The Keyword to Decoding the Lebanese Impasse
The Lebanese impasse 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 keyword for deciphering the “talismans” of this dilemma might be composed of two parts: “crisis of confidence” and “corruption.”
The Lebanese political system is based on sectarian equations and balances, and on quotas in executive positions. Behind the sectarian scene stand political parties, figures or 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 popular base to the national popular one, despite their patriotic, national and humanitarian political propositions, and the secular and liberal tendencies most of them express. Remarkably, at every elections, these parties resort to their sectarian base to secure their legitimacy and power. In return, the Lebanese, no matter how cultured, educated, open and liberal they are, they tend to vote for the representatives of their sect and not necessarily for the best, or for the representatives of the people, a phenomenon which the political and electoral system has enshrined rather than addressed. Hence, instead of implementing confidence-building programs and expanding joint activities, parties have often deepened differences and perpetuated their own religious and cultural identity.
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 “lords” of sectarian parties to keep people in circles of fear and suspicion to legitimize their survival as “safety nets” for their followers. This weakened the central state and made sectarian leaderships a channel for the citizen to the state, and a cover for his work and executive position.
Playing on fears and the insecurity about the sect’s future, amid competition that sometimes escalates into bloody disputes, have tempted sect leaderships to seek external support to strengthen their position against their opponents. This opened the door wide for regional and international players to interfere in Lebanese domestic politics, including the Syrians, the Saudis, the Iranians, the French and the Americans, etc. Hence, the Lebanese political scene became dependent on a set of regional and international interests, and even an arena for settling accounts among foreign powers. Foreign political money besides political, economic and security pressures by influential states became part of the game, which further complicated the scene and undermined the ability of local parties to build “trust,” even if most of them wanted to.
The crisis of “confidence” passed on to the average Lebanese, who has been frustrated with the political system and leaders as well as with the possibility of change. For the “warlords” 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 game of influence and quotas administered by the “lords.”
The resort to arms in managing internal relations has imposed a “confidence” crisis, which was perpetuated by the Lebanese experience in the 1958 crisis, the 1975–1990 civil war, the series of assassinations of leaders (Kamal Jumblatt, Hassan Khaled, Rashid Karami, Rafik Hariri, ...) and the Israeli invasion of Beirut in May 2008. The weapons of the resistance and their role in the Lebanese arena became debatable; for one side stresses their patriotic role in defending Lebanon against Israel, besides being a backup and support to the Lebanese army, others question their use as a tool for sectarian, partisan and regional coercion while being an active and defining element in Lebanese politics, while the rest of the Lebanese parties adopt a “pragmatic” approach in order to build internal Lebanese alliances.
Amidst a quota-based political system suffering a “confidence crisis,” “obstruction” has become a weapon used by dominant sectarian forces when not satisfied with their share of the “cake” and when their interests have not been safeguarded. Therefore, it has become easy to disrupt repair 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 the electricity sector.
Obviously, unless “trust” is built, the political system will remain plunged in a fundamental structural crisis.
The other part of the password in the Lebanese gridlock is “corruption.”
In this quota-based sectarian political system, to share the cake is the master of the game. When building alliances, the ministries and positions are shared among different parties, on the basis that every side would remain silent concerning what the others are doing with their “share.” This has made the environment suitable for corruption to flourish, where it is difficult or impossible for any party to build its entire alliances without condoning the practices of the others, otherwise the alliance might fail and the government could collapse.
Consequently, in a quota-based system, expropriation of public money has been tolerated, and it has become difficult to chase down the big corrupts because of the sect and party cover they enjoy. The country also witnessed a state of inability to collect taxes, whether from customs and border crossings or from large influential owners of companies and others, where potential revenues are estimated at billions.
In a country that can invest its water resources to produce electrical energy sufficient for all of the Bilad al-Sham (i.e., Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Lebanon), production decreased to cover half or two-thirds of Lebanon’s need for electricity. Strikingly, the country’s debt owed on electricity rose to about $46 billion, while the diesel and electric “generator mafia” thrived.
Some studies have indicated that the Lebanese Gross Domestic Product (GPD), which amounted to $65 billion in 2019, could have reached $150 billion was there a transparent and effective system of government. Instead, public debt has doubled to more than $90 billion, around 170% of the 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, while 87% believe that the government has failed or is unable to fight corruption.
With the Lebanese protests starting on 17/10/2019, the political crisis intensified coupled with deterioration in the economy, which was further exacerbated by the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, the Lebanese were left with around 20% of their original salary value against the dollar, while more than half the workforce joined the unemployment queues, poverty rate rose to more than 55% and the banking system almost collapsed, where banks could not meet the basic needs of their customers and failed to hand them over their deposits. The Beirut port blast then came to reveal an unknown layer of corruption, leaving more than $15 billion worth damages, according to some initial estimates.
Subsequently, the pro-emigration mood has been intensified among the Lebanese, and the Lebanese aspiring for change have become more frustrated, when they witnessed their great popular protests being “stolen” or “confiscated.” For those who led the scene to meet their demands were the very same political and economic figures accused of embracing quotas and corruption.
Hence, the solution to the problem in Lebanon is neither in forming a government of national unity, nor in a government of technocrats or in holding new elections, because in any case, the same “big players” will be playing, according to the same rules of the game, pulling its strings while reproducing themselves with every government entitlement and with every election.
The way out of this predicament is rather by having a serious and sincere will 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 state of corruption will sustain, leading to further collapse of the country.