Since its independence 72 years ago, Lebanon has relied on a political system that divvies up top government posts by religion. The president must be Christian, for example, while the prime minister is Sunni Muslim. Despite violent sectarian conflicts over the years, the system has mostly held. In recent weeks, however, tens of thousands of Lebanese – of all faiths – have peacefully protested to demand a system based on equality of all.
Given tiny Lebanon’s outsized influence in the Middle East, the protests might produce a shining example in a region still struggling to recognize that a secular government can be the best protector of personal faith.
The spark for the protests began July 17 when residents living near Beirut’s main dump forced it to close. Trash then built up on the capital’s streets. The government, paralyzed by infighting among religious communities, failed to find a solution. Civic activist groups formed a movement called “You Stink,” demanding transparency, accountability, and most of all, an end to the religious quotas in government.
Protesters have sought to end the fear that divides Lebanon’s sects – 18 in all. Many religious leaders foment fear of other faiths to manipulate their followers in how to vote and to maintain a system of patronage and nepotism. This has led to a political stalemate that has left Lebanon without a president for more than a year. Parliament has been merely reappointing itself.
Garbage is not the only problem. Electricity and water are in short supply. Without a national identity based on the common good, the government has failed to build and maintain a common infrastructure.
The demonstrations are remarkable for their lack of flags from political parties or religious groups. Protest leaders have relied on social media to organize rallies and to monitor the public mood. They are trying to avoid the mistakes of the 2011 Arab Spring and build a durable movement that ensures nonviolence and stability. With more Lebanese now on their side, they seek early elections, hoping to break past voting patterns by religious affiliation.
Similar nonsectarian protests in Iraq this summer – over blackouts that prevented air conditioners from working – led the government to initiate major reforms, mainly in curbing corruption. In both countries, demonstrators are seeking a notion of citizenship based not on a balance of power or rivalry between faiths but one that represents the core religious teaching of individual equality. It is a crucial lesson to learn as the region deals with jihadhi militant groups such as Islamic State. Faith must not be seen as a weapon but as a uniter.