Can more prov­inces fix Le­banon’s prob­lems?

Ex­perts sug­gest form of de­cen­tral­iza­tion to help ad­dresss ad­min­is­tra­tive stresses

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - LEBANON - By Ben­jamin Redd

BEIRUT: Le­banon’s map may be about to change.

That’s good news for the res­i­dents of Kes­rouan and Jbeil. Last month, Par­lia­ment passed a bill mak­ing those two districts a new prov­ince – mean­ing some­time in the fu­ture, res­i­dents might not need to travel all the way down to Baabda for many ad­min­is­tra­tive ser­vices, a bless­ing for any­one who’s bat­tled the con­stant, mis­er­able traf­fic on the high­way north of Beirut.

This is the rea­son Nea­matal­lah Abi Nasr, the mea­sure’s spon­sor and a Kes­rouan MP with the Free Pa­tri­otic Move­ment, gives for his bill: mak­ing peo­ple’s lives eas­ier.

“[There’s a lot of peo­ple] who want ser­vices from the state,” Abi Nasr says. “If you want to get an ed­u­ca­tional cer­tifi­cate cer­ti­fied, you have to go to Baabda, the cen­ter of the Mount Le­banon prov­ince . ... Ev­ery day there’s around 1,500 to 2,000 cars that make a trip to Baabda, whether for court cases or for an en­gi­neer to get a per­mit ap­proved, or if you want to pay taxes, or if you want a cer­tifi­cate that you have a clean fi­nan­cial record. This cre­ates traf­fic; peo­ple are late. You waste a day and then you have to come back the next day.”

In other words, it’s no won­der the mea­sure ap­pears rel­a­tively un­con­tro­ver­sial, even in a Par­lia­ment of­ten dead­locked over the small­est of is­sues: MPs from the Fu­ture Move­ment, Speaker Nabih Berri’s De­vel­op­ment and Lib­er­a­tion bloc and the ma­jor Chris­tian blocs ap­proved of the mea­sure.

But ques­tions linger over the cost, con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity and wis­dom of the move. Abi Nasr wasn’t able to pro­vide an es­ti­mate for the cost, but as­sured The Daily Star that “it won’t cost much.”

An­dre Sleiman, a de­cen­tral­iza­tion and lo­cal gov­er­nance con­sul­tant, ball­parks the fig­ure at at least half a mil­lion dol­lars per year.

“First, you need a head­quar­ters, premises ... you rent it or build it or buy it, let alone the lo­gis­tics and the run­ning costs that go along with it. Then you have to hire a gover­nor, and he has se­cu­rity and body­guards and ben­e­fits,” he says. “And then he has to have a staff.”

A more press­ing con­cern for some MPs was the bill’s con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from Ad-Di­yar. Dur­ing par­lia­men­tary de­bate, Nouhad Mach­nouk, the in­te­rior min­is­ter and a Beirut MP for the Fu­ture Move­ment, ques­tioned whether the bill vi­o­lates Ar­ti­cle 65 of the Con­sti­tu­tion, which re­quires two-thirds of the Cab­i­net to ap­prove any changes to ad­min­is­tra­tive di­vi­sions.

Other MPs poo-pooed Mach­nouk’s sug­ges­tion, with Berri say­ing, “This is not an is­sue about the text, it’s an is­sue about the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the text.”

In­deed, as­sum­ing Pres­i­dent Michel Aoun, him­self a for­mer Kes­rouan MP, has signed the bill into law – and Abi Nasr tells The Daily Star he al­ready has – im­ple­men­ta­tion will fall to the Cab­i­net, mean­ing there are still sev­eral ob­sta­cles that will keep Kes­roua­nis and Jbeilis on the road to Baabda for the fore­see­able fu­ture

In Sleiman’s eyes, a larger re­form ef­fort is needed. “It would have been bet­ter if we had fully re­vised the re­dis­trict­ing of the coun­try. That could en­tail re­vis­ing the num­ber – and bor­ders – of the districts; per­haps even delet­ing districts al­to­gether against in­creas­ing the num­ber of prov­inces . ... [The cre­ation of a Kes­rouan -Jbeil prov­ince] is a bit too ran­dom – it’s a very ad hoc mea­sure.”

Sleiman points to the cre­ation of two new prov­inces in 2003 – Akkar and Baal­beck-Her­mel – and the cur­rent push for Kes­rouan-Jbeil as ev­i­dence of an un­for­tu­nate trend.

“There’s a big mis­con­cep­tion in Le­banon that if you want to im­prove democ­racy, you put the cen­tral gov­ern­ment close to the peo­ple” in­stead of giv­ing them power through lo­cally elected of­fi­cials. Prov­inces have no lo­cally elected of­fi­cials in Le­banon; they are fully con­trolled by the na­tional gov­ern­ment.

While Abi Nasr calls his bill de­cen­tral­iza­tion – “lamarkazia,” a re­cent cause cele­bre among Le­banese pol­icy cir­cles – Sleiman says, “De­cen­tral­iza­tion is when you have an [elected] lo­cal coun­cil that en­joys a de­gree of au­ton­omy to­ward the cen­tral gov­ern­ment.

“This is de-con­cen­tra­tion, not de­cen­tral­iza­tion, whereby the gover­nor is ap­pointed by the Cab­i­net and abides by the in­struc­tions of the min­istries, which they rep­re­sent.”

Sleiman’s worry over the ad hoc na­ture of cre­at­ing a new prov­ince may have a solid ba­sis. As per AdDi­yar’s re­port, dur­ing the de­bate in Par­lia­ment last month, Aley MP Akram Che­hayeb said, “We de­mand a prov­ince for Chouf and Aley.”

The evo­lu­tion of Le­banon’s prov­inces over the years.

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