Ri Insights

The ups and downs of confessionalism

paul gadalla

by Paul Gadalla

Rai Insights Contributor

Beirut: Arab states are now extremely brittle, as authoritarian regimes have crumbled, leading to a large security vacuum across the MENA region. It is easy for so called ‘Western experts’ to suggest a number of things that will somehow conjure up a democratic system. But with weak institutions and rampant sectarian and ethnic tensions, an easy solution is far off.


It would be foolish to simply take a typical secular Western and attempt to transplant in the region. Should we despair think the region is ungovernable? The short answer is no.  People must also take a step back and remember this is not the first time ethnic and religious tensions have spilled over in the Middle East and past solutions could offer help for the present. One of the best examples of this is the civil war in Lebanon.  For 15 long years, the Lebanese civil war dragged on. Much like the current wars in the region, it was not just a mere one sect versus another but a bitter regional struggle involving a number of militias and foreign armies. Yet somehow, and despite many snags, Lebanon’s consensual politics has survived on.  Is its all-inclusive confessional model the answer? Not quite, but it does offer some solutions to a number of problems plaguing the region.


Confessional politics is not new to the region.  Under the confessional system each sect or ethnicity gets a slice of the government. People have been grouped into tribes and sects for over a thousand years now. The Ottomans often governed through a network of tribes and sectarian leaders. These elements being prominent are nothing new. In many Arab countries tribal laws and agreements have often superseded state rules as witnessed in Iraq or Egypt.  What is strange to the region is the European concept of the nation state.

One of the most vital elements of confessional politics is that it brings all sides to the table. No one is left out. This can give minorities, who are endangered in the region, a chance to be at the negotiating table. In Lebanon it has given voice to small communities like Armenians or Druze who are not fully represented in other Arab countries. It has also preserved the presence of various Christian sects that are losing their influence in other MENA countries. We’ve seen how in countries such as Egypt or Tunisia, parties attempted to eliminate each other. It also means that legislation cannot be passed that could purposely harm a community or people.


There are also downsides to confessional politics. It can often lead to months of deadlock or political wrangling between different factions.  Lebanon is already heading towards a political deadlock over a new electoral law and twice in the past decade it has taken long periods of time to elect a president.  Confessional politics means ruling by consensus, which can often dilute solutions or legislation with the aim of pleasing all communities.


Confessionalism at times can be damaging to national unity. Different political or sectarian factions, when unsatisfied can stir tensions in order to make political gains. This was seen in Lebanon when all Shiite ministers withdrew from Fouad Siniora’s first cabinet and then claimed his cabinet was illegitimate for not having any Shiite representation. This would lead to a number of street clashes between different youths. Ultimately it would lead to a showdown between backers of the government and Hezbollah, which saw the latter take over West Beirut. Or as seen in Iraq, many people continuously vote within their own sect instead of parties across a national platform.


Due to its factional nature, once a government falls into confessionalism, it is not easy to get out of it. According to Lebanon’s Taif Accord, which ended the Lebanese Civil War, eventually Lebanon’s sectarian system must be dismantled and a Senate without sectarian quotas must be formed. Yet, 27 years later Lebanon is still nowhere near dismantling its draconian quota system or setting up a separate legislature apart from its parliament.  Very little has been done between the ruling elites to the end the system and many critics have claimed that they have only entrenched themselves further through it. Critical steps must be outlined in order for confessional politics to lead to a stronger government.


Is confessional politics the ultimately solution? Unfortunately it isn’t. It can lead to people losing out on justice and important laws diluted. But it does bring all sides to the table which is often needed in a region where often one side attempts to eliminate the other, even when democratically elected.

*Paul Gadalla is a New York native communication specialist and aspiring political analyst based in Beirut, Lebanon

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