It has been just over a year since the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on 4 August 2020, which destroyed several neighbourhoods and shattered the national psyche. The blast was all too predictable: the upshot of a 2013 decision by port authorities to confiscate a cargo ship carrying 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate and store it in a warehouse without proper safety provisions. Few believed that the political system would survive the fallout. Yet so far it has persisted, even in the absence of a stable government. Sporadic outbursts of public anger have not been enough to prompt a widespread change in political allegiances. For many, recent developments have paradoxically affirmed the need for institutionalized sectarianism and corruption. To uncover the reasons for this stasis, we must place the events of last summer in a broader historical perspective.
The state of Lebanon was created following the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, in which France and Britain agreed to divide the Ottoman Empire between them. France acquired most of Syria, and in 1920 carved out Lebanon as a ‘safe haven’ for Christians in the region. The French decision to include Maronite villages to the north, south and east of historical Mount Lebanon led to the incorporation of major areas inhabited by Sunnis (especially in the north) and Shi‘is (especially in the south and north-east). The new borders shifted the demography away from Maronites, and Sunnis and Shi‘is came to form almost 50% of the population.
To correct the imbalance, France established a sectarian system that would guarantee Maronite hegemony. Almost all senior roles in government went to Maronites. They controlled the presidency, governorship of the central bank, and leadership of the army and security forces. Other religious communities – Sunnis, Shi‘is, Druzes, Orthodox Christians – became a supporting cast. Sunnis were awarded the posts of prime minister and police chief but given little actual power. Shi‘is received the ceremonial position of parliamentary speaker. Sectarianism was later enshrined in the National Pact, an oral accord that Lebanese politicians approved when France granted Lebanon independence (nominally in 1943, effectively in 1946).
This led to a political crisis in 1958, when Muslims, no longer willing to play second-fiddle to the Maronites, aligned themselves with the insurgent cause of Arab nationalism. US marines joined with Lebanese military intelligence to beat them back. The country’s unequal economic model – in which the dividends of rising growth rates flowed to the West’s favoured groups – was entrenched. This created the conditions for the civil war of 1975–1990, in which an estimated 120,000 died and over a million were displaced. During the conflict, Israel inflamed communal tensions by using Christian militias as a proxy force to fight the PLO. The civil war eventually yielded the Taif Accord, signed in Saudi Arabia in 1989, which dismantled Maronite supremacy and gave every religious group a real stake in government. Yet rather than weakening the grip of sectarianism, the agreement merely intensified it.
Under the new system, people born into a particular religious sect were compelled (by incentives or otherwise) to rally around certain political dynasties in order to maximize their social and economic leverage – embedding patronage and corruption in the country’s democratic processes. The so-called ‘confessional’ structure determines how many MPs can come from each sect, what ministerial posts they can fill, which areas they can represent, and how key positions in public bodies (and some private ones) are assigned. If disenfranchised Sunnis, Shi‘is and some Christians once hoped to topple sectarianism, years of civil war convinced most that this was impossible, not least because of external pressure from Israel, the West and Syria. Instead, they opted for greater influence within the sectarianized state as the second-best solution.
By stemming the conflict, the Taif Accord ushered in a period of tremendous optimism. But it did little to solve a series of underlying economic problems. With scant domestic resources, Lebanon has always depended on its role as a regional hub for travel and banking, shipping and commerce, education and healthcare services, publishing and performing arts – leaving it prone to the vagaries of international markets and regional politics. More recently, this has allowed successive US administrations to inflict maximal hardship on the country through blacklists and embargos, adopted at the behest of Israel to target the ‘infrastructure’ that supports Hezbollah. Such measures squeezed the public finances to their limit during the Obama and Trump years. In response, the Lebanese Central Bank resorted to a Ponzi scheme: raising interest rates to attract deposits from local banks in the knowledge that it would not be able to repay them. This triggered a severe financial crisis in autumn 2019. The country defaulted on its foreign debt payments for the first time. A wave of bankruptcies was narrowly avoided when the government allowed depositors to access a fraction of their money at an exchange rate far below that of the open market. Most depositors were effectively given a haircut, whether they liked it or not. Working-class Lebanese flooded the streets, demonstrating against the corruption of the political class.
Then came the explosion of 4 August. The currency went into freefall; today the US dollar fetches around 20,000 Lebanese pounds, compared to 6,750 before the blast (and 1,500 before the 2019 crisis). Public funds have dried up, and the lack of dollars has forced the rationing of many imports, especially fuel for cars and electricity. There have been extended blackouts and long queues at petrol stations. Since most workers are paid in Lebanese pounds, their purchasing power has fallen sharply. Many are forced to restrict themselves to essential shopping and minimize ‘luxury’ expenses such as meat or clothes. Medicine, though subsidized, is in short supply. Employment opportunities are dwindling: a large number of college graduates cannot find work to match their qualifications. This reinforces the sectarian system, as religious networks or political connections are often the only means to get a job. Those who cannot do so tend to migrate, their remittances extending a lifeline to the very system that ejected them.
By deepening the economic crisis, the explosion increased the population’s dependence on traditional sectarian leaders. Politicians turned to their international backers (the US, France, Saudi Arabia, Iran) to secure cash and supplies to distribute to their local supporters. Concurrently, the popular cross-religious demonstrations of 2019 petered out. Over the past year we have seen more sectarian gatherings tied to specific political outfits, whose primary aim is to score points against other groups. The explosion has also eroded the fragile relationships between these outfits – who, as in previous crises, are more concerned with blaming their rivals than finding the real culprits. When prime minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated in 2005, four pro-Syrian generals were jailed, then released a few years later when it became clear they had no role in the killing. Likewise, the judiciary is currently using its ‘investigation’ to target individuals whom it can scapegoat for institutional failures.
This has instilled an atmosphere of distrust which inhibits the formation of a government. Just days after the blast, the Lebanese PM Hassan Diab announced the resignation of his cabinet. Yet he has stayed on in a caretaker capacity amid faltering negotiations to assemble a new administration. Two attempts to establish a viable executive, under diplomat Mustapha Adib and former PM Saad Hariri, have failed. Another former PM, Najib Mikati, is now in talks with president Michel Aoun, but whether they can strike a deal before highly anticipated parliamentary elections in May remains uncertain. As the country’s resources contract at an unprecedented rate, its religious factions have become increasingly unwilling to risk their positions by compromising with their adversaries. Each of them fears that their constituents will view any concession as a betrayal.
The arm-wrestling between politicians is not helped by redoubled foreign interference. Israel has been launching aerial attacks on Southern Lebanon: a stark warning that it will not tolerate a Hezbollah-dominated government. The Saudis have similar priorities, wary of the link between Lebanon’s Shi‘is and Iran. France and the EU have threatened to impose sanctions on Lebanese politicians if they cannot decide on the composition of a cabinet. Their tactics are deeply counterproductive, since by targeting specific groups they compound the impression that external actors are handing power to their proxies, in a direct replay of the colonial era. France has promised renewed economic assistance – but this is conditional on obtaining the contract to rebuild Beirut’s seaport, siphoning off billions provided by the IMF and other donors. Riad Salameh, the governor of the Central Bank, was installed by France and the US to do their bidding in the banking sector, attracting foreign investment and pleasing international creditors. He has remained in post throughout the crisis, despite coming under investigation for money laundering.
If the Taif Accords gave every religious sect a piece of the pie – large enough that they would not seek to challenge the system itself – now the pie is shrinking; disappearing, in fact. This leaves politicians reliant on foreign backers to sustain their patronage system: the only thing that can ensure the survival of Lebanon’s dysfunctional confessional democracy. Ordinary citizens who aren’t co-opted by the system tend to leave the country, weakening the social bloc best placed to change it. For those who stay behind, sectarianism is seen as the devil they know. A year after the explosion this arrangement shows little sign of changing. And yet, if increased foreign interference sparks a backlash from the Lebanese public, there remains a chance – distant, but not impossible – that a popular, cross-sectarian opposition to the political class may reemerge over the next decade.