The Unmelting Lebanese National Pot

Imad Salamey

Picture by Pawal Czerwinski on Unsplash.

Post-colonial Middle Eastern states have failed to achieve national secularization and homogenisation. Nation-building has been obstructed by prevalent transnational communal affiliations. In Lebanon, a power-sharing consociational arrangement preserved the autonomy of sectarian groups in a loose national union. A communitocracy is formed to protect group plurality against forced national assimilation, marginalization, and dictatorship. This regime, however, has come at the expense of national cohesion and a strong state, resulting in recurring political and economic collapses.


Lebanon is home to 18 officially recognized sub-groups in the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish traditions. The country was recognized as a single, united state by the French colonial power in 1921, and gained independence in 1943. Upon gaining sovereignty, Lebanon devised a power sharing arrangement to ensure the political representation of each group within state institutions. In 1989, Lebanon’s constitution was amended to provide for the equal distribution of political seats between Christians and Muslims. At the same time, the country adhered to a customary independence agreement, known as the 1943 National Pact, which distributed top leadership posts along sectarian lines. It allocated the position of the President to a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister to a Sunni Muslim, and the Speaker of Parliament to a Shia Muslim.

The Lebanese political model of power sharing is most famously referred to as a consociational democracy. Political scientist Arend Lijphard associates such arrangements with the prevalence of multi-cultural pluralism in a society and the desire to prevent a single group or political cleavage from attaining full power or majoritarian rule. Consociational democracy is adopted to ensure the inclusivity of cultural minorities in body politics by proportionally distributing political seats, safeguarding autonomous cultural and education practices for each community, preserving the right of communal groups to veto unfavorable government decisions, and forming large cabinets that encompass all national groups in the executive order. This community-based system of governance has been also referred to as a “communitocracy” in order to emphasize its collectivist (communitarian) rather than individualist (democratic) nature.

Resistance to Secularization

Political systems that systematize religious affiliations in state institutions have been subject to much scrutiny and criticism. Both liberal and left-secular perspectives have sometimes insisted that politics must be separate from religion in order to provide an equal public space for all citizens regardless of their religious affiliations. Such voices evoke a history in which religious prejudice ingrained in political institutions incites atrocities, as demonstrated in the European sectarian wars of the Middle Ages, Armenian genocide, Jewish Pogroms and Holocaust, and Rwandan genocide among others. Critics also cite the fifteen year-long 1975 Lebanese Civil War that pitted Muslims against Christians to demonstrate the grave consequences of state sectarianism. In general, most left and liberal idealists suggest that the separation of state from religion is a prerequisite for nation building and secular-democratic institutionalism.

However, a hundred years after Lebanon’s foundation, its sectarian order has been reluctant to give in to a national melting pot or submit to a secular order. The turbulence of the post-colonial Middle East has left Lebanon in a permanent state of refugee influx, recurrently threatening the existence of Lebanon’s various sectarian communities. For instance, ever since the 1948 foundation of Israel on its southern border, Lebanon has been  at the center of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Palestinian refugees, mostly Sunni Muslims, massed in many areas of the country and threatened its delicate sectarian balance. Fears turned into a reality as Palestinian refugees took up arms and aligned themselves with the Lebanese Muslims in a drive to tip the power balance against Christians during the 1975 Lebanese Civil War. Over the years, Christians found their numbers decreasing from 50% to 30% of the total population, and they lost many of their political posts. Likewise, the 2011 Syrian conflict led to another forced displacement of more than 1.5 million Syrian Sunni Muslims into Lebanon. Today, Sunni Palestinian and Syrian refugees constitute about one third of the population and can form a clear sectarian majority if combined with the Lebanese Sunnis. For this reason, both Christians and Shia Muslims have opposed the permanent presence of refugees in the country, in fear of an enduring Sunni presence that would hugely outnumber their respective sectarian groups.

Furthermore, international and regional patronage extended to the different sectarian groups has only exacerbated the competitive sectarian power dynamic. Western support for Catholic and Maronite Christian power has persisted over the past two centuries. This has been counterbalanced during the Cold War era by Arab nationalism and Soviet support to both Muslims and Christian Orthodox. The 1979 theocratic Muslim Shiite revolution in Iran empowered Lebanese Shiites and mobilized them behind Hezbollah against competing sectarian groups, particularly Sunni Lebanese. International and regional conflicts have culminated in the obstruction of nation building in favor of an ongoing communitarian struggle over state power and society.

The Blessings and Curses of Power Sharing

Lebanese consociationalism initially aimed to provide a platform that mitigates sectarian conflict through power sharing arrangements. It has proven remarkably successful during periods of reduced regional and international tensions but has failed miserably in times of strife. Periods of peace and coexistence produced economic and political progress, as in the years following the 1975 Lebanese Civil War and the signing of the 1989 Saudi-sponsored Taef peace agreement. In addition, the agreement between the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Syria to establish a united front against the 1990 Saddam Hussein invasion of Kuwait resulted in an extended peace in Lebanon. All sectarian patron states supported the Lebanese Taef agreement and its post-war reconstruction plans. Soon after, the country witnessed economic development and prosperity that elevated it to an upper middle-income country. During periods of regional and international turbulence, however, the opposite has occurred. International and regional disagreements over the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 increased sectarian tensions in Lebanon, leading to a series of assassinations and violence targeting anti-Iranian figures and to the eventual political dominance of pro-Iranian Shiite Hezbollah and its allies. Devastating economic downturns followed, and in 2022, the World Bank degraded Lebanon to a lower middle-income country.

Nevertheless, despite its various pitfalls, the Lebanese consociational system has preserved religious and ethnic pluralism where other “secular” states yielded repression and tyranny. For instance, secular Zionism in Israel removed most Muslim and Christian Arab Palestinians from cities and towns in order to establish a Jewish majority state. Likewise, Arab secular nationalism in Syria and Iraq enforced demographic population exchange in order to undermine Kurdish conglomeration, all while forcibly scattering and massacring respective sectarian majority groups. Arab secular nationalism under Saddam Hussein in Iraq saw the forced Arabization of the Kurdish-majority Kirkuk province, which was perceived as a means of homogenizing the population in order to achieve national cohesion. The majority Shia sect in Iraq suffered devastating repression campaigns, including chemical attacks targeting entire towns and villages, that aimed to terrorize the community and silence dissidents. Similarly, throughout the 1980s and following the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, the Syrian secular regime orchestrated a series of chemical attacks and waves of demographic engineering campaigns to remove what it perceived as a Sunni majority threat confronting its vision of national unity. 

Sectarian communities in Lebanon, like other countries in the world, remain suspicious of the national secular project, particularly its leftist articulation. Stalin’s national campaigns that cleansed and suppressed millions of ethnic and religious groups throughout Russia, and former Soviet satellite states remain a constant reminder of socialist nationalism turned against cultural plurality. The suppression of the ethnic Muslim Uyghur minority in contemporary China is another case of secular repression against religious affiliations. Contemporary populism in the West and its anti-immigrant sentiments align most secular nationalist campaigns against non-Christians, people of color, and refugee communities.

Decentralizing power along communitarian lines has thus prevented Lebanon from drifting towards autocratic national rule. Despite the presence of various communitarian elite cartels, neither the military, a single family, or a strong leader has been capable of capturing absolute national power. Lebanon has set itself apart from all neighboring national experiences, where military and dictatorial rules have historically prevailed to suppress respective populations and deny them basic freedoms and rights.

Communal sectarian affiliations in Lebanon have persisted over the years for the sake of self-preservation. In many ways, the Lebanese model can be compared to political systems adopted by many Western European countries, such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Switzerland, and Belgium where sectarian, ethnic, and regional plurality has been protected through a loose decentralized federal and power sharing arrangement. 

A Communitarian National Paradox

In contrast to other federal or confederal power sharing regimes, Lebanese communitocracy is distinguished by the fact that its constituent groups are dispersed over a small national territory without any single one occupying a pure geographic conglomeration. This fact has prevented the possibility of forming communal-based territorial cantons or the establishment of a federal or confederal union, as is the case elsewhere. Alternatively, consociationalism autonomizes group interest through the allocation of respective political power in state and government.

Still, the more peculiar aspect of Lebanese society is the fact that its sectarian and ethnic groups are transnationalist. The French collaborated with the Maronite church to impose the borders of colonial Lebanon. France sought to secure a permanent foothold in the country through constructing a Christian-majority state in the region. Therefore, Catholic cultural connection with France was consolidated during the French colonial period over Lebanon. This connection was further nurtured by the existing ties between the Maronite church and the Vatican. The expansion of Maronite missionaries and social services led to the spread of French education, language, and culture. Economic ties between both countries strengthened. Over the years, Maronite intellectuals and politicians came to idealize their ties to French national secularism, while defending their own sectarian interests in the Lebanese confessional mix. The Muslim Sunni community opposed the Western colonial division of the Ottoman empire into small nation states and rejected European mandates. After all, Sunnis found their power dispersed among different spheres of western colonial influences. For this reason, they pledged political allegiance to the pan-Arab anti-colonial movement, particularly to Nasserism in Egypt during the 50s and 60s and to the Palestinian liberation movement in 1948. Sunnis maintained a strong cultural and political tie to Arab Sunni-majority states and to religious centers in both Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Lebanese Shiite Muslims, on the other hand, were inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, which projected Shiite power throughout the region against a historic Sunni’s political and religious domination. Thus, they established the strongest military, religious, and educational ties with Iran and joined with other Shiite communities in Iraq, Syria, Gulf States, and Yemen to resist their historic subjugation. Likewise, other less sizable Lebanese communities preserved affiliations with transnational world political, cultural, and religious centers such as Armenia and Russia.

Consociational democracy is adopted to ensure the inclusivity of cultural minorities in body politics by proportionally distributing political seats, safeguarding autonomous cultural and education practices for each community, preserving the right of communal groups to veto unfavorable government decisions, and forming large cabinets that encompass all national groups in the executive order

Lebanese transnational affiliations undermined the formation of a unified national identity. Communities have, instead, resorted to respective irredentist historic narratives that glorify their own version of history and nationalism. The Maronites considered Lebanese nationalism to have been shaped by the country’s cultural closeness to France and Christianhood, while Sunnis stressed the influence of Arabism and Islam. Contemporary Shiism has attempted to formulate an identity of “resistance” that associates the country’s nationalism with rejection to Western influence. As a consequence of different communal interpretations and discourses, Lebanese public schools have been unable to adopt a unified modern history curriculum.

Political scientists such as Edward Azar and Raymond Hinnebusch have each raised doubts about the ability of post-colonial states to achieve the left and liberal conceptualization of nationalism. Azar’s examination of the post-WWII national order revealed deeply rooted deficiencies responsible for protracted social conflicts within these states, while Hinnebusch suggested that the colonially imposed structural deformation of Middle Eastern nations among different unequal states is to blame for a permanent state of economic dependency and conflicts. It is no surprise, then, that most national experiences in the Middle East and North Africa have degenerated into protracted periods of dictatorship and upheavals. Lebanon has been directly impacted by such a turbulent regional environment, and its common unitarian nationalism has continued to fluctuate between suffering during times of regional turmoil and prospering during times of regional peace. Thus, the Lebanese model has fallen short of attaining nationhood, while its communities have upheld power sharing mechanisms for self-preservation.

Consociationalism in Crisis

Following the 2018 US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, economic sanctions against Iran and proxies, and the subsequent rise of regional tensions, Lebanese communities suffered the consequences. A series of sanctions against pro-Iranian Hezbollah members and institutions undermined international confidence in the Lebanese economy, downgraded its credits, and drove out much of the foreign investments and deposits. By 2020, a spiraling economic collapse forced the government to default on its Eurobonds, which devalued the national currency and paralyzed public institutions. The Lebanese state appeared on the verge of total collapse.

Maronite Patriarch Bshara Boutros Al Rahi called for an international conference that would assist Lebanon in detaching itself from regional tensions, and asked all Lebanese factions to take on “active neutrality” in the face of regional polarizations. His position was made in reference to rising Iranian-American confrontation, as he found Lebanon and the Christian community paying the price for Hezbollah’s anti-American and anti-Saudi activities. The Patriarch declared his support for the election of an “impartial” Maronite President that would remain detached from domestic political disputes in favor of mediation among the different parties. 

However, the Patriarch’s call for neutrality was immediately countered by the Shia Mufti cleric, Sheik Ahmad Kabalan, who associated neutrality with treason. Lebanon cannot be neutral in face of the Israeli enemy, nor does it have the option to give in Hezbollah’s arms and weaken its ability to defend itself, he asserted. In his assessment, criticizing Hezbollah and demanding its disarmament boils down to capitulation.

The declarations of the Patriarch and the Sheik have continued to drive Lebanon into an ever-deepening crisis. The transnational nature of the respective sectarian groups binds the fate of inter-communitarian relations to international and regional politics, even when the call for neutrality is announced. Still, alternative options to power sharing and consociationalism remain far out of reach. ♦

Imad Salamey is a senior Middle East policy advisor and associate professor of political science and international affairs at the Lebanese American University. He is the book author of The Decline of Nation-States after the Arab Spring: the Rise of Communitocracy (Routledge, 2017), The Government and Politics of Lebanon (Peter Lang, 2021), co-editor of Post-Conflict Power-Sharing Agreements: Options for Syria (Palgrave, 2018) and editor of The Communitarian Nation-State Paradox in Lebanon (Nova Science Publishers, 2022).

Recommended Citation

Salamey, Imad. “The Unmelting Lebanese National Pot,” Canopy Forum, October 14, 2022.