Beirut’s Perfect Storm

Can anyone stop Lebanon's descent into chaos?

As the conflict in Syria spills across the border into Lebanon, sectarian violence there has risen to levels unseen in recent years. A car bomb exploded in Beirut's Hezbollah-controlled suburbs on Jan. 2, killing at least five people and wounding dozens more. It was just the latest attack in a shadow war between Sunni and Shiite factions that now risks spiraling out of control: Less than a week earlier, a top advisor to an anti-Assad former prime minister was killed in downtown Beirut; in November, a double suicide bombing targeted the Iranian embassy in Lebanon.

The most recent car bombing, as well as the attack on the Iranian Embassy, appears to be the work of Sunni extremist groups, which are rapidly gaining strength across Lebanon. In a microcosm of the Syrian civil war, Lebanese Sunni militants now regularly engage in violent clashes with pro-Assad Shiite and Alawite rivals in hotspots such as the cities of Saida and Tripoli, and the eastern Bekaa Valley.

With the death toll climbing, fears are mounting that the fighting could push the increasingly embattled Sunni community toward large-scale militia building. The Lebanese Army recently arrested the Saudi leader of the al Qaeda affiliate in Lebanon, which claimed responsibility for the Iranian Embassy attack -- but homegrown Sunni militants may be quick to step up and take his place. Sunni groups have already begun to organize in order to funnel aid to Syrian rebels and combat Hezbollah, and some have even begun to clash with the Lebanese Army, once considered the sole unifying institution in the country but now increasingly seen as a pawn in sectarian politics.

Historically, the Sunni community in Lebanon has had difficulty mobilizing militarily. Although the country's other sects have produced militias to protect their communities' interests, the Sunnis have been hampered by the absence of a dominant party capable of unifying and rallying their sect. Instead, Sunni militancy in Lebanon has traditionally been driven by groups with roots in the refugee Palestinian communities and the international Salafi-jihadi movement. These groups, which have carried out most of the attacks against Hezbollah and Assad supporters so far, have failed to garner significant popular support.

However, the political, social, and military dynamics affecting mainstream Lebanese Sunnis suggests that their calculus for large-scale militia building may be changing. The past decade has seen dramatic changes in the Sunni community's standing vis-à-vis other confessional groups. Perhaps the most important has been the failure of the Sunni political agenda following the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Sunni-dominated government that was elected after his death was determined to root out the vestiges of Syrian influence and end the militarization of Hezbollah -- but it was ultimately frustrated. The government's disastrous attempt to dismantle a Hezbollah-operated telecommunications system in May 2008 led the Shiite party to invade predominantly Sunni neighborhoods in Beirut, leaving the Sunni community fragmented and dispirited.

The inability of Sunni politicians to protect their community's interests has created space for fundamentalist leaders to claim the role of community defenders. In recent years, numerous Islamist groups -- which often receive funding from sympathetic networks in the Gulf -- have gathered followers by speaking to the concerns of the Sunni street. And while there is growing support for Syrian rebels among the mainstream Sunni community and its political elites, it has been the Salafist militants that have taken the lead in actual fighting in Syria.

The first Sunni rebel group fighting in Syria under a Lebanese commander -- and probably still the best known -- is Jund al-Sham ("Soldiers of the Levant"). It operates in Homs under Khaled Mahmoud, a well-known militant who fights under the nom de guerre Abu Suleiman al-Muhajer. Another Salafi group, led until recently by firebrand Lebanese cleric Ahmad al-Assir, is Kataib al-Muqawama al-Hurr ("The Free Resistance Brigades"). It was formed in April 2013 as a volunteer force of Lebanese Sunnis committed to opposing Hezbollah, but was weakened after clashing with the Lebanese Army in June 2013. Highlighting the growing cross-border cooperation between extremists, Jabhat al-Nusra, the al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group in Syria, has reportedly had a presence in Lebanon since at least December 2012.

The epicenter for Sunni militancy in Lebanon appears to be the northern city of Tripoli. The city is the birthplace of the country's Salafi movement and many young men from Sunni neighborhoods have allegedly joined Jabhat al-Nusra, according to Lebanese security officials. Tripoli is also a one of the Lebanon's most volatile sectarian fault lines, with Sunnis regularly clashing with the city's small Alawite community. Over the last two years, the violence has claimed hundreds of lives.

The perfect storm now appears to be brewing in Lebanon. Hariri's assassination and the subsequent failure of Sunni elites to fill the leadership vacuum, the rise of Hezbollah as a military and political powerhouse, and Assad's crackdown on the predominantly Sunni opposition has fundamentally changed the dynamics of Sunni political participation and activism. The Syrian war has provided new and dangerous opportunities for militancy: Lebanese Sunnis are now learning to organize militarily, building bridges with foreign militant groups, and gaining tactical experience on the battlefield. Nearly a million refugees from Syria, who are predominantly Sunnis, have drastically altered Lebanon's confessional demographics.

Thus far, the fragmented nature of the Sunni community and the reluctance of all parties to become ensnared in an open a military confrontation has prevented civil war. However, as sectarian tensions grow, the Sunni community may come to perceive the current conflict as an existential threat. In this case, leaders -- moderates and extremists alike -- willing to employ violence to protect their community's interests may gain power. Such a shift could pose a significant threat to the confessional balance of power in Lebanon and, ultimately, could incite a deadly new civil war.

AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

South Africa, Unequal by Design

How Nelson Mandela's legacy is holding South Africa back.

South Africa is not happy. Not only has the country lost its first black president, Nelson Mandela, but it is now facing its deepest crisis since its democratic transition in 1994. A host of challenges face the country in the new year: protests and strikes continue to hobble key industries; gold prices (and, concomitantly, the value of the rand) are projected to fall; and economists have cut their forecast for economic growth due to high unemployment and a lack of foreign investment.

Adding to this cloudy forecast for 2014, inequality in the country has remained sky-high, despite two decades of African National Congress (ANC) power. With a Gini index above 63, it is the third most unequal place on earth, after Comoros and Namibia. The mining sector, which is one of the country's chief economic engines, is in turmoil. The government has responded to demands for better pay and working conditions from miners and other laborers with a nationwide crackdown, not an invitation to the negotiating table. (In the photo above, South Africans take part in a "service delivery protest" in Cape Town on Oct. 30.) Corruption, cronyism, and political favoritism abound. As a result, so does cynicism.

These problems were brought into sharp relief following the death of Mandela. President Jacob Zuma was vociferously booed by thousands while eulogizing the country's beloved founding father. And, revealing South Africa's deep-rooted corruption, the signer for the deaf at the Mandela memorial was a fraud who made up gestures while standing behind foreign dignitaries like U.S. President Barack Obama. It turned out that he worked for a flimsy shell company contracted by the ANC. Nobody bothered to vet his credentials. The supposed head of the company is nowhere to be found.

These are all unfortunate symptoms of a deep institutional rot that can be traced back to the founding of South Africa's democracy. As in the cases of Chile and Turkey, its transition was guided by a constitutional framework that gave outgoing oligarchs -- in this case, apartheid leaders -- an upper hand in new democratic life. A complicated institutional arrangement gave outgoing elites veto power over policies that threatened their political and economic interests. Though apartheid leaders have faded into the background, the legacy of their transition bargain with the ANC still haunts South Africa's democracy.

Mandela was fully aware of the tradeoffs implied by the bargain he and the ANC struck with the Apartheid regime. The inequality was by design. In fact, his willingness to tolerate patently undemocratic features of a new South African democracy was what made him the ideal person to head the South African transition. One of Mandela's chief strengths is that he was a temperate and prudent leader who had come to understand how critical it was to build trust and proceed cautiously. Had he agitated for wholesale, radical reform, it is unlikely that the apartheid regime would have been willing to hand over power to begin with. Instead, he tolerated compromises such as the creation of political enclaves of white elite dominance.

Mandela captured this sentiment perfectly during his first presidential campaign when he said, "Just as we told the people what we would do, I felt we must also tell them what we could not do. Many people felt life would change overnight after a free and democratic election, but that would be far from the case. Often, I said to crowds ... 'life will not change dramatically, except that you will have increased your self-esteem and become a citizen in your land. You must have patience.'"

South Africans now feel they have waited long enough. The promise that there would be steady progress, even if tainted by the perpetuation of white privilege, has given way to hopelessness in the face of the ANC's growing monopolization of power. A nascent black elite has begun to replace the former apartheid-era oligarchy. These new elites are more intent on guarding their newfound status and wealth than on ushering in a new era of shared prosperity. Indeed, the country has become infamous for its excessively lavish parties, in which business men, investors, and public officials comingle in posh hotels and mansions. And, to add insult to injury, the successor party to the apartheid regime has merged with Mandela's own ANC.

What must South Africa do to forge a new, more equitable and enduring social contract? First and foremost, it needs to uproot the laws and institutions that grant the rich and well-connected disproportionate political power. In Chile, for example, incoming president Michelle Bachelet has promised to do away with the country's heavily biased binomial electoral system that favors the wealthy, one of the most consequential legacies of former dictator Augusto Pinochet's 1980 constitution, which continues to guide the country today.

Reform might not be as easy in South Africa as it is in Chile, however. Chile has a longer history of democratic government, albeit one that was brutally interrupted by Pinochet, and its citizens are wealthier and better educated. Inequality is also declining, and there is a stronger consensus around political pluralism and the rule of law. And crucially, a more robust party system in Chile gives voice to a wider range of political preferences than in South Africa. Despite healthy pluralism, citizen preferences in Chile are now aligned in favor of reforming the underlying institutional architecture that underpinned its first two decades of post-Pinochet democracy.

The ANC has indeed proposed some promising solutions to the country's longstanding problems. A market-assisted land reform program, though slow and still too small in scale, began in 1994 and has transferred millions of hectares of land to black farmers. The ANC is now attempting to speed up land reform. Reforms of the criminal justice system have made the police force more professional and representative, despite some lingering problems. And social assistance grants from the Department of Social Development have kept many citizens out of poverty.

Yet the ruling party itself is a key obstacle to deeper change. On the one hand, key players in the ANC have leveraged the culture of impunity inherited from the authoritarian era, the result of a devil's pact with many of the apartheid regime's former elites, to line their own pockets. South African institutions therefore continue to shield powerful politicians, though many of them are now black. This creates incentives that favor cronyism and nepotism, instead of pluralism and redistribution. And although the ANC's monopoly on power is checked by the judiciary, judges have also been blamed for coddling oligarchs and stifling land reform.

What South Africa needs most is more vigorous democratic competition to undercut the hegemony of the ANC and push it to act on behalf of all South Africans. But the irony is that the prospects for real change lie with a party that is opposed to Mandela's ANC and, therefore, much of his legacy: the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). If the DA can find a way to discipline the ANC without threatening policies that benefit the poor and disenfranchised, then Mandela's true legacy might be realized. The DA currently has 67 of 400 seats in the National Assembly, and is growing in popularity. In concert with other opposition parties, the ANC is now a few seats short of the two-thirds majority it needs to unilaterally amend the constitution. Yet, the DA's 17 percent of seats is nowhere close to the numbers it would need to block legislation.

However, staking the hope for South Africa's future on the DA, or any other opposition party, for that matter, is risky. The opposition's 2013 gains were modest, and the ANC is still the most powerful party by a wide margin. The best check against entrenched autocratic legacies, corruption, and the monopolization of power by the ANC is a political culture and institutions that can help keep the powerful in check. This will depend on the ability of South Africans to move beyond the lionization of the democracy's founding figures and to develop values and practices that encourage a free media and healthy civil society. Indeed, South Africa appears to be moving in this direction: the past year has been characterized by a host of protests and strikes against ANC policies and the state of the economy. This mirrors the experiences of other young democracies in highly unequal countries with strong authoritarian legacies, such as Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. The ANC must heed the calls for reform if it wants South Africa to flourish as a democracy in the future.