Lebanon is the Middle East’s most invisible authoritarian regime. Often praised for its culture of democracy, Lebanon’s leaders have proved unwilling to reform the sectarian state that has left this country, which promises so much, routinely offering so little. Saad Hariri and the March 14 movement represent the latest leaders to follow this trend, as their recent rally commemorating the death of former PM Rafik Hariri showed their inability to inspire those outside their voting bloc. Though he attempted to cast himself as a political leader with national appeal, Saad Hariri only succeeded in heightening his image within a select segment of Lebanese society, rather than utilizing the opportunity to deal with the root causes of Lebanon’s instability: poor governance, fractured leadership and Lebanon’s sectarian political system.
In his speech and in the weeks since the rally, Hariri has attacked Hezbollah’s arms, asserted his support for the Special Tribunal investigating his father’s death, and offered up an obscure vision for Lebanon’s democratic future. The central problem, however, is that to achieve his goal of disarming Hezbollah and creating a better system of government, Hariri must reposition himself as a man of reform, moving away from the very political structure that has served as the foundation of his success. If he is to move forward, he must mobilize a new base of supporters outside the lifeless March 14 movement and become a true statesman with national appeal.
The widely-held belief that Lebanon is deeply loyal to sectarian communities is flawed and outdated. The equally-false notion that most of Lebanon’s population remains divided between the March 14 and March 8 coalitions has pervaded much of the media coverage of Lebanon, simplifying the country’s more factionalized conflict. This superficial narrative of allegiance overlooks the disenfranchised majority, a constituency that lies somewhere in the middle between these two political poles and represents the biggest voting block yet to be captured by any political party.
In Lebanon, unemployment is high, poverty is extensive, and confidence in the economy is low. This has led to an increased recognition that the system of patronage between politician and citizen has not benefited the society at large, giving way to a growing discontent toward political elites. Less worried about Hezbollah’s weapons or the Special Tribunal, the disenfranchised majority represents the huge bloc of Lebanese who believe their country is heading in the wrong direction. They are primarily made up of Lebanon’s lower-middle class, but also include parts of the middle-upper income bracket and educated citizens who are absent from the political process and have begun to mobilize.
To become an effective statesman, Hariri must incorporate civil society demands into his democratic vision while also taking pointers from Interior Minister Ziad Baroud. While Lebanese civil society was previously suppressed by Syrian tutelage, it has made small achievements that have advanced transparency in the budgetary process, furthered operational efficiency within government bureaucracies and raised the standard of accountability for public officials, all of which should serve as the outline for the sovereign state Hariri aspires to. Unlike its Arab neighbors, which have systematically crippled civil society and have had minimal exposure to representative government, Lebanon is blessed with a politically sophisticated citizenry, experienced in the practice of democracy. Though imperfect and prone to abuse by sectarian opportunists, Lebanon’s democratic tradition has laid a foundation on which an effective and inclusive state can be built.
Baroud, a long-time civil society activist himself, has built on this foundation by successfully enacting sections of the proposed electoral-reform package, which seeks to gradually secularize governance through the creation of a bicameral administration. Indeed, Baroud has pushed forward a culture of responsibility in government and was credited with overseeing Lebanon’s most transparent round of elections to date in 2009. With a reputation for implementing change, rather than merely speaking of it, Baroud has gained popular support by being an impartial but principled decision maker within Lebanon’s cabinet. It is this commitment to the state and its citizens over sectarian loyalties that should serve as the model for political leadership.
In times of crisis, the public looks to the government for clarity. Today, Hariri faces a critical decision between two options: to revert to the familiar system of sectarianism that ensures him limited power and short-term survival, or to become a national leader by advancing a new outlook that embraces the demands of the disenfranchised majority while engaging with civil society activists who will increasingly settle for nothing less than true democratic reform away from Lebanon’s sectarian system.
Simply repeating the same tones of triumphalism that we saw in the 2005 Cedar Revolution without a decision to commit to the process of state building will leave Hariri at the same point he is in today: a Sunni Muslim leader indistinguishable from his feudal peers. To ensure long-term political survival and to become a leader who transcends sectarian divides, Hariri must stop offering empty rhetoric that panders to Lebanon’s worst sectarian instincts, and start providing clarity on the details of his vision for a democratic Lebanon.