Karam Karam explains how both the content and implementation of the 1989 Taif peace agreement have precluded genuine political reform or social change, due to structural defects including: flawed revision of confessional power sharing arrangements and a dysfunctional executive Troika; surrendering core state responsibilities to Syrian tutelage; guaranteeing power to warlords; and the marginalisation of key social issues. Karam suggests constructive lessons for the future, based on a framework of political decentralisation and balanced reform ‘packages’ as part of a clear, incremental strategy.
Arbitrary and partial application of reforms that have been initiated by Lebanese ruling elites under Syrian tutelage between 1990 and 2005 have in fact exacerbated confessional tension and competition, and have generated new imbalances in the post-war political system.
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New order, old framework
The Taif Agreement brought a formal end to the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990). It was an internal Lebanese agreement that was discussed, negotiated and concluded in the town of Taif, Saudi Arabia, in 1989, under the auspices of Riyadh and the Arab League, with the support of the US and the direct supervision of Syria.
The rationale behind the Taif Agreement reflects a twofold ambition for Lebanese society and polity. On the one hand it symbolises reconciliation objectives, responding to the needs of a society that had been searching for effective tools to end the war and to reinforce national cohesion, supported by a desire to ‘live together’. On the other hand it introduces reforms to support the consolidation of the Lebanese state and national institutions.
Implementing Taif: a lack of moral authority
The Taif negotiations in 1989 involved primarily members of the 1972 Lebanese parliament. The mandate of this parliament was renewed eight times between 1972 and 1992 due to interruptions in legislative elections as a result of the war. Nevertheless it was considered the only constitutional institution that could demonstrate any kind of ‘unity and legality’. However, the contested representativeness of the parliament did not prevent 62 of its deputies – 73 of who were still alive from 99 elected in 1972 – from negotiating, developing and signing the document.
Political reforms at a standstill
Post-war policies adopted by the Syrian-sponsored political establishment in Beirut to ‘reconstruct’ the state have established Lebanon as an ‘allotment state’ (Dawlat al-muhâsasa). This kind of state extends the concept of power-sharing by quota, whereby political and high-ranking positions in the state and public administration are allocated to different confessional groups, by further applying clientelistic and sectarian logic to the distribution of lower-level positions and business opportunities to deliver public and social services. This practice emptied the bulk of Taif’s reform projects of all substance, and even diverted their spirit. Reforms have subsequently remained at a standstill for two main reasons: 1) the absence of an arbiter; and 2) the compromise mentality of governance.
Compromise and consensus: the lowest common denominator?
Post-Taif governance is not based on the expression of the will of the majority, but on consensus between political elites representing major ‘communities’ and partisan formations. This is why consensus democracy has prioritised managing successive crises over realising reforms. Electoral reform was only tackled from a perspective of inter-confessional balance and interest. Decentralisation was discussed at best incompletely, and in reality during the post-war period no draft-laws on decentralisation have been adopted, even though the drafts were more likely to maintain a de-concentrated than a decentralised form of power. Meanwhile the constitutional commitment to the abolition of confessionalism has been entirely marginalised.
With the end of the ‘uncivil’ war, Taif’s proponents depicted the Agreement as the cornerstone of peace, stability and prosperity to Lebanon. Questions remain, however, why it has not yet succeeded in realising its proclaimed objectives, and why the country continues to suffer from a volatile political situation two decades later?