Lebanese Confessionalism, a Constitutional System in Crisis

Par Romy KHONEISSER, étudiante au sein du Master Droit Economique de Sciences Po. 

Lebanon is extremely diverse culturally, politically, and religiously. More specifically, there are eighteen different sects in total, six of which are Muslim (in numerical order: Shiite, Sunni, Druze, Isma’ili, Alawite and Nusayri), the remaining twelve being Christian (in numerical order: Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Copt, Protestant) – for a nation of only 4 million people.

This mosaic of people has led Lebanon to adopt a constitutional arrangement known as confessionalism. Such arrangement organizes the equal distribution of offices and parliamentary seats between Muslims and Christians, and, within each of these two religious communities, among confessional groups. However, what was once considered an optimal response to a demographic patchwork is today standing on the edge of a cliff, as it is increasingly perceived as a factor of constitutional dysfunction and political obstruction.

Historical Roots of Confessionalism in Lebanon

According to Lijphart, divided societies structurally call for a consociational regime. The latter can be defined as a “model of government in democracies, designed for plural and divided societies” [1] which relies on proportional political representation and segmental autonomy of the different communities.

Confessionalism is a subcategory of consociationalism, as it aims more specifically for proportional representation of religious and confessional communities. The process that led to Lebanon’s institutionalization of confessionalism began back in the 19th century, when the country was still part of the Ottoman Empire [2]. It was later reinforced during the French Mandate (1920-1943). From then onwards, the entrenchment of confessional identity in the judicial and administrative structures of the state only got deeper and deeper.

The 1926 Constitution, written under French influence, consolidated these sectarian arrangements by proportionally allocating parliamentary seats between Christians and Muslims. In 1943, Lebanon took its independence and its leaders adopted an oral agreement known as the National Pact, which assigned specific political posts among religious communities. The Taef Agreement in 1989, which is considered to have marked the ending of the Civil War in Lebanon (1975-1990), finally consecrated this confessional formula by instating a constitutional troika: The President of the Republic was to be a Christian Maronite; the Prime Minister, a Sunni; and the President of the House, a Shiite. The Agreement also changed parliamentary representation to a 50:50 Muslim/Christian ratio [3].

Lebanese Confessionalism, a Factor of Constitutional Dysfunction

By adopting a confessional system, Lebanon’s first aim was to achieve civil peace as well as gradual democratic development. For a while, ensuring that every religious community had constitutionally protected rights offered a guarantee of security and stability. As time went by however, confessionalism became a source of political obstruction and a factor of constitutional dysfunction.

Increasing the number of communities represented in Parliament led in the same time to an increase in the number of veto players. The more the veto players, the greater the chances are to be confronted with deadlocks [4]. As a result of this, political paralysis became part of Lebanon’s day-to-day political scenery, and it is not uncommon for the country to go through long periods of presidential [5] or governmental vacancy.

Political obstruction is not however the only trouble stemming from confessionalism. The coexistence of religious and national identities, both of which are constitutionally consecrated, is also problematic when it comes to regional considerations. As a result of this duality, conflicts of interests appear between purely national matters on one hand, and religious concerns on the other. The latter sets the scene for external sectarian influences in an attempt for local communities to protect their interests. In fact, the interaction between the confessional formula and the regional dynamics has already led, and still leads, to unwanted foreign interferences on a religious basis from countries such as Saudi Arabia or Iran.

It is worth noting that the Constitution itself acknowledges the aporia inherent to confessionalism. Indeed, its Preamble states that “eliminating political sectarianism is a basic national objective, to be achieved according to a transitional plan.” Yet, since these words were first written, no step has been taken in that direction.

The Need for Constitutional Reform: The Establishment of a Senate

The strong affiliation between religion and the existing constitutional order constitutes, as mentioned above, the primary obstacle to the establishment of a functioning democracy in Lebanon [6]. However, given the deep entrenchment of this affiliation in Lebanese society, a solution that would call for a complete abolition of confessionalism is not structurally viable. For this reason, the path to a sustainable democracy in Lebanon necessarily has to go through a well-thought restructuration of its confessional system.

This can only be achieved through the establishment of a bicameral legislature in Lebanon. Indeed, bicameralism would ensure proportional popular representation in the House of Representatives, and equal confessional representation in a Senate elected directly by the Lebanese people and having determined powers. The resulting effect would be to confine political confessionalism to the Senate, thus removing its obstructive power from the remaining governmental institutions.

The idea of a bicameral Parliament composed of, on one hand, a House of Representatives, and, on the other hand, a Senate embodying the different confessional groups, is not innovative nor does it come out of the blue. The Lebanese Constitution, adopted in 1926, stipulated (and in fact still stipulates) in its twenty-second article the establishment of a bicameral legislature in Lebanon [7]. More particularly, it requires that a Senate representing every recognized religious group in the country should be established following the first elections of a Parliament on a non-confessional basis. However, to date, Article 22 has not been implemented. Indeed, its lack of precision has led the various Lebanese religious groups to consider that the Senate might not have the powers to sufficiently protect their rights and freedoms as provided for in the Constitution [8].

The first step towards taming the concerns of these groups would be to clearly define the powers of the Senate. This would guarantee the rights of confessional groups regarding specific matters that have the potential of negating essential freedoms or the finely calibrated constitutional and political order. These powers would be, as it is already the case in the American Senate for instance, those relating to national budget, confirmation of government officials, and ratification of international treaties – three pillars that would guarantee, respectively, equal allocation of resources among the different groups, their equal representation within government, and the shaping of a national policy independently of foreign influence.

Confessional groups have always played an active role in the Lebanese political order. While this has enabled the country to rebuild itself after the Civil War, it has also contributed to significant deadlocks that have inhibited the country’s progress. Confining the role of confessional groups to one institution where they have determined powers is thus a necessary step towards the resurgence and consolidation of a sustainable confessional democracy in Lebanon.

[1] Majid, Ziyad. The decline of consociationalism: The case of Lebanon, 2011.

[2] Traboulsi, Fawwaz. A History of Modern Lebanon, 2012.

[3] Article 24 of the Lebanese Constitution:

“The Chamber of Deputies consists of elected representatives whose number and the manner of the election are determined by the electoral laws in effect. Until the Chamber of Deputies issues an Electoral Law, outside the sectarian record, representative seats are distributed according to the following rules (a) Equally between Christians and Moslems ; (b) Proportional between the sects of both sides ; (c)  Proportional among districts.

Exceptionally, and once, representative seats vacant at the date of publishing this Law, and the seats created by the Electoral Law, are filled totally by appointment by a two- thirds majority of the National Détente Government, in implementation of the equality between the Christians and the Moslems, according to the National Détente Document. The Electoral Law determines the details of the application of this Article.”

[4] Tsibelis, George. Veto Players: How Political Institutions Work, 2002.

[5] The President of the Republic is indirectly elected by the members of the Parliament. 

[6] Messarra, Antoine. “Citizenship culture in a multi-confessional society” in Lebanon from a comparative perspective, 2013.

[7] Article 22 of the Lebanese Constitution: “With the election of the first Chamber of Deputies on a national basis, not sectarian, a new Senate shall be established in which all religious communities are represented and whose power shall be limited to supreme national causes.”

[8] El Hayek, Marie. “The Senate in Lebanon: a solution or a problem” in The Lebanese National Defense Bulletin, January 2019.