KT Long Read: A paradox called Lebanon
Toggling between immense potential and systemic paralysis despite a legendary entrepreneurial spirit, the West Asian country continues to baffle anyone who cares for it and poses a classic case study of capability vs reality
Will Brazil land a Lebanese president before Lebanon does?’ The April 2016 story by a fellow journalist had us all in a Dubai newsroom amused. Michel Temer, who had his roots in Lebanon, was on the verge of becoming Brazil’s president, while Lebanon had been struggling without a president for 24 months, among the longest a country has been without a head of state ever.
Despite the banter over the paradox, we were aware that the story was more tragic than hilarious. The journalist behind the story, Tarek Ali Ahmed, was a fresh graduate from the American University of Beirut. Born in 1994 and a childhood spent in Lebanon’s capital, Ahmed had witnessed more political assassinations than he could recall. A war with Israel, sectarian skirmishes, car bombs, gunfights, he had seen them all. Understandably, he was determined to move abroad.
Soon after graduating in 2016, Ahmed left the country seeking greener pastures in Dubai. This was essentially a quest for the passport of a more stable country. “I am definitely not alone in this as many of my friends share the same stories,” he says. With half a decade in the mainstream media and a SOAS degree behind him, circumstances back home make Ahmed feel bitter. “It’s not the resilience that’s keeping the country afloat; it is the survival instinct,” he says.
As its multi-dimensional poverty rate nearly doubles from 42 per cent in 2019 to 82 per cent in 2021 — and 3 million estimated to be now in poverty — Lebanon is nothing short of a catastrophe unfolding in slow motion. World Bank data says Lebanon’s GDP per capita fell by 40 per cent in dollar terms between 2018 and 2020, while real GDP contracted by 20.3 per cent in 2020. Beneath those numbers, though, is human suffering, loads of uncertainty, and a bigger question: what ails Lebanon?
What baffles more is the realisation that there is no dearth of potential or resources that make countries prosper.
In his book Lebanon: A Country in Fragments, Andrew Arsan argues that most accounts of contemporary Lebanon tend to move along two well-set grooves. According to Arsan, while some focus on the inner workings of the beleaguered country’s political system, others concentrate on its external regional circumstances. “For those who look within, seeking to discern the origins of the crisis in the country’s political anatomy, there are few aspects more significant than the byzantine political arrangements devised to deal with the country’s exceptional degree of religious pluralism,” Arsan writes.
Unfortunately, religious pluralism, once Lebanon’s strength, appears to have become a liability of sorts. Author, diplomat, and political activist, Tracy Chamoun laments that a political class has hijacked the country decades after the civil war. “They have used the state to strengthen their base on a confessional basis,” she says.
According to Chamoun, the focus is not on building the state as, by definition, in a state, everybody is equal under the law. Instead, clientelism thrives as it nurtures supporters that maintain a power base. Chamoun was appointed Lebanon’s ambassador to Jordan in June 2017 and resigned after the 2020 Beirut explosions, calling for a change in leadership. She is one of the two surviving children of Dany Chamoun, the assassinated former leader of the country’s National Liberal Party.
Chamoun vociferously advocates dismantling what she calls “cartelocracy,” which has taken over the country. “We have to create an economy that is less about monopoly and more open. We have to automate the state to lessen the possibility of corruption by going to e-government and smart government, something we haven’t done,” she says. Chamoun is also troubled by the size of the state inflated by employees appointed by political parties as favours. “They really do nothing except sit and take money from the state,” she says.
For the likes of her, Lebanon needs a complete revival of the state apparatuses. To accomplish this gigantic task, she counts on Lebanon’s many advantages, not being utilised properly. “We have great intellectual capital in Lebanon. We also have oil and gas, which has been talked about now for at least 10 years, and they have done nothing. There have been internal battles over how to allocate, distribute, and share the wealth etc. So, if you can have a government of good people working for the good of the nation, they can come up with long-term sustainable strategies,” says Chamoun.
She enlists another major cog in the wheel that doesn’t help — the Constitution, which she describes as vague when it comes to deadlines, making decision-making open-ended and leaving huge periods of vacuum. “We had 11 months of vacuum for a cabinet and two years of vacuum for a president. The nation’s confidence drops because people don’t know what’s going to happen in terms of investment and the economy,” she says.
Such caretaker governments for extended periods cause restricted activities as they cannot take on any new business. Chamon says these things can be amended, worked on, and voted in parliament, provided there is a will to do so. “Unfortunately, a lot of the political tendency in Lebanon has been toward keeping this obscure, open-ended, and unclear so they can then take the part of the Constitution they want, apply that and ignore the rest,” says Chamoun.
The Diaspora connection
Julien Hawari, the founder and CEO of technology platform Wemind, and content creation company Special Edition, is a Beirut-born French-Lebanese citizen. According to him, it doesn’t take two hats to figure out that Lebanon’s political
system is pyramidical. “The only way to get something done is to be part of this pyramid and close to the top of the pyramid. That has created a state of constant competition between all the different players, weakening the country’s structure,” says Hawari.
Hawari’s Wemind leverages consumption to fuel the impact economy and aims to expand the financial system by repurposing electronic payments toward social initiatives. His company has been working on fintech solutions with some friends to allow money to flow directly to the needy so those fund leakages are prevented and spent on prime necessities. “This is one of the many projects the diaspora has been trying to work on,” says Hawari, who is also on the board of directors for Mediaquest.
In his own words, the diaspora’s link to Lebanon has been “insane”. Even in the most challenging time, Lebanese citizens worldwide have come to the country’s rescue. “They are deeply rooted within their own country. Lebanese who live and work abroad have been a certain force of change. However, they have been the force of change in parts of civil society and business to make changes in their own countries,” he says. Tragically, the moment they enter the political system, they are co-opted and become part of the problem. “At the end of the day, one person cannot change the system,” says Hawari.
Despite the gloom, there is hope that some things might change and people will eventually come back and try to rebuild the country. “If you are to compare the country to a business, it’s a dying business, it has very old people running it, and nothing is changing, but it’s still running,” Hawari laments.
In his assessment, the only thing that can bring about such a change is the profound disruption of the system. He also highlights the goodwill that exists for the people of Lebanon. “Almost everyone in the GCC countries has friends in Lebanon. They feel the pain of the Lebanese people. Unfortunately, the government and the structure in place today doesn’t help the Gulf countries help Lebanon,” he says.
The system and the spirit
It would be unfair to attribute the lack of faith in the system to its genesis. The trust factor has gradually waned as the outcome of bad practices in recent decades. In his book, Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War, Robert Fisk said the power-sharing formula implemented in Lebanon had a good name in the West. Even the British instituted a remarkably similar system in post-colonial Cyprus. “In the early 1970s, Northern Ireland’s politicians were urged to study Lebanon’s Covenant by the British government which, in 1974, actually created another power-sharing administration in Belfast,” he wrote.
But when the system’s novelty disintegrates and is replaced by years of dysfunctionality, no amount of entrepreneurial spirit could come to its rescue. “Of course, entrepreneurial spirit, creativeness, and innovation are key factors in building a country and a state, but in the absence of political will for change, these can only go so far,” says Carol Mansour, the Lebanese/Canadian independent documentary filmmaker of Palestinian origin.
According to her, entrepreneurial spirit is not enough to make a country as Lebanon has been suffering from corruption for the longest time. “Its problems are systemic and deep-rooted, and they have to do with political and economic structures,” says Mansour, who founded Forward Film Production in 2000. Mansour’s films tackle forced displacement and refugee rights, migrant workers, mental health, war and memory, child labour, and women’s rights. They have won numerous prestigious awards with over 100 film festival screenings and official selections worldwide.
Mansour acknowledges that the Lebanese diaspora is “huge, and it goes beyond the Gulf”. If properly mobilised, “it can have a significant impact in supporting calls for change, and calls for improvement and action.” She attaches a rider, though: “In my opinion, the best way the Lebanese diaspora can help is if they put pressure for proper change in any way that they can and to help us demand transparency and accountability and social responsibility.”
Talent and brain drain
“If it were going to rain, the sky would have darkened.” That’s how Julien Hawari of Wemind describes his expectation about a turnaround in the near future. The prevailing circumstances in Lebanon lead to a brain drain, he says, and that “the young population is going to be looking outward.” According to him, probably in a generation or in 10 years or so, some things might change, and maybe people will come back and try to rebuild the country.
He also shares an anecdote that sums up his assessment of the situation on the ground. Once sitting with a Lebanese friend and talking about the difference between business in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon, Hawari’s friend said something that put things in perspective for him. “Where you guys are working in the Gulf, it’s like a big sea with so many fish and few sharks. In Lebanon, the problem we face is that we have a small pond with very few fish and many sharks fighting in it.”
Covering the 2018 parliamentary elections as a journalist, Tarek Ali Ahmed met many members of the Lebanese diaspora living in Australia and Africa. They were flown out to Beirut by one of the political parties — all expenses covered — just to vote for their funders. Based on this experience, he suggests a more proactive approach to bring about a difference on the ground.
“The only viable way I can see diaspora making a significant difference is to actually travel to the country on election day and vote locally for the independent lists. This way, their vote would count as a locally cast one rather than one taken abroad, and thus giving it significant weight,” he says.
As Lebanon toggles between unrest and upheaval, it has been reduced to the sorry state of a conflict zone, a country prone to foreign intervention, and the land of refuge on the verge of being a failed state with collapsing infrastructure. Andrew Arsan addresses the paradox eloquently in his book, Lebanon: A Country in Fragments. “To live in contemporary Lebanon is to live in crisis, always aware of its troubling presence, even as life ticks along according to its own particular rhythms.”
As Tracy Chamoun puts it, “once you create stability in government, they will come back.”
(Ehtesham Shahid is an editor/writer/journalist based in Dubai. He tweets @e2sham)
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