The Lebanese Paradox: Between Systemic Collapse and Lack of Alternatives
FRANCESCO MAZZUCOTELLI (University of Pavia)
COMMENTARY #18 • AUGUST 2020
Was the August 4 tragic blast in the port of Beirut the final piece in the crisis of the Lebanese political system? Or, after an ephemeral outbreak of anger, will the parliamentary consultations result in the eternal return of the politics as usual , namely yet another cabinet of “national unity”, perhaps under the leadership of a revived Saad Hariri?
Familiaritywith Middle Eastern issues should support what Claudio Magris suggested when speaking about the Danube region: dismiss inflexible determinism and embrace the uncertainty principle, putting one’s mind at rest with respect to the difficulty of predicting the course of events with any reasonable degree of certainty.
In a country that is quite accustomed to crises linked to internal and external factors, the current situation is particularly dramatic. The severe devastation of the port of Beirut and the neighbourhoods nearbyoccurred in a country that had been brought to its knees by the health and economic effects of the pandemic, and before that by the announcement of the outgoing Hassan Diab’s government that Lebanon would default on a Eurobond payment.
The declaration of insolvency with respect to a bond that matured in early March, as I explained in an article a few weeks ago, resulted in a fall in the exchange rate between the Lebanese pound and the US dollar on the informal currency market, and also in a hyper-inflationary mechanism that caused the purchasing power of the middle class to collapse. The consequences have been captured quite well by widepress coverage reporting scenes of bewilderment and anger in various areas of the country.
Yet, paradoxically, the pandemic itself seemed to have offered sectarianparties, meaning those who pretend to hegemonize the political representation of each religious denomination , an unexpected opportunity to reaffirm control over their traditional strongholdsand to close ranks, as they provided basic necessities to a population exhausted by the quarantine and also by the inability to get access to their bank deposits.
The distributionof face masks and food parcels with party crests seemed to visually manifestthe roots of the Lebanese party system, which everyone verbally dislikes, but is in reality difficult to bypass because it is related to the supply of and access to goods and services.
Lebanese “sectarianism”, which defines a peculiar model of power-sharing between sectarian parties and individual politicians, each of them claiming to be the champion of a specific religious group, has for years been a topic of in-depth, meticulous and very lively academic discussions, political, historical and historiographical. Over the years, the “primordialist” current, which viewed the Lebanese system as the politicisation and in many ways the natural consequence of atavistic identities, has lost ground in favour of the “constructivist” trend, which interprets the characteristics of contemporary Lebanon as a response of local elites to the tensions produced by the arrival of European colonialism and by the inclusion of the Middle East into the economic system of global capitalism. In recent years, this debate, which is often very theoretical, has included a line of research on the political economy of confessionalism. Studies such as those of Melani Cammett and Joanna Nucho have made it possible to highlight the distinctly clientelist nature of the confessionalist system, the dynamics between “patrons” and “clients”, the networks of material dependence and symbolic subservience in which the latter often find themselves.
It is very important to keep in mind the combination of this clientelism and sectarianismbecause it also explains the nature and origins of the financial disaster of recent months. The default of last March was in fact, to a large extent, the result of the crash of what has been defined as a “Ponzi scheme”. In 2017, Rosalie Barthier had already highlighted how the interlocking between government bonds issued by the treasury ministry, decisions by the Lebanese central bank, and the credit policies of major private banking institutions posed a series of disturbing questions about long-term sustainability. Doubts were further exacerbated by the contiguity between the political class as a whole and the shareholders of almost all Lebanese credit institutions, creating huge conflicts of interest that were simply shelved despite being glaringly obvious.
In other words, Lebanese sectarianismis not only and is not primarily a question of relations between the state (or politics) and religious denominations, but rather is an accumulation of economic, financial and political interests that are difficult to unravel. It is, therefore, unlikely that a cosmetic reform of the electoral law or of the composition of the cabinet could call into question a system that has displayed all its glaring inefficiencies.
If the Lebanese population understandably has good reasons to express their anger at the reckless irresponsibility of stacking 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate in a silo in the port of Beirut (regardless of all the assumptions and suppositions about the triggering), some degree of perplexity regarding the identification of the resigning cabinet as the major culprit for the tragedy of 4 August would not be out of place. Moreover, Diab’s government took office only in January and represented an attempt, which was ultimately largely unconvincing, to create a “technical” cabinet in the wake of the street protests that had led to the resignation of the second Hariri cabinetgovernment, which in its turn had been formed after nine months of “national unity” negotiations after the parliamentary elections of May 2018.
These elections had taken place five years after the natural expiry of the mandate, scheduled for 2013, since the main political actors in parliament had not managed to agree on a mutually acceptable electoral system, amid recriminations regarding the composition and boundaries of the multi-member constituencies.
It would be better to stick to the results of 6 May 2018 to assess the difficulties of any Lebanese political transition: despite the huge unrest in “civil society” and the widespread protests that had already occurred in the summer of 2015 against the entire political class, just one seat out of one hundred and twenty-eight in the Parliament went to the lists that were alternatives to the sectarian parties (and moreover only due to the competition between the two main parties in the quota of seats reserved for the Armenian component).
From the waterfront of Beirut to Tripoli’s al-Nour square, and also other perhaps lesser-known places in the country, there is no lack of claims related to the economic crisis, unemployment, the absence of prospects for the future, as well as the disgust for the deplorable collapse of the country, its infrastructures and its services. What remains to be seen is whether the components of the civic opposition, represented by slogans such as “Citizens in a state”, “We are all citizens”, “Beirut my city” and other more or less ephemeral lists, will be able to form a sufficiently stable coalition with a shared and reasonable programme, overcoming some seriousdifferences on foreign policy and economic matters. These groups now bear the burden of overcoming the phase of slogans, the now customary cross-sectional criticism of the status quo, and of presenting a transitional programme that proposes a political alternative without the total collapse of public institutions.
The next few days and weeks will, in any case, be a test that will allow us to seewho truly believed in the protests against sectarianismand those who were simply using them, as has already happened in the past, to regain a prominent place in the political arena (as in the case of the Kataeb) or as an excellent excuse to scale back Hezbollah and its role both within the country and also at the regional level.