Hybrid Political Orders and Fragile States: Lessons from Lebanon

Intervention in fragile states will increasingly form the centre of the discourse on aid effectiveness, humanitarian relief and regional and international governance. Since the start of the Arab Spring and following on from the global economic crisis, we have seen various strategies of intervention in various fragile states – from Cote D’Ivoire, Libya, Somalia, DRC and more recently the question of how to design and execute intervention in Mali.

In Syria, where UN Security Council support for intervention, even for creating a no-fly zone over Syria for Assad’s air force, is absent, the model of intervention has been to isolate the regime financially and politically – as was the case in Libya and Cote D’Ivoire. But whereas in these cases military intervention was sanctioned by the UN, in Syria the absence of a UN sanction has lead to intervention strategies, at least at the time of writing, limited to supporting the creation of a more unified  (and pro-Western) opposition.

In this photo taken by a UN observer, a shell lays in the middle of the street in Homs, Syria, a remnant of the heavy attack levelled on the city.

As the case of Libya has shown, over the medium to longer run more is needed to address state fragility and prevent a relapse into violent conflict. To address this, it is important to understand that state fragility is often the outcome of poor leadership and corruption on the one hand and economic stagnation and discrimination on the other hand. Divisions and inequalities sparked the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. It has also fuelled the current fragility in the West. The upshot is that it is increasingly recognized that more attention is needed to foster shared societies, i.e. social cohesion and sustainability, to address the nature of state fragility in a post-crisis and post-Spring world.

Fostering social cohesion and shared societies as an antidote to so-called state fragility, especially in poor countries, is a significant challenge. Unfortunately, little guidance is provided by the existing body of scholarly literature. Fostering cohesion would require a better understanding of governance in fragile states, in particular state-society interactions and overlaps. A core feature of state fragility is the importance of the often hybrid relationship between state and non-state actors. The rising prominence of this state-non-state amalgamation has given rise to the notion of hybrid political orders (HPOs).

The hybrid political order concept has recently been winning ground as a conceptual substitute to the fragile state discourse. It departs from a less dichotomous understanding of relations between state and society, instead focusing on ‘twilight institutions’ and ‘mediated statehood.’ This perspective allows for a focus on alternative practices of (local and global) governance beyond the observation of failures of government.

Consider the case of Lebanon, described in more detail in a recent UNU-MERIT Working Paper and MsM Working Paper. Lebanon is often considered a fragile country. Its state is burdened by a huge debt; inequality in its elite-dominated economy is high (as in other middle-income fragile states such as South Africa); and the country has faced brutal violent conflicts in the recent past. These features typical of fragile states – violent conflict; politicization of private life; and vulnerability to external shocks – are rooted in and exacerbated by the nature of the political system that has evolved in Lebanon.

Lebanese society is organized along the lines of 18 religious communities or sects, each with their own regional stronghold; political parties; social institutions (schools, clinics and charity organizations); and armed militias. This sectarianism is deeply entrenched in Lebanon’s political system.  Since the end of the Syrian occupation in 2005, Lebanese politics has been dominated by a polarized competition between two broad coalitions (March 8 and March 14) mostly differentiated by their varying regional alliances. Although governed through a parliamentary democracy, the Lebanese State is far from the neutral civil service bureaucracy that states are often assumed to be. Instead the sectarian quota system results in endemic patronage. State fragility is hence a cause and consequence of a ‘social contract’ – or rather an ‘elite contract’.

A fragile state lens would highlight the BlockQuote2WMFeb13deficiencies of government through a failure to instate ‘modern’ and secular liberal democratic institutions. A hybrid political order lens additionally lays bare that, ironically, Lebanon’s political system has resulted in a ‘vetocracy’ with some interesting similarities to that of the USA. Approaching Lebanon as a hybrid political order, we are urged to go beyond identifying symptoms of fragility into exploring the causes of fragility by investigating the relations between unsatisfying governance outcomes and the particularities of Lebanese society and politics.

In Lebanon, the structural elitism generated by the sectarian necessity to ‘divide the pie’ has resulted in a devastating paralysis in decision-making, undermining political will and capacity to deal with a number of severe crises the country is facing – ranging from a crippling electricity scarcity to looming ecological threats and the spillover threat of regional unrest. A hybrid political order perspective also shows that it is often less the material spillover than the politico-institutional spillover that further cements state paralysis – as the impact of the war in Syria has had on Lebanon. Violent conflict in North Lebanon between Sunnis and Alawites instigated by the Syrian conflict comes at a high human cost and puts local politics on edge. The large refugee flow has strained the economy and social stability. It seems to be the political spillover of the conflict, however, that both lays bare and aggravates Lebanese fragility.

The affiliation of Lebanon’s two political camps with the rival Syrian and regional powers – March 8 with the Syrian regime and Iran and March 14 with the Syrian rebels and the Saudi-American axis – has resulted in a political sphere so apprehensive that the Syrian elephant in the room is discussed but not responded to in any clear sense – as evidenced by kidnappings in mid-2012 and the shocking bomb attack that killed general Wissam al-Hassan and evoked memories of the civil war. The possibility of Lebanon being dragged into the Syrian conflict, thus sparking a regional conflagration, has broadly paralyzed Lebanese agencies.

The tragedy of Lebanon as ‘the battleground of the Middle East’ might be both the gravest consequence and the most severe cause of its state fragility – a fragility that cannot be understood nor addressed without grasping the hybrid nature of governance. It holds important lessons for future intervention in fragile states.

by Wim Naudé, Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance and Dean, Maastricht School of Management and Nora Stel, Research Fellow, Maastricht School of Management and PhD Fellow, Centre for Conflict Studies, Utrecht University. Images by UN Photo / David Manyua / Jorge Aramburu / Eskinder Debebe.

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