Lebanon, Reform

Two Houses, Many Mansions


I’ve written an article for The Review, calling for the creation of a bicameral legislature in Lebanon. Some of you may remember a post from a while ago announcing the launch of an optimistic initiative called the Lebanese Campaign for a Senate. Well, this piece attempts to make the case in a more cogent fashion.

Here’s are the first few paragraphs of the article. Read the rest over at The National, and then come on back here to leave comments.

Two Houses, Many Mansions

Two months ago, with the world peering over its shoulder, Lebanon held parliamentary elections. Perhaps more significant than the surprising result – which saw the Western-backed March 14 coalition hold onto power – was the outpouring of enthusiasm for the election itself. Voter turnout reached record highs, and thousands of Lebanese expatriates returned home to cast their ballots, many of them taking advantage of airline tickets paid for by deep-pocketed political parties. The first truly competitive election held in decades, it was portrayed by all sides as the gateway to a new era (indeed, some claimed, a “Third Republic”) where the chronic dysfunctions of the post-war period – from corruption and mismanagement to sectarian violence and institutional immobilism – would be swept away under a bold new mandate.

Today, nearly 10 weeks after the last vote was counted, hopes of a fresh start have fizzled as Lebanon finds itself mired again in circumstances conspicuously reminiscent of the pre-election status quo. Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri has faced one obstacle after another on his way to forming a national unity government, all the while fighting a rear-guard action against the splintering of his own parliamentary bloc.

While sluggish deliberations and brittle coalition governments plague many parliamentary democracies, Lebanon’s repeated bouts of state paralysis are symptomatic of deeper problems. The experience of the past four years, since the end of the Pax Syriana and the false stability it imposed, has made it all too clear that the basic principle of Lebanese democracy – consensual decision-making by confessional elites – is inadequate to the task of managing the country. The state functions primarily as a tool in the hands of a corrupt cartel of sectarian leaders, a space to compete over parochial interests at the expense of the national welfare.

The inevitable injustices engendered by this system have helped to maintain feelings of disillusionment and revanchism among Lebanese citizens, who have little recourse but to turn, ironically, to the patronage machines of their confessional leaders for the basic services that the government is unable to provide. In this way, a vicious cycle is set in motion, entrenching the original source of the system’s frailty and empowering the elites to continue to govern in their own interests. (keep reading)
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37 thoughts on “Two Houses, Many Mansions

  1. I responded a little on twitter, but I’ll pose the same question here. I have yet to see a persuasive argument for why Lebanon needs an “upper house”. The point of such an institution would be to “slow down” any hasty and “passionate” legislation passed through a lower body (which, if designed correctly, should be a more representative body readily influenced by the “masses”). But hasty legislation never struck me as a problem faced by the Leb parliament. I think reforming the composition of the parliament itself is a bigger priority. I’m just not sure how creating a Lebanese “House of Lords” will alleviate the existing “patronage” system. In fact, it can be argued that patronage will be exacerbated (the committee system in the US Senate is a case in point).

    Posted by nadia | August 14, 2009, 1:57 am
  2. I think it would be useful to have a Senate be 2 seats for each community – a 36-seat Seante where the top 2 polling candidates win the seats reserved for each community and where you can only vote for your own community. (Your I.D. card can still have no public affiliation).

    Senate could have ability to delay legislation being enacted where there are issues of concern to a community that it wants the Lower House to ex-examine.

    As for the main Lower House – the 2006 Commission’s proposal for 77 seats filled through first-past-the-post/winner-take-all elections in small qadas, while 51 seats are filled through a proportional electoral system at the level of governorates, plus right of Lebanese citizens living overseas to participate … would be a step toward building a greater sense of modern nationhood.

    Question: How many official sects are there and who are they? Are the Ismali a sect for the purposes of Lebanon’s constitution? Are the Copts?

    1. Sunni;
    2. Shi’a (Twelvers);
    3. Druze;
    4. Isma’ili;
    5. Alaawi;
    6. Jewish;
    7. Maronite Catholic;
    8. Greek Catholic;
    9. Armenian Catholic;
    10. Syriac Catholic;
    11. Chaldean Catholic;
    12. Latin (Roman Catholic);
    13. Greek Orthodox of Antioch;
    14. Armenian Apostolic Church;
    15. Coptic (“Oriental”)
    16. Syriac (“Orthodox” or Jacobite);
    17.Holy Apolstolic Assyrian;(Church of East)
    18. Evangelical (Protestant)

    Posted by sofia | August 14, 2009, 6:01 am
  3. Nadia

    As I tried to argue in the article, there is no established template for a hypothetical Lebanese senate. We would be designing it from the ground up.

    The point of this body would not be to slow down all hasty and passionate legislation. Its primary function would be to sequester confessional, emotional, charismatic interests from the main business of government so that the Chamber of Deputies could get on with its everyday business in a straightforward, up-or-down-vote fashion.

    You’re absolutely right that “reforming the composition of the parliament itself is the main priority”. But my point is that it is very difficult to do this in Lebanon without the bicameral model as a kind of “pathway” to it.

    In my view, the senate should only have jurisdiction over confessional matters (as I pointed out). Over time, it would be come an even more vestigial and symbolic body, functioning primarily in a deliberative capacity like the House of Lords, which hasn’t exercised its right to delay legislation for up to a year in a very long time, if memory serves me well.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 14, 2009, 8:09 am
  4. Fair enough. There is a fairly large literature on bicameralism in comparative pol (which I’ll readily admit isn’t really my area) and like much of the work on political institutions, there are enormous gaps between the theoretical and empirical work (and much of it can’t really be applied very well to the Lebanese context – for example, our parties don’t really line up on the left-right continuum, at least not in any way stable enough to make actual predictions. The PSP comes to mind here.) I think the best example we have to learn from right now would be to look at the growing pains faced by the new Iraqi parliament, which consists of a two-bodied assembly.

    My biggest concern though, apart from the obvious gridlock issues, would be that imposing such a system keeps the confessionalist system entrenched rather than moving to a more secular arrangement.

    Posted by nadia | August 14, 2009, 10:40 am
  5. QN,
    As I’ve said before, theoretically what you propose makes a lot of sense. On the ground, the effect will be to give Syria another stranglehold on Lebanon. It would have to control just a few Senate members to bring the Lebanese state to a halt. It would have the same effect as Berri not opening the Parlaiment.

    Yes, I know details have to be worked out. But if the Senate does not have some form of veto powers, how does it protect the minorities? The Senate will just make Syria’s and Hizballah’s work so much easier in stopping legislation they do not want. Just imagine 1701 having to be approved by the Senate.

    On another issue, there is not much difference between having a real popular vote and a census. So why would those against a census agree to a popular vote?

    Posted by AIG | August 14, 2009, 10:55 am
  6. Nadia said:

    “My biggest concern though, apart from the obvious gridlock issues, would be that imposing such a system keeps the confessionalist system entrenched rather than moving to a more secular arrangement.”

    I have that concern too, and I’m not sure I’d necessarily advocate a senate if a unicameral, non-confessional system was there for the taking. But there is a lot of resistance in Lebanon to the idea of abandoning vague confessional “protections”.


    You are making a similar point to Nadia, except with the foreign dimension. I am very sensitive to this objection, believe me. But I am imagining a situation whereby the kinds of legislation that the senate would be able to veto would be limited to the realm of religious affairs: personal status laws, marriage, citizenship, etc.

    If somebody wants to make the argument that 1701 is a confessional issue, I’m ready to listen, but I think it’s an uphill climb.

    As for the census/popular vote, this is another major issue (presuming you mean that people who are afraid of a census would also be afraid of a non-confessional electoral law with the same number of voters per district.) The standard worry is: If we get rid of the current system of representation (as unjust as it may be), then the Shiites (and by extension Hizbullah, and by extension Syria and Iran) will control Lebanon.

    My feeling is that we need to take a long view. Why bother with such reforms at all if we don’t believe that more democratic and open regimes are, in the long run, better for society?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 14, 2009, 11:43 am
  7. This isn’t very well thought out, but i’ve been toying with this idea a bit. Instead of a permanent Senate, what might be better would be a more temporary institutional body (kind of like the Constitutional Congress – or maybe a semi-permanent one that meets every 6 years), which purely deals constitutional issues related to government composition and representation. If Lebanon were to create a Senate, such a transitional body would be needed anyway.

    Posted by nadia | August 14, 2009, 11:55 am
  8. QN,
    1701 seems confessional to me. The Hizballah supporters on the FPM blog view it as a way to take power away from the Shia sect.

    I would of course agree that “democratic and open regimes are, in the long run, better for society”. BUT, the intent should be not to manipulate democracy against itself. Let me give you an example. The leader of Shas in Israel, Ovadiah Yossef, has about 300,000 votes compared to my one. Why? His followers vote what he tells them. This is wrong but the democratic state has no legal means to counter this anti-democratic move. If the Shia remain a voting block doing as Nasrallah and Berri tell them, then a Lebanon based on your suggestions would not be democratic at all. It would be a farce.

    Posted by AIG | August 14, 2009, 12:30 pm
  9. AIG:

    What you are suggesting is that the 300,000 people that voted Shas in Israel last election either don’t have any independent moral or intellectual abilities, or that their moral and intellectual abilities are at least lower than your own abilites.

    In reality, however, Mr Yossef doesn’t have 300,000 votes to your one vote. Mr Yossef has one vote.

    The issue for the 300,000 people that vote Shas is that that particular party best represents what they themselves individually decide best represents their values, their interests and their safety.

    In Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party formed or led the government after every election in the past 60 years or so. In the U.S.A. just two parties win every seat in the House; African Americans voted 90+ per cent Democrat, with other high Democratic Party voting for Hispanics, Jewish, Arabs and other communities – election after election after election – Protestant Anglos traditionally favour Republican by a margin, election after election, decade after decade.

    Consistent communities of interest bloc voting doesn’t make voting a “farce” – it is a constant common theme wherever there are secret ballot voting systems – support can erode over time, or be built as parties expand thier outreach. It is the nature of parliamentary party democracy.

    Posted by CZ | August 14, 2009, 5:58 pm
  10. Nadia,

    Apologies for what may be an ignorant query, but what is the second legislative body in Iraq?

    Posted by J of Chalcedon | August 14, 2009, 6:30 pm
  11. CZ,
    The point is that the Shas voters have the wrong intent. They are not playing the democratic game as it should be played. They would prefer to have a religious state led by Ovadiah Yossef but in the meantime they are making a farce of Israeli democracy. They think Yossef is ABOVE the law and IS the law.

    Democracy is a fragile game that can easily be manipulated. It is a social agreement that breaks down when too many people feel cheated. For example, if too many Americans will come to feel that the two party system does not give them adequate representation, you can expect serious upheaval in the US.

    If the votes in Lebanon remain sectarian, popular democracy would be a farce because it would just be a mean for the larger sects to impose power. Is Nasrallah really accountable? Could he be voted out if the majority of Shia don’t like him? Would Hizballah and Amal give another Shia party room to grow? Not likely.

    Posted by AIG | August 14, 2009, 8:47 pm
  12. J of Chalcedon,

    Definitely not an ignorant query, as the second body does not yet exist. It’s known as the Majlis al-Itihad (or the Federation Council) and is (vaguely) mentioned in the new constitution, but has yet to be formed. The composition will be decided by the parliament (the assumption I think being that Iraq will follow some kind of ethno-regional federalist model).

    Posted by nadia | August 14, 2009, 10:52 pm
  13. The way that AIG is looking at the 1701 issue is actually through a sectarian lens, and through such a lens, all politics are confessional in Lebanon.

    Finally, as for the voting blocks, I’m afraid that that’s how democracy works in many countries, not just Lebanon. There is a fair amount of identity politics and a dose of similar people having similar concerns and desires.

    In the US, certain demographics can be expected to vote, for the most part, for a particular party, which is why we talk about the black vote, the Jewish vote, the union vote, the evangelical vote, the southern vote, the Cuban vote as opposed to the broader Latino vote, etc. The main difference is that in the US, there are more varied kinds of identity on offer which have competing pulls, whereas in Lebanon the sectarian aspect generally trumps the others.

    Posted by sean | August 15, 2009, 1:43 am
  14. QN,
    I still don’t understand why you think adding an additional legislative body would be more effective at protecting minority rights than a simple law that explicitly protects minorities in “the realm of religious affairs: personal status laws, marriage, citizenship, etc…” Something in the realm of the American “bill of rights” for the protection of minority rights in Lebanon could accomplish your goals without the addition of a new legislative chamber…

    Being a lawyer myself, although I like the concept of government protecting the rights of the people, I don’t think that making the process additionally, and unnecessary, convoluted is the best way to protect rights in general.

    Also, in my opinion, the clearest way to disassemble a confessional system would be to change the election law in a way that rewarded ideas rather than politicians or confessions. For example, why not vote on platforms, rather party lists or individuals. Have a foreign ministry election that is a vote on various policy options, an education ministry election that is a vote on policies rather than politicians, and empowering a bureaucracy in the process… (it could be purely this way, or some type of mixed vote, where various politicians elected but are required to fulfill policies that were also elected… or some other mix)

    I am just proposing a concept here to emphasize the what i think is the flaw in your argument (that an additional “house” doesn’t change the debate fundamentally, and it primarily provides another way to obstruct important policies…). When various parties are deeply entrenched confessionally, electing politicians on the basis of political parties merely reinforces confessionalism.

    Obviously policies can also be associated with confessions (at least to start), but by changing the frame of debate from that of individual associations (via parties) to ideologies and platforms… you will make a substantial move away from confessionalism…

    If you ask me, that is a more functional way to eliminate confessionalism than adding an extra “house”.

    But, alas, both are unrealistic because there are strong entrenched interests which benefit by the perpetuation of the confessional order.

    Posted by Joe M. | August 15, 2009, 2:06 am
  15. AIG, you say that: “The point is that the Shas voters have the wrong intent….”

    Sounds like you think Jews of Arab origin are almost as unacceptable as plain ‘ole Arabs…you need to think carefully about what you are saying – you are too often letting your mask down.

    But onto something serious: The key thing for Lebanon is not to end up like Israel where the endless race-based fighting causes families to be pulled out of their homes, entire communities subjected to State-sponsored terror and useless circle go rounds of sheer bullying on the base of race – like is happening today in Acre.

    Lebanon is not like that – and must ensure it never goes down that dead-end track. A move toward a bicameral architecture for the functioning of parliament may be a positive step further away from the tragedy of racism and should be supported for that reason.

    BTW Beautiful article today by Uri Avnery on the situation in Acre. Haram.


    Posted by Jean CZ Estiphan | August 15, 2009, 8:26 pm
  16. AIG, Joe, and Nadia

    I’m preparing a post in response to the questions you raise, which I hope to post tomorrow.

    til then…

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 15, 2009, 10:27 pm
  17. Jean CZ Estiphan,
    You are way off the mark. The same problem I have with Shas I have with Agudat Israel, the Ashkenazi mirror image of Shas. There though they do not have one rabbi that call the shots but the same effect occurs: a sector that does not believe in democracy manipulates democracy to their advantage.

    Let me remind you that the Lebanese killed many more Palestinians than the Israelis and that Israeli Arabs have more rights and are 5 time richer than the average Lebanese. Also, don’t forget which “non-secterian” and “non-racial” country “where there is no religious based fighting” ended up with a civil war in which 200,000 people were killed. In spite of a bitter war with the Palestinian people, Israeli have killed less than 100 Israeli Arabs in 60 years and less than 20 in the last 40 years (including 13 killed by police in riots). Take that in slowly. 200,000 vs 100.

    If the Lebanese treated each other as Israelis treat Arab Israelis, Lebanon would be a much better place today. There were tens of thousands of Jews in Lebanon in 48, how many are there now? There were 150,000 Arabs in Israel in 48. There are 1.5 million now. Which country is a racist dead end?

    Posted by AIG | August 16, 2009, 1:42 am
  18. QN can AIG just be kept off this site because clearly he is an stupid moron that adds nothing to the discussion.

    Posted by the Sydneysider | August 16, 2009, 1:47 am
  19. Sydneysider,
    I see you would be a great candidate to be an Arab president. Instead of answering with logic, you answer with censorship. Do you read a lot of Khadaffi’s books? Or have you taken Asad’s internet course: Democracy in the Baath Tradition? Perhaps you had time to peruse Mubarak’s Single Party Democracies for Dummies?

    It just could be that censorship and shutting people up comes naturally to you. In that case you are a natural, so bravo.

    Posted by AIG | August 16, 2009, 2:27 am
  20. Israeli Arabs have more rights and are 5 time richer than the average Lebanese.

    Where do you get these numbers from? I think half the time, you’re just making things up.

    Lebanon’s per capita GDP is about $11,000 and Israel’s is about $28,000.

    In order for Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to earn five times the average Lebanese, they’d have to earn nearly double the Israeli GDP. Instead, Palestinians with Israeli citizenship make up over a third of Israeli citizens living under the poverty line, with nearly 60% of their children living below the poverty line.

    Please stop making numbers up.

    Posted by sean | August 16, 2009, 2:43 am
  21. I guess punishing Israeli Arabs for acknowledging the “Nakba” doesn’t count as censorship. Also, while Lebanese certainly should be held accountable for any crimes committed against Palestinians (amnesty my ass), it’s not like the Israelis haven’t done everything they could to encourage those crimes. Sharon and the IDF did everything short of going into Sabra and Shatila themselves. Israel’s own Kahane Commission report is very enlightening.

    Posted by nadia | August 16, 2009, 3:27 am
  22. Thank you Nadia. Moron Zionist after moron zionist come here to tell us – who are not Arab leaders and do want to hold all Arab leaders accountable – about democractic processes.

    Go to hell AIG – your esposed ideology is racist at its core.

    Posted by Sydneysider | August 16, 2009, 5:51 am
  23. Oh yes and thank you sean as well for exposing the lovely fraudlent numbers that we all have to read. AIG’s sources are always so accurate.

    Posted by Sydneysider | August 16, 2009, 5:52 am
  24. Let’s stick to the subject.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 16, 2009, 6:55 am
  25. AIG:

    Since the Palestinians are all from Israel, the Israeli state is morally and legally responsible for their wellbeing as they have no other sovereign to look after their interests.

    I would have welcomed the I.D.F. saving the Palestinians from the massacres in ’76 in Tel al Zaatar, Jisr el Pasha, Qunietra – unfortunately, as we know, both the Syrian Army and the Israeli Army were supporting and supplying, but not to the ones doing the defending of the beseiged in the camps. (I am talking here about civilians caught up in the fighting).

    During AMAL’s “war on the camps” in southern Lebanon in 1985, the IDF and SLA were there watching – the IDF could have destroyed AMAL or at least intervened to protect Palestinian civilians caught up in the fighting – just as they could destroy Hizbullah today – but there is a strategic view taken which is that it is not unhelpful to have the Palestinians “under control” in Lebanon.

    And Sabra and Shatilla.

    For Lebanon I think the question is how to amend the constitutional architecture in time to keep up with developments on the ground to avoid future civil wars.

    I think the idea of a Senate, change to the voting system, lowering the voting age – and also I wish citizenship rights for Palestinians born in Lebanon – these are all I hope things for the future that will be seriously addressed.

    The problem I have with the constitutional arrangements of Israel is that it is constant, race-based ethnic bullying in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Acre, in the West Bank etc. – and that is the normal state of affairs even when it is supposedly “peace time”.

    But very good news from Israel/Palestine today – the election of five Christians and one Jewish member to the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

    That is absolutely something from Israel/Palestine that Lebanon could learn from.

    Posted by Jean CZ Estiphan | August 16, 2009, 7:22 am
  26. Sean,
    Yes, I made a mistake, I am too used to posting the GDP numbers relative to Syria.
    But it is undeniable that the average Israeli Arab is richer than the average Lebanese, which is my point.

    The fact is, that my government is accountable to me, and the Arab governments aren’t. You can blame others from here to kingdom come, but in the end the LEBANESE are responsible for their own destiny. If you want to hold Arab leaders accountable, then do it. Talking about something for 60 years and doing nothing about it is ridiculous.

    The response will of course be: It is not our fault. Pathetic.

    Posted by AIG | August 16, 2009, 1:05 pm
  27. As for the responsibility for the Palestinians, it is of course all the responsibility of Lebanon for two reasons. In 1948 it was Lebanon that declared war on Israel and ignored the UN partition resolution. Lebanon lost the war and therefore the 48 Palestinians are Lebanon’s responsibility. As the for the more problematic bunch of Palestinians, the Lebanese accepted them “voluntarily” by agreeing to the Cairo agreement following black September!!! So what are you complaining about?

    Posted by AIG | August 16, 2009, 1:12 pm
  28. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Lebanon did not declared war nor did it join the war on Israel in 1948. The only country Lebanon declared war on was Nazi Germany in 1945 (in order to join and establish the UN).

    This is just for historical accuracy, let’s not get into an endless debate about the rest of the last post…

    Posted by mas | August 16, 2009, 3:08 pm
  29. Mas,
    You are wrong. Despite an agreement in 47 between Ben-Gurion and the maronites, Lebanon attacked Israel with a small force without any Israeli provocation against Lebanon.


    Posted by AIG | August 16, 2009, 3:31 pm
  30. Well not according to:

    It’s Yoav Gelber vs Morris Benn. Anyone has a clearer account?

    Posted by mas | August 16, 2009, 3:54 pm
  31. Nadia,

    Offf, completely forgot about that. Guess if the constitutional review committee was placed to function, the second body would be written out quick.

    Sorry to wander from the topic.

    QN, the buy-in aspect of your proposal is the most realistic suggestion I’ve seen for getting the political class to surrender privilege in a dysfunctional system. You’d probably agree it isn’t sufficient, and that ultimately these ideas suppose a generalized sentiment that, expressed in law, defeats extant patterns of patronage and electoral loyalty.

    Posted by J of Chalcedon | August 16, 2009, 6:22 pm
  32. Mas,
    You rely on the following:
    “In May 1948, Lebanon was among five Middle-Eastern states that planned to invade Israel, but it abandoned the invasion at the last moment. While some irregular forces crossed the border and carried out minor skirmishes against Israel, it was without the support of the Lebanese government”

    Even if this is correct, which I doubt, the fact that the Lebanese government did not stop irregular forces from crossing the border is an act of war.

    Posted by AIG | August 16, 2009, 6:27 pm
  33. AIG:

    I agree with you that Lebanon is responsible morally for the well-being of Palestinians born in Lebanon. Thank goodness there is some small steps being taken in the correct direction (i.e. stronger labour protections etc).

    In a way history is history – we can forget it. But just so you know in reality Palestinians were arriving in Lebanon from late 1947 and early 1948 prior to the hand over of State aparatus from the British to the new Israeli administration (the Palestinians had been largely disarmed by the British by 1936).

    It isn’t just our parents’ memories I am relying on – or Palestinians’ account – plenty of modern Israeli historians have discussed the displacement of Palestinians and not just from the very well known cases such as Acre – but all over that was occurring in late 1947 and early 1948.

    But that is history. Let’s be respectful to the author of this blog which is one of the most thorough on Lebanese culture and politics.

    And on some very good news from Lebanon – the work of the Lebanese Jewish Community Council to rebuild three synagogues is picking up pace this year – finally the scars of the civil war are coming to be put behind us.


    Posted by Sofia | August 17, 2009, 3:41 am
  34. J of Chalcedon,

    I’d agree with you that these measures would not be enough. And hell, if people want to keep voting for their lousy confessional leaders, I’m not going to stop them.

    That said, defeating systems of patronage and electoral loyalty is more the domain of a fair electoral law, rather than the introduction of bicameralism.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 17, 2009, 5:36 pm
  35. It’s amazing that every discussion on this blog turns into an argument about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps the moderator should take preventive action on this?

    Posted by Peter H | August 17, 2009, 6:09 pm


  1. Pingback: Amuse-gueules « the human province - August 15, 2009

  2. Pingback: Bicameralism Issues I: Would a Senate Only Serve to Entrench Confessionalism? « Qifa Nabki - August 16, 2009

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