Analysis & Opinions - Lebanese Center for Policy Studies

The Twin Crises and the Prospects for Political Sectarianism in Lebanon

| Apr. 04, 2020

Economic crisis and the fragility of sectarian power-sharing
What began as a spontaneous protest against yet another regressive tax on 17 October of last year quickly morphed into a popular uprising with a broader and more encompassing set of demands, spreading across all Lebanon. The central call of “Kellon ya’ani kellon” (All of them means all of them) challenged the corruption of the entire sectarian political class and put into stark relief the role that they, along with the banks, played in causing the country’s financial crash. The crisis and the revolution it spawned have challenged the foundations of the sectarian power-sharing.
Given what we know about power-sharing, the prospect of its breakdown is nothing short of astounding. By giving all major power brokers a seat at the table, and institutionalizing consensus-based decision-making and veto power over policy-making, power-sharing systems create built-in tendencies toward poor governance and resistance to reform.1 As political elites acquire vested interests in preserving the status quo, even enemies set aside their differences to close ranks to defend the system. Only major shocks—such as wars or economic breakdown—are likely to dislodge them.
As the country’s public coffers dry up, power-sharing has finally appeared to be sowing the seeds of its own destruction. With shrinking state fiscal capacity and the dwindling budgets of sectarian parties and their affiliated organizations, the patronage networks that are the lifeblood of the system are under serious threat. To be sure, the effective dismantling of the system requires not only the erosion of patronage networks—which political elites may partially offset through increased repression—but also the emergence of new parties and political actors with sustained organizational capacity. Nonetheless, the economic crisis and ensuing revolution dealt a very heavy blow to the system.
COVID-19: A sectarian gift?
But along came COVID-19. And this novel crisis might be the biggest gift to the parties for the foreseeable future. First, the public health imperative to minimize social contact and the consequent state lockdown all but eliminated the possibility of mass public demonstrations. This effectively undercut a key channel for building a more inclusive solidarity, based on shared economic suffering rather than the divisions that ruling elites have worked hard to perpetuate: The act of protest itself, spanning widely across the country, was both a symbol and generator of unity, transcending Lebanon’s regional, sectarian, and class divides. As we saw earlier this week, state authorities destroyed what remained of the protest tents in downtown Beirut and Tripoli under the pretense of enforcing the stay-at-home order. Second, while the responsibility for the economic crisis could be clearly pinned on the corrupt political class, COVID-19 has the benefit—for political parties—of being “blameless.” Of course, the state and political elites have been criticized for their response, but the pandemic itself was not of their making.
Even more critically, the state itself has limited capacity to remedy the crisis, for reasons that both predate and were exacerbated by the financial crisis. To be sure, technocrats within the Ministry of Public Health and hospital employees are working hard to meet the challenge and, as Fatima Al Sayah has noted on LCPS, the scale of testing in the country—though still minimal—is better than that of many other countries. As valiant as these efforts may be, however, they will not suffice to meet the challenge of the pandemic, particularly as the pre-existing shortage of dollars threatens the ability to import much needed medical supplies. As of 8 April, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country was 575, with 19 deaths, according to numbers provided by the Ministry of Public Health, though many fear that these figures severely underestimate the real number of cases in the country.
In the context of low state capacity and lockdown measures, COVID-19 has provided an opening for sectarian parties to reassert their role and seeming indispensability for assuring the basic public welfare of Lebanese citizens. Hezbollah’s “Corona response plan” is perhaps the most notable and broad in scale, including the mobilization of over 20,000 health care workers and the equipping of medical centers and hospitals throughout the country. However, images of political parties “disinfecting” neighborhoods, building quarantine centers, and distributing branded masks across the country are by now commonplace. In some cases, this goes beyond the Lebanese territory itself. For instance, the Lebanese Forces have announced the creation of “crisis cells” to help coordinate the return of Lebanese abroad and provide financial aid and support as needed. A seeming race to provide these servicesand to do so publicly for the purposes of credit-claiming—has emerged, with lockdowns virtually ensuring that citizens are forced to depend on their services.
Since COVID-19 does not recognize partisan or sectarian boundaries, party efforts to limit the spread of the disease will surely be rolled out universally. But will the sectarian parties provide fair and equitable access to treatment be allocated preferentially to supporters? Under certain conditions, parties face incentives to provide services broadly—beyond their own communities or base of supporters.2 The highly communicable nature of this novel virus may amplify these incentives. For instance, in an interview, Hashem Safieddine, the head of Hezbollah’s Executive Council, noted that the party is providing support in a number of Palestinian refugee camps, where they were asked to contribute by camp authorities.
In a rationing environment, however, will the parties be able to provide access impartially and universally? This may be particularly relevant to the distribution of short-term economic aid to households. As is the case with many other parties, the Free Patriotic Movement, for example, has begun distributing food packages to “families in need” in areas across the country. These services are much more open to selective distribution and, in the absence of a comprehensive social safety net and with the limited reach of the National Poverty Targeting Program (NPTP), they will be critical for many Lebanese whose sources of income have been devastated over the last months and who now find themselves unable to go to work due to lockdown measures.
Social solidarity in the age of COVID-19
The need for social solidarity to address the COVID-19 crisis is critical in order for people to comply with the enormous sacrifices that fighting the spread of the pandemic requires. Self-interest as a motivation for abiding by public health directives can easily break down over time, especially as people’s economic conditions deteriorate further, and coercion is not viable indefinitely without inciting unrest. Ultimately, people must comply voluntarily.
The challenges to achieving broad social solidarity in Lebanon are well established, given politicized sectarian divisions among other cleavages. Yet the October revolution showed that they are by no means intractable, as calls of unity from Tripoli to Tyre hinted at the potential for overturning the system. Nonetheless, a reinscribing of sectarian political patronage in a time of severe need poses a direct challenge to this emergent solidarity. Access to healthcare, among other basic services, has historically been characterized by deep inequalities, both economic and partisan, and will be critical in this regard.
Other social divides, such as class and nationality, may also become exacerbated in this period. As COVID-19 inevitably makes its way to refugee settlements, where practices of safe social distancing are nearly impossible and access to supplies needed for basic hygienic practices is limited, it is critical to avoid scapegoating refugees, as seen previously. To this end, authorities have explicitly called for fairness in access to testing and treatment. For example, the Minister of Public Health recently called on the prosecutor general to investigate and impose penalties on hospitals that deny entry to patients based on nationality, after a Syrian who was in critical condition died before being able to access care, and affirmed access to healthcare for all, including for Palestinians and Syrians.
As is true in other countries that lack comprehensive social safety nets, the brunt of both the economic crisis and the pandemic fall most heavily on lower-income groups. As time goes on—and this public health crisis will not end quickly—it will be hardest for the poor to comply with directives to stay inside and refrain from going to work. Some reports indicate that this has already occurred as protestors defied the curfew in many areas in Lebanon, such as in Akkar Tripoli, and the suburbs of Beirut, in protest of the hardening economic conditions. The dire economic situation, greatly exacerbated by the public health crisis, is likely to make those most in need all the more reliant on the provision of social services by sectarian groups. 
To return to our central question, will these twin crises—economic and health-related—undermine or strengthen the power of the governing political parties in Lebanon?
In the short-term, the financial crisis and COVID-19 may have countervailing effects on the fate of sectarian power-sharing: While the former has dried up the patronage networks that sustain the sectarian parties, the latter has presented opportunities for high-visibility credit-claiming. In the long-term, however, the fundamental challenge of resources remains. When the COVID-19 crisis eventually passes, what will remain for the sectarian political parties and how will they address the even more serious economic challenges to come? The ruling parties almost surely cannot address the economic crisis in an enduring and comprehensive way because to do so would entail dismantling the very system that has sustained them. But until a serious challenger emerges, with a compelling vision of an alternative political reality and the organizational capacity to mobilize on a national scale, the foundations of political sectarianism will be weakened but will not yet crumble.
1 Roeder P. and D. Rothchild, eds. 2005. Sustainable Peace: Power and Democracy After Civil Wars. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
2 Cammett, M. 2014. Compassionate Communalism: Welfare and Sectarianism in Lebanon. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

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For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Cammett, Melani and Lama Mourad .“The Twin Crises and the Prospects for Political Sectarianism in Lebanon.” Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, April 4, 2020.

The Authors