Lebanon’s national politics in the face of a changing region

By Christiana Parreira, Stanford University

* This memo was prepared for the “Rethinking Nation and Nationalism” workshop, February 6, 2015. 

Lebanon’s politics are often characterized as exceptional within the context of the modern Middle East. The weak capacity of the state to facilitate stability or provide basic social welfare has long existed in uneasy tension with Lebanon’s diverse religious composition, in stark contrast to many of its regional counterparts. Yet the last four years have brought about bold challenges to the state strength of a number of other religiously diverse Middle Eastern countries, such as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. In light of these changes, many of the prevailing frameworks through which scholars view these states deserve to be reexamined and supplemented. In this sense, we have much to learn from Lebanon – particularly from how coalitions between and cleavages within identity groups and their parties have evolved in response to a rapidly changing region.

Existing literature provides a theoretical framework through which to understand shifts over time in how Lebanon’s often-messy national politics are conducted. Scholars have examined the way in which political cleavage structures, manifested through parties and alliances, represent the culminations of critical periods of change at the national level that facilitated the heightened saliency of some identities over others. These cleavages carry significance both for governments – specifically, their ability to function and enact policy – and their constituencies.[1] Drawing from these ideas, some have examined the ways in which preexisting institutions and identity-based societal divisions interact to produce political cleavages with tremendous staying power.[2] Others, in turn, have linked changes in institutional structure to individual-level behavior, allowing for shifts in the dynamics of party politics.[3]

What can the study of the Lebanese case add to these discussions, and to what end? Central to national political life in Lebanon are its assortment of religious identities and the confessional system (nidham al-taifyya) that strategically situates these sects in relation to the state’s elected parliament, tripartite executive branch, and bureaucracy. Since its inception, this system has dictated the sectarian framework through which politics are conducted at the local, regional, and national levels in Lebanon – yet, as I intend to demonstrate, alliances and divisions of Lebanese political parties have periodically shifted even as the confessional system remained a relatively stable national institution. The pullout of Syrian troops in 2005 and the start of the 2011 Syrian civil war, in particular, have prompted substantial reformulations of the national party cleavage structure. Most recently, the alignment of Lebanon’s political parties into two main groups – March 8 and March 14 – has been complicated by a division between those who support and oppose the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with Christian parties playing a pivotal role in this recent split. These changes, I argue, can only be fully understood by examining the history of how regional trends interact with domestic political agendas in frequently overlapping, yet also distinct ways.

The sensitivity of Lebanese party politics to regional trends dates back to the early years of the Republic. By the late 1950s, a number of elites within the Sunni opposition to Maronite President Camille Chamoun adopted the rhetoric of Nasserist Arab nationalism, incited in part by Chamoun’s public display of support for the U.S.-sponsored Baghdad Pact. By 1958, tension between those opposing and allying with the president had become violent, with Chamoun and his supporters alleging not only ideological, but also financial ties between the opposition and the newly formed United Arab Republic (U.A.R.). The United States, inferring (somewhat obtusely) from this dynamic an affinity between Lebanese Sunnis, the U.A.R., and the Soviet Union, eventually intervened in the civil conflict, brokering an agreement between the government and the opposition. Yet Sunni opposition at this time converged around a set of domestic concerns, specifically the sense of dispossession felt by that sect as a result of the disproportionate allocation of power to the Maronites by the confessional system. As Michael Johnson points out, ideas derived from regional trends provided a basis by which Muslim opposition parties could demand changes to the distribution of power.[4]

A divide between Lebanon’s leftist and conservative camps also interacted with the confessional system in the prewar era. Under successive governments in the 1960s and early 1970s, policy initiatives aimed at addressing rising inequality and urban poverty were continually proposed and stymied, largely by opposition from elites at the local level. These leaders, Tom Najem argues, feared that a stronger state presence would threaten the influence they exercised under a confessional system in which sectarian institutions assumed responsibility for social welfare provision.[5] Clearer fault lines began to emerge as widespread violence broke out in 1975, with those supporting systemic reform to the confessional system fighting against those committed to preserving the traditional order. The former group united formally under the banner of the Lebanese National Movement (LNM), and the latter largely as the Lebanese Front.

This division, too, was colored by sectarian affiliation, with Sunni Muslims fighting against a system they believed to be biased against them, and Maronites committed to an arrangement that had historically been to their advantage. Shiite Muslims, also disadvantaged by the failure of confessional system to account for national demographic changes, also began organizing around this time.[6] A 1976 initiative to adjust the proportionality of the confessional system, put forward by then-centrist Lebanese President Suleiman Frangieh, gained some political traction and even received pledges of support from the Syrian government. Yet Syria soon flipped its position, signaling an abrupt shift in stance by sending its own troops to fight on behalf of the Maronite Kataeb Party. As the civil war wore on, the Syrian about-face, the assassination of LNM leader Kamal Jumblatt, and the 1982 Israeli invasion led to the dissolution of the LNM and the splintering of the war into a vast array of identity-based groups. Many of these groups aligned both with and against different members of their own sect, and most were supported in some way by a variety of foreign actors.

The war-ending Taif Agreement of 1990 brought some changes to the confessional system. Slight adjustments to the distribution of parliamentary seats were made, along with the addition to the executive branch of a Shiite speaker of the house, to sit alongside the Sunni prime minister and Christian president. The Taif Agreement’s more significant contributions, however, were to allow Hezbollah to continue its existence as an armed force within the country and to institutionalize the indefinite occupation of Lebanon by Syria. Several agreements signed between leaders of the two states in 1991 created further ties between the domestic and foreign goals of Lebanon and Syria, crucially intertwining their intelligence and defense sectors.[7] The sectarian parties that emerged from the aftermath of the civil war, many led by the same militiamen who had fought one another over the prior decade, came to dominate Lebanese politics once again.

The 2005 popular movement aimed at ending the Syrian occupation brought broad transformations to the Lebanese political order. Following the successful removal of Syrian forces from the country, the now ubiquitous March 8 and March 14 Alliances – both named after the dates of mass protests organized by coalition leaders for and against the Syrian presence in Lebanon, respectively – came to dominate national party politics, with sectarian groups filing into one camp or the other. The division between the Hezbollah-dominated March 8 coalition and the Future Movement-led March 14 camp was solidified by the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah and a 2008 power struggle between the two parties.

The bifurcated nature of party politics in the post-occupation era has been at once strengthened and complicated by the ongoing conflict in Syria. Since 2011, the March 14 and March 8 Alliances have divided along coalition lines into respectively anti- and pro-Assad regime stances, with assassinations and targeted bombings associated with both sides of the Syrian conflict drawing forceful statements from political elites. Hezbollah has professed its support for the Assad regime and called for a negotiated solution, while Future Movement leader Saad Hariri has publicly referred to the Syrian president as “a monster”[8] and called for his removal. At the popular level, the northern port city of Tripoli has at times become a microcosm of the conflict occurring in Syria, with violence playing out on multiple occasions between the city’s Sunni and Alawite neighborhoods.[9]

Under these circumstances, non-Muslim parties under the umbrellas of both camps have come to occupy somewhat uncertain, often confusing, and critically important ground. The Christian-majority Lebanese Forces remain under the banner of March 14 with their leader, Samir Geagea, professing vehement opposition to the Assad regime, having fought the occupation in past decades. Meanwhile, the officially secular yet Christian-dominated Free Patriotic Movement aligns itself with the March 8 Alliance and supports Assad despite its leadership by Michel Aoun, who conducted a final stand against the Syrian regime’s occupation of Lebanon in the final years of the civil war. Finally, in 2011, Walid Jumblatt’s Druze-dominated Progressive Socialist Party, linked to Syria in the 1990s, split from the March 14 Alliance in favor of March 8 despite its leader’s professed opposition to the Assad regime. Yet in an interview later that year, Jumblatt declared, “I’m not a part of March 8. I’m a part of the alliance,” adding further confusion to his party’s stance in relation to Syria.[10]

Opinion at the level of Lebanon’s national political elite within Christian groups, then, appears divided and tenuous. The effects of this added noise introduced into the government’s bifurcated party system have yet to manifest fully, particularly as the national parliament continues to exist in near-total paralysis. Some observers have begun to express frustration at how the hegemony of the March 14 and March 8 blocs limits the terms of substantive political discourse.[11] This is in no way to suggest that splits within Lebanon’s Christian population are new – over the course of the civil war, the community became highly polarized, culminating in a split over whether or not to support the terms of the Taif Agreement. Rather, this recent shift supports the notion that splits along party lines within identity groups have consistently surfaced during critical moments of domestic or regional change – and that these divisions often reshape the framework through which national policymaking is conducted.

Though confessionalism plays a critical role in determining the consistently sectarian nature of party politics in Lebanon, the structure of alliances and divisions between political parties has proven malleable at critical national and regional junctures. Through understanding the patterns underlying these changes, scholars can work toward developing a fuller understanding of the remarkable dynamism of national politics in both Lebanon and the region in which it is situated.

Christiana Parreira is a PhD student in the department of political science at Stanford University.


[1] Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan, Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments. (Toronto: The Free Press, 1967).

[2] David Laitin, Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Change Among the Yoruba. (Chicago: U. Chicago Press, 1986).

[3] Daniel Posner, Institutions and Ethnic Politics in Africa. (Cambridge: Cambridge U. Press, 2005).

[4] Michael Johnson, Class and Client in Beirut. (London: Ithaca Press, 1986).

[5] Tom Najem. Lebanon: Politics of a Penetrated Society. (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[6] For an assessment of the disparity between the confessional system and Lebanon’s demographics, see Rania Maktabi, “The Lebanese Census of 1932 Revisited: Who Are the Lebanese?” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 26, no. 2 (1999).

[7] Bassel Salloukh, “Syria and Lebanon: A Brotherhood Transformed.” Middle East Report, no. 236 (2005).

[8] Diab Youssef, “Hariri on Syria Arrest Warrants: Assad a Monster,” The Daily Star, December 12, 2012.

[9] For some coverage of this conflict, see Damien Cave, “Syrian War Plays Out Along a Street in Lebanon,” The New York Times, August 24, 2012 and Josh Wood, “Sectarian Conflict Kills at Least 17 in Northern Lebanon in Spillover of Syrian Civil War,” The New York Times, December 10, 2012.

[10] Josh Wood, “Syrian Uprising Spills Over Into Lebanon’s Raucous Political Scene.” The New York Times, November 30, 2011.

[11] For an eloquent framing of these frustrations, see Maya Mikdashi, “The Space Between: March 14, March 8 and a Politics of Dissent.” Jadaliyya.com, August 6, 2011.

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