MON 15 - 7 - 2024
Date: Sep 22, 2011
Author: Ziad Majed
Source: Near East Quarterly
On Consociationalism and Confessionalism in Lebanon

Ziad Majed is assistant professor of Middle East Studies at the American University of Paris and Coordinator of the Arab Network for the Study of Democracy. He is the author of ‘An Rabi’ Bayrout wa al-Dawla Annakisa (The Beirut Spring and the Unachieved State), Dar Annahar, Beirut, 2006 and blogs at and

One of the rare valuable political debates in Lebanon nowadays, when it comes to internal political matters, is the one on consociationalism and confessionalism. The problem is, however, that there are many misconceptions around what consociationalism is, and how the confessional Lebanese system itself is, in fact, consociational. Moreover, why is it that confessionalism1 appears to be so strong and so difficult to replace or to overcome?

What is consociationalism?

Consociationalism is a model of government in democracies, designed for plural and divided societies. Such societies need – according to the Dutch-American scholar Arend Lijphart – “a democratic regime that emphasises consensus instead of opposition, that includes rather than excludes, and that tries to maximize the size of the ruling majority instead of being satisfied with a bare majority”.2

Consociationalism, as a method of political engineering, gives primacy in political representation to collectivities. It aims to guarantee the participation of all groups or communities in state institutions, and it is often referred to as a power-sharing model, although it is only one form of power-sharing (other models may include non-consociationalist federations and confederations).

Lijphart identifies two primary attributes for consociational democracies and two secondary characteristics.3 The two primary attributes are ‘grand coalition’ and ‘segmental autonomy’, and the two secondary characteristics are ‘proportionality’ and ‘minority veto’.

Was Lebanon consociationalist?

On this understanding, to what extent was the Lebanese system at its inception in 1926 and 1943 consociational?

A – The communities, the electoral system and the constitution

Lebanon’s long history is one of segmental autonomies manifested in the confessional cleavages of the country. In fact, Lebanon’s confessionalism, whether in political institutions or in social spheres, has its roots in the Millet system of the Ottoman Empire. This system refers to the separate legal courts pertaining to ‘personal law’ under which different religious communities were allowed to rule themselves. It asserted an almost-total autonomy to these communities with regard to education, administration of properties, internal jurisdiction and religious organisation. After the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms (1839–1876) that abolished the Millet and stipulated that “all Ottoman subjects are equal regardless of their religion or language”,confessional awareness only grew stronger as communities became concerned with their own hierarchies and with preserving their self-autonomies and ‘territories’.4

The ‘hierarchical pluralism’ resulting from the Millet and the Tanzimat was later adopted by the French mandatory authorities following General Gouraud’s announcement of the ‘Greater Lebanon’ state in 1920. In addition to its social aspect, the adoption took on a political allure with the establishment of executive and elected institutions where participation was based on representation quotas. The quotas were based on confessions and regions, taking demographics into account. The latter relied on two censuses conducted first in 1922 and later in 1932 (also the last time official demographic statistics were collected in Lebanon).5

The electoral law adopted in 1926 translated the census figures proportionally into parliamentary seats, which were attributed according to confessions and districts. It was based on a simple majority voting principle, holding one round of voting in administrative districts based on the five mouhafaza or governorates:6 the North, the Beqaa, Mount Lebanon, Beirut and the South. In each district voters had to elect 10 to 14 deputies (depending on the mouhafaza), while still respecting the confessional quota and the territorial division (or qaza) inside the mouhafaza itself.

In 1926, a constitution was drafted, inspired by the model of Belgium and the constitution of the French Third Republic. It adopted a consociational philosophy in the practice of power in Lebanon. This meant establishing a principle of power sharing based on confessional proportionality and grand coalitions. Michel Chiha, a banker and journalist, who played a major role in drafting the constitution, defended the adoption of confessionalism as the philosophy of political participation, when he said: “confessionalism in Lebanon … is the guarantee of equitable political and social representation for the associated confessional minorities … These minorities take the confessional label because Lebanon has always been a refuge for freedom of conscience … The confessional basis of the Lebanese balance is not arbitrary. It does not result from prejudice, but from the need to recognise distinctive characteristics that differ as widely as those between political parties. With time, these differences may diminish and slowly disappear. Presently, Lebanon’s reason for being lies precisely in its distinctive confessional balance and this is first revealed at the level of legislative power.”7

In the text of the constitution, the principles of segmental autonomy are presented through articles 9 and 10:

Article 9. – Liberty of conscience is absolute. By rendering homage to the Almighty, the State respects all creeds and guarantees and protects their free exercise, on condition that they do not interfere with public order. It also guarantees to individuals, whatever their religious allegiance, the respect of their personal status and their religious interests.

Article 10. – Education is free so long as it is not contrary to public order and to good manners and does not touch the dignity of creeds. No derogation shall affect the right of communities to have their schools, subject to the general prescriptions on public education edicted by the State.

As for confessional proportional representation, Article 95 states: “As a transitory measure and for the sake of even justice and concord, the communities shall be equally represented in public posts and in ministerial composition, without damage to State interest resulting therefrom.”

It could, therefore, be said that the Lebanese political system, based on its constitution and its electoral system, and based on its support for the confessional organisation of the society, had already taken on, between 1926 and the independence of 1943, two of the four attributes that Lijphart considered consociational: the segmental autonomy and the proportional representation. A third attribute – the grand coalition – automatically follows from the first two, since any proportionality in government and public administration posts as enforced by the constitution leads to the construction of grand coalitions. In addition, the fact that all Lebanese mouhafaza that were set as electoral districts are mixed in their confessional constituency leads to the formation of lists with multi-confessional alliances,8 resembling the large coalitions considered by Lijphart to be a third attribute. These coalitions were also evident in government positions and administration, as dictated by article 95 of the constitution.

B – Independence and the National Pact

The proclamation of Lebanon’s independence on November 22, 1943 and the National Pact of the same year (between the first president of the independent republic and his first prime minister) granted – through an oral agreement – the presidency to the Maronites, the premiership to the Sunnis, and the representation of the parliament to the Shi’ites. The National Pact (Al-Mithaq Al-Watani), came into being in the summer of 1943 as the result of numerous meetings between the Maronite President Bechara al-Khouri and the Sunni Prime Minister Riyad al-Solh. At the heart of the negotiations was the Christians’ fear of being overwhelmed by the Muslim communities in Lebanon and surrounding Arab countries, and the Muslims’ fear of Western hegemony. In return for the Christian promise not to seek foreign, i.e. French, protection and to accept Lebanon’s ‘Arab face’, the Muslim side agreed to recognise the independence and legitimacy of the Lebanese state in its 1920 boundaries and to renounce aspirations for union with Syria or with a larger Arab nation.

If both men played important roles in 1943 to reach this result (with British support), Riad al-Solh was more decisive in reaching the Pact.9 He was able to distance himself from Arab nationalism and from greater Syrian nationalism. He used Arab coverage (Iraq and Egypt) to move ahead with the agreement with Khoury and prepare the following phase with the Syrians, and preferred to be the Muslim leader of Lebanon rather than being a Muslim leader in greater Syria.

In any case, the National Pact constituted the strongest symbolic ground that will allow for the Lebanese entity and formula to develop. Since it was based on an ‘existential partnership’ between Muslims and Christians, it meant that no one in the country could impose anything on the other, and that the philosophy of consensus and compromise should guide all political processes. This leads us to say, that the fourth attribute of Lijphart for consociationalism, the ‘veto right’ can be found in the Pact. If communities in Lebanon need to co-exist under one independent and sovereign state, all will have a say in decisions, and consensus would guide their political choices and their national contract.

What can we then deduce from the inception of the Lebanese political system? We can definitely – after what we have presented – consider that the system (manifested in the articles of its constitution, the laws organising its elections, and the philosophy guiding the national contract between its components) founded between 1926 and 1943 was consociational. It had the four attributes determined necessary to be such a system. We can also argue that Lebanon appeared very dependent on these attributes, to the extent that it was difficult to imagine it existing without them, or even independently from the National Pact formula. Lebanese writer and researcher Ghassan Salamé’s comment on the issue reveals the legacy that this ‘reality’ will hold: “the entity and the formula were twins” (al-kayan was-sighahsanwan). This means that any questioning of the formula or its legitimacy might mean a questioning of the legitimacy of the entity itself.10

Later developments in Lebanon, especially the civil war (1975-1990), will explain that this equation was a fatal one.

How did consociationalism develop along with confessionalism?

A careful examination of the elite practices and political measures that have marked the Lebanese experience after the country’s independence in 1943, with its crises and upswings, shows that the philosophy of consociational democracy was betrayed (or weakened) each time the Lebanese had to make radical political choices over their country’s positioning in the region and the way this should be implemented. In fact, the political choices of the Lebanese, through their communities and their external alliances in times of crisis, came in contrast with the spirit of the consociational conscience indicated by Lijphart. From the crisis of 1958 and the civil clashes that followed, to the crisis of 1969 and the political turmoil and clashes between the Lebanese army and the Palestinian resistance movement (present militarily in refugee camps in Lebanon), the civil war from 1975 and foreign interferences in it, and the ongoing crisis since the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, it is clear that deep divisions within Lebanese society and divergent views towards external factors prevent consociationalism from filling the gap and making cooperation a substitute for conflicts and clashes. It appears that what happened in 1943 with the ‘mutual rejection’ of the Arab unity project and the Western mandate in order to establish national independence, and what was repeated in 1989 in the Ta’if agreement (that brought amendments to the constitution and theoretically ended the civil war), did not guarantee constant agreements that everyone can refer to, in fear of conflict when their viewpoints regarding the ‘outside’ diverge.

In addition, the stressful political influence of the broader region on the Lebanese and their divisions, and the failure of the latter to develop a common stance vis-à-vis international and Arab clashes, as well as a strategy to approach the Arab-Israeli conflict, led political struggles to infiltrate state institutions themselves and paralyse their work, due to the presence of too many decision-making centres in the regime and their support of (or allegiance to) antagonist axes. In turn, this undermined governance and shifted tensions on more than one occasion to the streets.11

Other reasons have also contributed to undermining Lebanese consociationalism. Some of these reasons are related to the questions of power sharing and the rigid quotas allocated in key posts to the different confessional groups with changing demographics; and some are related to the characteristics of war and post-war political elites, with their ‘hegemonic tendencies’ and their militant attempts at monopolising the representation of their communities and imposing rules and policy choices on others, thus turning political confrontations into confessional ones.

This is why ‘rigidity’ in the regime looks like a weakness rather than a strength. It privileges upholding the quotas that the regime guarantees to the representatives of confessional groups in its institutions, rather than the consociational philosophy that attempts to distribute responsibilities among the representatives to ensure the continuity of their national contract. This rigidity prevents its evolution to reflect the changes in society – in terms of ‘proportionality’ of representation. It also does not allow it to function properly, while guaranteeing the rights of the minority; instead, the minority is hampering it under the guise of its ‘veto right’. Moreover, the power sharing principle is gradually becoming a state sharing one, with specialised national duties ‘privatised’ by communities, with possible conflicts between the president, the prime minister and the speaker of the parliament over who has the upper hand when it comes to making decisions, particularly with the absence of an institutional refereeing power capable of ending a political/confessional conflict.

Besides, the fact that confessional majorities stick to their elites in times of escalation, though a defence mechanism of collective identity and interests that confessional community members have the impression or the illusion of possessing, makes any compromise appear a collective defeat for the said confession rather than for the specific elite therein. Preventing this alleged defeat becomes, then, both a consideration in mobilisation and an increase in the probability of clashes with another emerging confession or with a counter-confessional alliance.

If these conclusions were broadly true in the bitter pre-Ta’if Lebanese experience, they have become even clearer in the past years.

Are Deconfessionalisation and reforms possible today?

One could conclude in light of all Lebanese experiences and misadventures, after changes in the political sociology of the largest communities, after interaction between foreign and domestic actors, and with the rise of a strong militant party like Hezbollah, that the Lebanese system cannot manage the country anymore. Crises have been recurrent, and their resolutions never offered perspectives that could have helped redevelop the system and allow it to avoid trouble or to absorb shocks.

At the same time, one could also conclude from the same experiences and from the political balance of power, as well as from the attachment of strong actors (representing the majority of the Lebanese population) to confessionalism and to their understanding of consociationalism for different reasons (related mainly to their shares in power and to their ‘veto right’), that radical reforms may be today unrealistic.

Consequently, presenting a few areas of reforms that would permit the political system and its consociationalism to evolve with less crisis, or at least making crises more manageable, becomes a priority. This priority does not deny the possibility of thinking of more reforms in later stages; it rather secures the possibility for such reforms to happen.

The rationale of these reforms is motivated by a) the need of calming down confessional (Christian) fears stemming from demography; b) trying to weaken monopolies in the representation of confessions/communities to avoid continuous vertical clashes in the society; c) weakening confessionalism itself; and d) supporting local development in Lebanese regions to counter the impact of clientelism in the political sphere and to allow for local initiatives to develop. What might make them less ‘unrealistic’ is that the status quo has failed, and failed terribly. Most political and confessional elites, even if enjoying power and wealth, can no longer digest tensions and deal with clashes, especially considering that they might not be able to control their escalation if it occurs and if the regional situation evolved through a confrontational process.

These four tasks concern electoral law reform (making it based on a proportional system), the drafting of a new nationality law (allowing for Lebanese women to pass on nationality to their husbands and children, and allowing at the same time for descendants of Lebanese to apply for nationality), the creation of a civil code (managing all civil statuses issues), and the work on administrative decentralisation law in Lebanon.

Reforms similar to those mentioned above (probably with the exception of the one on administrative reforms), might find their way to adoption in the current context. International pressures (through donor agencies and UN organisations) can push the adoption of many of them. As a matter of fact, many ‘modernisation’ and reform projects are undertaken by different ministries today with international support. The challenge is to push for their adoption and execution and for the monitoring of their implications.

Of course, one can also evoke the reform dealing with military and security forces in order to deal with the weapons of Hezbollah and its security branches. This is definitely necessary, but experiences have proven this to be impossible today, especially now that the Special Tribunal for Lebanon officially started its work.12 It will probably be regional agreements or the emergence of appeasing elements in the Middle East that would push the Party of God to review its need for weapons. Meanwhile, internal transitional reforms could contribute to decreasing tensions and set the ground for more reforms in the future.


1. Confessionalism is the term used in Lebanon to describe the allocation of political and administrative positions in the state to individuals based on their sectarian affiliation and according to sectarian quotas.

2. Arend Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy: GovernmentForms and Performance in Thirty-Six Countries, (New Haven and London: Yale UniversityPress, 1999), p. 32.

3. Lijphart, Non-Majoritarian Democracy : A comparison of Federal and Consociational theories, Publius, Vol. 15, No. 2, Federalism and Consociationalism: A symposium, Spring 1985, pp. 3-15.

4. Nawaf Salam, La condition Libanaise, Dar Annahar, Beirut 1998, p. 30.

5. The fact that no censuses were officially organised in Lebanon after 1932 proves by itself that demography, due to its revelation of confessional sizes, became a sensitive political issue: most actors prefer to avoid it in order to keep the power sharing formulas (that persist) stable.

6. The same electoral law would be adopted after the independence in 1943 with the same districts. It was only in 1953 when administrative amendments were introduced to the law: new electoral divisions were adopted according to cazas (26 cazas) instead of governorates. The structure of these cazas was reviewed in the elections of 1968 and 1972.

7. Michel Chiha, ‘Politiqueintérieur’, 1964 quoted by Elizabeth Picard in Lebanon a shattered country, Holmes and Meier, 2002, p. 71.

8. All electoral lists in mixed districts had candidates from different confessions.

9. Michael Kerr, Imposing power sharing, Irish Academic Press, 2005, p. 123-124.

10. Ghassan Salamé, Al-Moujtama’a wa al-dawla filmachreq al-arabi, Markaz Dirassat am-wihda al-arabiya, Beirut 1987, p. 53.

11. This happened in 1958, then again in 1969, then through the civil war (from 1975 to 1990), and more recently in the crisis following the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

12. The Special Tribunal for Lebanon has accused four Lebanese individuals (all members of or close to Hezbollah) of having played important roles in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.


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