Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day experienced a reoccurring nightmare for what appeared to be the length of a decade. Murray’s character woke up at the same time, in the same place and on the same day – Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. He was forced to relive the same day over and over regardless of his actions.
The announcement of Hassan Diab’s 20-member “technocratic government” is the Lebanese version of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. Despite three months of demonstrations and a collapsing economy, Lebanon will relive the same circumstances under Diab’s leadership that it has experienced for decades. It will experience those circumstances after Diab under future iterations of government. Lebanon will remain a divided society, a poorly governed state subjected to instability and economic crises.
Lebanon cannot escape this ongoing nightmare because it is at the mercy of too many competing interests. Lebanon’s 18 officially recognized religious confessions has placed the importance of the confession above the state. Competing interests also exist within those confessions. Furthermore, numerous external actors compete for influence in Lebanon. This multitude of actors and interests inhibits any agreement on significant or meaningful change.
Lebanon’s political system is confessional based. A predetermined number of seats in Parliament are distributed across all of its religious communities. The numerically larger confessions are allocated more seats in Parliament and the more powerful positions in other branches of the government. The allocation of the top positions in the government have gone to Lebanon’s three largest confessions – Shia Muslim, Sunni Muslim, and Maronite Catholic communities. The political leadership of these communities barter over how to divvy up ministerial positions for themselves and their allies.
Impacting the ability of these leaders to barter between themselves is the often-overlooked element of competition within each respective confession. Numerous elites and parties strive to lead or monopolize their respective confession. For example, within the Maronite community alone, there exists four prominent parties – the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanese Forces, Kataib, and Marada.
George Tsebelis in his work Nested Games, notes that the popularity of a party within a confession impacts the ability to bargain between confessions. The greater the popularity of a party within a confession enables the party to drive a harder bargain when negotiating with other confessions over the type and number of ministries.
Another dynamic of government formation, albeit often less readily apparent and more difficult to measure, is the role of external actors. External interference in Lebanese politics has existed since independence. External actors seek to project or retain influence/power through an elite or party representing a confession.
This element of Lebanese politics was visibly displayed when Saad al-Hariri “resigned” as Prime Minister while in Saudi Arabia on 4 November 2017. Less dramatic but nonetheless significant is the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran. Lebanese politicians often invoke the term, “Iranian project” to describe Hezbollah’s subservience to Iran’s interests.
The Lebanese are not entirely innocent victims in this external dynamic of Lebanese politics. It is a two-way street. The absence of a strong sense of national identity produces an everyman for himself mentality. Lebanese politicians often welcome or seek out the support and financial backing of external actors. It enables them to compete in elections and facilitate governing. External support also provides legitimacy to the elite or party in the eyes of some constituents.
Most analyses will discuss the durability and the policies of the Diab government. These are moot points. The writing is on the wall for this government and subsequent governments. Significant deviation from the status quo – Lebanon’s continued implosion – is impossible given the numerous interests involved. Only faux, half measures, temporary or ad hoc solutions will be advocated or achieved while problems continue to fester.
For example, the technocratic characterization of the Diab government is at best a half measure by political elites and parties to appease the demands of the protesters. The twenty ministers are largely new faces and “experts” in their fields, but they still represent or are affiliated with the interests of the political class. This government demonstrates an unwillingness by all elements of the political class to make mutually significant concessions. These types of half measures are commonplace for Lebanon. One only needs to observe how the government failed to find a lasting solution to garbage protests in 2015.
Another example is the “representative” nature of the Diab government. Hassan Diab has no popular following in the Sunni community. Fragmentation of the Sunni community has left it largely leaderless. As the Prime Minister – the top position in the government for a Sunni Muslim – Diab has no legitimacy among his own community. He is perceived as a figurehead of the Shia and Maronite communities which will exacerbate tensions between communities, particularly the Sunni and the Shia. Frustrations are already running high in the pre-dominantly Sunni areas of northern Lebanon. This will only further aggravate them.
A third example is the international litmus test of the Diab government. Will it be able to secure international assistance to rescue Lebanon’s imploding economy? The external interference in Lebanon’s affairs places Lebanon in the crosshairs of regional and international disputes. Are Western governments willing to help a government that provides cover for Hezbollah? Will Saudi Arabia be willing to help a government that is not representative of the Sunni community? If governments look beyond Hezbollah, will this assistance be another temporary fix since Lebanese governments have failed to abide to the promises of previous donor conferences?
Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day unsuccessfully resorted to drastic measures to escape his plight. The latest manifestation of the Lebanese government indicates that demonstrations have proven futile. Considering the multitude of interests involved in Lebanon, Groundhog Day will continue to be every day in Lebanon for the foreseeable future.
*Eric Bordenkircher, Ph.D., is a research fellow at UCLA’s Center for Middle East Development. The views represented in this piece are his own and do not necessarily represent the position of UCLA or the Center for Middle East Development.