Sectarian Divide Hampers Lebanese Election Process President Emile Lahoud's term is due to expire in November and, so far, the Lebanese parliament, which will elect his successor, has been paralyzed by issues stemming from long-standing rules.
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Sectarian Divide Hampers Lebanese Election Process

Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, right, stands with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas ahead of a meeting in Riyadh in March. Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Awad Awad/AFP/Getty Images

As they have so often in the past, Lebanon's politicians are once again deadlocked over picking a new president.

The term of President Emile Lahoud is due to expire in November and, so far, the Lebanese parliament, which must elect his successor, has been paralyzed to the point that it can't even gather a quorum to debate the issue.

There are fears that the parliament's failure could lead to another round of sectarian violence that has plagued the Mediterranean nation for half a century. Some people who remember that strife are leaving the country.

What makes today's problem so intractable is that it stems from a sectarian divide that has been built into Lebanon's government since the country achieved independence in 1943. The next president, for instance, must be a Maronite Christian. That's because the government is organized on a so-called "confessional" basis, where every job, from the political top to the bureaucratic bottom, is allocated according to religion. It is a system that's been the bane of Lebanese politics, and it could be a cautionary example for those who'd like to see Iraq divided along similar lines.

Just as the presidency is reserved for a Christian, Lebanon's prime minister must be a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of parliament must be a Shiite. Seats in parliament are evenly divided between Christians and Muslims, and each religion must further sub-divide its seats among sects. The Maronites must share seats with Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations in Lebanon. Muslims seats are divided not only between Sunnis and Shiites, but among Druze and Alawite sects as well.

The system came about through an unwritten agreement reached in 1943, as Lebanon was moving toward independence from France.

"The French influenced a lot of this," says Mohamad Bazzi, a visiting fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Bazzi says France felt an obligation to the French-speaking Maronites, and to Lebanese Christians in general, who were surrounded in an overwhelmingly Muslim region. So they used their influence to shape a system that would keep Christians at the top of the power structure.

The numerical breakdown was based on census figures that were already 11 years old, compiled by the French colonial government in 1932. Those figures — which have been in dispute ever since — showed Christians in the majority among Lebanese by a ratio of 6-to-5 over Muslims. The 1943 agreement, therefore, specified that for every 5 parliamentary seats held by Muslims, 6 must be held by Christians.

The confessional system stayed in place through the Lebanese Civil War, which raged from 1975 to 1989.

It was updated in the agreement that ended that war, negotiated in the Saudi Arabian city of Ta'if. The Ta'if agreement eliminated the Christians' numerical advantage in parliament by dividing the seats evenly between Christians and Muslims in a 5-to-5 ratio, but it codified sectarian divisions that had never previously been written down. And, says Bazzi, it made the system self-perpetuating, because the leaders of each community had the power to hand out patronage jobs in the government.

Hisham Melhem, a Lebanese-born journalist who is the Washington bureau chief for al-Arabiya television, has called the sectarian system "a cancer on the Lebanese body politic," but he says the current problem stems mostly from the fact that the system hasn't changed to reflect the country's changing demographics.

Melhem says that if a census were held today, it would probably show that the biggest portion of Lebanon's population is now Shiite Muslim, a group that has been clamoring for more representation. The Shiite speaker of parliament wants more say in the choice of a new Christian president, and he can apply leverage by simply not allowing parliament to meet and discuss the issue.

One dangerous flaw of the sectarian system, Melham says, is that it makes people think of themselves as members of a community, rather than as citizens of a nation.

"In the end, especially in times of crisis, the system was susceptible to pressures from outside," he says. He says that when the members of any one community felt it was in their interest to ally themselves with another country such as Syria or Iran, France or the United States, they did so, weakening Lebanon's national sovereignty.

Both Melham and Bazzi say that change in Lebanon will have to come from the grass roots up, possibly in the form of a new, non-sectarian movement. Melham notes that the Ta'if agreement does include a formula for reducing sectarian influence by eventually creating a two-chamber legislature. A body akin to the U.S. Senate might represent sectarian interests, while the other, more like the House of Representatives, would represent people according to population. But that provision of the agreement has never been implemented.

Much as he opposes the sectarian system, Melham says it did have a silver lining. He says Beirut earned its reputation as the cosmopolitan cultural capital of the Middle East because the sectarian balance kept the central government relatively weak, and unable to impose authoritarian control over business, free speech or art.