On Sunday, Walid Jumblatt, longtime leader of the Lebanese Progressive Socialist Party, publicly announced that he would step down from parliament after the next elections. He appointed his son Taymour as his political heir.
The announcement was part of a televised ceremony commemorating the assassination of Kamal Joumblatt, Walid’s father and the man from whom he inherited his political position. The Jumblatts, who have been a prominent Druze family for centuries, are just one example of Lebanon’s hereditary sectarian political system, which has stymied the Lebanese state’s functions.
The Lebanese parliament is rife with members who have benefited from hereditary transfers of power along sectarian lines. They include Samy Gemayel, a parliamentary member representing the Metn district who is the son of former Lebanese president Amine Gemayel and the nephew of Bachir Gemayel, a warlord who led the Kataeb party during the civil war and was appointed president before being assassinated. Suleiman Frangieh Jr., MP for Zgharta-Zawyie, is the grandson of former president and crime lord Suleiman Frangieh and son of warlord Tony Frangieh, who was assassinated by Kataeb forces in 1978. That 1978 raid was led by Samir Geagea, who was a candidate for president in 2014 and leads the Lebanese Forces (LF) political party. His wife Sethrida is an MP representing LF.
The list goes on. Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil is the son-in-law of current President Michel Aoun and leads the Free Patriotic Movement party. Dory Chamoun, MP for the Chouf district, is the son of former president and civil war-era leader Camille Chamoun. The current Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who is the son of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, is also the beneficiary of hereditary power transfers.
Lebanon’s sectarian political elites have used their positions to divide the spoils of rulership. They have also employed networks of patronage to maintain loyalty among their sectarian base, a tactic that is as old as the Lebanese state itself. The provision of essential services, which are often provided unevenly or inadequately by Lebanese state itself, is at the center of this system of patronage. According to a study by political scientist Melani Cammett:
Political activism and, specifically, demonstrated partisan loyalties facilitate access to services… Increased activism is associated with access to more comprehensive baskets of benefits, including social assistance in the form of food aid or cash as well as financial assistance for health care and schooling.
Far from being effective, this system has predictably created persistent crises, like daily electricity blackouts due to deadlocks over plans to construct a power plant and a garbage crisis that remains unresolved after nearly two years.
Many Lebanese are frustrated with this system and are expressing their dissent. Last week, for example, thousands of people took to the streets of Beirut to protest new measures that would raise VAT from 10 to 11% and increase other taxes. The government insists the taxes are essential to increasing salaries for public sector workers, who make up about 20% of the country’s workforce. Protestors are questioning this claim. As one protestor told Reuters, the government was “imposing taxes that constantly pile up, without providing anything in return, no services, no public transportation, no medical care.”
Obviously, the issues go beyond VAT increases. Popular frustration has more to do with the nature of Lebanese politics itself – a system that has failed ordinary citizens while benefiting the Jumblatts, Gemayels, and their heirs.