Debating Lebanon's Power-Sharing Model: An Opportunity or an Impasse for Democratization Studies in the Middle East?

By Fakhoury, Tamirace | Arab Studies Journal, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Debating Lebanon's Power-Sharing Model: An Opportunity or an Impasse for Democratization Studies in the Middle East?


Fakhoury, Tamirace, Arab Studies Journal


In spite of its small size, Lebanon is a divided state that is home to eighteen different ethno-religious groups.1 Its political system operates through a power-sharing arrangement organized along state-recognized sectarian lines. The arrangement purports to guarantee political representation and group autonomy in the realms of personal status, education, and cultural affairs to the major Christian and Muslim constituent communities. Two pacts underlie the provisions that regulate Lebanon's multi-sectarian balance of power. The unwritten 1943 National Pact allowed for the creation of a grand coalition government whereby a Maronite Christian would assume the presidency, a Sunni Muslim would be prime minister, and a Shi'i Muslim would hold the post of speaker of parliament. Communities were to be proportionally represented in the cabinet, and a six-to-five Christian-Muslim ratio was adopted for the legislature. The Ta'if Accords, which ended Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war (1975-90), put the National Pact into writing, while altering some of the power-sharing arrangements that had been previously established.2

In democracy studies, debate over Lebanon's political model has never been a straightforward affair. Discussion of the country's "sectarian system of politics"3 is characterized by a dialectic whereby scholars herald the arrangement as a "democratic miracle" that carries the seeds of its own destruction. Social scientists have long sought to determine whether the democratic design of Lebanon's political system is suitable for such a divided society or whether it is instead a recipe for instability. The resulting debate has confined the dominant scholarly work on Lebanese politics to a set of binary conclusions assessing the merits and demerits of the "sectarian system." This narrow focus tends to unfairly exclude the Lebanese case from broader debates about democratization.4

Scholars' use of the consociational model as an explanatory framework for Lebanon's political system has contributed to the entrenchment of the identified binaries in democracy studies, as the system has come to be framed within a power-sharing paradigm that borrows heavily from conso- ciational theory. There remains an incongruity between the consociational model as a normative paradigm and its embodiment as political practice in the Lebanese case.5 On one hand, consociational theory is too contested to disentangle what would be critical approaches to Lebanon's political system from what are polarized arguments of a normative nature. On the other, consociational theory fails to capture Lebanon's political realities.

This article, therefore, argues for a shift in perspective, extricating democratization research on Lebanon from the grip of the consociational approach and its attendant binary conclusions. Suggestions for future work consist of approaches that conceptualize power sharing as a transformative process rather than as a final state. The article also recommends integrating scholarship on the production of sectarianism in Lebanon within the con- sociational literature on Lebanon's political system.

Problematizing Lebanon''s Power-Sharing Model

While power sharing is a broad term that scholars understand as referring to the range of methods designed to manage conflicts in divided socie- ties,6 Lebanon's power-sharing method is specifically associated with the consociational democracy typology.7 Within the broad spectrum of studies of power sharing, consociational democracy is understood as one specific method of establishing political rule in religiously and/or ethnically divided societies. Commonly called "power-sharing democracy,"8 and at times subsumed within the larger field of "consociationalism,"9 consociational democracy is the practice of sharing and dividing power among sizable groups. It organizes political relationships according to constitutional provisions, institutionalized representation, proportionality, and group autonomy. …

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