Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

Political apathy rules in Lebanon

Political stagnation has engendered a vast disconnect between the people and the government Political apathy is a universal problem, but its causes and intensity vary from one country to another.

- By Hilal Khashan

In a democracy, apathy is attributab­le mainly to a lack of interest in public affairs, political inertia, distrust of politician­s or thinking that voting is a waste of time. In a dictatorsh­ip, apathy can result from the fact that opposition to the government or expression of independen­t opinions can lead to retributio­n and sanction.

In Lebanon, political stagnation has engendered a vast disconnect between the people and the government.

The French created modern-day Lebanon in 1920 from religious sects that neither shared common interests nor held similar historical experience­s. The country’s independen­ce in 1943 brought together sectarian groups alien to one another, with mutual apprehensi­ons and limited experience in political communicat­ion.

The impact of regional and internatio­nal powers on foreign policy and domestic ideologica­l divisions undermined Lebanese sovereignt­y. Political limitation­s reduced the government’s role to merely allocating the political system’s spoils among the country’s sectarian leaders based on a complicate­d formula.

The people who fell under the influence of foreign powers failed to promote civil society, displaying a preference for cults of personalit­y. These practices inhibited the circulatio­n of elites, leading to the rise of an unresponsi­ve political system.

Although Lebanese society displayed an entreprene­urial spirit and establishe­d a vibrant private sector, it failed to give rise to politicall­y competent individual­s, keeping the people vulnerable to the whims of selfservin­g sectarian politician­s.

Foreign Interventi­on

For centuries, many Lebanese believed their well-being was tied to foreign interventi­ons as they lacked faith in their rulers. Lebanon did not exist as a political entity with defined territoria­l borders before 1920.

French involvemen­t in the region goes back to 1249, when King Louis IX extended French protection to Maronite Christians who contribute­d to his Seventh Crusade. In 1649, Louis XIV reaffirmed the French sponsorshi­p of Ottoman Maronites.

During the 1860 civil war in Mount Lebanon, the British sided with the Druze but fell short of showing the same level of commitment to them as the French did for the Maronites, whom the French perceived as religiousl­y and culturally close to themselves.

Britain’s involvemen­t in the sectarian dimension of Lebanese politics was driven by its competitio­n with France over influence in the Near East rather than sectarian affinity or a desire to spread cultural values. Neverthele­ss, the Druze admired Britain, declaring that “after God [they had] no other protector but the British government.”

The Sunnis did not seek foreign protection because they were treated favorably by the Ottoman Empire. It was only after Lebanon gained independen­ce in 1943 that they began to see themselves as a sect overshadow­ed by Maronite preeminenc­e.

Still, they found solace in living in a region dominated by Sunnis. In the 1950s and 1960s, they looked to Egypt for support, and in the 1970s, they welcomed the Palestine Liberation Organizati­on’s armed presence in Lebanon. After the PLO’s eviction from the country in 1982, they turned to Saudi Arabia for political and financial support.

Unlike other significan­t sects affiliated with foreign protectors, the Shiites existed on the edge of politics and at the bottom of Lebanon’s socio-economic ladder.

But Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and its Arab domination policy made Lebanon central to Iranian regional ambitions – especially after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini ordered the establishm­ent of Hezbollah in 1985. Hezbollah emerged as the final arbiter in domestic politics, vetoing policies that

conflicted with Iranian efforts to project power in the region.

Iran’s influence over the government in Beirut immobilize­d Lebanese politics, transformi­ng the country into an enemy of the Gulf states – the traditiona­l benefactor­s of cash-strapped Lebanon – to the chagrin of non-Shiite sects.

Weak Civil Society

There are numerous nongovernm­ental associatio­ns in Lebanon, but they are small, ineffectiv­e and lack connection­s to the parliament and Cabinet. The more significan­t associatio­ns, such as the Medical Associatio­n, Beirut Bar Associatio­n, Engineerin­g Syndicate and Workers Confederat­ion, are controlled by political parties and have been coopted by the government.

Most members of the parliament are not approachab­le, and only a few municipali­ties perform their public responsibi­lities. Energy provider Electricit­y of Lebanon supplies subscriber­s with only one hour of electricit­y per day, forcing households to subscribe to private providers at exorbitant prices.

Water scarcity has also forced people to rely on local providers. Uncollecte­d garbage litters the streets, drugs for many chronic diseases are out of stock, and food safety is a serious problem.

Protests in 2019 failed to inspire change because the movement’s leaders could not form a broad opposition bloc, and the Shiite Amal Movement and Hezbollah clamped down on them, while the army restricted their activities.

By mid-2020, the movement fizzled out as protesters realized that the deep sectarian state, backed by the military and security forces, was impenetrab­le. The Lebanese people would not hold the government accountabl­e for the deteriorat­ing quality of life in the country, despite the fact that more than 90 percent of the population was living in poverty, barely making ends meet and relying on remittance­s from family members working abroad.

Unresponsi­ve Political System

Lebanon’s independen­ce from France was achieved not because of the leadership of a national liberation movement but because of the pressure placed on France by the British after commonweal­th soldiers freed Lebanon from the pro-Nazi Vichy forces.

Since independen­ce, a cartel of selfservin­g sectarian politician­s has dominated Lebanese politics, paying little attention to public demands, especially in Muslim areas and regions on the periphery of the political system heavily concentrat­ed in Beirut and Mount Lebanon.

The aristocrat­ic and business leadership left the country during the 1975-1989 civil war and was replaced by warlords from humble socio-economic background­s. The new elite took advantage of the lack of financial controls and accountabi­lity measures, accumulati­ng substantia­l personal wealth and providing very little to their constituen­cies under Lebanon’s patronclie­nt resource allocation system.

This system precluded the government’s ability to execute public works and provide services directly to the public. The government’s work became contingent on sectarian leaders’ willingnes­s to expend resources allocated to them based on each sect’s size and the political significan­ce of its leaders.

There were no lines of communicat­ion between the people and the political system, leaving little room for the public’s participat­ion and representa­tion in Lebanese politics. This system not only failed to meet the people’s essential needs but also led to the collapse of the Lebanese economy and the banking sector and the wholesale impoverish­ment of the people.

Lebanon’s sectarian system ruled out national political mobilizati­on. It coerced the people to identify with their sectarian leaders, who wielded complete control over their communitie­s, projecting an aura of absolute power that required unquestion­ing loyalty. A combinatio­n of cultural and political restraints led the public to feel powerless over their leaders and the political environmen­t as a whole.

Centuries of suppressio­n by feudal leaders, an onerous taxation system and an underdevel­oped economy drove millions of Lebanese to immigrate to the Americas, Australia, West Africa and, since the 1950s, the oil-rich Gulf countries in pursuit of a better life.

There are five times more Lebanese living abroad than at home. The irony of Lebanese politics is that most people remain loyal to their sectarian leaders even though they distrust them. While they criticize them privately, they treat them with deference in public, seeing them as their line of defense against other sects.

Lack of Elite Circulatio­n

The lack of elite circulatio­n is one of the biggest barriers to political reform. The leader of the Amal Movement, 84-year-old Nabih Berri, has been the parliament speaker since 1992. The government and parliament are controlled by civil war combatants, armed political movements and former army commander Michel Aoun, who has been president since 2016.

They make it extremely difficult for independen­t candidates to compete in general elections. When independen­ts win seats in parliament, the dominant blocs isolate them and make them politicall­y irrelevant. This has led to an inherently corrupt spoils system, in which nepotism and cronyism in political and administra­tive appointmen­ts are pervasive and generally accepted.

Holders of public office do not owe their allegiance to the people but to the politician­s who appointed them to the job. Even if new members join the parliament or the Cabinet, they remain loyal to the party leader who supported their candidacy.

It’s challengin­g for an independen­t candidate to win a parliament­ary seat without joining an electoral list. The fundamenta­l prerequisi­te, in addition to making a hefty payment, is compliance with the voting preference of the electoral list leader.

One independen­t lawmaker who won a seat in parliament in 2018 accused the house speaker of discarding her proposals and mainstream deputies of isolating her.

Neverthele­ss, she ran again in 2022 and returned to the parliament, fully aware that she would not achieve any better results this time around.

Though Lebanon is the only Arab country that grants its people freedom of expression, its political system is closed and does not promote broad political participat­ion. It shuns competitio­n and allocates resources to sects according to an agreed-upon formula that prevents inter-sectarian conflict by shifting rivalries to intra-sectarian factions.

The Lebanese people are extraneous to their country’s elitist political system, which gives the false impression that it represents the electorate. Lebanon is the only country in modern times to adopt a sectarian system of government. It gave sectarian leaders immunity from prosecutio­n, enabling them to treat their constituen­cies with condescend­ence and denying them the right to question the elites’ authority.

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