Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1128, 27 December 2012 - 2 January 2013

Ahram Weekly

Lebanon still languishing

The Arab Spring seems to have passed over Lebanon, with sectarian tensions remaining high and the government still unable to get much done, writes Andrew Bossone

Al-Ahram Weekly

In February 2011, I attended the annual Arab Youth Summit at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina where young people from around the region gathered, and for the first time were excited about the prospects of their countries.

All but the Lebanese.

The young Lebanese in attendance said they already had a revolution in 2005. They had gathered in Martyrs’ Square and eventually forced Syria to end its 20-year occupation.

Of course, Lebanon had no real revolution, no united front to overthrow a dictator. Many of the people who joined the encampments at Martyrs’ Square were aligned with the Syrian regime, and so those protests were the progenitor of Lebanon’s current political stalemate by creating two alliances— 14 March and 8 March — which can neither reconcile with one another nor provide a functioning state apparatus.

The Syrian government did remove its troops from Lebanon in 2005, but did not remove its influence. One of the most symbolic signs of its power — its embassy — moved across the street from the Lebanese Ministry of Defence after the Syrian uprising began.

Revolutions are defined by change; the desire of people for change brings about revolutions. They may not always succeed, but at least the will is there to start them. The Lebanese certainly do want their country to change for the better, but they remain divided by religious sects, alliances and personality politics. A divided population is easily ruled.

In Tripoli, one street divides the Alawite neighbourhood of Jebel Mohsen from the Sunni neighbourhood of Bab Al-Tibbaneh: Syria Street. Similarly, the old Green Line from the civil war extended towards the southern suburbs via Damascus Street. Syria remains the dividing line in Lebanon, not only in the clear cut political division of the 14 March and 8 March alliances, but also in support for the Syrian uprising. Christians are split between those alliances primarily because some fear the end of the crisis will bring the rise of political Islam.

So far, the problems in Syria have not spread significantly to Lebanon, with the exception of the scores of thousands of refugees flooding into the country, sporadic clashes and a weakening economy. But the fear of what’s to come is certainly present, and that may catch up with the country. Investors are wary of putting their funds into Lebanon if conflict crosses the border, or even erupts from internal tensions. Analysts have said that much of the apparent construction boom in Beirut comes on the backs of plans that began before 2011, so the economy may slow down when these projects finish. Barclays Capital has written that spill-overs from Syria have hampered economic activity, and that the limited number of construction permits and cement deliveries as well as year-on-year dips in tourists, credit growth and domestic consumption reflect weakening overall economic activity.

Similarly, the Institute of International Finance (IIF) said that Lebanon have several long-term vulnerabilities. The IIF, examining Lebanon’s economy in general, is wary of the government’s continued high debt-to-GDP ratio, particularly that the government is financing its debt from bank deposits from residents and Lebanese abroad, and from long-term foreign investors, and needs to get more foreign capital in the form of foreign direct investment and foreign deposits, but that is unlikely to occur if the political and security problems continue.

Lebanon’s political problems are not restricted to divisions of alliances, but include a government that shows little ability to accomplish much. It has an unclear economic policy and fails to present and pass a budget that would lead the country forward in the coming years. Although the Lebanese government provides very few public services, it has a large public sector payroll. Economic liberals may say this is the result of a bloated bureaucracy, but the bulk of public salaries go towards the military. Of the $1.47 billion spent in the first seven months of 2012, $886.9 million, or 60.5 per cent, was for salaries and benefits for military personnel. Two other salary categories— education and civil staff, for example — represented about 20 per cent each.

“Salaries, wages and related benefits paid to public sector employees represent the largest component of primary spending and accounted for 33 per cent of such expenditures last year,” wrote the Byblos Bank Economic Research Team in its update on Lebanon.

That spending on military salaries raises questions about the effectiveness of the state security forces in general, particularly because they cannot and do not stand up to independent militias and groups of kids who take over the streets at will. Confrontation with these groups is not necessarily the best path, but as long as the state cannot police its streets, but is able to police only the citizens it chooses, then many people will still feel unsafe in the country.

This brings back the issue of the 2005 protests that removed the Syrian military. In essence they removed one military only to be replaced by another, even if that is a domestic military. The uprising elsewhere — including Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria — often protested against much hated emergency law that allowed the government to crack down on its citizens at will. Lebanon does not have emergency law, but it does have martial law. Few if any countries in the world allow its military to occupy the streets indefinitely. Tanks and checkpoints still stand on roads and street corners seven years after the Syrian military departed.

The question then is not if the government should spend money on security as much as how it spends its money. This is the larger question for the Lebanese economy that remains unresolved. Electricity is the perfect example. The entire country experiences daily electricity blackouts, but the while the government has talked about privatising the electricity company it hasn’t talked about improving the country’s infrastructure. For almost two years, the government has discussed bringing ships from Turkey loaded with generators to make up for the electricity gap in the country. The electricity-generating ships are supposed to cost $0.06 per kilowatt-hour compared to the $0.17 per kilowatt-hour produced locally by the state electricity company, saving about $30-$130 million a year. Although the ships would save money, they are only planned to be off the coast to make up for the gap lost as current electricity factories are repaired. They aren’t seen as a long-term solution and the government is not talking about adding to the three factories that produce about 1,500 megawatts annually, which falls well short of demand at 2,400 megawatts per year.

Thus the government solution to the electricity problem is not a solution, but a means of dealing with the situation, of which Lebanese have learned to do through years of civil war. This history is what provides hope for Lebanon. Zena Al-Khalil, author of Beirut I love you, recently explained this in a talk at TEDxAmsterdamWomen: “Life there is so uncertain that we tend to live each day as if there were no tomorrow,” she said. “You grow jasmine and gardenias to cover up the bullet holes on your buildings.”

But Khalil didn’t present only an explanation of how the Lebanese cope with their difficulties, but also how Lebanon — and the world at large — needs to get through its problems.

“We have to take responsibility for creating a healthy global economy, one that invests in a positive and peaceful future unlike the one we have now, which is based on wars and the sales of weapons to control resources,” she said. “We need to empower a revolution that will transform the human spirit, one that extends way beyond Tahrir Square and Wall Street. A revolution based on love, tolerance and respect that is deeply rooted in our daily actions and the choices we make and extends to our shared and connected communities. If violence begets violence, love will surely bring love.”

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