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The key to decoding the Lebanese impasse

August 28, 2020 at 5:13 pm

Demonstrators gather for a protest against the government in Beirut, Lebanon on 8 August 2020 [Houssam Shbaro/Anadolu Agency]

The impasse in Lebanon appears to be linked in essence to the crisis of the system and regime, rather than to elections or the formation of a government. Indeed, this system has produced a set of intertwined problems, which confuse scholars in how to approach them. However, the key for deciphering the “talismans” of this dilemma might be in two parts: a crisis of confidence and corruption.

The Lebanese political system is based on sectarian equations and balances, and on quotas in executive positions. Behind the sectarianism stand political parties, individuals and families who control these positions and sometimes inherit them or pass them on to relatives. For over seventy years, the political parties have failed to move from the sectarian to a national popular base, despite their patriotic, national and humanitarian political propositions, and the secular and liberal tendencies which most of them express. Remarkably, at every election, these parties resort to their sectarian bases to secure their legitimacy and power. In return, the Lebanese people, no matter how cultured, educated, open and liberal they are, tend to vote for the representatives of their sect and not necessarily for the best people or parties for the job, or for the genuine representatives of the people; it’s a phenomenon which the political and electoral system has enshrined rather than addressed. Hence, instead of implementing confidence-building programmes and expanding joint activities, parties have often deepened differences and perpetuated their own religious and cultural identities.

Consequently, the long years have not succeeded in building trust or in transitioning the citizen from community to state patronage, or from the quota system imposed by sectarian affiliation to a system based on competence, experience and honesty. It was in the interest of the people lording it over sectarian parties to keep people in endless circles of fear and suspicion to legitimise their survival as safety nets for their followers. This weakened the central state and made sectarian leaderships a channel to the state for citizens, and a cover for their own work and executive positions.

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Playing on fears and insecurity about the sect’s future, amid competition that sometimes escalates into bloody disputes, has tempted sect leaderships to seek external support to strengthen their position against their opponents. This has opened the door for regional and international players to interfere in Lebanon’s domestic politics, including the Syrians, the Saudis, the Iranians, the French and the Americans. Hence, Lebanon’s political scene has become dependent on a set of regional and international interests, and even acts as an arena for settling accounts among foreign powers. Foreign political money, as well as political, economic and security pressures by influential states, has become part of the game, which has complicated the scene further and undermined the ability of local parties to build trust, even if most of them wanted to.

The crisis of confidence has passed on to the average Lebanese citizen, who is frustrated with the political system and leaders as well as with the possibility of change. The warlords have reproduced themselves as parties dominating the scene, sharing quotas after each parliamentary election over the past thirty years. Ultimately, the democratic and legislative structures remained fragile institutions and mere tools in the influence game and quotas administered by these powerful individuals.

The resort to arms in managing domestic relations has imposed a confidence crisis, which was perpetuated by the Lebanese experience in 1958, the 1975–1990 civil war, the series of assassinations of leaders (Kamal Jumblatt, Hassan Khaled, Rashid Karami and Rafik Hariri, for example) and the Israeli invasion of Beirut in May 2008. The weapons of the resistance and their role in the Lebanese arena became debatable; while one side stresses its patriotic role in defending Lebanon against Israel, besides being a backup and support for the Lebanese army, others question its use as a tool for sectarian, partisan and regional coercion while being an active and defining element in Lebanese politics. The other Lebanese parties adopt a pragmatic approach in order to build domestic alliances.

Amidst a quota-based political system suffering such a crisis of confidence, obstruction has become a weapon used by dominant sectarian forces when they are dissatisfied with their share of the political cake and their interests have not been safeguarded. Hence, it has become easy to disrupt important reconstruction and infrastructure projects, besides basic services such as electricity, water and even waste collection, making Lebanon one of the most underdeveloped countries in some sectors, such as electricity supply, for example. Obviously, unless trust is developed and built up, the political system will remain deep in a fundamental structural crisis.

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Corruption is the other issue of note in the political impasse affecting Lebanon. In this quota-based sectarian political system, the one with the biggest share of the cake is the master of the game. When building alliances, the ministries and positions are shared among different parties on the understanding that everyone will keep quiet about what everyone else is doing with their share. This has made the environment ripe for corruption to flourish, wherein it is difficult or impossible for any party to build its alliances without condoning the practices of the others, otherwise the alliance might fail and the government could collapse.

Protests in Lebanon - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Protests in Lebanon – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Consequently, in a quota-based system, expropriation of public money has been tolerated, and it has become difficult to chase down the biggest culprits because of the sect and party cover that they enjoy. The country also seems to be unable to collect taxes, whether from customs and border crossings or from owners of major, influential companies and others, where potential revenue is estimated in the billions.

In a country that can invest its water resources to produce electrical energy sufficient for Syria, Jordan and Palestine as well as itself, Lebanon’s production decreased to cover half or two-thirds of its own electricity needs. Strikingly, the amount owed for electricity usage has risen to around $46 billion, while the diesel and electric “generator mafia” have thrived.

Some studies have indicated that Lebanon’s Gross Domestic Product (GPD), which amounted to $65 billion in 2019, could have reached $150 billion if there was a transparent and effective system of government. Instead, public debt has doubled to more than $90 billion, around 170 per cent of GDP, thus making Lebanon the third-highest indebted country in the world in terms of the ratio of debt-to-GDP.

Notably, Lebanon ranked 137 out of 180 countries according to the 2019 Corruption Perceptions Index reported by Transparency International, where two-thirds of the Lebanese believe that the country’s political and economic class is corrupt. A massive 87 per cent of citizens believe that the government has failed or is unable to fight corruption.

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With the Lebanese protests starting on 17 October last year, the political crisis intensified; this was coupled with the deterioration in the economy, which was in turn exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Consequently, the Lebanese were left with around 20 per cent of their original salary value against the dollar, while more than half the workforce joined the unemployment queues. The poverty rate has risen to more than 55 per cent and the banking system has almost collapsed; the banks cannot meet the basic requirements of their customers and have failed to hand over their deposits. The Beirut port blast then revealed an unknown layer of corruption, leaving more than $15 billion worth of damage, according to some initial estimates.

Subsequently, the pro-emigration mood has been intensified among the Lebanese people, and those aspiring for change have become more frustrated, not least when they saw their great popular protests being hijacked. Amazingly, those who led the protests were the very same political and economic figures accused of embracing quotas and corruption.

Hence, the solution to the problem in Lebanon will not be found in forming a government of national unity or a government of technocrats or even in holding new elections, because in any case, the same big players will be on the field. The rules will be the same and they will be pulling the strings while reproducing themselves with every government entitlement and with every election.

The way out of this predicament is to have a serious and sincere desire to build a non-sectarian representative system and a non-quota-based government, and establish through consensus effective and transparent institutional structures, while preserving the rights of sects within an integrated and non-conflicting system. Otherwise, the crisis of confidence will continue, and the corruption will remain, leading to an even greater collapse of the country.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.