The Catch-22 of Lebanese Reform

 

You have your Lebanon and I have my Lebanon”: the late Lebanese writer and poet Gibran Kahlil Gibran immortalized this phrase in an essay in the 1920s in order to describe the contrast between the vision of his home country as a land of beauty and light and the political and sectarian reality of a Lebanon fought over by corrupt officials and religious leaders. Gibran’s dilemma is as relevant now as it was a hundred years ago. Over the past century the feudal, sectarian, and extremely corrupt system of government has not changed. Rather—and despite the growth of a modern economy and a burgeoning cadre of well-educated and skilled Lebanese—the grand-scale corruption and a system that insists on deciding and dividing all the spoils of government by consensus have meant that essential services have come to a standstill and the economy is on the precipice of a very deep chasm.

The anger that has poured out onto the streets of Lebanon over the past two weeks is unprecedented in its depth and breadth, spreading across sectarian, regional, and political divides. The ability of the corrupt system to resist, however, is still very much the issue, as is the question of how exactly one revolts against not one corrupt head but multiple dons and mafia families on top of a parasitic system.

The ability of the corrupt system to resist, however, is still very much the issue, as is the question of how exactly one revolts against not one corrupt head but multiple dons and mafia families on top of a parasitic system.

As tens of thousands of protesters called for a total upheaval of the Lebanese system of governing, their chants echoed the 2011 Arab uprisings’ chant, “the people want the fall of the regime,” and the call to tyrants to irhal— leave! Several uniquely Lebanese versions also reverberated, among them, killun ya’ni killun, or “all of the them means all of them”—implying that “we want all of them out.” Ever skilled with racy words, the protesters came out with several choice curses for all the leaders; however, they favored Gebran Bassil, the leader of President Aoun’s party and current foreign minister, on whom they hurled especially lacerating insults.  Bassil felt obliged to respond in a recent speech.[1]

The Issues

The current popular explosion was precipitated by rising taxes imposed by a government that has failed to restore full electric service, ensure clean water, and implement a modern system of collecting and recycling garbage almost 30 years after Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990. A sectarian system that rewards religious and political allegiance over competence underpins this divide-the-spoils system. A new generation of Lebanese, along with many from older generations who became impoverished by the system and are mad as hell about the extent of its corruption, took to the streets to demand change. The filling of large public squares, however, soon gave way to blocking main roads and highways, resulting in cutting access to public buildings, schools, and hospitals, thus imposing hardship on those simply seeking their daily means of livelihood.

The Political Fallout

A metaphorical wall has fallen in Lebanon, at least for several hundred thousand citizens who now no longer fear the state. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, declaring that he “has hit a dead end,” submitted his resignation; but perhaps he has not completely fallen by the wayside. Media outlets report that he will most likely be asked to form the post-protest cabinet. The emotional venting across sectarian and class divides is certainly admirable and no doubt has had cathartic value. The political dynamics, however, have a way of imposing themselves on the otherwise apolitical sentiment of the masses and will no doubt have a consequential impact on the immediate future of the protest and the country. Alarmed by the demands for the fall of all political elites, those belonging to the Shia-dominated Amal and Hezbollah movements have already boycotted—and in certain venues even attacked—the protests. The followers of president Michel Aoun rallied on November 3 around their leaders and gathered in the tens of thousands at his presidential palace.

Alarmed by the demands for the fall of all political elites, those belonging to the Shia-dominated Amal and Hezbollah movements have already boycotted—and in certain venues even attacked—the protests.

Of course, such a divisive political dynamic has manifested itself before. In the wake of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s murder in 2005, a million-person protest succeeded in forming an anti-Syrian movement dubbed the March 14 Alliance. This, however, produced a counter movement, an opposing million people in the streets who wanted to protect the country’s relationship with Syria and Iran—the so-called March 8 movement. The two opposing political alliances have persisted, albeit with some shuffling of membership. Saad Hariri, leader of the March 14 bloc who was ousted from government once before in 2011 for opposing an accommodation with March 8, reached an agreement with them that facilitated his comeback as premier in 2016. This understanding (or cohabitation, as the French would call it) caused a split within the March 14 Alliance, specifically with the Christian Lebanese Forces now calling for the fall of the Hariri cabinet. Michel Aoun, president of the republic and founder of the Christian Free Patriotic Movement, has remained steadfast with his March 8 bloc. The Christian community is now almost evenly split between the two blocs, one led by Sunni Muslims and another by Shia parties.

Hariri 2.0?

Hariri’s choices, according to his resignation speech and speculation by the media on what subsequently transpired in his meeting with President Aoun, revolve around a return to forming a government of a similar makeup to the outgoing one, but dropping certain traditional ministers and adding a few technocrats in their places. His second option is to shrink the cabinet of some 30 ministers to only the heads of the major political factions, ostensibly to make it easier to agree on a reform agenda. The third option is to form a totally technocratic government, i.e., one made up of nonpolitical figures possessing the technical expertise to manage economic reforms and avert total collapse.

Of these three options, only the third comes close to meeting the demands of the protests for a complete overhaul of the system. The problem with this idea is that each existing political party will insist on nominating its own technocrats—who, lacking a sufficient popular base and without party support, would not be able to make the tough decisions that lie ahead.

The Reform Agenda

Several reform ideas are needed if the system is to be seriously overhauled.

A new electoral law, suggested often in the past and now demanded by civil society leaders and protesters, would remove the sectarian formula that up to now has dictated a proportional representation of all religious sects—a 50/50 split of political power between Christians and Muslims—as well as the apportionment of all senior government posts among the 18 or so religious sects in the country. Along with mandating consensus-based decision-making, this system has kept some of the best and the brightest away from public service and has led to an often-stalemated government.

A bicameral parliament has also been suggested in the past. In fact, it is one of the recommendations made by the 1989 Taif Agreement at the end of the civil war. An upper house could ostensibly be used to allay sectarian fears by leaving the old representation formula in that house alone while opening up the lower house to independents and secular political parties.

An upper house could ostensibly be used to allay sectarian fears by leaving the old representation formula in that house alone while opening up the lower house to independents and secular political parties

Another suggested reform is the formation of an accountability board to chase after stolen money and to pursue abusers of public funds. An even bolder idea would be to create an investors’ board to address the grand larceny represented by large contracts with foreign investors and the apportionment of public funds tied to kickbacks on all development projects.

The above steps by no means form a comprehensive list of needed reforms but could nevertheless be the basis of a new social contract that could help transform the Lebanese system into a secular and democratic government. The chicken-and-egg question poses itself, however: does the system need to be dismantled completely before a new group of experts could come in and reconstruct the republic along these new principles, or should the old guard stay in office to keep the country from falling into the void, while gradually transitioning the system?

Given the balance of power in Lebanon, it is not possible to get all existing and entrenched parties (and their militias) to step aside in favor of a new power elite. Those benefiting from the current structure will not go away without a fight. More importantly, there is no unified leadership ready to step in with a bold new plan of action to answer the revolution’s demands. This presents a catch-22 dilemma that, at the moment, seems far from resolving itself.

[1] Source is in Arabic.

 

Nabeel A. Khoury is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. A retired foreign service officer, he most recently served as director of the Near East South Asia office of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
 

Photo credit: Shahen Books