Stuck in the System in Lebanon?
Sectarianism, Class, and Disenchantment
Halba, the capital of Northern Lebanon’s Akkar Governorate, was fairly quiet on 6 May 2018 (election day). The usually congested streets were less busy, with intermittent sounds coming out from the scattered, mostly unfinished concrete houses. While the rest of the country was allegedly caught up in election fever, Halba’s locals appeared nonchalant. As a first-time voter, I was looking forward to an exhilarating voting process, naively borrowing from my mind’s long-stored images of the 1994 elections in South Africa and the 2008 elections in the United States. After all, Lebanon’s parliamentary elections had come five years late, accompanied by momentum from civil society activists, mafia enthusiasts, and buzzing social media platforms. Yet with no line to queue up behind, the whole voting ordeal took me only slightly over five minutes.
Similar to the rest of the country, voter turnout remained at a disappointing 49%. With studies reporting Akkar and the rest of the Northern region as the most impoverished area in the country, evidencing the highest rates of unemployment, bearing the brunt of severe socioeconomic challenges and facing a general state neglect, a low voter turnout may come as a surprise. However, it should not – low-income people opt out of elections because they are angry, indifferent or disenchanted, and feel excluded from the country’s overall political landscape. As for the other half in Akkar, the majority voted for the Future Movement (four seats), the Free Patriotic Movement (two seats), and the Lebanese Forces (one seat). These three political parties all belong to the traditional political caste. For starters, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Lebanese Forces are the two strongest Christian parties in the country, whose leaders have a long history in the Lebanese civil war. On the other hand, the Future Movement’s base is predominantly Sunni Muslims, led by Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri. The power and control of these three parties, in tandem with several other political parties such as the Shia Amal Movement and Hezbollah, were reaffirmed in the 2018 elections. The so-called independent and opposition candidates, running under two different lists, barely garnered any support, with a shopkeeper from Halba noting, “Independent who? If we’re going to bother ourselves and vote here, we might as well get some money for our time.”
In the other poverty-stricken areas of the North (Tripoli-Minniye-Danniye), the majority of seats went to the Future Movement (five) and the Azm Party (four). To put things in perspective, the leaders of these two parties – Saad el Hariri and Najib Mikati – are two of the richest men in the country. Along with four other men all from the Mikati and Hariri families, their estimated wealth totals 14 billion dollars, meaning they own 15% of the country’s private wealth between the six of them. These startling figures are replicated on a national level: according to a 2014 study by Credit Suisse, 48% of Lebanon’s private wealth belongs to 8,900 individuals, or 0.3% of the adult population. It gets scarier: Lebanon’s Gini coefficient, a statistical measure used to gauge income inequality (with 0 representing perfect equality and 100 extreme inequality), is 85.6. This score puts Lebanon as the sixth most unequal country in the world.
Certainly, the entrenched poverty and neglect of the Northern region is largely symptomatic of Lebanon’s political economy, based on a highly unequal core-periphery dichotomy, imbalanced development that prioritizes services over agriculture and industry, corruption, and excessive privatization. The working class suffer from wage freezes, minimal access to the National Social Security Fund, absence of proper pension plans, and insecure and informal labour. Why, then, is focus placed almost entirely on sectarianism and sectarian politics in mainstream literature? Moreover, are the country’s political economy and unsustainable policies questioned in the movements and campaigns which address state corruption? These questions are worth asking in light of the rise of Sabaa, the largest “civil society” and “anti-government” political party in the 2018 election, whose candidate, Paulette Yacoubian, was the only opposition figure to become a member of parliament. Sabaa, only one party within the independent Koullouna Watani coalition, pursued a centrist program that supported privatization of different services with an aim to “give less importance to traditional indexes, which measure only the economic activities of the country”. The Koullouna Watani coalition is composed of twelve smaller groups, many of which have a history of political and social activism in the country. While it is not this article’s aim to evaluate the different opposition parties (and it is worth noting that some members of the opposition have commented extensively on class-related issues), the aforementioned is a segue into a critique of the prioritization of sectarianism and corruption over rigorous class-based analysis and the interaction between the former and the latter.
When the election results came out and the political status quo was reaffirmed, the old cliché of sectarianism was rehashed. If not sectarianism, then it was regional politics, the infiltrating influence of the Syrian regime, and the concomitant rise of Hezbollah. Yet even those complex dynamics are attributed at times to a static, shallow understanding of sectarianism. Political scientist Hannes Baumann asks, “Why does sectarianism assert itself as the dominant political cleavage regardless of these socio-economic struggles?” This question highlights the necessity of re-engaging with the connection between sectarianism and class to understand how sectarianism “reproduces itself within changing power dynamics and structural conditions”.
Sociologists Claude Dubar and Salim Nasr were early voices in the discussion of sect and class in Lebanon, particularly with their book Les Classes Sociales au Liban. Their pre-civil war research depicts the intersection between the privileges and discriminations involved in both sectarianism and class, with a focus on how they play out in the Lebanese state structure. Maronites dominated the upper and middle classes, while Muslims (particularly Shia) constituted the urban and rural working classes. Dubar later noted that analysis framing social realities and structures according to class in Lebanon is reductive because two structures exist side-by-side: one of a politico-sectarian nature, and another based on class. However, over forty-four years later we know these are not parallel structures – “political sectarianism” infiltrates the government’s raison d'être, employment, access to public spaces, and labour, in addition to preventing, enabling, or protecting monopolies and businesses. The ruling elite has formed a consolidated unity, whereby their interests are protected by one another, the government, and the free market simultaneously. In this sense, the institutional sect one belongs to largely determines one’s ability to participate in the labour market or rise up the occupational ladder. Institutional sect is understood as the power vested in sectarian leaders and parties through the country’s political system, to control religious affairs, personal status laws, education, and employment. As such, all classes in Lebanon, whether they identify with their sect as an overarching identity or not, have much to benefit from the logic of sectarianism. The working class, particularly burdened by a collapsing welfare state, may choose to vote for and align with their sect and receive benefits rather than find a way out of the maze. This gambit keeps the working class either disengaged or inclined to work within the parameters of sectarianism.
Accordingly, the historical argument that Lebanon was founded on sectarianism ought to be expanded to incorporate how that meshed with the country’s economy. Unlike Arab republics such as Egypt and Tunisia, Lebanon’s economic structure was based on a laissez-fair economy from the start. While most analyses focus on the late Rafik Hariri’s catch-all neoliberal project as a turning point in Lebanon’s history, it is worth pointing out that the structures set in place from 1943 (and earlier) enabled Hariri’s policies to come to fruition. With its minimal restrictions on cash flow, Lebanon served as the bridge between Arab countries, Europe, and the United States. The sectarian compromise that defined the independence period flourished because of the cosy relationship between an elite group of confessional Zu’ama and wealthy commercial financial bourgeoisie. The “consortium” of 30 families in business and politics revolving around the country’s first President, Bechara el Khoury, arguably controlled Lebanon’s economy. This consortium controlled trade and owned most of the big banks. President Camille Chamoun, who would follow el Khoury, prioritized banks even more, infamously passing the Bank Secrecy Law.
This context, briefly interrupted by President Fuad Chehab and then the civil war, was rehashed by Rafik Hariri’s reconstruction project “Horizon 2020”, which aimed to convert Beirut into a commercial centre. The goal was to expand construction, real estate, and the service industry through policies of privatization and the withdrawal of the state from its public duties. This era re-established the bridge between economy and politics, this time with the Syrian regime as the broker. Security was “guarded” by Ghazi Kanaan, the High Commissioner of Syria, enabling the Syrian regime’s iron grip on Lebanon. Corruption increased under the Hariri-Kanaan duo, with Transparency International reporting a 19-place decrease in transparency from 2003 to 2004 alone. Clientelism is a necessity in such a context, seeping into all the nooks and crevices of the state and its political parties, evidenced today particularly in Hezbollah, Amal, and the Future Movement, although the latter’s networks are more shallow.
In short: Lebanon’s political structure today is based largely on a ruling elite with strong economic power and sectarian legitimacy, redistributed through client-patron channels. While there have been changes in alliances, inclusion of militias in the post-war parliament and Gulf returnees with bulging pockets, the guiding blueprint remains unchanged. The biggest beneficiaries are the country’s troika: the president, prime minister, and the speaker of parliament. This context proves daunting for working-class mobilization and organized labour. Trade unions, briefly thought to be non-sectarian and independent grassroots opposition to the status quo, were co-opted in the 1990s. Prior to the civil war, the General Confederation of Lebanese Workers (CGTL) challenged the ruling elite by demanding improved welfare, de-sectarianizing the public sector, and better labour rights. After the civil war, there were also trade union-led attempts to reassert these demands publicly. However, Hariri – who perceived trade unionists as a significant threat – banned their street protests and later went on to deploy the Lebanese army against them in 1996. This continues: during the CGTL leadership elections, active meddling by the government ensured that Elyas Abu Rizq, a government opponent, would not be re-elected. When in fact Abu Rizq won the elections, the Ministry of Labour arrested him and installed someone else in his place. This brief snapshot depicts two facts: there is a history of working-class movements in Lebanon (although feeble today) but, as has been the case with all forms of opposition in Lebanon, the ruling elite will work hand-in-hand to prevent mass mobilization.
Yet simply accusing the Lebanese working class of “false consciousness” would be unfair. Indeed, when Suad Joseph wrote about the co-optation of heterogeneous networks of working-class and inter-sect solidarity in a neighbourhood in the Bourj Hammoud district, Camp Trad, in the 1970s, she argued that “sectarian cleavages upheld class structure”. Joseph examined how Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians in Camp Trad collaborated with one another to obtain basic services and establish horizontal networks. However, the Christian leaders of the state felt threatened by this dynamic and went on to reorganize the neighbourhood on a sectarian basis.
Following the 2018 elections, it is clear that Hezbollah is the elephant in the room, with its current parliamentary strength further legitimizing its arms and relationship with the Assad regime. We also know that the opposition has a lot of work to do. But internal sociological dynamics – the disenchantment of the Lebanese, the power of clientelism, and the limitations to working-class mobilization – should also be at the forefront of our analysis. This requires unpacking how classism and sectarianism are intertwined and reproduced, with the knowledge that the opposition should align towards a clearer economic and political strategy. It is not enough to form a coalition that is anti-sectarian and anti-corruption without addressing the roots of the problem. Instead, the aim must be to better understand working-class dynamics and struggles in the country – an oft-ignored aspect.
In Mary Jirmanus Saba’s documentary, “A Feeling Greater Than Love”, an old man in the South of Lebanon drives a car with blaring speakers, calling on people to protest working conditions in a tobacco company besieged by the army. His message reflects events from 1973, when industrial strikes sought to win improved conditions for Lebanese. The documentary captured a snapshot of the Lebanese labour movement, a movement that is no longer a part of our collective memory. Today, these reminders are more important than ever. According to the 2008 UN Development Report, the agricultural sector relies almost entirely on international funding – one in four agricultural workers is poor, and yet a mere 1% of the state’s budget is devoted to agriculture. Workers’ rights in the ever-decreasing industrial sector are abysmal; the growing immigrant labour force, a separate and very complex story, faces institutionalized slavery and racism, unable to unionize and in constant fear of deportation. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s debt is rising – from 14 billion in 1998, to 28.31 in 2001, and then to 33.78 billion by 2003. The coastal line is disappearing and trash is accumulating. With all of this in mind, 50% of the country does not vote – and not simply because of false consciousness, tribalism, or an inability to learn from the past.