As part of our series on sectarianism in Lebanon, LCPS sat down with Dr. Bassel Salloukh, associate professor of political science at the Lebanese American University, to discuss the historical roots of sectarianism, modern manifestations of sectarianism, and the nature of governance under a consociational system in Lebanon. Below is a transcript of our conversation with Dr. Salloukh, which has been edited for length and clarity.
What is your understanding of sectarianism in Lebanon today?
The way literature on ethnic conflict and on Lebanon deals with sectarianism is too narrow. The debate is usually framed between primordialists, instrumentalists, and constructivists. I have always positioned myself against the primordial approach because it does not explain the timing of sectarian conflict. Instrumentalists emphasize strategies deployed by ethnic and sectarian entrepreneurs, but do not tell us why people follow them. The constructivist approach unpacks the historical and material origins of these identities, but does very little to explain why they persist and harden over time.
I argue that the best way to understand the durability and hardening of sectarian identities in postwar Lebanon is to unpack the ensemble of institutional, clientelistic, and discursive practices that structure sectarian incentives. A big part of this ensemble has to do with institutions, whether they are state institutions, family law, electoral institutions, or clientelistic institutions, but is not limited only to institutions. So, instead of looking at sectarianism as an aberration, you study how this ensemble—these “practices of governance” to borrow from Michel Foucault, at different levels, from the individual to the geopolitical—creates a veritable political economy that undergirds the ideological hegemony of sectarianism. It is this dynamic ensemble that best explains why sectarianism persists and why it is so difficult to undo.
How has the sectarian power-sharing system evolved in Lebanon since the prewar period?
I think there have been a number of structural transformations. The first has to do with the architecture of the postwar power-sharing arrangement itself, the Taif Accord, and how it redistributed the sectarian balance of power and the sectarian quota. But there is another transformation that is no less important.
In the pre-war period, the sectarian elite was not the economic elite of the country. There were interrelations particularly at the Maronite level, such as with Beshara al-Khoury or Michel Chiha. But Saeb Salaam, Kamel Asaad, and Sabri Hamadeh were not economic elites. Their power was based on traditional clientelist networks, access to state resources, and the provision of services.
If you read memoirs of people from the pre-war era, you notice that they were not talking about sectarianism. The main dividing line was confessional. In the pre-war period, those who happened to be making certain political demands to change the system came from disadvantaged socio-economic classes and they happened to be Muslim. Those who were defending the status quo came from privileged economic backgrounds and they happened to be Christian. Today, the sectarian and political elite is itself the economic elite in the county. What is interesting in the post-war period is the emergence of an overlapping sectarian political and economic elite. And it is not in this overlapping elite’s interest to have a civil war because it would jeopardize their political economic interests. But it is the emergence of this postwar overlapping sectarian and economic elite that makes political reforms all the more difficult.
Why has sectarian identity trumped socioeconomic identity in the postwar period?
Sectarian identity obviates socio-economic identity in postwar Lebanon because of what I have called a sectarian political economy and its concomitant ideological hegemony that incentivizes people to embrace and favor their sectarian identity over other identities that are available.
I always ask my students why poor Shia, poor Sunnis, poor Maronites, poor Greek Orthodox, poor Catholics, poor Druze, poor Armenians, etc., have not formed their own party. Why don’t they think in class terms? How come the Lebanese Communist Party in the last parliamentary elections received 8,000 votes in a country that is devastated economically? The primordialists have an easy answer: Lebanese are sectarian because they are born sectarian and possess a sectarian political culture, which is nonsense really. Instrumentalists explain this in terms of elite instrumentalization of sectarian identity.
These are not good enough explanations. Once you have a whole political economy with its consequent ideological hegemony, a holistic ensemble operating at different levels, to reproduce sectarian identities, then we should not be surprised that people behave as nothing but docile sectarian subjects. But if the incentive structure were changed, people may then stop adopting sectarianism as their primary mode of identification and mobilization.
Do you see examples of institutions and civil society groups prioritizing sectarian identity and perpetuating sectarianism?
Lebanese are immersed in an infrastructure of sectarianism from the cradle to the grave. The whole institutional and ideational makeup of their everyday practices are demarcated by sectarian limits. Just look at the battle for civil marriage, and the resistance it has elicited from almost all confessional and sectarian officials, and you get a sense of the sectarian system’s subtle but real disciplinary violence. Of course, there are other examples.
Take elections as a case in point. Is it surprising that most people vote along sectarian lines? We must begin from the assumption that we should expect people to vote along sectarian lines when they are incentivized to think that it is the clientelist political economy of sectarianism that best serves their interests. Look also at the practices of everyday life. How come people are allowed to park their cars on sidewalks and engage in all kinds of illicit acts? Part of this has to do with the weak Lebanese state and the dislocations that come with stark income disparities in developing countries. But I think there is also something intentional operating here. There is a will to defeat any effort that leads to transparency and accountability because if you have the latter people start asking the big questions. The logic of sectarianism is the rejection of anything called accountability and transparency.
Of course, all this does not mean that there are no “practices of freedom”, to borrow from Foucault again, where people resist the political economy and ideological hegemony of sectarianism. Whether it is women fighting against domestic violence or for more inclusive citizenship laws, teachers struggling for fairer wages, or Beirut Madinati and its different permutations in the recent municipal elections, these are all different forms of resistance against the political economy and ideological hegemony of the sectarian system. But the problem is that genuine anti-sectarian and cross-sectarian civil society organizations are either ignored or fought by the sectarian elite. Those who want to resist are either coopted, fought, come to play a small role, or ultimately exit. It’s not as if there is no resistance, but the sectarian political economic elite is always ahead of them. The result is the perpetuation of the ideological hegemony of sectarianism, and mobilization continues in the name of the sect.
Could one make the argument that sectarianism is preventing Lebanon from descending into a serious conflict?
Not so much sectarianism but the postwar corporate power-sharing arrangement, and the overlap between the sectarian and economic elite, does go a long way in explaining why post-Syria Lebanon has not descended into all-out civil war despite the spike in sectarian agitation and violence since 2005 and the spillover effects of the war in Syria.
Let me unpack why this is so. Consociationalists have always been very cognizant of the fact that consociational democracy is a special kind of democracy. It’s not your regular liberal democracy, it’s not your majoritarian democracy, and they accept that it hardens ethnic, tribal, and sectarian identity over time. Basically, it’s a trade-off between civil war and political instability. Lebanon is a perfect example. Many ask the question: “Do we want civil war or are we happy with the instability we have now?” Consociationalists, to their credit, are realists, and are conscious of the fact that consociational power-sharing agreements might become immobilized and lead to protracted political crisis, but their argument is that this is always far better than civil war. I am afraid that the kind of corporate power-sharing arrangement we have in the form of the Taif Accord, and the postwar political economic structures it has given rise to, does indeed protect against a slide to civil war, but makes the quest for political economic reforms all the more difficult.
Are there ways to move away from a conscociational democracy?
The main debate in the literature on how postwar, deeply divided societies can rebuild themselves is no longer about consociational democracy per se. It is rather within consociationalism, namely, between corporate consociationalism and liberal consociationalism. This is the debate that [Brendan] O’Leary and [John] McGarry address in their work on Iraq, which stems from a critique on how consociational democracy actually contributes to the hardening of sectarian or ethnic identities. The argument is that instead of building a corporate consociational power-sharing arrangement, postwar states would be better served by a liberal consociation power-sharing arrangement, one that does not predetermine the identities peoples would choose to mobilize around.
If you look at the Taif Accord, it contains the kind of short-term consociational modalities that were needed to end the war; middle-term cenentripitalist institutions, such as the stipulations about the need for a new electoral law, decentralization, and a unified history textbook; and in the long-run, Taif does speak about integrationist deconfessionalism. But this is just on paper. Due to the long pax Syriana and the interests of the sectarian elite, in practice what we ended up with in Lebanon is an extremely tight and immutable corporate consociational power-sharing arrangement.
The question now becomes the following: If the postwar power-sharing arrangement is in crisis, then what should be done? Given Lebanon’s confessional demographics and given the sensitivity of the issue, nobody is going to open up the Pandora’s Box of renegotiating sectarian quotas. By contrast, implementing the changes Taif hints at what could help the country move from corporate consociation to what I call hybrid consociation; not corporate but also not liberal because the latter entails the abandonment of the postwar confessional and sectarian quotas, a nonstarter under present domestic and regional conditions. Instead, some variation on PR voting, combined with a measure of real decentralization, could unleash hitherto repressed counterfactual anti-sectarian, trans-sectarian, and inter-sectarian identities. This may also begin to change the incentive structures under which people operate.
To be sure, the sectarian political elite will only implement PR in the context of a mixed electoral law, one that predetermines the results of the elections in their favor. My argument is that some variation of PR is needed to open up the political system to new voices and new forces. Similarly, some kind of decentralization would go a long way toward containing sectarian demonizing by creating new forms of intra-sectarian competition. However, because of the history of the civil war, people in Lebanon think decentralization is tantamount to taqsim [division of regional governance by sect]. LCPS has done a lot of work on this theme and has shown that if you actually take substantial powers from the central administration, decentralization increases accountability at the local level and helps unleash new socioeconomic or regional alliances and identities beyond sectarianism.
At the end of the day, there is a nineteenth sect of polyglot inter-sectarian and trans-sectarian citizens in this country battling to make their voices heard. If moving beyond consociational democracy is a recipe for disaster at the present time, why not engage in some institutional creativity and allow these citizens to express their own “vision of Lebanon”, to borrow from Albert Hourani, but from within state institutions? This stabilizes the political system and makes it a bit more inclusive.