Lebanon’s Failed Political System

The system is weak by design and never found sure footing besides. 

By: Hilal Khashan

Lebanon is celebrating its centennial in 2020, a year defined by existential economic crisis made worse by a pandemic and endemic political paralysis. The country was awkward from the start. 

France’s high commission for the Levant announced its creation in 1920, three years before the League of Nations named France its mandatory power following the Lausanne Treaty. 

It’s ironic that France, Europe’s most secular nation, chose to create the world’s only confessional system, but it didn’t have much of a choice: The only proposal they received came from the Maronite Church since Muslims, mostly the Sunnis, refused to accept the Lebanese entity and preferred to merge with Syria. 

The state that followed came without foundations and so is now sinking into lawlessness and strife.

Corruption and Accountability

In 1926, a group of Christian business elite drafted Lebanon’s Constitution, which removed most state prerogatives to the country’s various sects. It rendered the religious groups unaccountable and unanswerable, literally granting politicians immunity from prosecution. 

The founders of Lebanon adopted rentier capitalism, invented Phoenician nationalism and dubbed the system they created the “Lebanese miracle.” Rather than wanting to create a Lebanese nation, the founding fathers wanted to preserve the identities of the country’s sects. 

The constitution entitled sects to private education and deliberately created a weak public education system that turned most students away. Students never learned the meaning of the state, such as it is. In short, sectarian affiliation subverted national identity, to the detriment of society writ large.

Lebanon’s first president after independence was Bishara al-Khoury, who was best known for his corruption and financial mismanagement. He rigged the parliamentary election of 1947 so that he could serve a second term in office. 

Massive demonstrations forced his resignation in 1952. Since then, the political elite acquired the skills to resist public demands for accountability and ignore foreign requests for reform. 

Al-Khoury's successor, Camille Chamoun, took sides in the Arab Cold War and, in addition to his own corruption, alienated a broad cross-section of Lebanese citizens. He invited a mini-civil war, yet he lasted his full term in office. 

His presidency set the standard for impossibility of reform in Lebanese politics.

Without accountability, corruption flourishes. 

When former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri took office in 1992, for example, he was worth less than $4 billion. By the time he was assassinated in 2005, he was worth $16 billion. 

His successor, Fouad Siniora, made $5 million as vice governor of the central bank but had accumulated more than $1 billion when he left office in 2009. (Some $11 billion of government assets were unaccounted for by auditors.) 

The U.S. recently sanctioned Gebran Bassil, leader of the Christian-majority Free Patriotic Movement, for alleged corruption. He has been in charge of the lucrative Ministry of Energy, directly or indirectly, since 2009. 

He has not been able to clear himself from accusations of charging millions of dollars to ministers and parliamentary deputies he places in office. The size of his wealth is not even known.

These are hardly victimless crimes. Lebanon has spent $42 billion on electricity since 1992, accounting for 50 percent of public debt, without solving its supply problem. 

There is still extreme rationing, with daily power outages of more than 12 hours, which jumps to 18 hours during winters and summers. Most Lebanese households pay two monthly electrical bills, one to the government and another to private providers. 

Private electricity production is a thriving business that operates on heavily subsidized diesel generators and yields $1.5 billion profit shared by owners, municipalities and government officials. 

Subscribers receive low voltage at exorbitant costs, and everybody breathes carcinogens and teratogens. Public debt is roughly $95 billion, which exceeds 160 percent of gross domestic product, making Lebanon the most indebted country in the region in terms of debt-to-GDP. 

The budget deficit between 2004 and 2017 reached $45 billion, compared to $3.4 billion in 1993.


Lebanon's Ballooning Public Debt

In March 2020, Lebanon defaulted on its debt when it failed to pay a $1.2 billion installment on its eurobonds. 

Alvarez & Marsal, a management consulting firm, canceled an agreement to perform a forensic audit on the central bank because its governor, citing banking secrecy, denied it access to specific accounts. 

Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a rescue plan collapsed after 16 rounds of talks. IMF representatives concluded that their Lebanese negotiators did not show a genuine interest in reform. 

One representative said that when talking to members of the Lebanese negotiating team, he felt he was negotiating with gangsters, not statesmen concerned about their country. Depositors’ dollars went to maintain the Lebanese pound-to-dollar exchange rate and to finance the government's fiscal deficit through the direct purchase of eurobonds. 

The central bank’s financial engineering maneuvers earned the local banks billions of dollars of interest at the depositors’ expense in what amounted to a state-sponsored Ponzi scheme. (In all, it squandered 75 percent of the depositors’ $127 billion.)

There are plenty of other instances of evading responsibility. The massive explosion at the Port of Beirut in August was caused by a shipment of 2,750 tons of hazardous ammonium nitrate that had been stored unsafely at a hangar since 2012. 

A senior customs officer recently died under mysterious circumstances after divulging sensitive information to investigators about the people responsible for storing it despite warnings about its imminent explosion. 

Another senior customs officer faced the same fate in 2017 for reporting the matter. In both cases, the authorities blamed the murder on thieves. High-profile assassinations and explosions are almost never resolved, and the explosion at the port does not seem to be an exception to the rule. 

The prime minister and minister of finance decided to fire the head of customs, but the president refused to sign the decree. The president reasoned that indicting and punishing the Maronite head of customs and letting loose culprits from other sects would upset Lebanon’s sectarian harmony. 

To ensure sectarian balance, not only in allocating state resources but also in penalizing wrongdoers, an examining magistrate indicted the caretaker prime minister, a Sunni academic who has no political base of support, and three former ministers of public works, two Shiites and one Maronite.

Corruption and malfeasance are found in every aspect of public life. Every time it rains heavily in Lebanon's coastal cities, sewer systems flood because the wastewater drains are blocked. The Ministry of Public Works either can’t or won’t anticipate the problem. 

All traffic lights and observation cameras shut off last April after a dispute between the Ministry of Interior Vehicle Authority and Beirut Municipality over entitlement to revenues from parking meter fees, which halted the traffic management center's operations The stoppage resulted in a 120 percent increase in motor vehicle fatalities. Eight months later, the traffic lights were still off.

The prosecutor-general recently indicted eight retired army officers, including a former army commander, for embezzling public funds under the Illicit Enrichment Act, neglected since its implementation in 1999. 

The Lebanese army suffers from the same structural and behavioral problems that hamstring Lebanese politics It is doubtful if the prosecutor-general or military tribunal system would actually bring active military personnel to justice. 

Transparency International gave Lebanon a score of 28 on its corruption perception index. The average for sub-Saharan Africa is 33.

Unworkable Political System

Fouad Shihab, a former army commander, succeeded Chamoun as president in 1958. 

He carried out administrative and judicial reform and sought to achieve social justice. 

He introduced social security, organized state finances, and founded the central bank. 

Shihab abided by the law and the constitution and ensured that the army remained subservient to the political establishment. Shihab lost hope in Lebanese politicians of all stripes, who obstructed his project of establishing a state of institutions governed by law and order. 

Two years into office, Shihab concluded that the Lebanese people were not ready to abandon their corrupt leaders. In despair, he tried to quit the presidency, but public and private concerns over a resultant power vacuum convinced him that he should finish his term in office.

After the August explosion, many Lebanese looked to France for help. French President Emmanuel Macron failed to convince Lebanese politicians to rise to the occasion and initiate meaningful political and financial reforms. He could not hide his exasperation with and disdain for the inept political class. 

He said he was ashamed of their betrayal of their promise to form a new government and take concrete steps to resurrect the country's collapsed economy. On Dec. 2, France held a virtual donor conference with the United Nations to provide humanitarian aid to the Lebanese people independently of the government. 

Commenting on the conference proceedings, the head of the Maronite church said, “Don't the officials in Lebanon feel ashamed!”

Despite its appeal, political office in Lebanon comes at a high personal risk. Since independence, political life has cost two presidents, three prime ministers, and 15 ministers and parliamentary deputies their actual lives. 

The political system often comes to a standstill because of an inability to choose the president or prime minister. Since 1988, the presidency has been vacant for as long as 15 months. Choosing a prime minister is an arduous task, and it often takes up to a year after the parliament designates him to form the Cabinet. 

Social trust is low, and the culture of corruption is rampant, bold and unashamedly visible. 

Most people view the state as an inept, hostile and alien entity and prefer to minimize their interaction with it.

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