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Title: Sectarianism and its Discontents: The Search for a New Politics in Lebanon
Authors: Trad, Nicolas
Advisors: Kurtzer, Daniel C.
Department: Woodrow Wilson School
Certificate Program: Global Health and Health Policy Program
Class Year: 2017
Abstract: Sectarianism in Lebanon is widely perceived as the root cause of government paralysis. Political power has been apportioned to the various sects (Sunni, Shi’a, Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Druze, and others) to reflect the country’s demography since 1943. Service providers and welfare organizations are, to a large extent, affiliated with sectarian parties or religious leadership. Clientelism – the provision of material goods in exchange for political support – is a widespread practice. In recent years, public dissatisfaction with Lebanon’s political elite has swelled as the quality of services (e.g. water, waste management and electricity) continues to deteriorate. Governance failures have galvanized a cross-sectarian coalition of middle-class voters, civil society activists and reformist NGOs committed to advancing a new politics in Lebanon. Despite these developments, sectarian parties remain firmly entrenched at all levels of government. Why does sectarian governance continue to dominate the Lebanese political system despite its obvious failures? What possibility exists for the articulation of a different kind of politics, centered on new identities and committed to advancing a new role for the state? Drawing on newspaper articles, reports, and interviews, this thesis uses a qualitative approach to re-evaluate recent developments in Lebanon. It offers three case studies, preceded by a brief historical overview of sectarian institutions in Lebanon. The first case study investigates the country’s widely publicized waste management crisis (2015-2016), a paradigmatic example of volatile sectarian contests for the resources of the state. The second examines ‘You Stink’ and Beirut Madinati, cross-sectarian movements that arose in response to the trash crisis to challenge the hegemony of sectarian leaders, on the streets as in the ballot box. The third and final case study explores the strategies of arcenciel, an NGO that fought these entrenched interests to reform health coverage for people with disabilities. This survey of actors, institutions and policies yields three broad conclusions. First, sectarianism is neither the expression of intrinsic religious difference nor the product of top-down state policies. Instead, it is a dispersed and sophisticated machinery of discourses and practices that operates at the individual and institutional levels to preclude the mobilization of alternative identities. Second, the structure of the weak but centralized Lebanese state redounds to the benefit of sectarian power, providing easy access to patronage resources and a convenient forum to negotiate the allocation of spoils. Third, underprivileged communities suffering from Lebanon’s laissez-faire economic policies can find refuge only in clientelist networks; their economic security comes at the cost of long-term political dependencies. This dynamic has persistently frustrated attempts to enlist the working class in the struggle to reform Lebanon’s institutions.
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en_US
Appears in Collections:Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, 1929-2022
Global Health and Health Policy Program, 2017-2022

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