Syria and Lebanon: The Modern Era

In this two-part piece on Syria and Lebanon, we look at the causes that led both these countries to adopt different systems of government and economic policies from a legal perspective. In The Historic Split, we delve into the events that are currently affecting the two countries before looking back at the historical challenges that forced them to chart separate courses, especially following the rise of Gamal Abdel-Nasser in the Arab world. In The Modern Era, our interest lies with how the Syrian and Lebanese states operate today and what distinguishes them from each other. For the purposes of analysis, not much weight is given to the effects of the Syrian conflict on the decision-making process in Damascus. Doing so would distort the objectives of this paper, which is to assess the functions of government from a legal point of view and not a political one.

Part Two: The Modern Era

The establishment of the United Arab Republic (UAR) represented Syria’s divorce from Lebanon. Both countries were historically parliamentary republics that adopted free-market economic systems. However, with the rise of Nasser and Syria’s wedding to Egypt in early 1958, Lebanon found itself an outsider to this new relationship. Syria followed Egypt towards socialism while Lebanon attempted to survive as a capitalist haven under the umbrella of a fragile confessional regime. Despite Nasser’s eventual fall from grace in Damascus and the collapse of the UAR, the reforms he introduced had become entrenched in Syria and could not easily be undone.

While the traditional political elite that governed Syria before the advent of Nasser made a comeback in late 1961 when the UAR was toppled, it would not be long before the Baath Party came to power in early 1963. They offered a sequel to Nasser’s economic program since they pursued similar policies to the Egyptian President. Despite intra-party conflicts during the 1960s, Hafez Al-Assad emerged as Syria’s leader in November 1970 and a strong presidential system similar to that under Zaim, Shishakli and Nasser was implemented in Damascus. With a constitution in 1973 fortifying this new governing structure, Syria and Lebanon were looking very different to each other at this point. Moreover, Syria experienced an economic boom in the 1970s due to high oil prices and the execution of a massive infrastructural and industrial program while Lebanon was sliding down the path of civil war by 1975.

The governing arrangement that was established in Syria in the 1970s remains in place today with a dominant executive leading the way. From 1971 until 2007, the President of the Republic used to be confirmed in a referendum as a single candidate on the ballot. In 2012, a new constitution was adopted that called for more than one candidate to stand in presidential elections.

The President has significant powers at his disposal and even shares the legislative authority with the People’s Assembly, the national Parliament. In this respect, he has the power to issue laws without seeking approval from the legislature. While the People’s Assembly can in theory reject such laws, it does not do so in practice. The President also appoints the Vice-President (one or more), the Prime Minister and the various ministers in the cabinet. They are usually technocrats with experience in their fields. Despite being a political position, the Prime Ministership is akin to the top job in the civil service. The Prime Minister generally does not get involved in political affairs but rather steers the day-to-day administration of the government.

The People’s Assembly is divided into 15 electoral districts, which are composed of the 14 Syrian provinces in addition to the electoral district of Rural Aleppo. While total membership in the People’s Assembly is set at 250, each electoral district produces a fixed number of deputies elected on a list. Under this electoral method, a number of candidates from the same district ally together by writing their names down on a list and request voters to endorse all of the nominees together. To reflect the state’s socialist nature, the legislature is also divided evenly between ordinary deputies on the one hand and workers and farmers on the other.

Lebanon entered a sectarian civil war drawing in its neighbours from 1975 to 1990 that challenged the confessional regime. As part of international and bilateral agreements, Syria maintained a military presence in its smaller neighbour with significant influence over its political affairs until 2005. Since then, Lebanese politicians have in theory taken charge of the political and administrative decision-making processes in their country but Lebanon remains vulnerable to regional tension and foreign interference. Despite changes in its Constitution following the Taif Agreement of 1989 that ended the civil war and distributed a certain amount of power from Christian to Muslim politicians, its political structures have more or less remained intact.

Unlike Syria, Lebanon still functions as a parliamentary republic where the people elect members to the Chamber of Deputies, the country’s parliament. It is comprised of 128 deputies and is divided into several electoral districts but not on the provincial level. Like Syria, elections are carried out on electoral lists. Whereas Lebanon has been attempting to revise its controversial Electoral Law for well over a decade, Syria has already passed two electoral laws since 2011. While Syria equally divides its membership composition between ordinary deputies and workers and farmers, Lebanon reserves half of its seats for Christian sects and the other half for Muslim sects. As is common in parliamentary republics, the Chamber of Deputies has the mandate to elect the President of the Republic. With the exception of Husni Zaim, Adib Shishakli and Gamal Abdel-Nasser, all of Syria’s presidents were elected in this way up until 1963.

Historically, the Lebanese President had significant powers at his disposal but this is no longer the case following the implementation of the Taif Agreement. Furthermore, the authority the presidency in Lebanon yields is certainly not comparable with its Syrian counterpart since a number of its powers have been ceded to the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers. At present, Lebanese deputies have been unable to reach a consensus to elect a president, which means there is currently a vacancy in the presidency for the fourth time since independence. Despite toying with the idea in the 1980s, Lebanon’s fragile political system inhibits it from having a vice-president. Rather, the Constitution provides for the Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers to exercise presidential powers in the event of a presidential vacancy. The Syrian Constitution on the other hands prevents this situation from arising in theory since the incumbent is expected to remain in office until a successor is elected. In the event there is a presidential vacancy for any reason, the Vice-President takes over temporarily before fresh elections are called.

The Lebanese President ratifies the appointment of the Prime Minister who enjoys majority support in the Chamber of Deputies. Political pluralism is much more ingrained in Lebanon than in Syria where the Baath Party commands the most backing in the People’s Assembly. Following the Taif Agreement, the Prime Minister has substantial authority under the Lebanese Constitution in comparison to his Syrian counterpart. In this regard, the Lebanese Prime Ministership takes on more political than administrative significance. Ministers are not usually appointed based on technocratic experience but rather on the support of political parties in the Chamber of Deputies. It is very common to find one minister having served in a number of ministries without possessing the requisite experience for his or her portfolio.

The differences in the governing structures of both countries are also reflected in the lawmaking process. Despite Lebanon’s reputation as an economic hub for the Levant region, the enactment of laws can be delayed countless times. For instance, the Chamber of Deputies is presently not meeting to debate and pass laws since it has been preoccupied with numerous failed attempts at electing a president since last year. While Syria does not share Lebanon’s economic features and attractions, lawmaking is a much more straightforward process even under wartime conditions. The People’s Assembly is not beholden to the same political agendas that exist in Lebanon and in any case, the President can issue legislation on his own. In Lebanon, bills cannot usually be passed in the Chamber of Deputies unless there is a certain degree of political consensus around them, which is hardly ever the case. Moreover, these types of political considerations even extend to appointments in the civil service.

Even though Syria historically has been capable of facilitating the passage of legislation, Lebanon still remained a more attractive investment and financial destination. However, this began to change in the years before 2011 when Syria was on the radar of numerous potential investors encouraged by the economic liberalization process taking place in the country. The changes that were being introduced reversed many of the socialist constraints that were put in place for more than 40 years. Although Syria passed laws in various economic sectors whenever it deemed it necessary, the implementation of legislation had not yet won the full confidence of businesses and other interested parties. Lebanon, on the other hand, maintained its reputation as a free market economy with a robust private sector. Consequently, it delivered flourishing banking and property sectors to name a couple that attracted a substantial amount of domestic and foreign investment. In fact, the first private banks to enter the Syrian market following the enactment of the Banking Law were Lebanese banks, which by then had accumulated much experience and possessed a proven track record.

In spite of these achievements, Lebanon is politically paralyzed and cannot pass laws on a regular basis. Take the example of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) legislation in both countries. It is firstly important to note that neither country has enacted a PPP Law but they both have draft laws sitting on the shelves. The difference is that in Syria’s case, the Draft PPP Law was on the verge of enactment in early 2011 but was pushed to one side because of the unrest that was starting to grip the country. As for Lebanon, its draft law has been locked away for years and its passage is hindered mainly by political infighting as opposed to extenuating circumstances.

The garbage crisis in Lebanon allowed for much needed reflection. It highlighted major distinctions between Syria and Lebanon despite their geographic proximity. Both countries have lost many of the common ties that used to bind them in the past. They charted similar courses throughout history but reacted differently to the regional events around them. Syria embraced Nasser at first while Lebanon rejected him. While the latter safeguarded capitalism, Syrians set it aside and welcomed socialism. The fragile political situations in both countries produced a presidential system in Syria and preserved an abnormal parliamentary republic in Lebanon after 15 years of civil war. Even though Syria and Lebanon have been facing exceptionally challenging times recently, it is worth learning from both their experiences over the decades. Although they had much in common at one point, they may still have the opportunity to complement each other in a different way in the future.