Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Do Power-Sharing Systems Behave Differently amid Regional Uprisings? Lebanon in the Arab Protest Wave

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Do Power-Sharing Systems Behave Differently amid Regional Uprisings? Lebanon in the Arab Protest Wave

Article excerpt

This article examines Lebanon's political dynamics in the context of the 2011 Arab protest wave, and seeks to integrate events in the small republic within the broader literature written on the contagion effects of the uprisings. It argues that the uprisings ' trajectories provide a terrain to better understand Lebanon 's politics of sectarianism and their interactions with the region's upheavals. The article focuses on analyzing how power-sharing along sectarian lines exacerbates conflict while hampering collective action and democratic advances.

The box may be shut now, but the goblins of sectarianism are still on the loose.1

The 2011 wave of Arab uprisings did more than reframe the lines of inquiry on political change in the region,2 they also prompted scholars to seek new understandings for the ways in which the protests were diffused.3 Scholars have questioned whether the successive protests could be interpreted through the prism of Mark Granovetter's concept of cascading effects4 and whether or not they would augur a regional wave of democratization.5 One central question is why popular protests spread to certain Arab societies while others were unreceptive to their spread.6 Lebanon for example, a fragmented state home to 18 different sects, did not participate in the regional wave of uprisings. Although Lebanese society's participation in the revolutionary movement that took hold of the Arab world has been marginal, the country's political landscape experienced its repercussions.7 Since the outbreak of the uprisings in December 2010, Lebanon indeed watched the protests unfold with vigilance. While it was able to remain relatively undis- turbed during the onset of the protests, it was soon drawn into the region's moving sands.

Due to its distinctive sociopolitical dynamics and the fact that it did not experi- ence any large scale protests of its own, the Lebanese case has thus far been only su- perficially integrated into comparative debates on the Arab protests. Only a handful of analysts working on Lebanon set out to explore why Lebanese society - a society ripe for sociopolitical change - did not succumb to the region's mass protest dynamics,8 and why the Lebanese political system began to display illiberal political trends9 in the context of what has been framed as the "Arab Democratic Spring."10 According to watchdog organizations, since the outbreak of the revolts Lebanon has registered a decline in democratic indicators,11 and has been gripped by recurrent political crises.12 While Freedom House attributed this decline to a backlash effect against the Arab re- volts, other observers have described Lebanon as being in a waiting mode, with its society watching closely for clues as to how the uprisings would unfold.13

In this article, I analyze why Lebanon was impermeable to the diffusion of popu- lar protests, yet highly vulnerable to the spillover effects brought on by these events. I argue for an analytical framework wider than a simple juxtaposition of Lebanese dynamics against the background of the Arab uprisings. More particularly, I reconcep- tualize the Lebanese case within the wave of Arab protests in a way that focuses more clearly on its political system and the interactions that its sectarian nature brings about. Complex systemic and communal pressures at the heart of Lebanon's sectarian politics have undermined the likelihood of collective mobilization, but they have increased Lebanon's vulnerability to these events' aftershocks. Yet, the Lebanese political sys- tem's resistance to efforts towards democratization from below in the context of the uprisings, along with its proneness to instability, should be interpreted as one of the many "temporal dilemmas" entrenched within Lebanon's sectarian-based system.14 Transitions from war to democracy in divided societies impose trade-offs between the processes of democratization and peace building. Efforts towards democratization in such societies may have adverse effects on peace-building, while efforts at peace building may thwart democratization, which by nature entails competitiveness and car- ries along the risks of violence. …

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