How Sectarianism Helped Destroy Lebanon’s Economy

The sectarian power-sharing agreement that ended Lebanon’s civil war also wrecked its economy and led to widespread protests.

Like so many in Lebanon, Samir Hamdan grew up being told that Lebanon’s political system was necessary to protect his sect. Thanks to the sectarian power-sharing agreement that ended the 15-year civil war in 1990, his small Druze minority was guaranteed seats in parliament and positions in government. But now in his twenties, Hamdan says that system has not just kept people divided—it’s also helped destroy the country’s economy.

After a year of searching for jobs with his architecture degree, Hamdan heard that the army was looking for architects and engineers, and he passed months of tough officer exams. He made it through to the final round of selection and, feeling confident, Hamdan checked the website to see the list of those picked for the new officer positions, only to find out he wouldn’t be getting a place.

Not because he lacked skill or ability—he said he was simply from the wrong sect. “Someone who has worse grades would be accepted and I won’t,” said Hamdan, who has joined the weeks of anti-government protests in Beirut.

Like all public institutions in Lebanon, army recruitment aims for sectarian balance. The army should have a certain number of Christians, Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Druze, and Armenians in high positions, roughly correlating to the Lebanon’s demographic makeup. Filling those quotas comes first, competency later.

Lebanon’s whole government system is built on this share-power-among-sects, keep-the-peace model. The issue is so sensitive here that Hamdan and some protesters Foreign Policy talked to for this article asked not to use their real names.

“When they don’t take people based on qualification, this has a bad impact on the public sector,” Hamdan said.

Protesters in Lebanon say they want more than anything to move beyond this system, pointing to how their leaders have benefited from keeping the masses scared, divided, and dependent. They say leaders are clinging to this system not to keep the peace but to keep alive the networks of patronage and clientelism that they can exploit.

Some say this model has been exported to other postwar countries, like Iraq, where a similar sectarian-based power sharing system is also being blamed for corruption and government mismanagement amid massive anti-government protests.

Many of Lebanon’s current leaders rose to power in time of war and chaos. It’s the environment where they thrived. If a new, technocratic government were brought in, the current sectarian parties wouldn’t just lose their political power but also their ability to skim profits off lucrative contracts. It would threaten the nepotism and patronage that underpins the party-led political system we so often call “sectarian”—a system fueled not by religious hatred but by the profits and corruption it facilitates.

Lebanon’s bloated bureaucracy is not only too big—it’s ineffective. A 2005 World Bank study found in the health sector, Lebanon required 25 percent more funds to achieve the same health outcomes as best practices countries. The transport department has a budget of over $8 million a year, but it offers a fleet of just 40 buses and little other public transport. The national train service, which hasn’t functioned in decades, has hundreds of staff on payroll. Laying them off could be too sensitive.

Hamdan said the sectarian quotas also create a system that allows leaders to dole out positions as part of an elaborate network of patronage, clientelism, and nepotism, which has become the defining feature of Lebanon’s politics and economy. The equation is simple: We get you or your family member a position, you stay loyal to the sectarian political party.

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