Plus ça Change: Mired in Multiple Crises, Lebanon Votes for Continuity

LebanonIn a scathing indictment of the country’s political elite, Lebanon tumbled some 25 places on the annual United Nations World Happiness Index and now ranks only above Afghanistan as the most depressing country in the world. Severely dysfunctional states such as Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Somalia all trump the country formerly known as The Pearl of the East.

Years of civil war, followed by acerbic sectarian politics, gross administrative mismanagement, and meddling by foreign powers have reduced Lebanon to a mere shell of its former self. Whilst shiny new Mercs, Beemers, and Porsches share the rubbish-lined streets and avenues of Beirut with rust buckets that attest, if anything, to the ingenuity of their owners, the country’s once dominant middle class has all but vanished, crushed and beaten into poverty by inflation, confiscation, and marginalization.

Only one out of every five Lebanese has managed to stay above the poverty line. The collapse of the country’s financial system saw an estimated $73bn in dollar deposits vanish. Nobody really knows where that money went, but accountholders have been frozen out and are unlikely to ever recover their lost savings in full.

In the autumn 2021 edition of its Lebanon Economic Monitor, the World Bank called the country’s plight a ‘deliberate depression’ orchestrated by an elite that captured the state and now lives off its rents. According to the bank, GDP has shrunk by 58.1% since 2019. Tax revenues have halved and in 2021 represented only 6.6% of national income – the third lowest ratio globally after Somalia and Yemen.

The question is not if Lebanon will hit rock bottom, but how far down it still has to go. There is about $15bn waiting in emergency financing from the IMF, World Bank, France, and other donors but disbursement has stalled over demands that Lebanon form a functioning government willing to push through a reform agenda. That is a tall order.

Two Powers

Sunday’s general election is unlikely to help. Lebanon has not one, but two governments: an ineffectual one in Beirut and an de facto one in Baalbek where Hezbollah rules. Backed and lavishly funded by Shia Iran, Hezbollah was the only group allowed to keep its weapons after the 1975-90 civil war. It was supposed to use this kit against Israel, but that country withdrew from Lebanon. Instead, Hezbollah sent thousands of fighters into neighbouring Syria to help prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Sunday’s general election was the first after the collapse of the Lebanese economy which the World Bank called the worst witnessed anywhere in over 150 years. It’s also the first vote since the August 2020 port blast that killed over 200 people, injured thousands, and laid to waste large swaths of the once swanky capital.

Three former cabinet ministers allied with Hezbollah were charged with criminal negligence but flatly refused to be questioned by the courts. After lambasting the judge leading the investigation, Hezbollah promptly called for his replacement. The case has since become mired in legal and political wrangling that would have put Byzantium to shame.

Ruling One’s Own Roost

In Lebanon, every sector or faction jealously guards its own roost whilst apparently nobody cares for the country. It shows. Littering is almost universal with rubbish piling up everywhere. Public accounts have been plucked and plundered to the degree that no foreign exchange is left to pay for imported essentials such as wheat and fuel.

Though last month’s queues at petrol station forecourts have dissipated, power generation remains intermittent due to fuel shortages with most homes and businesses, even in Beirut, only receiving electricity for a few hours each day.

In a microcosm of the country’s plight, many polling stations were without power yesterday and some ran out of ballot papers, even though only 39% of eligible voters showed up. In another disconcerting parallel, voters were lured by party militants waving wads of dollar bills. Entire families showed up to cash in their vote. Delegates of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections had to beat a hasty retreat from several polling stations after receiving threats from gun-toting Hezbollah supporters.

Apathy seems to have bested anger as voters opted for more of the same with entrenched sectarian groups expected to retain their grip on power. The protest movement of 2019 and the popular revolt that erupted after the port blast have all but fizzled out although a new generation of independent candidates has since appeared and may even claim a few seats in parliament in what some diehard optimists see as a ray of hope.

Boycott

However, non-sectarian politics has no place in – and often clashes with – the complex power sharing arrangement that, in theory if not practice, ensures a voice for each of the country’s faith-based constituencies. By convention, the president is a Maronite Christian, the premier a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the house a Shia Muslim.

In parliament, seats are assigned to representatives of each group with half reserved for Christians and the remainder divided between the Shia, Sunni, and Druze communities.

Frustrated over his inability to form a functioning government, former Sunni Prime Minister Saad Hariri left politics earlier this year but not before calling on his following to boycott the general election. Mr Hariri was also angry after being unceremoniously dumped by his Saudi paymasters who expressed concern over the rising influence of Hezbollah during his premiership. Outside Lebanon, Hezbollah is widely considered a terrorist organization.

Instead of encouraging dialogue and cooperation, Lebanon’s complex electoral system has created an ensemble of mini-fiefdoms – playthings of regional powerbrokers such as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia – constantly vying and juggling for a turn at the trough and the opportunity to misappropriate the few crumbs left in the national treasury.

Meanwhile, the opposition, sectarian or otherwise, remains hopelessly divided with some electoral districts boasting as many as five competing lists claiming to represent the ‘spirit’ of the 2019 protests. Attempts to convince voters of the need for political reform also face a well-greased system of patronage and clientelism that offers a lifeline of sorts to many. Traditional parties are not shy, subtle, or discreet when it comes to handing out favours – including cash and jobs – to the same people they victimised whilst in power.


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