A Federal Lebanon

The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.

By @HorLevnon

“What now?” This has been the question facing Lebanon since its October Revolution. This is partly because the revolution’s vision was not realized, but is on the other hand a reaction to the revolution’s now-faltering momentum, brought to a halt by current events. The latest, worst blow was the tragedy of the Beirut port explosion, which killed over 180 people and traumatized the entire country.

The failure of the Lebanese state is, in the midst of all of this, impossible to ignore. The tragic explosion symbolizes just how destructive political corruption can be. But despite years of band-aid solutions, which have only deepened the hold of corruption, incompetence, and nepotism on the country, many Lebanese and non-Lebanese alike continue to bet on “miracle solutions” that conflate the disease with its symptoms.

The politicians pointing Lebanon’s desperate youth in the direction of these mirages are most charitably described as opportunists.

Miracle Solutions Do Not Exist

Lebanon’s system of governance is based on confessionalism, a policy akin to affirmative action or “positive discrimination.” Although this system is sometimes portrayed as a celebration of diversity, it is in reality a pact between communities. The pact offers representation to each religious sect while also preventing any one of them from exercising full hegemony over the others. The most common argument against the current system is that it replaces competence, integrity, and merit with favoritism and corruption, elevating leaders on the basis of sectarian quotas instead of qualifications. The system encourages political meandering across sectarian lines in lieu of proper policymaking. But what comes after this system?

The Alternative Should Not Be Worse

The extant confessional system is the last card that Lebanese, especially minorities, hold against Hezbollah, a heavily-armed, religious extremist militia. Hezbollah buys into this, enjoying a guaranteed share of the pie while behaving like a state within a state, remaining out of sight. Most importantly, it does so while insulating itself from the possibility of facing legal and political consequences, namely sanctions. While it is a beneficiary of, and active participant in the system, it also aims for the slow decomposition of the nation to eventually impose a foreign, namely Iranian political agenda. To clarify the equation, no state within a state can flourish as long as a strong, competent state entity exists, but at the same time, they can’t exist without the legitimacy and cover that is provided by the state. Entities like Hezbollah flourish on the erosion of the state and its failures, consequently feeding off chaos and corruption. The weaker the state is, the greater the risk of becoming a haven for sociopolitical disarray, transnational terrorism, and guerilla groups.

Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah clarified this to his supporters in a November 2019 speech, stating: “I assure you that if the country fell into chaos and it couldn’t pay [your] salaries, we still can.” We ordinary Lebanese have lost our state, while Hezbollah is now trying to ensure, through complete foreign subsistence, that its mini-state would not face a similar fate.

Hezbollah’s Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah during his interview with Gebran Tueini.

Hezbollah and its allies have floated a so-called solution in which the current system is abolished and replaced with a “unitary secular” system. In such a scenario, it would be none other than Hezbollah that would expand its hegemony over all apparata of the state. In light of this danger, a centralized secular system would in many ways be even worse than the status quo, increasing the risk of further disintegration, mass emigration, and the end of the country’s unique multi-cultural identity.

Aim for Federalism

Abandoning the current confessional system without an alternative, namely one that takes into consideration Lebanon’s diverse nature, would amount to collective suicide. It is here that a federal system has something to offer. Creating a federal system that recognizes the diversity and social differences in the country would pave the way for the development of decentralized districts and provinces. This would make room for truly secular governance, all the while minimizing the central state’s authority in certain sectors. Furthermore, this would prevent dominant confessional groups, regional actors and local proxies from attempting to hijack the country for the sake of their narrow interests.

Only then can true secularism, in all its social and civic forms, be enforced — without being left to the mercy of a heavily-armed majority. This scenario is an oft-repeated one in the Levant and throughout the region, and for its minorities: has known, terrible consequences.

Some Lebanese, with limited understanding of “federalism” and its global applications, feel psychologically inclined to reject it. It should also be noted that the ruling political class has gone to tremendous effort to demonize this system. In 1996, the editor-in-chief of Al-Massira was summoned for investigation because of his article “Let’s Give Federalism a Chance.” Even when Jaafari Mufti Ahmad Qabalan called for replacing the current political system with a federal or largely decentralized system, his insights were branded as “treasonous.”

One of the most common concerns regarding federalism is the degree to which self-governing territories can affect the minorities living within them. Opponents cite valid fears that a federal system could result in the abuse of civil liberties via imposition at best and ethnic cleansing at worst. Lebanon’s system is currently already a de facto federal system, but not a de jure one.

Additionally, it often goes unacknowledged that certain “guarantees” of protection would be possible in a federal system. Such guarantees could ensure the security and propriety of minority groups living in areas dominated by inimical and/or ideological neighbors. Among successful unitary federal systems, the United Arab Emirates and the United States are two examples that particularly stand out. Switzerland and Bosnia-Herzegovina are other successful examples of multi-federal states that have adopted a less centralized approach to governance. The Bosnian example is particularly relevant here, as the Balkans greatly resembles the Levant in its ethnoreligious heterogeneity, linguistic diversity, and territorial disputes. Notably, despite the great deal of independence that the federal authorities enjoy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the country maintains an independent entity, the ombudsman (mediator), to oversee and protect the human rights of all Bosnian citizens in accordance with the country’s constitution.

Countless success stories exist worldwide, but most importantly, the lack of immediate action towards a viable solution does not impede or influence the actions of armed supremacists. Namely — it is still not outlandish to assume that economic and militaristic expansion will continue between state and non-state actors. A statement from Hassan Nasrallah given to Al-Safir in 1987, which has not been rescinded, verifies the Hezbollah view that “Lebanon and this part of the world are for Islam and the Muslims and must be ruled by Islam and the Muslims”. Emerging smear campaigns online and on the ground that actively target and threaten Lebanese discussing these topics, accusing them of “treason” and “collaboration”. This, in addition to applicable historical precedent, only validates the view of impending peril. One recommendation for this is for directly elected heads of autonomous territories to sign international agreements guaranteeing their neutrality if they so choose. This would guarantee self-determination, hence, safety from becoming collateral damage in disputes between transnational state and non-state actors.


A document signed by the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate’s board of directors on July 10, 1920, demanding neutrality and the return of the lands that were seized from Lebanon.

Decentralization and federalism are good alternatives to the current system, but they, too, are hardly miracle solutions. They do not solve all of Lebanon’s current troubles, and they certainly cannot ensure peace, security, or prosperity on their own. Neutrality, as a key element of federalism, although a major obstacle due to all the foreign sides’ interference in Lebanon, could solve another fair share of our problems. It is no secret that all sorts of freedoms — the independence of the judicial system, the rule of law, and our sovereignty — will remain at risk so long as Lebanon is being dragged into regional conflicts. The call for neutrality is an essential component of Lebanon’s identity. Positive neutrality allows Lebanon to express its convictions and values without taking a direct part in any conflict. Decentralization ensures that those who insist on participating in armed, foreign conflicts do not cause collateral damage to uninvolved or disinterested territories.

The guarantees offered by the alternatives — federalism, decentralization, and neutrality — could ease tensions between communities, finally making it possible for corrupt figures to face justice by losing the protection granted to them by their positions at the ‘heads’ of their communities and the constraints of the system. Yet ‘top down’ secularism would not necessarily decrease or eliminate tensions between different groups. On the contrary, this could result in increased strife between different communities, allowing political groups to maintain a confessional framework and enabling larger sects to dictate the country’s politics.

A centralized secular system might have worked had Lebanese society accepted guidelines for a unified mixed community; the reality of the situation, however, is far more complex. Lebanon’s is a heterogeneous society, with opposite identities, affiliations and aspirations. The tyranny of the majority is not a solution, and no more time should be wasted on illusions such as Lebanese unity, as this can only further delay the process of creating a better functioning system.

Follow the Chronological Order of Demands

The Lebanese people want and deserve a non-corrupt, prosperous state, one that respects human rights and freedoms, one with an independent judiciary and without warlords. To get there, however, it is necessary to acknowledge that these dreams will not be realized as long as a foreign-armed militia stands in the way of reform. How can one expect the rule of law to be established when a militia is allowed to be above the law? How can a state be sovereign when it is home to a militia that is armed to the teeth by its foreign masters in the expectation that it will participate in regional adventures?

Lebanon was founded to be a bastion of freedom for regional minorities. Irony has it that Lebanon is now crumbling as a result of a system created to facilitate this freedom. The system has been abused to the point that it can no longer be justified, and now stands in opposition to civility, dignity, structure, law or order. Ironically, the panacea for a nation founded on the presumption of integration and tolerance may just be healthy boundaries.

This article was originally published on Blog @AsAbove_SoBelow. The original can be found Here.