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Lebanon: Confessionalism, Consociationalism, and Social Cohesion

Part of the Rethinking Political Violence book series (RPV)


The notion of negative resilience is Lebanon’s foremost contribution to the study of social cohesion in deeply divided societies. Aoun and Zahar's analysis of the Lebanon case illustrates the manner in which the confessional system of consociational governance deeply constrains donors’ efforts to foster cross-cutting social engagement, and to reconfigure state–society relationships. Social cohesion is strong within confessional communities yet weak across them. Since the outburst of armed conflict in neighboring Syria, Lebanon’s apparent stability has been described as a sign of social cohesion. Yet, the country is constantly on the brink of collapse. In this context, Aoun and Zahar describe how Lebanon’s negative resilience is as much the result of elite calculations as it is the outcome of social and political dynamics that have created economically interdependent yet socially separate communities.

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  1. 1.

  2. 2.

    The Lebanese government estimates that the actual number of Syrian nationals in Lebanon exceeds official numbers or registered refugees/awaiting registrations; this estimate includes Syrian guest workers and their families, as well as other Syrians of means not registered with any UN agency. Author’s interview with senior advisor to Interim Prime Minister Najib Mikati, name withheld, Beirut, June 10, 2013.

  3. 3.

    António Guterres, “Forced Displacement and the Promise of Pluralism,” Annual Pluralism Lecture 2014, Global Centre for Pluralism, Ottawa, Canada.

  4. 4.

    “Lebanon’s Fractured City of Tripoli Starts to Rebuild after Tentative Peace,” IRIN News, May 28, 2014,

  5. 5.

    This is not intended to suggest that there is no intra-communal fragmentation. It is simply intended to depict general trends.

  6. 6.

    For example, American sociologist Edward Shils described Lebanon as “a happy phenomenon, unique in the Third World, a prosperous liberal country” (1966, p. 1). For similarly positive assessments see Lijphart (1969) and Lembruch (1975).

  7. 7.

    Some analysts blame the country’s ills on the destabilizing impact of transnational ideologies – Nasserism in the 1950s, the Palestinian cause in the 1970s, Shia Islamism in the 2000s. For a discussion of the impact of broader regional issues on the politics of Lebanon before the 1975 civil war see Ghassan (2000) and Khazen (2000).

  8. 8.

    For a good overview of the various dimensions of Lebanese politics since 2005, see Knudsen and Kerr (2012).

  9. 9.

    Note: analysis based in part on Marie-Joëlle Zahar and Joy Aoun, “Communalism and the confessional state: Reconsidering Lebanon’s perennial chicken and egg problem,” paper presented at the World Congress for Middle East Studies, Barcelona, July 2010.

  10. 10.

    Bernhard Hillenkamp, “Civil Society in Lebanon: Sensitive Issues are Avoided,” Qantara (2005), Available at:; see also Kiwan (2003).

  11. 11.

    Authors’ interview with high-ranking official at the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education, name withheld, Beirut, June 30, 2013.

  12. 12.


  13. 13.

    As-Safir, March 31, 1998, p. 2 and An-Nahar, April 1, 1998, p. 2, cited in Reinkowski and Saadeh (2006, 106).

  14. 14.

    Abdallah Salam, “Commentary: Lebanon Is Living a Silent Revolution,” The Daily Star, May 14, 2013,

  15. 15.

    Authors’ interview with Chakib Qortbawi, Minister of Justice (at the time of the interview), Beirut, June 28, 2013.

  16. 16.

    A 2010 survey conducted jointly by UNRWA and the American University of Beirut found that the number of refugees still in the country hovered around 260–280,000. The majority of Palestinian refugees live in 12 camps where they are denied basic socio-economic rights such as the right to freely choose their professions and to own property. In spite of a law approved in Parliament in 2010 to facilitate the employment of refugees, Palestinians are prohibited from exercising more than 30 “liberal” professions such as medicine, law and engineering. The prohibition against property ownership was institutionalized in 2001 when Parliament amended Presidential Decree 11,614 that allowed non-Lebanese nationals to own property in Lebanon. The amendment, originally intended to encourage foreign investment, “excludes individuals who do not have a recognised nationality from owning property. The new law also prevents Palestinian refugees from bequeathing their property, even if the property was acquired before 2001.” Sari Hanafi, “Palestinians in Lebanon: Status, governance, and security,” in Alexander Ramsbotham and Elizabeth Picard, eds., Reconciliation, Reform and Resilience: Positive Peace for Lebanon, Accord no. 24 (London: Conciliation Resources, 2012), 67.

  17. 17.

    It is important to note that, to date, Lebanese do not refer to Syrians who have fled their country as refugees – the international legal term for persons who are forced to cross an international border as a result of war in their country – but as “displaced” individuals. The word “settlement” is also used in lieu of “camps,” stemming in part from the stigma and polarization surrounding Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. This choice in terminology also reflects the complexities and contradictions of Lebanese–Syrian relations. Author’s interviews with leadership from across the Lebanese political spectrum, June 10–27, 2013.

  18. 18.

    See for example, Bertelsmann Stiftung, BTI 2012 – Lebanon Country Report. Gütersloh: Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2012.

  19. 19.

    Michael Gilsenan, “‘Akkar Before the Civil War: Lebanon’s Gateway to Syria,’ Lebanon’s War: Any End in Sight?,” Middle East Report, No. 162 (January/February 1990). Available at

  20. 20.

    Authors’ interview with senior active duty Lebanese Armed Forces officer, name withheld, Beirut, September 19, 2013; Authors’ interview with Aram Nerguizian, Senior Fellow, Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington DC, October 10, 2013. See also, Aram Nerguizian, “Lebanese Civil-Military Dynamics: Weathering the Regional Storm?” SADA, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 21, 2011.

  21. 21.

    “Lebanese Banking Sector Reaffirms Stability,” The Lebanon Bulletin Archive, The Aspen Institute, July 5, 2012; “Salameh: Central bank maintaining Stability,” The Daily Star, March 27, 2013.

  22. 22.

    Alfred B. Prados, “Lebanon,” CRS Issue Brief for Congress, Congressional Research Service, March 16, 2006, p. 9; “Mikati urges return to National Dialogue,” The Daily Star, May 30, 2013.

  23. 23.

    Authors’ interview with Ambassador Abdallah Bouhabib, former Lebanese Ambassador to the United States, Issam Fares Center for Lebanon, Beirut, June 10, 2013; Authors’ interview with Bassem R. Shabb, Member of Parliament, Future Movement, Beirut, June 20, 2013; Authors’ interview with Bassel F. Salloukh, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Social Sciences Department at LAU, Beirut, June 26, 2013.

  24. 24.


  25. 25.

    Authors’ interview with Carla Edde, Chairperson of the History Department, Saint Joseph University, Beirut, June 11, 2013; Authors’ interview with Michel Pharaon, Member of Parliament (currently Minister of Tourism), March 14 coalition, Beirut, July 2, 2013.

  26. 26.

    See Clark and Salloukh 2013; Authors’ interview with Bassel F. Salloukh, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Social Sciences Department at LAU, Beirut, June 26, 2013; Authors’ interview with Aram Nerguizian, Senior Fellow, Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Washington DC, October 10, 2013.

  27. 27.

    Jihad al-Zayn, “Al-Sira‘ ‘ala al-Jaysh,” an-Nahar, June 2, 2007; see also Zahar (2012b: 77–81).

  28. 28.

    See Lijphart, “Consociational Democracy,” 1969.

  29. 29.

    Authors’ interview with General Michel Aoun, Head of the Free Patriotic Movement, Rabieh, June 14, 2013; Authors’ interview with Nehmat Frem, General Manager INDEVCO & Chairman of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists, Jounieh, June 18, 2013; Authors’ interview with Bassem R. Shabb, Member of Parliament (Future Movement, March 14th coalition), Beirut, June 20, 2013; Authors’ interview with Michel Pharaon, Member of Parliament (March 14th coalition), Beirut, July 2, 2013; Authors’ interview with Walid Joumblatt, Head of the Progressive Socialist Party, Beirut, March, June & July 2013; Joe Maila, Saoud el-Mawla, and Father Salim Daccache, Roundtable: “Pluralisme, vivre ensemble et citoyenneté au Liban: le salut vient-il de l’école?”, Saint Joseph University, Beirut, June 13, 2013.

  30. 30.

    The most famous illustration is the revamping of the administrative capital of South Lebanon, Saida, at the behest of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri who hailed from the city.

  31. 31.

    Katarina Uherova Hasbani, “Electricity Sector Reform in Lebanon: Political Consensus in Waiting,” CDDRL Working Papers, Issue 124, Stanford University, December 2011, available at:

  32. 32.

    Author’s interviews with representatives of the Armenian political leadership, Beirut, June 20, 2013.

  33. 33.

    The Mada Association, Forgotten Akkar: Socio-Economic Reality of the Akkar Region, January 2008, available at:; “Poverty, Growth and Income Distribution in Lebanon,” Country Study, No. 13, International Poverty Center, January 2008.

  34. 34.

    See UNDP, Investigating Grey Areas: Access to Basic Urban Services in the Adjacent Areas of Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon (Beirut: UNDP, 2010).

  35. 35.

    Ibid. See Norimitsu Orishi, “Lebanon Worries that Housing Will Make Syrian Refugees Stay,” The New York Times, December 11, 2013, p. A1, available at:

  36. 36.

    Author’s interviews with leadership from across the Lebanese political spectrum, June 10–27, 2013.

  37. 37.

    The Mikati government had to resign in March 2013 because of severe disagreements over its efforts to prepare parliamentary elections due to be held in summer of that year and which, at the time of writing, had still not been held.

  38. 38.

    Hariri was Prime Minister in four postwar governments between 1992 and 2005 (1992, 1993, 1996, and 2000). See Blanford (2006) and Iskander (2006).

  39. 39.

    For evaluations of the reconstruction scheme, see Volker Perthes, “Myths and Money: Four Years of Hariri and Lebanon’s Preparation for a New Middle East,” MERIP Report, No. 203, Lebanon and Syria: The Geopolitics of Change (Spring 1997), 16–21 and Michael Young, “Two Faces of Janus: Post-War Lebanon and its Reconstruction,” MERIP Report, No. 209 (Winter 1998).

  40. 40.

    These are the World Bank (17%), the European institutions (15%), the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (12%), the Islamic Development Bank (9%), Italy (9%), the Kuwaiti institutions (8%), and the Saudi Fund for Development (6%). CDR Progress Report 2001.

  41. 41.

    Ibid., 16.

  42. 42.

    Fuad Siniora, “Lebanon’s Economic Reform and Prospects,” Public lecture, London School of Economics and Politics, May 9, 2006. Transcript available at,

  43. 43.

    Western creditors financed over half of the overall reconstruction budgets.

  44. 44.

    Aram Nerguizian, “Lebanon at the Crossroads: Assessing the Impact of the Lebanon-Syria Insecurity Nexus,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, February 26, 2014, pp. 1–2, available at

  45. 45.

    Christopher M. Blanchard, “Lebanon: Background and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service Report, R42816, February 14, 2014, pp. 11–12.

  46. 46.

    Authors’ interview with Duccio Bandini, Programme Manager – Instrument for Stability, Security Sector Reform and Peace-building, Delegation of the European Union in Lebanon, October 14, 2013.

  47. 47.


  48. 48.

    Most of these had never worked in Lebanon before; some, like SFCG, had been in country since 1996 but did not have a permanent presence before 2005.

  49. 49.

    For a full list of donorss, see

  50. 50.

    SFCG, Cedaria: Blackout,

  51. 51.

    Authors’ interview with Duccio Bandini, Programme Manager – Instrument for Stability.

  52. 52.


  53. 53.


  54. 54.


  55. 55.

    Authors’ interview with high-ranking UN official, United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), name withheld, Beirut, July 3, 2013.

  56. 56.


  57. 57.


  58. 58.


  59. 59.

    Maha Yahya (Project Director), Lebanon National Human Development Report: Towards a Citizen’s State (Beirut: UNDP, 2009), available at

  60. 60.

    United Nations Development Programme Lebanon Country Office, Project Fiche, UN Agency Joint Project “Integrated Support to The Rehabilitation of NBC Adjacent Area,” available at

  61. 61.

    Authors’ interview with Luca Renda, Country Director and Joanna Nassar, Project Manager, UNDP “Strengthening Civil Peace in Lebanon” project, Beirut, July 3, 2013.

  62. 62.

    Authors interview with US government officials, Embassy of the United States of America, names withheld, Beirut, June 19, 2013.

  63. 63.

    David Sharer and Francine Pickup, “Dilemmas for Aid Policy in Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Humanitarian Exchange Magazine 37 (March 2007): 4–6,, cited in Zahar (2012b, 79).

  64. 64.

    Comments by Samer Abdallah, general coordinator, Nahwa al-Muwatiniyya, at a workshop on donor-NGO relations in postconflict settings, Lebanese American University, Beirut, July 22, 2011. Cited in Zahar, “Norm Transmission in Peace- and State-Building,” 80.

  65. 65.

    Authors’ interview with NGO representative, name withheld, Beirut, June 21, 2013.

  66. 66.


  67. 67.

    Authors’ interview with Independent consultant and former NDI Program Officer, name withheld, Beirut, June 24, 2013.

  68. 68.

    Authors’ interview with Fadi Daou, Chairman, Adyan, Beirut, June 24, 2013.

  69. 69.

    Georges Naccache, “Deux Négations ne Font pas une Nation!” L’Orient, May 10, 1949.

  70. 70.

    Poverty Reduction and Economic Management Department, Middle East and North Africa Region, Lebanon Economic and Social Impact Assessment of The Syrian Conflict, Report No. 81098-LB (World Bank: Washington, DC, September 20, 2013), available at This report was requested by the Government of Lebanon and conducted in collaboration with the UN, the EU, and the IMF.


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Aoun, J., Zahar, MJ. (2017). Lebanon: Confessionalism, Consociationalism, and Social Cohesion. In: Cox, F., Sisk, T. (eds) Peacebuilding in Deeply Divided Societies . Rethinking Political Violence. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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