Territorial Aspects of a Federalization of Lebanon

What are the possibilities of devolving powers to the country's governorates and districts? Andrej Kolárik outlines the contours of possible cantons in a Federal Lebanon.

By Andrej Kolárik

The question of the federalization of Lebanon has been discussed in several articles on SyriacPress. Here, I would like to tackle some of the issues connected to the territorial aspect of federalism and whether it is a solution to Lebanon´s problems. I examine the possibility of devolving powers to governorates and districts, before taking a look at outlining the contours of possible cantons in Lebanon.

Firstly, let´s ask what the issue is that federalization of Lebanon is aiming to solve. The question is not difficult to answer. The problem is government inefficiency, which manifested itself in inaction resulting in the explosion of the Beirut Harbor. Apart from the Lebanese parliament, the only other elected level of government are the municipalities, which are far too small a unit to implement larger-scale projects. This means, that the polarized political scene between a March 8th and a March 14th bloc holds the entire hostage. Furthermore, sectarian quotas for political representation lead to strengthening of local zuama, while at the same time limit the possibilities of running for office for some citizens due to their sect and home district. For example, according to 2011 data, none of the 10,903 Maronites (who make up 19% of the population) living in the district of Koura could run for office, neither could any of the  8,977 registered Greek Orthodox  voters in neighboring Batroun.

Is however federalism the best remedy for such a problem? The maps displaying a proposed federalization between a Christian, Druze, Shia and Sunni unit show territorial discontinuity, with the Christian canton having a core in northern Mount Lebanon, while the Druze and Shia cantons would consist of two large areas. The map also shows the Sunni area greatly fragmented, with a core around Tripoli, and numerous disconnected exclaves in Beirut, Saida, Chouf and Beqaa.


While power-sharing on an all-country level between different demographic groups is necessary, the checks-and-balances make it totally inefficient. Therefore, there needs to be an intermediary level of accountable (elected) governance between the country-wide and the municipal governance. Indeed, Lebanon is rather unique in lacking this intermediary or regional level of governance. Most European countries have given the regions elected assemblies and devolved competences, while remaining a unitary state: examples include Croatia, Czech Republic, Poland, or Slovakia. Should devolution take place in Lebanon respecting the established administrative frontiers, and what would it result in?

Out of the current nine governorates of Lebanon, three would be with a clear Shia majority (Baalbek-Hermel, Nabatieh and South), two with a Sunni majority (Akkar and Bekaa), while Keserwan-Jbeil would be dominated by Maronites. Three other governorates – Mount Lebanon (split between Maronites and Druze), Beirut and North (split roughly half to half between Sunnis and Maronites with Greek Orthodox acting as kingmakers) – would lack an outright majority. Furthermore, the choice to devolve authority down to the governorates may marginalize the voice of the inhabitants of Maronite Jezzine in the Shia dominated South district or other such cases. In the North, the demographic structure of the governorate would likely lead to a political stalemate, resulting in government inefficiency, the very reason the reform should be implemented in the first place.

What about the district level, then? The districts of Lebanon have been in place for a significant period, meaning that the inhabitants of Lebanon have gotten used to this structure. The districts also mirror the geomorphological features of the Lebanese terrain. Decentralizing politics could bring about a shift of focus towards getting things done rather than identity politics. Perhaps the district of Metn would elect an Armenian official, who would repair the roads, rather than the Maronite political class.

Out of these 25 districts of Lebanon, 10 have more than 75% of the voters of one sect, 9 between 50 and 75% of the voters of one sect and 6 only pluralities – these being Metn, Baabda, Chouf, Zahlé, Rachaya, Marjayoun, as well as Beirut.

Proposed Cantons of a Federal Lebanon, A. Kolarik. Original map: Wikimedia Commons


While the case for decentralization and allowing for more competences for the districts would be better than the current situation, it still has many flaws. Not all districts of Lebanon are homogenous, and districts such as Chouf, roughly evenly split between Maronites, Druze and Sunnis may perhaps also be paralyzed by sectarian tensions, as local politicians would claim to be defenders of their community. Similarly, it may be redundant to have three Shia districts with parallel institutions right next to each other, as in the case of Tyre, Bint Jbeil and Nabatieh. Similarly, the Maronite-dominated districts of Zghorta, Bcharre and Batroun could very well be merged.

On how a federation in a religiously and linguistically diverse country in a mountainous terrain could be shaped, we can follow the example of Switzerland. The country is home to four official languages (German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romance) and two denominations (Roman Catholicism and Reformed Christianity of the Zwingli-Calvinist tradition). Historically, the religious factor was more important, later the linguistic factor rose to prominence. Switzerland consists of 23 cantons, 3 of which are divided into half-cantons. Their borders reflect not only the geomorphology (such as Valais on the upper Rhone) but also religious borders (Fribourg being a Catholic canton surrounded by a German-speaking Protestant Berne to the east and French-speaking Protestant Vaud to the west. Some cantons, such as St. Gallen or Grisons are mixed. The cantons greatly vary in size and population, from a 1,5 million Zurich to Uri with some 36,000.

It has been noted, that federations with only two, or even three constituent states are highly unstable, especially if all their components are ethnically defined. In the case of Lebanon, we need not worry of such a scenario. The two cantons which could be delimitated most easily are two Shia cantons: one in the region historically known as Jabal Amil, which would consist of the districts of Tyre, Bint Jbeil, Nabatieh, western parts of Marjayoun district and the Shia-populated rural parts of Saida (Sidon) district. Urban Sidon would be its own, Sunni-populated canton.  The second easily identifiable Shia canton would consist of the Shia-populated Baalbek-Hermel governorate, with likely exceptions of the Maronite- inhabited Ainata and Greek-Catholic-populated Qaa.

The region of Mount Lebanon extending towards Jezzine and to include the Maronite-inhabited parts of the governorate of the North poses a challenge. The entire area is dominated by the Maronites, yet the Druze have a strong presence in the districts of Chouf, Aley and Baabda. These areas would likely have to be detached to form a mixed canton of Druze and Maronites. This would effectively cut away Jezzine as a Maronite (and partially Greek Orthodox) canton. If for some reason we would go on to divide the remaining Maronite-dominated area according to current administrative boundaries, this would result in striking similarity with the subdivisions of the Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate. A slight adjustment of the borders of the Koura district could be made to align with the borders of the Greek Orthodox people in the area.

This would leave us only with the question of organizing the Beqaa valley. The Zahlé district with striking religious diversity could be organized into a canton of its own, while detaching Shia and Sunni majority towns to neighboring districts.

The districts of Rachaya and West Bekaa have a significant Sunni and Druze population. The Druze and Orthodox areas of Rachaya district could be combined with neighboring Marjayoun district, while the Christian villages of West Bekaa ought to be detached to form a separate canton, while Shia areas of southern West Beqaa and eastern Hasbaya would form another canton.

Ultimately, the question arises, how many adjacent villages of one sect justify establishing a canton for them? Is it going to be at least 15,000 people? Will there be separate cantons for the Maronites and Orthodox of Akkar and Shia of Kesrwan? What about Beirut? Will it be split into a Christian east around Achrafiye, a Sunni West Beirut and a Shia canton in Dahie? Or will it be made into one urban canton?

To sum up, we can conclude that a federalized Lebanon is likely to be composed of the following cantons (current districts in brackets):

  • Baalbek Hermel- Shia (Hermel, parts of Baalbek, Zahlé)
  • Bcharré- Maronite (Bcharré, Zghorta, parts of Batroun and Baalbek)
  • Chouf- Druze -Maronite (Chouf, Aley, parts of Baabda)
  • Dahie (?)-Shia (parts of Baabda and Beirut)
  • Jabal Amil- Shia ( Bint Jbeil, Nabatieh, Tyre, parts of Saida and Marjayoun)
  • ezzine- Maronite, Greek Catholic (Jezzine, parts of Chouf, Saida and Marjayoun)
  • Joub Jannine- Sunni (parts of West Beqaa, Rachaya and Zahlé)
  • Kesrwan- Maronite (Jbeil, Kesrwan)
  • Koura- Greek Orthodox (Koura, parts of Batroun and perhaps parts of Kesrwan)
  • Machgata- mixed Christian (parts of West Beqaa
  • Metn-Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Armenian (Metn, parts of Baaba, perhaps parts of Beirut)
  • Middle Litani- Shia (parts of West Beqaa, Hasbaya, Rachaya)
  • Qaa-Greek Catholic (parts of Baalbek)
  • Rachaya- Druze, Greek Orthodx (parts of Rachaya and Hasbaya)
  • Saida-Sunni (parts of Saida)
  • Tripoli- Sunni (Akkar, Minnieh, Denniyeh, Tripoli)
  • West Beirut(?)-Sunni (part of Beirut)
  • Zahlé-mixed Christian (parts of Zahlé)


This brings us to a total of 18 cantons.

Mgr. Andrej Kolárik is a doctoral student at the Faculty of Political Science and International Relations at Matej Bel University, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia. He focuses on the religious aspect of conflicts in the Middle East.

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