The ‘Scramble For Lebanon’: Is Federalism A Way Out From The Deadlock Of Consociationalism? – Analysis
By Francesco Palermo and Lorenzo Somigli*
The “Scramble for Lebanon”: is federalism a way out from the deadlock of consociationalism?
Lebanon in the fluid global context
What is happening in Lebanon deserves the utmost attention but remains marginal in the global constitutional debate. As a unique junction point in the “Wider Mediterranean”, Lebanon is a forerunner of geopolitical phenomena and an extraordinary laboratory of constitutional principles – and of their clash.
The current situation is ever more worrying. At the end of 2021, the tension between the confessional communities began to rise again: the irregular militias paraded contemptuously of the law through the streets of Beirut and some armed incidents took place, precisely in the areas where the civil war broke out, and some deaths were recorded. The 2022 elections brought modest but potentially meaningful changes, with Hezbollah and its allies (Amal, Free Patriotic Movement, and others) losing their majority (from 71 to 62 MPs) and 13 MPs getting elected from emerging groups and civil society lists – an achievement in a sectarian electoral system that favours established political parties. Additionally, eight women were elected, an increase from six in 2018.
If, as some experts maintain, the global clash will increasingly be between “terrestrial powers” (Russia, China, and Iran) and “maritime powers” (USA and England), Lebanon can be a first-rate battleground. The country is indeed, as Braudel rightly pointed out, both “fluid” and “physical”, made up of “a garland of small ports leaning against the mountain, located on peninsulas and small islands, as if they wanted to remain extraneous to a continent that is too often hostile”.
All this requires that Lebanon be seen as an urgent case on the international scene and its (formal and informal) constitutional mechanisms be critically reviewed. This analysis aims at relaunching the debate, briefly describing the main tenants of the sectarian power-sharing on which the country is based and presenting some different points of view by Lebanese scholars on the thorny issue of the consociational system and its (potential) relationship with the territorial setting of the country.
Too permeable a political system
The delicate historical balance on which the country is founded and grounded complicates the situation in Lebanon. The resumption of the “great game” – borrowing the from Kipling – among the global powers following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the great world realignment that follows, and the general fluidity of the borders in the Middle East, accelerated by the Russian and Iranian presence, risk leading to an intensification of the “Scramble for Lebanon”.
A foot on the door in Lebanon guarantees a stable projection in the Mediterranean, the global sea by nature, closed and open at the same time, a diaphragm between the new blocks, a global sea that, as always in history, for millennia, has been and will be decisive in every war.
Hence, the current centralized and confessional system has produced fragmentation, internal conflict and above all extreme porosity. External actors can easily influence the internal Lebanese chessboard by moving their representatives who guarantee consensus thanks to the sectarian logic of sharing government posts, resources, and public money.
In this global context of a new clash between the blocs and the “Scramble for Lebanon” (as well as for the Mediterranean), a political and constitutional formula must be found that can allow Lebanon to prevent a gut conflict that is very close to re-exploding as the global clash is intensifying – on the skin of Lebanese population. The only answer may be a political and constitutional solution that adapts to the characteristics of a socio-political path unique in the world.
Why does confessionalism no longer work?
The current stalemate has many roots. One of the origins of the current problems of the region prior to the very establishment of Lebanon is – not surprisingly – primarily geopolitical and dates back to the geometric partition of the post-Ottoman Middle East with the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, and to the choice of creating states from scratch, without paying due attention to ethno-religious aspects and above all without involving the masses. As a result, a strongly centralized system was formed with the establishment of the Lebanese state in 1926, inspired by the French model, neglecting local autonomies, which have been given no substantial power or resources. This did not change with the subsequent reforms, including the 1989 Taif agreements.
Consequently, the Lebanese system, although highly centralized, has not led to the establishment of a common sense of (national) belonging and to shared view of the interests of the country and its communities. Lebanon thus fails to guarantee an acceptable standard of living to its population, being trapped in a cemented sectarian division of the communities and in a political system marked by corruption and mismanagement. The conundrum of the country’s constitutional arrangement is the persistence of a strong centralization combined with its inability to deliver, leading to many actors continuing to prefer community membership over a national one.
The credibility of the Lebanese institutions is further undermined by the presence of irregular armies and by criminal organizations, which enrich themselves with illicit trafficking. The case of the Hezbollah militias – not the only irregular forces in the country – is emblematic. The presence of the militias has been addressed several times, including in the context of nuclear talks, but Iran has always managed to divorce the issues of the nuclear threat and of the para-military presence on foreign soil. The idea that confessionalism alone could compensate for all these lacunas, accommodating the country’s huge diversities and the conflicting interests of several communities and of the neighbours, has been a failure across the board.
Federalism and the bottleneck for reforms
It is often contended that any reform that breaks with the inefficiency of the confessional power-sharing must include an expansion of the powers and role of local autonomies, the only institutions that have proven a certain effectiveness. At times, proposals go as far as to suggest a federal structure to reshuffle the confessional stalemate. However, federalism is often intended as a territorial dress for the same confessional cleavages (ethno-religious federalism) rather than as a tool to downplay them. Therefore, federalism is an extremely contested and loaded term, that means different things to different actors.
Be it as it may, the question remains as to whether and to what extent the inversion of the center-periphery relationship can increase stability and reduce community conflicts. Can federalism be secular in the Lebanese context? How should a new territorial setting be designed to promote peace and development through self-government? Furthermore, who is willing to politically support the reform process? At present, no parliamentary majority seems likely to be formed on such an agenda, especially after the last general elections of May 2022, nor it is clear whether there is or could be a real consensus among citizens for such a reform.
Despite uncertainty in preconditions, the ever more evident failure of the current system may accelerate the reform process and some debate is necessary, internally, and internationally, to prepare the next steps in a rational, procedurally pre-determined way, avoiding that chaos and violence dominate the inevitable process of reform, in whatever direction it may go. The inevitability of a change is testified by some extreme calls for a UN resolution declaring Lebanon a failed state and a threat to peace, pursuant to chapter 7 of the UN Charter, imposing a top-down abolition of the confessional system and possibly establishing a committee on decentralization.
The federal dilemma periodically re-surges in the Lebanese debate, despite the lack of transversal consensus and of supportive political actors. The more acute the crisis, the more intense the need for constitutional ways out.
About the author:
- Francesco Palermo is professor of comparative constitutional law at the University of Verona and head of the Institute of comparative federalism at Eurac Research in Bolzano/Bozen (Italy). He is the initiator of the IACL Research Group on Constitutionalism and Societal Pluralism.
- Lorenzo Somigli is journalist. He analyses the “Wider Mediterranean” in Italian and international reviews such as leSfide, Geopolitica.info and Transatlantic Policy Quarterly. He is the author of a reportage in Lebanon following the August 4th protests in Beirut. He’s also Parliamentary Assistant at the Chamber of Deputies.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect IFIMES official position.
 IFIMES – International Institute for Middle East and Balkan Studies, based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, has Special Consultative status at ECOSOC/UN since 2018. and it’s publisher of the international scientific journal “European Perspectives”.
 F. Braudel, La Méditerranée, Flammarion, 1985, p. 76.
 Currently, Lebanon is divided into 9 Governorates. Governorates are divided into Districts (Kaza or Qadaa). Districts are administrative units in terms of geography and the powers are granted to the Kaemakam (District Commissioner). It should be noted, however, that unlike municipalities, governorates and districts are not to be considered legal entities, since they are not independent from the central administration but rather affiliated to it, constituting an integral part of the Ministry of Interior’s organization. See A. Mourad, Z. al-Siddiq, Citizen & Municipality Handbook, Simplified Legal Rules Governing Municipal Work in Lebanon, Nahnoo, 2018, p. 3.
 M. Malley, The Lebanese Civil War and the Taif Accord; Conflict and Compromise Endangered by Institutionalized Sectarianism, The History Teacher, Vol. 52, No. 1 (November 2018), p. 123.
 Z. Baroud, “Decentralization in Lebanon is not neutral”, Middle East Institute, 2021, https://www.mei.edu/publications/decentralization-lebanon-not-neutral.
 I. H. Carrascal, “Decentralising Lebanon – Utopia or a feasible next step?”, Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Lebanon Paper no. 2, 2021 (https://www.freiheit.org/lebanon/decentralising-lebanon-utopia-or-feasible-next-step).
 The latest proposal for decentralization dates back to 2012 and was hinged in Parliament in 2016.
 The Lawyer and Founder of Party of Peace Roger Eddé made this proposal. See “Roger Edde’s Paper That Was Presented to The 26th of April 2022 Conference at Library of Congress “for a Free Lebanon”,28th April 2022 via eliasbejjaninews.