Lebanon’s politics and politicians

Explaining Lebanon’s political system, the influence of religion, armed groups such as Hezbollah, and corruption in the state.

Explainer Published 11 August 2021 Updated 19 December 2022 6 minute READ

Lebanon’s politics explained

Lebanon’s politics is characterized by a corrupt, sectarian structure, constant interference from neighbouring states like Israel, Syria and Iran, and many years of war.

This article explains Lebanon’s political system, the influence of religion and the impact of armed groups like Hezbollah. It also discusses some of the major politicians in recent history, and the nature of corruption in the state.

Lebanon’s political system

Politics in Lebanon is based on a sectarian power-sharing structure created on independence from France in 1943. The constitution guarantees all 18 religious sects in the country are ensured representation in government, the military, and the civil service. 

Reflecting this, the three key government positions of president, prime minister, and speaker must be split between a Maronite Christian, a Sunni Muslim, and a Shia Muslim.

At first glance this could be viewed as an attempt to ensure equality in government, but the system is deeply flawed. It was agreed primarily as a division of power between the elites of the time rather than a structure aimed at ensuring good governance of a nation state.

The effect is a weak, corrupt, patronage-based system, where powerful men dispense government jobs to receive loyalty from employees rather than to reward competence or skill.

Existing divisions are further entrenched by the system, which pits sect against sect in competition for lucrative government departments.

This results in a government largely made up of competing bureaucratic fiefdoms rather than a single unit attempting to govern the Lebanese state.

The system has endured despite its weakness, remaining almost unchanged following a brutal civil war from 1975-1990, the Israeli invasion of 1982, Syrian occupation of parts of the country from 1976-2005, a further war with Israel in 2006, and unprecedented nationwide protests in 2019.

The Taif Accord of 1989, which ended the Lebanese civil war, set out plans to change the structure of government by limiting the sectarian split to a new upper house and abolishing it in parliament.

But these changes were never implemented, as there was no appetite among Lebanese elites to do away with a system which guarantees their power, or to expose themselves to scrutiny by a new, more democratic, accountable parliament.

Corruption in Lebanon

Corruption is pervasive within Lebanon’s state, as is a culture of impunity. Ruling political parties treat state institutions as sources of income. Opposing sects either actively collude in corruption or turn a blind eye to their rivals’ crimes to protect a system that works for them.

Politicians seek control over ministries to direct resources and funding to their allies and as an opportunity to create ‘ghost employees’ – paid positions for people who do not exist so the salaries can be either pocketed by the politicians or disbursed to their followers to maintain loyalty.

The powerful armed group Hezbollah has turned corruption to more overtly illicit ends, using its influence in the Ministry of Agriculture to secure ammonium nitrate imports required for the manufacture of explosives.

Lebanon’s natural resources

Lebanese elites have a history of using energy as a manipulative, sectarian tool. With widespread shortages due to Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis, some ruling political parties went so far as to take control of petrol stations and restrict entry to only their clients and cronies.

International companies have expressed interest in exploring Lebanon’s offshore waters for gas and oil. Lebanon’s potential reserves may fall prey to the political system’s corruption, as Lebanese politicians jockey for control of the energy and finance ministries to divert any new industry profits to their allies.

Religion’s influence on Lebanese politics

Religion plays a crucial role in Lebanon’s politics. The constitution guarantees representation in government on the basis of religious sect, and the ruling political parties are defined more by religious affiliations than economic or social policy.

The role of religious affiliation in the ruling political parties extends beyond Lebanon. The Future Movement is supported by the Sunni Muslim Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Hezbollah is backed by Shia Muslim allies in Iraq and, in particular, Iran as part of its policy to export the Islamic revolution.

But a striking aspect of Lebanon’s politics is that formal and informal alliances often exist across the religious divide. The March 8 Alliance is a coalition whose two leading parties are Shia Muslim (Hezbollah) and Christian (Free Patriotic Movement) united by a pro-Syrian agenda. They are opposed by the March 14 Alliance, an anti-Syrian group dominated by Sunni Muslim and Maronite Christian parties.

What is Hezbollah?

Hezbollah was founded partly because of Israel’s 1982 invasion and is largely a Shia Muslim group drawn from Lebanon’s south. Lebanon’s southern regions, already neglected by the Beirut government, bore the brunt of Israel’s 1982 invasion with Israeli forces remaining in parts of that region until 2000.

This naturally fuelled anger and resentment, turning southern Lebanon into a useful recruitment base for a group such as Hezbollah which defined itself as a resistance movement.

But it is inaccurate to claim Hezbollah’s support is restricted to a region or religion.

While it is the dominant Shia force in Lebanon’s politics, it also enjoys support from other Lebanese who perceive it as the only force providing effective opposition to the Israeli incursion.

Is Hezbollah part of the Lebanese government?

Hezbollah has risen to become the most influential political organization in Lebanon but operates largely without accountability. It probably could take over the Lebanese state by force, but it is far more effective to exercise power in Lebanon’s weak state without taking on responsibilities of office.

Lebanon’s unusual and defective political structure allows Hezbollah to wield tremendous power through the March 8 alliance.

In the 2009 and 2018 elections, Hezbollah won only 13 seats in the 128 seat parliament but, with its March 8 allies, it effectively controlled 44 seats in 2009, and in 2018, a majority of 72 seats.

Its domination of the March 8 alliance permits it to exercise parliamentary control without having high numbers of seats itself in parliament. After mass protests in 2019, Lebanon formed a supposedly technocratic cabinet of 20 ministers, but in reality the administration was under Hezbollah control as its political opponents largely refused to join the cabinet.

Hezbollah also enjoys de facto control over the border with Syria and uses the Port of Beirut to transport drugs, weapons, and explosive material in and out of Lebanon with no state oversight or intervention.

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Lebanon’s politicians

Politicians in Lebanon largely reflect the sectarian system with the most notable figures representing dominant powerful families and political dynasties. Major political figures in the past thirty years include:

Rafic Hariri

A Lebanese businessman who was prime minister from 1992-1998 and again from 2000-04. He spent much of his life building a fortune in Saudi Arabia and enjoyed a close personal relationship with the Saudi king. He then helped broker the Taif Accord of 1989 which ended the Lebanese civil war. He returned to Lebanon soon afterwards to enter politics.

Widely respected in the West, in 2005 he was assassinated by a massive bomb in Beirut. Who was behind the assassination remains disputed. A special tribunal found a Hezbollah operative was responsible but claims persist that Syrian elements delivered the attack.

Hariri’s death sparked the Cedar Revolution, a series of protests which led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.

His son Saad Hariri went on to lead Lebanon’s Future Movement, a Sunni Muslim political party opposed to Syria and Hezbollah and part of the March 14 Alliance.

Saad Hariri was prime minister from 2009-2011 and 2016-2020.

Michel Aoun

Head of the Lebanese army in the 1980s, he led one of two rival governments during the civil war and survived an assassination attempt in 1990. An opponent of the Taif Accord, he lived in exile in France for 15 years where he founded the Free Patriotic Movement, a Maronite Christian party.

He returned to Lebanon after Hariri’s assassination, his party becoming the largest Christian bloc and forming the March 8 Alliance with Hezbollah. He went on to become president, turning the leadership of his party to Gebran Bassil who is married to Aoun’s daughter, Chantal.

Lebanese government formation

Following the government collapse after the Beirut explosion of August 2020, efforts to form a new government stalled, as prime minister designate Saad Hariri and president Michel Aoun failed to agree the cabinet make-up.

This pushed the country into a deeper crisis with rampant inflation and shortages of fuel, electricity, and medicine.

Lebanon’s current political climate

Protest is a growing force in Lebanon. Social media is playing an important part in organising ordinary people, allowing them to vent frustration at the crimes and inefficiencies caused by the endemic corruption.

In 2015, Beirut residents took to the streets and social media as part of the ‘You Stink!’ campaign, protesting the government’s feeble handling of a desperate waste crisis in the country when refuse collection stopped entirely.

This was followed by the ‘Beirut, my City’ movement, a grassroots coalition of Lebanese defined by non-sectarianism, fielding candidates in national elections.

Although the movement failed to take power, it started conversations about public transport, green space, heritage, housing, and waste management in Beirut.

In October 2019, protests took hold all over Lebanon fuelled by outrage at rising taxes, ramshackle public service provision, and widespread government corruption. The slogan chanted was ‘all of them means all of them’ reflecting the need to completely tear down Lebanon’s rotten structure and create an entirely new system of government.

The devastating explosion in Beirut’s port in August 2020 unleashed even more fury at the lack of accountability in Lebanon.

Explosive material had been stored in massive quantities at a port installation, contravening basic health and safety procedures. Protestors felt this happened because politicians were complacent in dealing with the issue.

The government resigned following the explosion and a new anti-corruption strategy was introduced but widespread scepticism about the measures remains.

The future of Lebanon

In 2021 Lebanon faced what the World Bank said may be among the three worst economic crises in global history. It cannot escape the cycle of corruption within its current political system, which therefore makes better government, economic recovery, and peace more unlikely.

Although fatally flawed, the political system has a resilience because of the shelter it provides to corruption and the religious sensitivities tied up in the division of power.

Anti-sectarian groups face an uphill challenge but have shown ability to organize effectively. In June 2021, a coalition of new parties won around three-quarters of the seats in elections to the Order of Engineers and Architects, normally dominated by elite allies.

What is certain is that only by working towards reform to eventually replace the current political system can Lebanon recover from its ongoing crises. Although the international community should support this process, it must ultimately be Lebanese-led to succeed.