Lebanon with a dysfunctional political system and a fragmented national identity. The weakness of national identity is further threatened by the deterioration of the economy. The system is unlikely to change soon and will likely create more problems in the future. Unfortunately, even as the economy recovers in the country, the constitutional structure will continue to be the real threat in Lebanon. This is why a political overhaul is what the country needs the most right now.

[1] World Bank report on the financial crisis in Lebanon “The sinking of Lebanon”

The opinions expressed in this article are the property of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.


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