11 August 2020   Leave a comment

A week after a horrific explosion in Beirut’s harbor, the entire Lebanese government has resigned. There have been large protests in the capital city after it was determined that 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive material, had been stored in the harbor for over six years. The resignations represent a long history of failure in Lebanese governance. The country is extraordinarily diverse:

“Lebanon is extremely diverse religiously, culturally and politically. This diversity has complicated the development of a stable political arrangement, and impeded the development of a single national identity. As for diversity, there are six different Muslim sects (in numeric order: Shi’a, Sunni, Druze, Isma’ili, Alawite or Nusayri), and twelve different Christian sects (in numeric order: Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Copt, Protestant.) These sects are largely geographically defined. This mosaic of peoples and politics has led the Lebanese to historically seek a balance of power through a political arrangement known as confessionalism.”

That system was entrenched in 1943 as the Lebanese threw off French control and the rules of the confessional system were explicit: “The president is always a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker a Shia Muslim. Seats in parliament and government jobs are split between Christians and Muslims.” Unfortunately, the confessional system became increasingly sclerotic as there was little actual competition in the realm of political ideas–it was more a system that allowed entrenched elites to enrich themselves at the expense of the people.

That atrophy was obvious in 1973 as Lebanon descended into a protracted civil war that lasted to 1989. There were many underlying issues that led to the civil war:

“The Ta’if Accord that ended the war in 1989 failed to resolve or even address the core conflicts of the war, including the sectarian division of power in Lebanon, the Palestinian refugee issue, the presence of Syrian forces on Lebanese soil and Syrian tutelage, and Hizbollah’s status as the only armed militia. The killing of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, the 2006 war between Hizbollah and Israel, and continued political instability in the country have only added to the sense among many Lebanese that political violence is endemic to their body politic. In daily discourse in Lebanon, and even in academic writings about the war, the widespread experience of being caught in recurrent cycles of mass violence can translate into descriptions of violence as “irrational”, or simply beyond belief.”

None of these fissures were resolved by the Ta’if Accord and the country essentially decided to continue on without changing the terms of the confessional system. Indeed, Lebanon has not held anything like a national census for fear of upsetting the terms of the 1943 agreement. More recently, Lebanon has been taking in very large numbers of Syrian refugees which has strained government resources, leading to significant breakdown of government services such as garbage pickups.

The Guardian outlines the types of changes that would be necessary to create a more representative and stable government:

“Attention is now being focused on the dysfunctional parliament, where process is cosmetic at best, but better described as redundant. A clean sweep of the country’s MPs and a new electoral law that governs how the next round are chosen is being touted as a chance to do things differently. For that to happen, 43 MPs would need to quit. Eight have done so, so far, and more will follow.

“A critical mass of resignations would pave the way for new blood, who may be emboldened to take on an old guard, which shows no signs of going anywhere – even now. Losing control is inconceivable to the men who run Lebanon, as the IMF has found out during three months of talks to try and find a way to hand over up to $5 billion in aid, by conditioning it on structural reforms.

“Every attempt has been rebuffed. In the meantime, Lebanon had been savaged by rising prices, increasing poverty, a plunging currency, and capital controls. And now an apocalyptic blast. If this isn’t the time to overhaul a failed state, it’s hard to see when could be.”

In an op-ed for the Middle East Eye, Rima Majed expresses the views of many Lebanese about the future of the country:

“After blowing us up and burning down our city, officials announced a state of emergency and Beirut was put under military rule. A day later, protesters in central Beirut were met with heavy repression, tear gas and rubber bullets targeting protesters’ eyes – yet again. 

“This story has no end yet. The streets will explode again, but this time it will be either a full-blown war or a full-blown revolution. If a massive explosion of this scale does not lead to radical change in Lebanon, nothing else will. If we let this pass without accountability and serious political transition, we will have signed our death warrant.

“As talk emerges of early elections, it is crucial that we demand the banning of all parties and politicians who have been in any position of power since the 1990 Taif accords from participating in political life after 4 August. The very basis of the neoliberal sectarian power-sharing system must end, before we can start talking about a democratic transition through elections in Lebanon.  

“Let our rage guide the coming days. Beirut and all its residents deserve so much better.”

Lebanon is a country that was once the financial center of the Arab Middle East and it is hard to believe how corruption has hollowed out this major cultural and economic power. The future will shed a great deal of light on whether it is possible to transform a deeply entrenched political system dedicated to protecting the interests of the elites.

Posted August 11, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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