The Banana Republic of Lebanon
Two recent news items tell us a lot about the bottomless abyss Lebanon has sunk into in recent times. The first involves the domestic melee caused by Saudi Arabia’s decision to suspend a promised US$4 billion in aid to Lebanon, of which US$3 billion was earmarked for the military development of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). The decision, we are told, is born out of Riyadh’s displeasure with Lebanon’s recent foreign policy stances.
Undoubtedly rooted in the kingdom’s own geopolitical battles and fiscal pressures, the decision triggered a game of musical chairs among the country’s sectarian political elite as they all vied to outbid each other in the timeless art of cheerleading for external patrons.
As is always the case in Lebanon, discussions about foreign policy choices swiftly metamorphose into deeper yet superficial existential issues: is Lebanon Arab or not? Is it part of a putative Arab consensus or not? That the minister blamed for departing from the presumed Arab collective consensus was Christian reanimated the foundational debate between the proponents of Lebanon’s Arab Muslim identity and those who imagined Lebanon as more of a cosmopolitan Mediterranean entrepôt amicably negotiating relations between East and West.
The problem with these ahistorical terms of the debate is that they assume that Arab states are and have always been a homogenous posy with constant and common political and geopolitical objectives. In reality, however, the history of the short Arab states system is one of conflict and discord. Since its formative years, this system has been buffeted by intra-Arab conflicts and hegemonic projects, from Hashemite unity dreams, to what Malcolm Kerr aptly dubbed the ‘Arab Cold War’ of the 1950s and 1960s, to the struggle over Syria currently underway. Israel’s military might has also been there from the beginning.
The tragedy of this history of Arab hurt and agony is that immeasurable resources have been wasted financing death and destruction and wars born out of whimsical personal adventures, instead of eradicating poverty, preparing for a sustainable post-fossil fuel world, and building the human, industrial, manufacturing, and technological infrastructure necessary for future felicity.
The second news item worth of our attention is the declaration by a parliamentary committee that in the past seventeen years alone, taxpayers have paid US$2 billion in government expenses for an overpriced and disorganized waste collection and management system, one that after all these years and money has brought the country to a veritable solid waste mismanagement disaster with unmeasurable future consequences on people’s health and the country’s natural habitat. Much of this money, the parliamentary committee informs us, was spent on ridiculously overpriced contracts and services that were never rendered. For example, the cost of the same waste collection and management contract jumped in one year (1997-1998) from US$41 million to a baffling US$73 for no apparent reasons except to siphon off money from the state coffers to the political economic elite’s private pockets.
But this lack of transparency, accountability, and the bare minimum of anything resembling rule of law is the hallmark of the kind of banana republic Lebanon has become. Evidence of this is found everywhere. The wholesale theft of state resources and assets for personal and corporate gains, but also to finance sectarian clientelist networks. The paralysis of state executive and legislative institutions – the office of the presidency has been vacant since 25 May 2014 and parliamentary elections have been postponed twice since 2013.
An economy based largely on non-productive rentier sectors with artificially high consumerist practices and a staggering public debt. The spread of all kinds of everyday criminality and violence with perpetrators often eluding punishment. The whimsical application of the law. The selfishness and cruelty of human relations that comes with astronomical levels of income inequalities. The monstrous towers destroying what was once a beautiful Mediterranean shore and skyline. The callous disregard for anything related to public order and space, whether in the form of wrong-way driving or cars parked on pavements, Vespas that behave like piranhas in search of their preys, and crossroads that serve as theatre for kamikaze experiences rather than platforms for civic mannerism.
As many countries in the world search for that magic formula that produces jobs, spreads the national wealth, expands the middle class, and prepares future generations for the unknown challenges of a connected and globalized world, Lebanon seems to master the art of going backwards and downwards. But this is driven neither by the invisible hand of international conspiracies nor by immutable and timeless cultural characteristics. It is rather rooted in failed postwar socioeconomic and monetary policies serving the clientelist logic and hegemony of a resilient sectarian system, and an intentionally weak state doubling as – to borrow from Marx – a mere executive committee to manage the common affairs of the sectarian political elite.
And so Lebanon staggers between political crises, economic stagnation, and an environmental meltdown, and its peoples breath a toxic air and live a collective daily nervous breakdown. At least the banana republics of South America possessed primary products to export. Here, in the banana republic of Lebanon, we may soon be left with only ourselves to export.
Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).
His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.