Falafel stall by the highway in Saida, Lebanon

Political background A difficult balancing act

Although Lebanon is formally a parliamentary democracy, the distribution of power is in fact determined by religious affiliation. There are eighteen officially recognised religious denominations in Lebanon.

Political and administrative posts are allocated on the basis of religious affiliation using data from a census carried out in 1932. Thus, the President of the Republic must be a Maronite Christian, the Speaker of Parliament a Shi'ite Muslim and the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim.

Parliamentary seats are also distributed according to religious affiliation. Decisions are taken not by simple majority but by consensus. Large sections of the very diverse media landscape and the many non-governmental organisations also support specific religious groups and their interests. 

However, this system with its focus on balancing interests has prevented the principles of democracy and the rule of law from becoming firmly established in Lebanese society. The religious groups wield so much power that, in everyday life, private citizens are obliged to define themselves by their religious affiliation and organise their lives accordingly. The result is cronyism and nepotism; corruption pervades both the government and society.