Confessionalism in Lebanon – major failures, no hope?

The gravity of the current crisis in Lebanon demands effective measures as the country experiences the fulfillment of the long predicted and expected worst case scenario. State paralysis, record-breaking public debt, hyperinflation, constant blackouts, shortages of fuel, basic goods and even medicines, insurmountable economic and political stagnation – all result from lasting neglect and abuse of state institutions. Great deal of responsibility for the state’s collapse is on the sectarian system. Many see the ultimate solution to the problem in the abolishment of confessionalism.


Lebanon at crossroads

Political theory recognizes confessionalism as a conflict-preventing institutional model, regulating division of power and securing proportional representation in a religiously mixed society. The system is also intended to protect the religious communities by granting them (i.e., their leaders) extended autonomy, which in case of Lebanon has resulted in the extreme weakening of the state.  More than just a set of political tools, confessionalism has in fact become something of an identity to Lebanon, constituting the country as we know it, not only its political life, but its social organization and entire culture.

Finding a way of out of recurring crises that have shaped the turbulent more recent history of Lebanon involves responding to a difficult question – confessionalism or deconfessionalization? In other words, should Lebanon get rid of the corrupt and compromised political formula centered around the confessional factor (and replace it with what?), or attempt to resuscitate and revive the idea of confessional power-sharing?

Abandoning the confessional formula for vague concepts of deconfessionalization still poses serious risks of fragmentation. Communal networks that are considered to be the basis of the social structure and remain fundamental and confessional identities, continue to take primacy over other sources of identification. Lebanon’s identity and culture still remains strongly defined by confessionalism. Any substantial recommendation to be made ahead of the Lebanese elections set for May 15th 2022 should thus include an understanding of the complex role that the confessional factor has in Lebanon, by coming to terms with it, instead of neglecting it:


Making space for critical discourse and debate

Assuming that the best way to deal with the state’s incapacities is to abolish confessionalism seems a long shot. On the other side, however, Lebanon is in urgent need of envisioning an alternative, developing an open debate to explore the possibilities and set future directions. Yet, such a debate cannot be properly conducted within the rigid confessional framework that often suppresses concepts challenging it.

Civil society organizations are active in the area of e.g., democracy and civil rights, accountability, and women’s rights. They provide the space to anchor social debates and nurture ideas and strategies aimed at reducing the role of the confessional factor in certain areas of public life, by putting forward other categories. In the present situation, i.e., with the state lacking an organized alternative political opposition, their voices act as the mouthpiece of those who demand and struggle for change.


Shake the power-sharing

As for the institutional design, power-sharing theory offers an inspiring perspective for exploring potential solutions for reforming confessionalism. The Lebanese system is an example of a consociational design which relies on the principle of securing each community’s autonomy and their share of power. Alternative models such as centripetalism, also referred to as integrative power-sharing, propose institutional solutions that encourage intercommunal cooperation. In centripetalism, political parties e.g., must be multiethnic and cross-regional. Centripetal instruments aim at creating institutional incentives for greater interdependencies between communities. The main idea differencing the two models is that consociational institutions focus more on protecting boundaries and autonomy of communities, while centripetal instruments create conditions in which the communities have to integrate.

Exploring these solutions within the Lebanese model, by moving it towards a more hybrid model of power-sharing, could counter certain deficiencies of the consociational formula that contributed to its present failure.


Extend the invitation to power-sharing

Successful and effective power-sharing should be more than a limited compromise worked out by and among elites. Indeed, its success increasingly depends on the possibilities of extending this compromise to larger social circles that openly evoke the total rejection of the present state of affairs. Enabling and increasing rotation of confessional leadership, combined with diversification of political representation, inclusiveness and openness to new groupings (also those representing non-confessional social and political actors), seem imperative measures to build stronger grounds for sustainable development. It might decrease the pressure of the confessional factor and improve consensual culture without entirely removing the power-sharing idea.

More fundamental political change would then certainly require some sort of an opening of the system towards wider popular participation in electing leadership. Integrative institutions such as those proposed among other by centripetalism should work only as supporting elements. They should help prevent antagonisms, not perpetuate the hegemony of confessional elites.


Break the cartel

None of the recommendations, however, will ever be sufficient on their own, unless certain control mechanisms are introduced to challenge the elite cartel’s monopoly on the decision-making process. One of the biggest problems in Lebanon is the nature of the communal leadership and representation, which in confessionalism tends to be concentrated in the hands of one politician or families. Contrary to what Arend Lijphart recommended, by entrusting the elites with navigating through the difficult intercommunal relations and preventing escalation of conflicts, the consociational model has in fact made the confessional communities hostages of their leaders.

Lebanon is in urgent need of new leadership. The novelty should concern both the channels of their recruitment as well as the diversity of their social backgrounds. The often-evoked topic of national dialogue and reconciliation has been limited for too long to the roundtable bringing together traditional and compromised politicians. The time has come to appeal to the wider collectivity, as the term „national” suggests, to bet on and develop affiliations breaking the dominance of confessional ties.



Natalia Bahlawan is a researcher at the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures, Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. She is a graduate of International Cultural Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University College of London. She is particularly interested in the history of Lebanese confessionalism, the formation of confessional culture and the possibilities of development of collective identity under confessionalism.