From the early 1970s, the political representation of confessional communities began to overlap with political/military forces and leaders. In the Christian community – particularly the Maronites – this began with Bachir Gemayel from 1976–82 and continued with Michel Aoun after 1988. In the Shiite community, this was led by the Amal Movement (from 1969) and then Hezbollah (from 1985). Much later, the Sunni community was led by Rafiq al-Hariri (1992–2005), and then his heir Saad. The Jumblatt family dominated leadership of the Druze community, especially after ‘The War of the Mountain’ in 1983.
Sectarian division occurred in several Lebanese regions and facilitated political and cultural hegemony within various religious communities. Powerful militarised elites’ territorial control over confessional groups has been a feature of all crises in Lebanon, including recent ones, and has primarily manifested as aggressive confessional mobilisation rather than political exchange.
The progressive transformation of political into confessional divisions in Lebanon is partly a consequence of consociational inertia. Sectarian conflict hampers the functioning of constitutional institutions and deepens societal divisions. The Lebanese political system, with its rigidity and frozen formulas, cannot respond to an evolving society. Still, no one has been able to change it or introduce amendments beyond the mere distribution of political allocations and the Christian-Muslim ‘parity’ adopted in Taif.
In many Lebanese crises, domestic tensions pertaining to power-sharing have been exacerbated by foreign factors linked to Lebanon’s position in the region, its alliances, its involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, its internal divisions over the Palestinian cause, and recently its relations with the Syrian regime and its place in Iranian and Saudi plans. Since the 1958 crisis these have prompted sectarian splits, which have then clashed with the consensus system and infiltrated its institutions, hampering them or making it impossible to resolve crises through legal channels.
As external influences have further increased the pressure on the Lebanese formula, consociationalism’s complicated set of rules have become increasingly hard to manage, and with each crisis, Lebanon’s leadership looked to a foreign referee to prevent things from escalating – if not to provide more profound solutions. The 2008 Doha Accord between the 8 and 14 March coalitions endeavoured to bring about a formula for participation in power that would temporarily please warring parties, even as it failed to address underlying institutional problems.
Following the end of Damascus’s hegemony in Lebanon and the withdrawal of Syrian troops in April 2005, major changes that had been unfolding in Lebanese political society in the post-war era came to the fore. First, confessional polarisation had been greatly exacerbated and challenged the rationale underlying the National Pact of 1943 as an agreement between Muslims and Christians; some Lebanese called for a tripartite (Sunni-Shiite-Christian) distribution of power to replace the existing 50/50 (Muslim-Christian) split. Second, relations between foreign and local parties had been consolidated, exposing Lebanon to the conflicts of the Middle East. And third, Hezbollah had emerged as a major political power.