Worried Lebanese

thought crumbs on lebanese and middle eastern politics

Lebanese Confessional-Republicanism 101

Posted by worriedlebanese on 27/07/2009

Slate explainerThe Lebanese political system is quite muddling. Most people who discuss it either ignore some of its basic rules and principles, or oversimplify and distort them beyond recognition. Political discussion is marred by ideology. So it’s always useful to state our political system’s basic rules and principles. Once this is done, it becomes quite clear how hybrid it is with its mix of “communal” principles and “republican” principles. Most analysts only see the first set of principles and ignore the second set. We need to look into Lebanon’s “confessional” rules and principles so as to untangle these two set of principles and see how they intertwine.

A glimpse at our constitution rules and principles.

  • The principle of “confessional representation” تمثيل طائفي (Article 95) is a misnomer, the principle is actually a set of rules for multiconfessional participation قوقعد للاشتراك المتعدد طائفيآ . It introduces quotas to the public sphere. By law, it has three implications: in Parliament, in government and in the public administration. Most analysts see it as a collective right, but in fact it’s not. The rights are not given to communities, but to individuals who belong to certain communities.
    • The principle of multiconfessional participation in government. This rule is formulated as the principle of  fair” or “equitable”  representation of communities in government تمثل الطوائف بصورة عادلة في تشكيل الوزارة (article 95). The principle of “fairness” is the oldest rule formulated in Lebanon relative to confessionalism. It is traditionally understood as a proportional distribution of seats between Lebanon’s 7 largest communities (Maronite, Sunni, Shiite, Greek-Orthodox, Armenian, Druze, Greek-Catholic) to their demographic weight.
    • The principle of multiconfessional participation in parliament, known as the rules of communal distribution of parliamentary seats قواعد توزيع [الطائفي ل] المقاعد النيابية (article 24). The legislative branch is Lebanon’s oldest area in which the principle of multiconfessional participation was expressed. It was devised in the 19th century and was reflected in the composition of the Representative Council of Mount Lebanon. At first, the distributive rule was based on “fair representation” understood as being based on the proportional demographic weight of each community (based on the country’s only census). Taef introduced the principle of parity, regardless of demographic consideration, between Christian and Muslims and proportionality within these two religious groups.
    • The rules for multiconfessional participation in public administrations. It’s in public administrations that the parity rule was introduced to the Lebanese system (it has since been abolished). And this was done under the Presidency of Fuad Chehab. Its avowed aim was social justice and political equality between Muslim and Christians. The rule was seen as a temporary instrument for affirmative action.
  • The principle of national representation “عضو البرلمان يمثل الأمة جمعاء” (article 27). This principle is a firmly established one. The national pact that reserved the presidency of the Republic to a Christian Maronite and the prime ministership to a Muslim Sunni clearly stated that those who fill these seats represent the nation, not their communities. So they needn’t be the most popular politicians within their community. If one looks at the Presidents of the Republic Lebanon had, most were actually less popular within their community than their unsuccessful rivals.

The same thing could be said about Parliament. Greek-Catholics do not choose their MPs, neither do Shiites in separate bodies of voters. All voters, regardless of their communal belonging, vote to fill the same seats that are not necessarily attributed to candidates that belong to their community: Maronites and Greek-Catholics in Tyre, for instance, can only vote for a Shiite candidate. Maronites, Sunnis and Shiites in Koura can only choose between Greek-Orthodox candidates… In the years preceding the war, there was the famous case of Najah Wakim. He was a young pro-Nasser, secular arab nationalist politician who was born into the Greek-Orthodox community. He ran in a mixed constituency and won his seat in parliament thanks to sunni votes, while an overwhelming majority of his coreligionists had voted for another candidate. There was great discontent within the Greek-Orthodox community, but nothing could be done to invalidate his election: an MP doesn’t represent his religious community but the Lebanese nation.

  • The legitimacy rule: all authority that contradicts the ‘pact of communal coexistence’ is considered illegitimate لا شرعية لأي سلطة تناقض ميثاق العيش المشترك· (preamble). This rule has been interpreted in the last decade as meaning that the “true” political representatives of the different Lebanese communities should be represented in government.

Beyond political slogans. How do these rules translate in the formation of governments?

According to our constitutional rules, there is no such thing as representatives of communities ممثلين ظوائف.
However, this idea gained ground after Taef when Nabih Berri, Walid Joumblatt and Rafik Hariri fought to secure their dominant position within their communities. While most Christian leaders were marginalised because of their opposition to the Syrian Mandate, they also helped , and when the Christian opposition to Syria (Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanese Forces, Kataeb, National Liberal Party & National Bloc) claimed to be the true “representative of Christians”.
This being said, shares are allocated to members of communities and not to communities (الحصص معطاة لابناء طائفة، وليس للطائفة). So the FPM could in principle have a Shiite minister (and he doesn’t have to be a parliamentarian, it could be for instance Ramzi Kanj), just like the Kataeb could have a Druze minister (highly improbable), or Jumblatt can have one or two Christian ministers (a well established practice since 1992, I believe)… This doesn’t diminish the communal shares, and some political parties are willing to go into such arrangements.

In the second Siniora Government, March VIII accepted to relinquish its share of Christian ministers so as to give it to Aoun’s FPM (Berri stopped having his Christian minister, & Suleiman Frangieh wasn’t represented). Likewise, Joumblat relinquished his Christian Minister (for the first time since 1992 I believe) for an “independent” close to Future Movement… Lastly, Amal and Hezbollah accepted to concede a Shiite seat to an “independent” backed by the Future Movement (Ibrahim Chamseddine) so as to give the FPM’s bloc an extra seat within the numerical arrangement.


11 Responses to “Lebanese Confessional-Republicanism 101”

  1. Patrick said

    Thanks for clarifying the concepts, but I have the feeling that you are using the clarification to justify or legitimize the system. Therefore, this is a post which disturbs me, probably because I never accepted (or fully understood) what you meant when you said that you were a “progressive confessionalist”. (you should elaborate and clarify the concept in your “about me” page).

    Even if we accept these facts as the proper interpretation of the system the way it was conceived by the writers of the Constitution and the way the system was intended to work, it does not make it any more “progressive” or acceptable by modern democratic standards.

    You might consider me to be a “secular ideololgue”, (even though secularism is ideologically-neutral), but in my view, “Confessional Republicanism” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

    In a genuine Republic, there should never be a mandatory intermediary level between the citizen and the Republic, while in Lebanon’s sectarian system, in practice if not in intent, no citizen can obtain his or her rights as a citizen but only as a member of a community.

    You argue that the right is given to individuals not to communities, but then you quote تمثل” الطوائف بصورة عادلة في تشكيل الوزارة”

    In a modern democracy, there is no such thing as a “community’s rights.” There was a famous quote when France emancipated the Jews after the Revolution. It said that the people should have: “tous les droits en tant que citoyens, aucun droit en tant que communauté.” In Lebanon, it is exactly the opposite, and this is unacceptable to me and to many other reform-minded Lebanese.

    I think Lebanon will become a Republic worthy of the name if and only if article 95 is abolished. Article 95 can in any case be considered illegitimate because it clearly contradicts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (no discrimination and access to public office exclusively on the basis of merit)

    The Lebanese sectarian system is an obstable to democracy at the national level and also a recipe for autocratic dominance within each community as minority voices are marginalized in the name of the community’s “rights” ot standing.

    PS. I know that your views are shared by many right wing lebanese constitutionnalists like Antoine Messarra or Joseph Maila, but many other experts (Georges Corm, Hassan Rifai, Ghassan Salame…) have given diverging interpetations. The late Edmond Rabbath used to say that the Lebanese system would work and be democratic only in an ideal world, with first rate non-sectarian statesmen, which we never had. Chiha’s papers published posthumously by his foundation indicate that in his mind when he wrote the 1926 Constitution, rights were given to communities, but he also said it was supposed to be a temporary measure.

    • Thanks for your comment Patrick.
      I think you are absolutely right. This entry needs some clarification. So here’s what I’m going to do.
      Step 1: I’m going to expand a bit on the following paragraph: A glimpse at our constitution rules and principles

      – The principle of “confessional representation” تمثيل طائفي (Article 95) which is a misnomer, the principle is actually the principle of multiconfessional participation الاشتراك المتعدد طائفيآ (and it is actually a right given to individuals, not to communities).
      – The principle of national representation “عضو البرلمان يمثل الأمة جمعاء” (article 27)
      – The principle of just representation of communities in government تمثل الطوائف بصورة عادلة في تشكيل الوزارة (article 95)
      – The legitimacy rule: all authority that contradicts the ‘pact of communal coexistence’ is considered illegitimate لا شرعية لأي سلطة تناقض ميثاق العيش المشترك· (preamble).
      – The modality of [confessional] distribution of parliamentary seats قواعد توزيع [الطائفي ل] المقاعد النيابية (article 24)

      Step 2: I’m going to add an introductory paragraph where I will expand on the idea of “hybrid system” Confessional-Republicanism.

      Step 3: I’m going to answer other points you made in your comment.

      Step 4: I’ll soon write a comment on the Paradoxes of Anti-Confessionalism.

  2. No matter how it is sliced or diced a system of preferences is undemocratic. Nothing can be gained from preventing individuals from occupying a particular position on the basis that the person in question does not subscribe to a predetermined religious creed that is required for that post. All preferences whether racial, religious, sexual orientation or any other metric are essentially discriminatory. In the language of economics one can say that democracy and secularism are perfect complimentary ideas, you cannot have one without the other. Leila Solh for president? 🙂 or how about a cabinet whose members are not 50% Christians.
    (BTW, we should also note the egregious aspect of the current electoral system in Lebanon is the inequitable distribution of the parliamentary seats. Voters registered in Beirut1 and other Christian electoral districts have almost twice the representation of those that happen to be registered in the south or even Akkar.)

  3. PN said


    I agree with Patrick that the meaning of “progressive confessionalist” is at the least ambiguous if not self-contradictory. Would be nice to “elaborate” on it for those of us who are amateurs in politics.

    “(BTW, we should also note the egregious aspect of the current electoral system in Lebanon is the inequitable distribution of the parliamentary seats. Voters registered in Beirut1 and other Christian electoral districts have almost twice the representation of those that happen to be registered in the south or even Akkar.)”


    The Electoral College voting system in the US (presumably one of the leading democracies in the world) allocates electors; i.e. representatives elected by popular vote who then elect the President and Vice President,in a dis-proportionate fashion among the various states that make the union. This can significantly influence the overall election outcome particularly in the swing states. For instance, NY (a blue state) gets 31 electors and TX (a red state) gets 34, so either state gets more than ID, MT, WY, ND, SD, UT, KS, and MO combined (that is a total of 8 red states). An American friend of mine once told me that this is not necessarily undemocratic since the socio-economic contribution of either NY or TX surpasses the collective contribution of all the other states. Hence, it would not be unfair to give those states more representation and a more potent edge on deciding who will be the next president of the US. Kind of, it made sense when it is put in this way, although if one would think in terms of the true meaning of democracy, this justification would be meaningless.

    What do you guys think (assuming that WL is a guy and not a lady)?

    Btw, I would love to see Ms. Leila Solh as president. Come to think of it, the best way to guarantee “Labnanet el hal” in our beloved Lebanon is to have 3 qualified women fill in the top three posts; i.e. president, PM, and parliament speaker. This would ensure that all Arab rulers (and likely international ones) would be making frequent visits to Baabda rather than our leaders going on pilgrimage trips between Riyad, Damascus, and Cairo.


  4. PN said

    oh! it just hit me that the voting system in the US permits its citizens to cast their votes either in their original home state or in a state of their current residence as long as they’ve lived there for a certain period of time (I think 1yr) and have paid the respective state taxes. As such, someone from ND could vote in NY and enjoy its stronger representation status if that person has been contributing socio-economically to NY.

    Can you imagine if this scenario were to exist in Lebanon? Beirut would then get over 1/2 the seats in parliament! Obviously, this won’t be possible as long as we’re stuck in this confessional system.


    • PN,
      The fact that the electoral system in the US has some undemocratic elements in it does not mean that such practices are to be accepted and copied. Remember that two wrongs do not make a right.
      What makes the electoral college undemocratic is not the distribution of the electoral votes but it is the winner takes all. The electoral college is the sum of the seats in the Congress; the representatives are allocated according to the census but the Senators are not. As for where to cast a ballot, eligible voters in the US vote in the area in which they reside and the residential requirement is 3 months.

  5. PN said

    Thanks Ghassan for sharing your opinion.

    Regarding the last statement, I believe that eligible voters can choose to cast their votes in their original home state as well. I know several people who did that in this past election since their votes in their home states such as Ohio and Florida mattered more than in NY or VA. Also, am not sure about the 3 months since they did mention to me about the filing of state taxes for at least 1 yr. You maybe right though; this is really not my area of expertise.

    Nice discussion. Let’s see what Patrick and WL have to say.


  6. Patrick said

    Thank youn Ghassan and PN for the comments.

    I also think that the US system should be reviewed and many experts argue that the whole “electoral college” system should be reformed or abolished alltogether.

    The 2000 election, in which Al Gore obtained 500.000 votes more than G W. Bush at the national level and yet lost the election is a clear sign that reform is badly needed.

    But they are sticking with it for historical reasons, and also semi-“religious” reasons, because the founding fathers were deified, even though we could write volumes about their flaws. (I am not denying that they were great men, but they had their blind spots, and every thing they wrote or established should not be considered eternally true.)

    Of course, the flaws of the US system are of a different nature and if the US were to adopt the sick Lebanese mentalities, Congress would have quotas for backs, hispanics, jews… and it would create an unbelievable mess.

    I am very intrigued by the case of WL. I do not know who she is (I think WL is a woman, I don’t remember how I know that, but I think she might have referred to herself as a woman in a previous post). I’d love her to make her coming out like Elias Mehanna recently did (he was previously known as blogger Qifa Nabki), and I’d love her to write opinion pieces in the Lebanese press.

    The reason why her “case” interests me a lot is because she defends the sectarian system, but her writings clearly show that she is completely different from the typical Lebanese sectarian fellows.

    Most of the other people who defend sectarianism turn out to be blatantly racist when the veneer is gone. But in her case, it is absolutely not the case. She does not have the “sectarian mind” at all, the sectarian us vs them mentality that is so prevalent in Lebanon.

    I believe that WL is genuine progressive. I just don’t understand how she reconciles her progressive beliefs with her support of the Lebanese sectarian system. I might have understood her position in the 1940s and 1950s, when there was a semi-genuine “consociative democracy” in Lebanon. But now that the sytem has shown its hideous face so many times, I cannot understand those who still defend it.

    • Sorry for my vanishing act. I got caught up in some family drama.
      Let’s get straight to business. I will not join you in this interesting discussion you’re having on American electoral reform. My thoughts are too caught up with the Lebanese situation.
      The discussion we’re having here revolves around highly ideological matters. We obviously do not share the same ideological preferences, so I think engaging in a debate about them would be a waste of time and energy. On the other hand, if we do set aside the ideological elements, not much is left. So we’re facing a conundrum.
      I honestly don’t know where to start.

      • The ultimate question , to my mind at least, is whether there should be room for personal religious beliefs in the public square. MY clear and unequivocal answer is a resounding NO.

      • Patrick said

        Sorry to hear about your family problems. Every Lebanese family has its share of dramas, often hidden.

        I do not think that there is an “ideological” frontier between us. If there were, we would not be reading your blog and appeciating it.

        If you were a typical Lebanese sectarian, you would be rooting for the likes of Samy Gemayel. You do not, and you seem to believe in equality and you have a secular non discriminatory mentality.

        I’ve been reading your blog for months and I think we share the same values and our “ideologies” are not radically opposed.

        The main problem is the of lack of understanding on our part on what you mean by “progressive confessionalist”, a notion which you evoke in your “about me” page but do not explain or give substance to.

        Can you explain why you do not think that it is a contradiction in terms ?

        How can one be a progressive and yet legitimize a system which allows Samy Gemayel & Co to prosper and allows all the archaic sectarian movements to remain omnipotent and marginalize all true democrats and progressives ?


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