Democratization and Civil Society in Lebanese Shi’a

Democratization and Civil Society in Lebanese Shi’a


Lebanese Shi’a is arguably the largest ethnopolitical community in Lebanon. The debate on the presence or absence of the civil society in Lebanon goes hand in hand with the democratization of the nation. This essay discusses the level of democracy, the presence of civil society, and social capital in Lebanese Shi’a. It also examines the steps that should be taken in order to improve the democracy and strengthen the civil society in Lebanon with particular attention to Lebanese Shi’a.

Lebanon is highly sectarian and divided along ethnic and religious lines, with Shi’a being one of the groups. In order to comprehend the forms of associations, such as civil society groups that can possibly be formed by members of this society, it is essential to understand the sectarian framework, under which the country operates. The type of democracy that is at work in Lebanon is referred to as the consociational democracy. Therefore, the parliamentary system is based on power sharing. However, this power sharing arrangement between religious communities is quite discriminatory and undemocratic.

Democracy provides for periodic free elections as well as the possibility of using such elections to change ruling political elites, a feature that Lebanon and, thus, the Shi’a group, lack. Democracy should also safeguard civil rights and the practice of equal citizenship, where every vote is considered to be equal. However, Lebanon’s consociational democracy falls short of these fundamental features of democracy.

Barclays argues that the sectarian government structure in Lebanon has indeed outlived its usefulness. Its problems may not have been severe in the early days of its formation, but it is becoming increasingly unsustainable with the current modern technology and globalization. Although consociationalism was relevant in regulation of the conflict in Lebanon, she argues that the system is not the ideal tool for Lebanon’s democratic consolidation. The system has long acted as an impediment to a more inclusive political order that would have enabled the integration of a complex civil society in the Lebanese political body.

The presence of civil society in states is normally significant as it strengthens democracy. Currently, most civil organizations that have a widespread influence among the Lebanese Shi’a are those that are affiliated to Hezbollah movement. The major ones include The Martyr’s Association, the Islamic Charity Emdad Committee (ICEC), and the Hezbollah Women Committee among others. These groups ensure the well being of the Shiite community in Lebanon. For instance, the ICEC is a charitable non-governmental organization that was founded by Hezbollah to reduce the effect of social hardship among the Lebanese Shi’a, following the Israeli invasion of the south of Lebanon.

Normally, the ICEC provides for families, whose breadwinner is deceased, imprisoned or disabled. The assistance they provide may range from the provision of food to housing, health and education. To effectively provide these services, the ICEC is heavily dependent on funds that are generated through donations and from religious taxes. Similarly, they rely on volunteers to provide manpower, while undertaking their activities.

Arguably, the civil society exists in Lebanon, but in such a way that its visibility is seriously limited. The existence of the ICEC among the Shi’a and other local civil society organizations does not help in building democracy within the nation. Such organizations only help to strengthen ethnic ties, which further threaten the stability and, consequently, democracy in Lebanon. Varshney argues that the modern civil society should not be based on religious or ethnic considerations; rather, it should voluntarily serve as a connection between the state and people. The organizations should be culturally diverse enabled by the ability of individuals to select them. The self selection enables groups to be more homogenous and limit the ethnic alignment.

Strengthening the civil society in Shi’a Lebanon is possible through the democratization of the state. Given that the sectarian system of government has not given the Lebanese citizens an opportunity to freely express their democratic rights and develop a strong civil society, it is necessary to rethink the county’s political system. Although there are several factors that need to be put in place to enable Shi’a and Lebanon at large to develop into a functioning democracy, the government should agree to embrace Hezbollah. It is notable that the government has been uneasy seeing the political influence of Hezbollah to grow and develop. Therefore, the government should be ready to democratically recognize the increasingly growing Shiite population and political weight in the country.

In the democratization process, breaking the Taif agreement that was signed to bring to an end the Lebanese civil war is necessary. This should be followed by a reduction of power that is currently held by the Sunnis and the Maronites in order to accommodate the growing strength of the Shiites. This would pave the way for the transformation of Hezbollah into a political party. It is until the Shiites’ demands are met that the militia can agree to disband its military wing and assume the position of a serious partner in the Lebanese political process. This way, it will be able to work together with the state and other stakeholders to develop democracy in the community and, therefore, the country.

It is also essential to concentrate on building a strong social network that has the outlook of the country at large. Among the Lebanese Shi’a, civil societies, such as the ICEC, help in strengthening of social networks within the society. Social networks enable members of the community, served by the network, to obtain what they could not have had without the network. In societies, where the social capital is high, democracy and economy thrive. However, not all social networks would be socially beneficial. A social capital is defined as the ability of actors to obtain benefits, owing to their membership in social networks. In ethnically diverse societies, such as Lebanon, strengthening of the social capital of individual ethnic groups threatens democracy to a considerable degree. Instead, it provides good opportunities for ethnic entrepreneurs.

In conclusion, in order to enhance democracy and build a strong civil society, while also creating all inclusive social networks among the Shi’a community, there is a need to weaken intra-ethnic ties and strengthen interethnic ones. Moreover, the political elite, who govern individual ethnic or religious groups, have to shift from their traditional form of governance and take substantial steps towards making the governance system of Lebanon more representative. Essentially, this would offer the country an opportunity to stabilize and boost the country’s economic standing.

About the author: Stefanie Scott is a bachelor in English philology and sociology at California University. She is currently working as one of the best writers at the motivation letter help She also studies feminine psychology.