In recent months, particularly following the devastating Beirut Port blast on Aug. 4, tiny Lebanon has received extensive coverage at new outlets around the world.
The attention this country is getting is quite the feat considering everything going on in the rest of the world, chief among them the coronavirus pandemic, the lockdowns and the resulting economic costs.
There’s no doubt that it was the devastating Beirut Port blast that shifted attention to Lebanon. After all, it was arguably the third-largest explosion in history, coming after only Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Video footage of the occurrence went viral on social media, reaching viewers in every corner of the globe and raising the question as to how, in this day and age, any government could be so negligent as to allow an avoidable disaster such as this to take place.
Soon after, shocked audiences discovered the events that had preceded the blast, including the countrywide protests that erupted last October demanding the ouster of the ruling elite in its entirety. This was followed by the dramatic shortage of foreign currency, the seizure of citizens’ dollar savings in banks, the devaluation of the Lebanese pound and the collapse of the country’s economy.
In a nutshell, these revelations exposed Lebanon for what it actually is once you cut through all the pretty pictures of glorious beaches, colorful cityscapes and snowcapped mountains: a banana republic – without even the bananas.
Naturally, such a description runs counter to the image of Lebanon as a “model of coexistence,” with as many as 18 different sects living peacefully in the same country, and described by Pope John Paul as “a message.”
Pope John Paul, however, never lived in Lebanon, and he never witnessed firsthand the farce that is Lebanon’s deficient political system, designed to appease all of those 18 different sects but ultimately failing to serve any of them.
Although Lebanon’s multiparty political system allows for representation in Parliament for every sect, the truth is it’s unlike the setup in any other country.
In most other democratic nations with multiparty systems, including in Armenia, the differences in various parties tend to pertain to ideologies such as liberalism, conservatism, nationalism and so on. Lebanese politics, however, takes an entirely different approach based on a mix of tribalism and sectarianism, a vestige of its pre-independence days.
For starters, the country still maintains a semblance of tribes headed by chieftains whose political parties secure seats in Parliament, with the sizes of the parliamentary blocs based on the size of their respective electorates. Moreover, those chieftains pass on the mantle to their heirs, in effect keeping the same families in power generation after generation.
Alongside those chieftains are former warlords – or their children – who bank on loyalties that harken back to Civil War days to secure electorates for their own political blocs in Parliament.
While most parties claim to be secular, Lebanon’s major political factions, which number in the dozens, are based predominantly on confessions, sects and ethnicities. These include Shiites, Sunnis, Druze, Maronites, Armenians and Alawites among others.
And of course there’s the distribution of power based on the Taif Accord, agreed in 1990, to end the country’s devastating 15-year Civil War. The terms of that agreement watered down the powers of the president, who must be a Christian Maronite, while earmarking the premiership for a Sunni Muslim and the speakership for a Shiite Muslim.
Although inclusion may be a desirable policy, the way Lebanese politics handles it undermines not only progress and economic growth but the execution of even the most routine government tasks.
Simply put, very few things get accomplished because more time is spent on the formation of successive Cabinets and political appointments than on the work they’re meant to carry out.
Political blocs bicker over the number of seats they are entitled to in Cabinet as well as over which sovereign ministries fall to which grouping. Meanwhile, political rivalries frequently stall the process over a refusal to include certain names in the lineup.
As for public sector appointments, they are often delayed and disputed simply because the number of appointees from one sect or another exceeds or falls behind the others. Consequently, key posts in the judiciary and military, among others, go unfilled, with installed officials remaining in their posts long past their tenures.
Throughout all this, key infrastructure projects, chief among them the overhaul of the country’s dilapidated electricity sector, remain unaddressed and fall into further disrepair. In parallel, the economy’s decline continues unabated while the public debt continues to climb, even as rampant corruption wreaks havoc on state finances.
As for negligence, the deadly Beirut Port explosion, which occurred as a result of the improper storage since 2013 of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, damaging half the capital, killing over 190 people, injuring over 6,500 and leaving 300,000 homeless, stands as testament to officials’ utter disregard for the people’s welfare.
As most observers have discovered, this large-scale mismanagement, particularly that of the foreign-trade balance, has not only put Lebanon’s economy on the verge of collapse, but has resulted in a shortage of foreign currency in the country, especially banknotes, with access to dollar savings accounts in banks blocked and the ensuing rush for the greenback on the secondary and black markets eroding the value of the Lebanese currency to less than a fifth of its long-maintained value.
Moreover, with the same major political parties repeatedly dominating the electoral scene, whatever candidates they field will ultimately follow the party line and direction, resulting in the same old methods and intransigence.
In fact, even now with the country and its economy in ruins, and with deadlines set by the international community for politicians to get their house in order if they want to see a dime of aid, political parties are still horse trading over who gets what ministry.
All this begs the obvious question: Why don’t voters just abandon these clearly inept and derelict parties?
The answer, unfortunately, is far more complex – and frustrating. In any other democratic country voters would have already expressed their anger at the ballot box by electing officials with the skills and drive to bring about change.
That, however, is not the case in Lebanon, because voters refuse to go against their core beliefs despite the mounting evidence of incompetence and negligence demonstrated by their respective leaders.
Lebanese officials have never acknowledged their failures. In fact, the country has adopted a “no victor, no vanquished policy” wherein no group is declared as having won or lost in anything since, and including, the Civil War. The concept of admitting defeat is not one that is practiced, and so any failure is always either blamed on another party or an abstract “other.”
Meanwhile, voters’ loyalties to their respective parties and sects supersede loyalties to the nation and its interests, primarily because despite appearances no one community in the country completely trusts the others.
Moreover, with loyalty to sect taking priority over loyalty to nation, this opens the door for regional countries with governance based on religious doctrines to hold substantial influence on Lebanon’s local politics. As a result, the animosity these foreign countries harbor against each other spills over into Lebanon, polarizing the various communities and constantly keeping tensions high.
Due to this unease, each community lives with the underlying fear that, given the chance, those of a different sect will strip them of their rights or, in the event of another civil war, possibly murder them.
This, of course, is ludicrous and could not be further from the truth because Lebanese of all backgrounds work together, forge friendships, socialize and intermarry – albeit with some difficulty – while sects or confessions are never bought up except in political discourse.
However, memories of Civil War rivalries endure, and politicians seize on them to retain the allegiances of their electorates. This is done with the promise of fighting for the rights of supporters, who in turn are drawn to the idea of strength in numbers against imagined threats.
What takes place on the ground is actually the opposite. Supporters, for fear of being left in the cold and picked off as outliers, ultimately end up protecting the parties to which they belong instead of vice versa, effectively keeping in power leaders who fail them time and again.
Examples of such behavior are common, with protesters demanding the ouster of a politician or party often meeting with resistance from counter-protests, and even violence, carried out by supporters of the targeted parties or leaders.
And in the event protesters take to the streets en masse with proverbial torches and pitchforks demanding the ouster of the entire political class, it simply becomes a matter of convincing the pitchfork people that the torch people want to take away their pitchforks. By employing such tactics, politicians easily redirect protesters’ rage from the ruling elite toward their fellow citizens, and rallies intended to take them down actually end up reinforcing their positions.
Finally, there’s the nepotism and clientelism factor, a facet of the rampant corruption that sees politicians securing coveted positions in the public sector for their “people.” Beneficiaries include family members, friends, friends of friends, and – perhaps more diabolically – supporters, who become indebted to said politicians for their livelihoods and proceed to defend them until their dying breath.
With so much flagrant manipulation and abuse on display, it is no wonder that Lebanese officials are resistant to reform. And change for the better would inevitably erode their support base, and deprive them of the only thing keeping them in power. The only hope, even if it is just wishful thinking, is that somehow they will develop a conscience and begin putting the needs of the country and its people ahead of their own interests.
And there you have it, a realistic if somewhat depressing appraisal of Lebanese politics. As I mentioned before, Pope John Paul referred to Lebanon only as “a message.” Now, decades later, we can deduce that he didn’t go into specifics because the picture beneath the surface is far less inspiring.