A lot has happened in the Middle East lately, but one thing deserves to be carved out from the rest. That is the situation in Lebanon. On Tuesday, mirroring events in Egypt, large crowds of Lebanese took to the streets in a “Day of Rage”. Their representatives in the media would have you believe this was to protest the rise of dictatorship in their country and the overthrow of an elected government. That is nonsense, to compare the events in Lebanon to those in Egypt, Tunisia or now Yemen, is to do a disservice to those fighting real tyrannies.
Here’s the barebones of it: Last week, the shiite militia/party Hezbollah and its allies resigned from the Lebanese government, forcing its collapse, in the brief time since then some crucial swing players in Lebanon have switched their support from (now former) PM Hariri to Hezbollah, enabling Hezbollah to assemble a governing coalition headed by another former PM: Najib Mikati.
The politics of all this is complicated. Hezbollah had pulled out of the government because it feared a tribunal investigation into the murder of Hariri’s father (also, a former PM) would accuse it of involvement. Honestly, it probably was. In addition you may have heard the following: that Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and will now turn Lebanon into a terrorist state; that Hezbollah has overridden the people’s verdict from the last Lebanese election that gave Hariri a majority; and that the people rioting against this are trying to save their country from being taken over by foreign interests.
All that is nonsense. Hezbollah is listed on many terrorist watch lists and has engaged in terrorism. So there is some truth to the first point. Hezbollah is also, and this is far more important, the only real political force in the country representing the Shiite community, in a country where all politics is sectarian, Hezbollah is predominantly a communal force. Secondly, Hezbollah operates a veritable parallel civil society, providing welfare support to many poor Lebanese who the government in Beirut has traditionally ignored. This is particularly true in Southern Lebanon. Finally, Hezbollah has immense patriotic credibility among a wide swathe (though of course not all) Lebanese, and the alliance it leads in the legislature is composed of many members of other religious groups. There is something very disturbing about the attitude, voiced by a student in one of my classes recently, that we should view these kind of developments solely from an external perspective. To look at Lebanon and think only of the interests of the US or Israel (the second being the student’s preoccupation), as if Lebanon had no domestic politics of its own that was worth considering. Furthermore, because Hezbollah is still a MINORITY party that must rely on diverse allies, it is no position to unilaterally transform the state.
As for whether the protests are defending democracy, we must look more closely at the Lebanese political system. Lebanon operates what has been called a Confessionalist system, whereby political life is determined by one’s religion. Indeed seats in Lebanon’s legislature are apportioned by faith. The problem is that these seats have never been reapportioned since 1990 (the end of Lebanon’s civil war) and indeed weren’t apportioned fairly to begin with. Lebanon’s Christians, politically powerful but far from a majority in 1990 (and even less now) are guaranteed half the seats. Indeed the distribution is not just by religion but by SECT, so the different religious subgroups are the real basic unit. This means that not only are Muslims underrepresented in the legislature, but Sunnis get most of those seats even though the Shia are a much larger community.
The reality of Lebanese demographics is that around half the country is Shia, about 20% Christian, perhaps 25% Sunni and the remainder smaller groups. The Shia have seen massive growth in the last 50 years because of high rates of emigration among Christians and Sunnis (especially among Christians, who have a vast diaspora in the Americas and Oceania) and lower relative birth rates. But the political settlement of 1990 gives almost all political power to the Sunnis and the Maronite Christians (the main sect). By the civil war peace agreement Lebanon’s President MUST be a Maronite, her PM a Sunni, the lesser post of Speaker is reserved for the Shia. This means that any election in Lebanon is highly disproportionate. Hariri’s bloc rode Sunni and Christian support to a majority of seats but actually lost the popular vote by a large margin.
So the true context in which we must view Lebanon is a country where the Shia majority has been systemically blocked from political power for decades. And where they have also been systemically ignored and maltreated by Sunni and Maronite elites who favor their own narrow sectarian interests. This desperation has created the popularity of Hezbollah, and only be ending the distortive system can Lebanon’s Shias become a more constructive political force.
The people rioting in Lebanon are not democrats, but defenders of elite privilege. Above all else they are in denial. Maronites, in whose name Lebanon was first established, have never accepted their fall from dominance and are especially angry at what’s going on. To they, who often reject the label of “Arab”, Hezbollah represents the normalization of Lebanon, the end of its cosmopolitan heritage in favor of becoming a “normal” Arab nation. That may or may not be a noble goal. But it is clearly not a democratic one. If Hezbollah brings dictatorship, it is a dictatorship of the elites’ own making. A result of their failure to unify the Lebanese people and end the sectarian political system that could only ever end here.