Authors: Elie Elias and Lorenzo Somigli*
Two countries, a long friendship, a common sea, similar problems: the same exit strategy? Lebanon and Italy have many common traits and some clear differences. Both are centralised countries with marked differences between territories; both are experiencing a long-term political-institutional deadlock and wonder how to get out. According to Elie Elias and Lorenzo Somigli, one way out could be the significant devolution of power to local territories and communities. Implementing a local and bottom-up model could reinvigorate the relationship between the individual/citizen and institutions and improve the transparency and effectiveness of the decision-making process.
Pluralism in Lebanon: Remarks on the centrality of the Lebanese State
Lebanon has existed to safeguard the multiple specificities of the cultural communities present in its territories in historical terms. Initially, Lebanon was born out of a historical claim to preserve the political and religious freedom of the Christian communities, especially the Maronites, as an expression of a long struggle of the Oriental minorities to claim their rights to be represented in the system. That explains why the religious institutions preserved their powers in dealing with the religious issues of their resected community. Since the inception of the Lebanese entity in 1920, the country has been ruled by a centralized political and administrative regime. The centralized administrative regime is defined as a regime where the decision-making power is centralized in the hands of the officials who are at the top of the pyramid; a regime where the power is exercised and concentrated in the central government in the capital city and its respective representations in the regions (de-concentration), with no participation from the part of elected local bodies. Centralization is thus political, restricting political power to one sole State institution, and economic, acting under the supervision of the State by looking in the economic enterprise in all its aspects and orienting it as planned.
The main component of the central authority is the idea of socio-national fusion that has proven to be successful in countries with a religious and cultural majority. As for the Lebanese case, its society is composite and stands out as plural and respectful of the rights of the communities, as confirmed in the National Pact. The paradox here was that a centralised homogeneous regime was applied to a heterogeneous society.
In observing the evolution of the Lebanese entity, since its inception and until nowadays, we can make the following observations:
- The (political and constitutional) historical context has evolved in a vicious circle, as of the constituent divergences: repetitive political conflict – dead-end reached – breakup between communities (politically or violently) – repeated temporary settlements (which do not deal with the roots of the problem but deal just with the superficial aspect of the crises).
- Growing erosion of the constitutional institution’s functions and efficiency leading to paralysis and a detrimental division of the remnants of the power to all protagonists (sectarian and family feudalism, internal awareness of communities that is becoming more and more isolationist and limited to defending the rights of one’s community instead of looking for common denominators to all communities…).
- A crisis of political behavior between communities in many aspects. In terms of power: the balance of power always underlies the political decision, which empties partnership and consensus from their aims and leads to unstable constitutional/political equations that indicate the prevalence of the logic of dominance in the political mindset of the communities (which is contrary to the logic of mutual acknowledgment and coexistence…). A political practice that is consensual in appearance but uses the logic of consensus depending on the circumstances, in favor of self-interest, and not as a principle that sets for and follows up stability for a compound society.
- According to statistics and data on the demographic and economic situation of the components of the Lebanese society, the use of this centralised administrative regime has constituted a threat to the free, pluralistic existence in general and the historic Christian communities in particular.
Between theory and facts
The Lebanese communities show social, political, and cultural paradoxes. These are mainly reflected constitutionally on duplication between the constitutional text (and its definition of the State and the regime) and the customs that take the State and the regime into directions against the constitutional content.
On one hand, the Constitution asserts the political centralisation and the unity of institutions and the people. While the customs confirm a hybrid formulation of the State: it is neither a centralised state nor a federal one. We are in a kind of disguised, distorted, and incomplete federalism:
A plural societal basis that gives the communities a quasi-autonomy in their affairs… (this is what some call ‘personal federalism’).
On the one hand, single united institutions and central power (as a formal expression of centralisation), against two customary factors that seriously touch the logic of federalism: duality in the function of the constitutional institutions as an expression of the State’s structure on the other hand, and as frameworks of encounter of communities at the level of the central power on the other); plural sectarian composition of the institutions as an expression of the partnership with the central power.
The continuity and stability of a complex society require a minimum of two things: socially, guarantees for existence (identity, economic, living, political…) for communities within the frame of their specificities and autonomy; politically, a form of State and regime that relies on the rule of equal representation and equal influence in decision making, which obviously requires the exclusion of the balance of power.
Decentralisation, an essential reform since 1989
Decentralisation constituted a constant claim during the 1960s. Most politicians and public figures concerned with administrative reforms in Lebanon repeatedly expressed their wish to reform the political and administrative State regime by adopting administrative decentralisation and granting local governments more powers and responsibilities in the management of their affairs and in delivering public services that meet the needs and priorities of the people of their areas.
There is not one model of decentralisation; there are multiple models, each fitting the specificities, requirements and needs of the society where it is applied. Consequently, there is no standard pattern for decentralisation that is always applicable and in all places.
The principle of expanded decentralisation represents a pact-based and constitutional solution that was used in the “Taëf accords” , which see that applying expanded decentralisation is one of the major reforms that need to be enforced, and this is the motive for the whole Lebanese community to propose this project.
Today, more than two decades after the adoption of the “National entente paper” known as the Taëf accords, the administrative decentralisation project is still of no avail in spite of promises made by the successive governments in this regard and all relevant proposals and draft laws.
We believe that Lebanon is a compound conflictual society that lacks the basic conditions for its stability and internal peace, which constitute the basis for a stable constitutional structure. What prevails is a crisis of political and ideological thought that does not meet the requirements of the diverse society as to the differentiation inequality and equity (socially and politically). An inadequate understanding of the logic and notion of unity prevails achieving political cohesion and translating it constitutionally within the framework of centralisation, and one of its current expressions is the demand for cancellation of political sectarianism; building unity on an ideological basis (of inclusive character), at a time when the diverse society requires a federal unity that is based on common interests.
In addition to the factors mentioned above, there is concern about the emergence of fundamentalist religious ideologies (Hezbollah as an example) that are totalitarian and reject pluralism, whose logic rejects the principles of differentiation and equality, and which seek to favor the interest of a regional religious enterprise at the expense of the Lebanese national interest, since the mid-1980s.
Therefore, we believe that it is not possible to settle the conflictual State of the Lebanese society in the foreseeable future. This means practically that it is impossible to reach a stable form of the State and the regime, which will then continue to oscillate with the waves of the prevailing political thought and the unstable political practice.
Constitutional coupling in the political system between the logic and spirit of the classical parliamentary regime on one hand, and the logic and spirit of consensus on the other hand, which gradually produces an acknowledgment of a consensus that empties the constitutional text from its efficiency.
Furthermore, efforts should be made to limit the effects and impact of conflictual State and focus on mitigating the tensions by looking for soothing solutions that ease the relationships between communities. These might constitute a gradual preamble for stability based on an adequate constitutional format.
The current Lebanese situation does not require an exacerbation of the tension among its components and a revival of additional factors of fear and caution, but rather a search for exits that mitigate tensions and reassure all communities about their existence and their cultural, social, and political specificities. Therefore, we can say that betting on a punctual revival of the centralised regime will only lead to more tensions and a stronger feeling of frustration and concern about the future.
 Article 9 of the Lebanese Constitution: There shall be absolute freedom of conscience. The State in rendering homage to the God Almighty shall respect all religions and creeds and shall guarantees, under its protection the free exercise of all religious rites provided that public order is not disturbed. It shall also guarantee that the personal status and religious interests of the population, to whatever religious sect they belong, shall be respected.
 “Taëf Agreement”, Section III-Other reforms, A-decentralization
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*This paper was divided into two parts. The first one presents a general overview of the research and the analysis of the Italian cases. See: Elia Elias and Lorenzo Somigli (2021) Lebanon-Italy: same problems and a common way out? A comparative proposal between two centralised countries that can benefit from a localistic reform (Part 1), Geopolitical Report, Vol. 14(5), SpecialEurasia.