Lebanon’s Vicious Circle

July 5, 2021

On August 4, 2020, Beirut experienced its own Hiroshima. After the explosion thousands took to the streets in Beirut, once called the “Paris of the Middle East”, to express their anger with Lebanon’s leaders. On August 10, the government resigned.

The BBC reported that Mr. Hassan Diab, who was appointed prime minister in January 2020 after months of deadlock, said his government had “gone to great lengths to lay out a road map to save the country”. But corruption in Lebanon was “bigger than the state” itself, and “a very thick and thorny wall separates us from change; a wall fortified by a class that is resorting to all dirty methods in order to resist and preserve its gains”, he added.

Two days after the blast, President Macron rushed to Beirut. France is the former colonial power in Lebanon and the visit do doubt was another attempt by Mr. Macron to score domestic political points and enhance his claim to European leadership. On the eve of the visit, Euronews reported that more than 50,000 signed a petition calling for France to take control of Lebanon. “With a failing system, corruption, terrorism and militia the country just drew its last breath. We believe Lebanon be placed back under a French mandate in order to establish clean and durable governance,” they said.

Mandates were an imperialist/colonialist arrangement by the victors of the First World War. Former Ottoman provinces of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine were put under “A class Mandates” which meant that they were considered sufficiently advanced for “provisional independence” but still subject to Allied administrative control until they were fully able to stand on their own feet. Syria and Lebanon were the prizes for France. Lebanon became an independent state on November 22, 1943, after 23 years of French rule. It was sad that the Lebanese could utter the word “mandate” after nearly eight decades of independence.

On February 2, 2021, the International Crisis Group reported the following:

“… Six months after the catastrophic blast in the Beirut port that brought down the previous government, they have yet to form a new one, much less engage in fundamental reforms required to unlock international assistance or explore long-range initiatives to create opportunities for development and investment. Political elites will more likely behave as they have in the past: buying time with money that is not theirs; distributing benefits narrowly and burdens broadly; and working to salvage the system that keeps them in power… Lebanon will escape its predicament only if and when its political elites change their behaviour, which has created the crisis.”[i]

Soon, it is going to be a year since the Beirut blast and Lebanon still does not have a government.

Following President Macron’s lead, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Lebanon in early May. The Minister, in remarks to the press at the of his trip, underlined his country’s support to the people of Lebanon. But he also said:

“As a matter of fact, it’s urgent to overcome the political deadlock the country is in – and that’s my third message. I clearly expressed this need during my discussions with the President, the Speaker of Parliament, and the Prime Minister-designate, because they are institutionally responsible for agreeing on a government.

“To date, I note that the political players haven’t yet shouldered their responsibilities and haven’t yet started working seriously on the country’s swift recovery. Unless they really step up responsibly today, they’ll have to accept the consequences of this failure…

“In the meantime, we refuse to stand by in the face of obstruction – and I mean obstruction. So we’ve begun to implement restrictive measures in terms of access to the French territory on people responsible for the current political deadlock, and people involved in corruption. It’s only a start: if the stalemate persists, these measures may be toughened or extended. They may also be complemented with the means of pressure of the European Union. Discussions have already begun with our European partners. Everyone must shoulder their responsibilities: we’re shouldering ours; it’s for Lebanon’s leaders to decide whether they want to overcome the stalemate they’ve been organizing for more than eight months.”[ii]

Democracies do experience government crises but they do not last for months and months. Italy has experienced many in the past. Israel has experienced some in recent years. Last week Conservatives failed to form majority government in Sweden. But such difficulties are always put behind within the democratic process, the last resort being new elections. Leaders do not remain glued to their seats.

In the Middle East, by contrast, there are authoritarian regimes and dynasties. The difference between the two is that in the former people go to the polls at periodic intervals; and titles are not the same. In the former one sees “his highnesses”, in the latter “his excellencies”, but always the same faces. Corruption, nepotism, lack of transparency and accountability are endemic. Moreover, Lebanon suffers from acute sectarianism. After all, Middle East regimes prefer domestic conflict and regional fratricide to secularism.

Ten days ago, Lebanon’s prime minister-designate Saad Hariri paid a visit to Istanbul and met with President Erdogan. Nothing was said about the purpose of the visit or what was discussed.

State media and newspapers supportive of the government just reported the visit. However, some among government’s critics remembered Saad Hariri’s leading role as “the Chairman of the Executive Committee of Oger Telecom” in a dubious telecom deal with Turkey which cost the country billions of dollars. For them, he was not a welcome guest.

Sadly, Saad Hariri and his kind are incapable of breaking Lebanon’s vicious circle of misrule and reverse its economic free fall. It is clear that, after almost a year of engagement, the French government has also reached the same conclusion. All the ruling cliques of Lebanon can offer the country’s youth is a choice between anguish or migration.

As for Turkey, we are trapped in our own vicious circle of interlocked democratic and economic decline. The government continues with suppression of protest and relentless privatization. And the Canal Istanbul project which is expected to cost more than 70 billion dollars remains its top priority. It is yet to explain to the public why we must have a second Istanbul Strait. With climate change Turkey is likely to experience long dry seasons. Why not invest taxpayer’s money in irrigation projects, education, technology?

In the past, Turkey’s political failures were attributed to government leaders, military coups, interventions. But now, with continuing assaults on Ataturk and his secular legacy, Turkish people are also being blamed for Turkey’s failures and  apathy. Blamed by whom? By those who fought Ataturk on the battlefield and yet came to respect him as a great leader and a reformer.

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[i] https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/lebanon/riots-lebanons-tripoli-are-harbingers-collapse

[ii] https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/country-files/lebanon/news/article/introductory-remarks-by-m-jean-yves-le-drian-minister-for-europe-and-foreign

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