Lebanon, Reform

Confessionalism or Cronyism?

How much of the current fight about administrative appointments is about sectarian politics, and how much of it is just about politics?

When one hears reports about how so-and-so is demanding that such-and-such position is given to this or that sect, it’s tempting to get up on the soapbox and proclaim that confessionalism is rearing its ugly head again. In a non-confessional system — so the secular activist’s complaint goes — there would be no impediments to finding “the right person for the job.”

In my view, this way of looking at the issue is problematic. At any given time there are probably several people, from several different sects, who could fill an administrative position and do a very good job. The problem, in most cases, is not that the ideal candidate is prevented from getting the job because of his/her sect, but because they are not part of the relevant patronage network.

Take, for example, the current quarrel about the directorship of General Security. Supposedly, Aoun wants the position to go to “a Maronite” and Berri wants it to go to “a Shiite”. But surely it’s not as simple as that. Aoun wants the position to go to a Maronite who is loyal to the FPM, and Berri wants a Shiite loyal to AMAL. I would venture to say that Aoun would rather have a Shiite loyal to the FPM in the spot rather than a Maronite loyal to AMAL.

In other words, the real obstacle to getting qualified people in the right jobs is cronyism, not confessionalism. If we got rid of the system of confessional quotas in administrative appointments, it would not suddenly throw open the gates to a legion of qualified bureaucrats who had been prevented from getting the right jobs because they came from the wrong sect.

The real role that confessionalism plays in all of this is that of a smokescreen. By pretending that they are the defenders of Maronite and Shiite interests,  Aoun and Berri provide sectarian cover for their mundane political squabbles, just as Hariri does for the Sunnis, and Jumblatt does for the Druzes, etc.

I think that this has broader implications for the anti-confessionalism debate in parliament as well. Simply put, it’s not enough to just advocate for the abolishment of confessionalism. You have to identify what kind of a system you want to replace it with, and how you are going to counter-act the effects of patronage, cronyism, corruption, etc.
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Discussion

19 thoughts on “Confessionalism or Cronyism?

  1. I’m not sure the two things are that separable here. Of course, FPM wants a Aounist Maronite rather than one who’s loyal to Geagea or Gemayel. That’s a given, in the same way that the Bush administration filled the occupation in Iraq with incompetent youngsters who were ideologically reliable, rather than qualified people who may have voted for a Democrat in the last election.

    That’s party politics, and party politics always lends itself to political cronyism, not to mention familial nepotism.

    Lebanon, however, has a separate layer added onto the “normal” cronyism in the form of sectarianism. This added layer doesn’t mean that the first one doesn’t exist (or vice versa), but rather that to even get Lebanon to the position of “normal” cronyism, confessionalism has to be stripped away.

    Also, even if Aoun would prefer an FPM Shi’ite to a Maronite loyal to Berri, we can’t forget that the larger structures of the parties (in most cases) are geared toward a particular religious community.

    We might think of someone like Michael Steele, who while black, still serves what is primarily a white (and sometimes racist) party. His position as chairman of the RNC doesn’t signal a post-racial GOP, but rather a political move by the Republican cadres. In a similar way, any Maronite protégé of Berri or Shi’a protégé of Aoun would be window dressing to support what are still at heart politico-sectarian movements, not a sign that Lebanon is moving towards post-confessionalism.

    Posted by sean | January 22, 2010, 6:39 am
  2. QN,
    Sectarianism is not just a smokescreen, but an effective mechanism in enabling and sustaining corruption and cronyism. Secularism will remove a significant support pillar in any patronage network.

    Between sects, the confessional system is a form of market segmentation. Its similar to how the DVD market works. The population is divided into regions (Shiite region, Maronite region, etc.) and politicians work only within their designated region. This protects their patronage network from competition from other regions. Aoun cannot flip one of Berri’s guys by giving him a better deal. Confessionalism is a no-poaching agreement between sects.

    Within a sect, sectarianism promotes consolidation of a power bases to face off against other power bases. This is clear in the Shiite and Sunni sects. The Maronites have internal competition, but this is widely lamented and seen as a problem. There is tremendous pressure to paper over any differences within a sect.

    Because it is forbidden to assimilate members of a rival power base, you end up with rigid political blocks competing in a zero sum game.

    Getting rid of confessional quotas will not usher in an instant utopia. But it will undercut the protection is affords patronage networks, which counts as a good thing.

    Posted by RedLeb | January 22, 2010, 6:42 am
  3. I disagree with both of you, but will have to respond later! 🙂

    But I’ll probably see both of you later too, so maybe we’ll just talk about it in person.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 22, 2010, 7:57 am
  4. That’s not fair. You get to continue the conversation in person while I’m stuck here with my popcorn bag waiting. Plus, I’m guessing you’re all in Lebanon which I came back from a week ago and desperately want to go back to.
    It’s really not fair.

    Posted by Mehdi | January 22, 2010, 8:19 am
  5. RedLeb said:

    “Sectarianism is not just a smokescreen, but an effective mechanism in enabling and sustaining corruption and cronyism.”

    Add to the above political feudalism.

    Posted by ghassan karam | January 22, 2010, 8:19 am
  6. There has been a lot of literature on Lebanon which addresses the problem as being that of “zaim”s (loosely: feudal leader) and their role in Lebanese politics, which agrees with Qifa’s characterization.

    Both Sean and Redleb point out rightly that the feelings of the average Lebanese are confessionally inflamed. But again these could be fuelled by the zaims in order to keep their powers. There has been other literature that suggests that the idea of confessionalism in Lebanon has been “invented” by the levantine power elite in order to maintain the political status quo (in other words there’s nothing intrinsic about the Lebanese sense of confessionalism).

    Posted by haytham | January 22, 2010, 8:24 am
  7. RedLeb touches upon the main issue.

    It’s not that confessionalism and cronyism are two different problems, it’s that the former considerably fosters the latter.

    Many researcher describe the Lebanese system as neo-feudal or neo-patriarchal. The entire notion of a communitarian consociational democracy rests upon the assumption that every community has a single leader (or a cartel of leaders) who represent its interests in the national institutions.

    Since there are no overt institutions to regulate political life in the communities (and the selection of these leaders), they naturally revert to a clientelistic tribal system with all that it entails no matter what political ideology or modus operandi they might have started with (eg: The Lebanese Phalanges the Socialist Party, Amal, the Future Movement and currently making the transition, Hezbollah).

    These sectarian “leaderships” have a constitutionally guaranteed stake in the political system through earmarked positions, and they use it to consolidate their power over their communities through hiring into the public sector, pork-barrel spending (in the form of regional funds as well as subsidies to regional interests, such as tobacco, bananas, apples…) and preferential legislation (import licences…). Of course, they also consolidate their power by gerrymandering.

    So the whole sectarian system does not benefit the sects, but their “leaders” and their retinues, whose very leadership is a mere historical coincidence, indefinitely locked-in and fostered by the sectarian system which not only allows cronyism, but makes it standard operating procedure. Of course, leaderships “lock-in” to their positions through symbolic actions and rhetoric, but these are ephemeral trappings that would be shed as soon as they lose the power to “provide” for their communities, an ability that they monopolize through the public institutions themselves.

    So to pick up on QN’s analysis, eliminating sectarian “power-sharing” would not only drastically restrict the sectarian leaderships’ sphere of influence, but also their ability to wield that influence, widely cutting back the reach of their cronyism. More importantly, it would reintroduce political competition within each sect, unhinging the position of sectarian leadership and allowing for two powerful effects.

    First, sectarian clientelistic parties would be forced to rely more on qualifications than loyalty (or even sectarian affiliation) in their appointments, to be able to compete, when they can not rely exclusively on the boons of earmarked positions. This is essentially what Future Movement did in its nascent days, before it became the main Sunni party, appointing people like Bassel Fuleihan, and what the Free Patriotic Movement is doing today with the appointment of Charbel Nahhas.

    The second effect would be the opening of the political scene to new parties who would be able to grow their power base by relying solely on qualifications and sound policies to dominate sectarian parties who would no longer be able to compete, or who would be too busy fighting with their traditional opponents over wht has become a much smaller portion of their constituency.

    Posted by Gobbeltygook | January 22, 2010, 8:58 am
  8. Mafia wars…feudal society!!

    Posted by danny | January 22, 2010, 9:23 am
  9. I agree with QN on this one. Confessionalism and cronyism are tightly intertwined. But you could pull out the confessional element and the cronyism would still be there. Secular systems with weak institutions also have the same kind of patronage networks that you see in Lebanon. Think Eastern Europe. Solid state institutions need to be installed to see the clan fall away.

    Posted by deensharp | January 22, 2010, 10:11 am
  10. Sean said:

    “Lebanon, however, has a separate layer added onto the “normal” cronyism in the form of sectarianism. This added layer doesn’t mean that the first one doesn’t exist (or vice versa), but rather that to even get Lebanon to the position of “normal” cronyism, confessionalism has to be stripped away.

    But why not tackle the cronyism first? Why do we have to strip away confessionalism to deal with issues like basic competence in administrative positions?

    I don’t think it’s quite apples and oranges, but it might be busfeir and oranges.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 22, 2010, 12:17 pm
  11. RedLeb said:

    “Sectarianism is not just a smokescreen, but an effective mechanism in enabling and sustaining corruption and cronyism. Secularism will remove a significant support pillar in any patronage network.”

    I actually don’t believe that secularism will have much of an effect on patronage networks at all, if it is not accompanied by several other major structural reforms.

    “Between sects, the confessional system is a form of market segmentation. Its similar to how the DVD market works. The population is divided into regions (Shiite region, Maronite region, etc.) and politicians work only within their designated region. This protects their patronage network from competition from other regions. Aoun cannot flip one of Berri’s guys by giving him a better deal. Confessionalism is a no-poaching agreement between sects.”

    It’s a nice phrase, but I don’t think that there’s any conscious no-poaching agreements. It just so happens that these networks emerge in certain geographic locales, where there are a preponderance of inhabitants from one particular sect.

    Actually, when Rafiq al-Hariri came along, he “poached” politicians from all across Lebanon. He had interests everywhere. But not everyone is so big a fish, so they need to stick to their own little ponds.

    “Within a sect, sectarianism promotes consolidation of a power bases to face off against other power bases. This is clear in the Shiite and Sunni sects.”

    Not true. The relationship between AMAL and Hezbollah has historically been quite rocky. And the consolidation of the Sunni sect under Mustaqbal was really a function of Rafiq al-Hariri’s enormous wealth, which crushed all of the other smaller Sunni patronage networks, or just absorbed them into his.

    Sectarianism has existed in Lebanon, as a feature of the country’s government, since 1926. For the vast majority of that span, intra-sect relations have been much more fragmented. Sectarianism does not promote consolidation. Money, patronage, and conflict do. 🙂

    “Getting rid of confessional quotas will not usher in an instant utopia. But it will undercut the protection is affords patronage networks, which counts as a good thing.”

    What it will do, in my opinion, is reveal patronage for what it is. That’s why I called it a smokescreen, at least in the case of administrative appointments.

    But if Lebanon suddenly had a nonconfessional system, and we changed nothing else, how would that make Michel al-Murr or Nabih Berri any more or less powerful?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 22, 2010, 12:28 pm
  12. Gobbeltygook said:

    “So to pick up on QN’s analysis, eliminating sectarian “power-sharing” would not only drastically restrict the sectarian leaderships’ sphere of influence, but also their ability to wield that influence, widely cutting back the reach of their cronyism. More importantly, it would reintroduce political competition within each sect, unhinging the position of sectarian leadership and allowing for two powerful effects.”

    I don’t understand how eliminating the sectarian system is going to restrict the leaderships’ spheres of influence. It’s not like the state will suddenly spring into action and be able to provide the services that its citizens depend on patronage networks for. Social and economic conditions will remain the same.

    In other words, if someone still has to call his neighbor’s cousin who works as a driver for one of Michel al-Murr’s bodyguards in order to get his own ra’is al-baladiyyeh to grant him a permit to glass in his balcony, then it doesn’t matter that a member of any sect can run for office in his district.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think that confessionalism needs to go. But I don’t want people to think that it’s going to solve all of Lebanon’s problems. It will only solve a few of them.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 22, 2010, 12:40 pm
  13. PS: If anyone is in Beirut and interested in meeting up, there’s a “tweet-up” tonight at T Marbouta in Hamra at 7.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 22, 2010, 12:40 pm
  14. QN said

    “I don’t understand how eliminating the sectarian system is going to restrict the leaderships’ spheres of influence. It’s not like the state will suddenly spring into action and be able to provide the services that its citizens depend on patronage networks for. Social and economic conditions will remain the same.”

    No one has ever said that.No one has ever suggested that one reform will solve all problems. Quite the contrary. The problems are endemic, pervasive and systemic.
    Whenever the problems are of that nature all are important but some are more important than others.
    Even a cursory examination of the Lebanese system is enough to show the direction of causality. Cronyism and political feudalism , as practiced in Lebanon, use the religious or sectarian tribal loyalties in order to maintain their power i.e the root cause of what ails the Lebanese body politic is its inability not to discriminate and its inability to run an efficient system. This base of sectarian loyalties demands a preferential treatment which is exhibited in cronyism and discrimination. This does not mean that if one strips away the concept of sectarianism that cronyism and political feudalism will whither away but it does take away a major rationale for practicing them.
    As the traditional Zuama lose power , over time, then the system will have to become more selective, more efficient and more responsible. Cronyism feeds and political feudalism feed off sectarian politics. Is there a single political feudal “lord” that has a multi sectarian political base? It sure is not the Jumblats, Arslans, Gemayels, Frangiehs, Karamis, Salams , Hezbollahs …

    Posted by ghassan karam | January 22, 2010, 1:51 pm
  15. Picking up from #12 and #10:

    I was mostly speaking of public sector jobs ear-marked for specific sects (“category 1” positions as well as other jobs through “sette w sette mkarrar”) rather than the sectarian quotas on Parliament seats.

    On these positions, the “no poaching” rule does apply, but slightly differently from the way Sean describes it: positions are earmarked for sect A and it’s not allowed to appoint anyone from sect B, C, D or E to it, but equally forbidden to appoint anyone from sect A to it without sect A’s “leadership”‘s blessing. This applies at least as far as Sunnis, Shia and Druze are concerned (the sects that have, at the moment, one dominant “leadership”, or “a cartel of leaderships”).

    A simple example can be gleaned from the long governmental crisis of 2006-2008 where it was impossible to replace the Shia ministers who had resigned without Hezbollah-Amal approval. As I pointed out, Rafik Hariri did appoint many persons from other sects to positions earmarked for them, but it was always with the approval of the leaderships of these sects (often bought by political favours or, as is rumoured, actual money).

    Removing those earmarks would immediately open up all those positions if not to fair meritocratic selection, but at least to political competition between sectarian clientelistic parties that would slowly usher in qualified civil servants, as I described in my firt post.

    Posted by Gobbeltygook | January 23, 2010, 11:31 am
  16. There are many valid points that have been made in the discussion so far, and so I do not wish to repeat anything. However, even as a strict opponent of political sectarianism there was an argument put forward by QN that I find difficult to rebut or disagree with; namely, that eliminating the sectarian framework within which Lebanese politics operates will not bring an end to the influence of the Za’ims and the feudalism and tribalism that is so entrenched in Lebanese society. Such a change, in my view, cannot be implemented from above. Eliminating sectarianism means working at the grassroots level to change people’s perceptions, and wiping sectarianism from people’s hearts and minds. Although history has shown that this is a very slow and difficult task, it is achievable and, in my view, the only way to effectively put an end to political corruption and nepotism. Only then can Lebanon truly possess a State and civil society. As long as people’s loyalties, identities and sense of belonging lie first and foremost in their sects, then abolishing the sectarian political framework will be useless.

    Posted by Nidal Ibrahim | January 24, 2010, 5:55 am
  17. What you have right now is a deeply sectarian populace. Shiites feel that they’ve been denied their fair share for decades if not centuries. Christians feel that their ability to govern themselves outside of Muslim dominance is existentially threatened in the last spot in the Middle East where it’s still a possibility. Druze, as ever, are worried about their own little hill. And the Sunna have just discovered a sectarian identity after centuries of assuming that theirs was the only possible orthodoxy. As with all newly discovered identities, this one is going to kick off with a bang.

    Removing the sectarian power sharing system will only make things worse, in that it will first result in a Shii grab for as much power as possible. I don’t say this as an accusation; when you think you’ve been denied something for a long time and it’s suddenly available to you, you gorge yourself. This will result in shrill Christian panic and retrenching, naturally, as they and the Druze are the most overrepresented political players given Lebanon’s current demographics. An attempted Sunni counter-move will only heighten Christian fears, as it will threaten a new Sunni-Shii balance as the defining order of Lebanon, rather than the old Christian-Muslim one. We’re seeing all of this already, from Jumblatt’s panic attack to Aoun’s recent fight with Berri. Removing the sectarian structure of the system is like telling everyone to take off the gloves.

    Removing the only system that’s somehow organising the chaos in Lebanon will result in more chaos, not less. Centres of sectarian political power will not suddenly disappear, but will try to adapt while retaining as much of their former power as they can. Naturally, this is the power they have within their sect, and now with government posts no longer guaranteed for certain sects, every post, every nomination, will be up for grabs. This will probably result in more haggling and bargaining, not less, as politicians try to prove their continued relevance by demonstrating their ability to secure posts for their loyalists.

    To eliminate sectarianism, a set of new power centres that run across regional and sectarian boundaries need to emerge, around which a new political dynamic can play out. These can be trade unions, farmers’ unions, employers’ associations, new interpretations within existing sects, a strong government bureaucracy, some enlightened businessmen, and in some wondrous cases even NGOs have a chance to contribute. The key is the creation of new power centres that are neither strictly regional nor sectarian.

    Even within such a new order, cronyism and corruption would still be serious issues that need to be dealt with. Administrative and legal safeguards covering public spending, procurement and administrative appointments, far-fetched as they seem, are far more realistic aspirations. In my opinion, they’re a prerequisite for altering the power sharing system. They are the only available way of sufficiently limiting the power of the current political class to allow the emergence of a new one that can compete with it.

    As QN said, “… if someone still has to call his neighbor’s cousin who works as a driver for one of Michel al-Murr’s bodyguards in order to get his own ra’is al-baladiyyeh to grant him a permit to glass in his balcony, then it doesn’t matter that a member of any sect can run for office in his district.”

    Posted by Firas | January 24, 2010, 6:48 pm
  18. Generally, all the points mentioned above are valid. Cronyism needs to be eliminated because it is wrong. Sectarianism needs to be eliminated as a national policy because it is also wrong. Just because the majority of the Lebanese are allegedly sectarian does not mean that we should change their minds before we lift the injustices that are caused by their beliefs.

    In any case, regarding cronyism and sectarianism, which one causes the other is more or less irrelevant and it is more likely than not that cronyism and sectarianism propagate one another through some kind of feedback mechanism. Whatever.

    The bottom line is that we should be able to chew gum and walk at the same time (hat-tip Ghassan). As long as we agree that both are wrong and both should be eliminated…

    Posted by R | January 25, 2010, 12:31 am

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