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?
There were three main flaws in Taif. First, the text was deliberately ambiguous, thereby paving the way for different interpretations of key issues – eg Lebanese-Syrian relations, decentralisation and deconfessionalisation. Second, the content contradicted the core philosophy of Lebanon’s power sharing formula by paving the way for the establishment of the Troika: this opposes the concept of political participation, as the Troika acts like a private club to exclude anti-establishment groups; let alone the principle of power separation, as Lebanese politics contains no mechanisms for checks and balances, while the justice system remains under political control. Third, implementing Taif has been primarily guided by the urge to stop bloodshed and guarantee sharing of power among warlords, rather than to ensure an effective mechanism for peaceful and well-grounded reconciliation and state-building.
Taif has succeeded, partially, in stopping the war. But peace has remained vulnerable, threatened by distinct but recurrent tensions that can escalate into violence whenever the situation is favourable – such as in May 2008. Nevertheless, Taif could have contributed more to realising lasting peace had the implementation of reforms been both adequate and coherent with a post-war transition strategy to revitalise the social contract between state and society.
The main distortion of the ‘Taif Republic’ in Lebanon is embodied in the ruling elite, which has successfully managed to detach the Agreement from its spirit – under the patronage of Syria on the one hand, and assured in its ability to maintain power through manipulating state institutions and reforms on the other. In view of Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the ruling elite’s extensive autonomy, the history of governance in Lebanon post-2005 clearly shows that the distortions of Taif have neither been necessarily nor exclusively the result of Syrian tutelage and patronage, but rather of the Lebanese mentality of clientelism and sectarianism.
In the spirit of Taif and reconstructing state institutions, key to successful change in Lebanon lies in tackling reforms as an integrated whole and maintaining complementarity, compatibility and balance among them. Such an approach would help to offset resistance by various groups that feel threatened by change.
For instance, administrative decentralisation through the creation of local elected councils at caza-level (district) should be mindful of the size of legislative electoral constituencies, which would need to be larger in order to distinguish clearly between national and local competencies. Similarly, resistance by some politicians to a proportional electoral system with larger constituencies might be dissipated if their concerns or fears were alleviated by relevant reforms for administrative decentralisation, ensuring regional development and adequate representation of both individuals (ie citizens) and groups (religious sects) within the state.
The creation of a confessional Senate to represent religious sects at the national level could compensate de-confessionalised parliamentary elections no longer conditioned by sectarian affiliation and regional representation of interests. In this context, decentralisation provides the broad framework for reform, as it entails redefining the relationship between central and local authorities, and re-thinking key issues of representation, participation, accountability, local development and ultimately, the political system.