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.
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.
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.