On Friday, June 16th, Lebanon quietly ended one of the longest stretches of government paralysis in post-Second World War history. The parliament met to ratify a new electoral law that will govern national elections next year, nearly a decade after the last parliamentary polls were held. The law’s proponents claim that it will improve representation for the many sects that compose the country’s religiously diverse population. They say it also addresses demands by civil-society groups who have railed against the propensity of the political élite to pass power down through the generations and keep reformists at bay. In Beirut, there is both cynicism and optimism about what the new law might deliver. Mostly, though, one senses an uncertainty about the future—a familiar enough feeling in a country that endured a brutal, fifteen-year civil war, but unfamiliar in other ways. There is a genuine wondering-aloud as to whether a new chapter in Lebanon’s history might be about to begin, and some hope that a political system built on the principle of fostering coexistence might be insulated from a region wracked by sectarianism.
Since the onset of the Arab Spring, in early 2011, Lebanese politics have been gridlocked. Unlike in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria, no street demonstrations emerged calling for the fall of the regime. Yet Lebanon’s weak central government struggled to hold itself together. Parliamentary elections were cancelled in 2013, after the country’s main political forces were unable to agree on which side to back in the Syrian civil war, on the election of the next Lebanese President, and on the country’s support for the U.N. Special Tribunal investigating the 2005 assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The current parliament has used dubious pretexts to extend its term three times, all while failing to address deep crises in the provision of basic public services, from electricity to waste disposal. As a result, public trust in the government’s legitimacy is at the lowest point since the early aughts, when Syria’s government still controlled Lebanon.
Numerous dynamics feed the paralysis, but at its heart is a debate about the viability of Lebanon’s consociational government, which distributes power among the country’s religious communities. Seats in parliament are split evenly between Christians and Muslims, and the main offices of President, Prime Minister, and Speaker of Parliament are reserved for Maronite Christians, Sunnis, and Shiites, respectively. This arrangement has been in place, in one shape or another, since Lebanon’s independence, in 1943, even though the consensual decision-making that it engenders is notoriously inefficient and prone to destabilization. In short, it enables any one stakeholder to easily play spoiler.