Lebanon Pays the Price of Dysfunctional Governance

The cost to Lebanon of its dysfunctional governance system is suddenly very high, and so is the usual concern about how the country will fare in the months ahead.

The unusual state of national leaderships in parts of the Arab World was captured in the Saudi Arabian decision this week to withdraw the $4 billion in aid it had promised Lebanon, and instead promise $5 billion in aid to Sudan. This meant that Riyadh had withdrawn support for a government that had no president, due to the inability of Lebanon’s feuding politicians to agree on one, and instead was supporting a president in Sudan who is wanted by the International Criminal Court.

This tells us a lot about the tortured condition of political leadership in Lebanon and Sudan, two countries that have suffered much from their own internal wars and continue to lumber under difficult internal and regional conditions. Riyadh’s withdrawal of military aid to Lebanon in favor of supporting Sudan is logical from the Saudi perspective, given Lebanon’s unwillingness to date to support the Saudi position in its feuds with Iran, while Sudan has sent troops to fight in Yemen with the Saudi-led military coalition there.

The stalemate in the Lebanese national policy-making system means the country is unable to take clear positions on critical regional issues like the wars in Syria or Yemen, or even domestic issues like how to respond to the influx of around 1.2 million Syrian refugees (leaving the NGO sector, the UN system, and international humanitarian groups to deal with it).

The shock Saudi Arabian withdrawal of military aid to Lebanon has shaken the system and triggered a cascade of internal statements, accusations, and moves that exacerbate but probably do not significantly alter the prevailing uneasy balance of power between the two leading ideological groups in the country, the Saad Hariri-led March 14 and the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalitions.

For the past forty years, or since the start of the civil war in 1975, Lebanon has found itself constantly at the mercy of different currents within the Arab World and further afield. Lebanon’s condition today, however, is much more stressful than it had been in recent decades, in several areas that had never before been experienced simultaneously: a serious deterioration in both the power-sharing tradition in the upper tiers of national life and the smooth functioning of basic government services at street and home level of citizens’ lives, serious spillover dangers from the multiple Syrian wars next door, and lack of agreement (and perhaps even some lack of interest) in Lebanese issues among the country’s external patrons and power brokers who may have more pressing issues to deal with.

Steady declines in the delivery of everyday needs like electricity, garbage collection, water, and public transport sparked unusually cross-sectarian street protests last summer, but did not lead to any visible improvements in these services. At the same time, the presidential void is almost two years old now, parliament effectively is on hold, and the cabinet barely achieves occasional consensus on issues of immediate concern, while postponing big ticket strategic decisions.

The recent dominance of Hezbollah as the most powerful party in the country, combined with the splits in the once unified Christian community, has effectively given the March 14 group veto power over any major decision, such as electing a president in parliament. The current stalemate and presidential vacuum seemed manageable for some time, but the sudden loss of major Saudi security support has frightened many Lebanese, given their country’s vulnerability to security threats linked to blowback from Hezbollah’s military action in Syria in support of the Bashar Al-Assad government, and fears of more military attacks inside Lebanon by Sunni militants close to rebels in Syria fighting to topple Al-Assad.

Hezbollah’s policy, the Al-Assad government’s survival, and the war in Syria all provide direct, structural and ideological linkages to Iran. This logically suggests that the Lebanese government should at some point clarify its position on Iran and Syria—which in turn means clarifying its position on the intense Iran-Saudi Arabia feud that ripples across the region. Yet the Lebanese government does not do any of this, because the political elite disagrees on all these issues.

After a long extraordinary cabinet meeting Monday evening to try to salvage the cancelled Saudi military aid, the government said that Lebanon is, “committed to Arab consensus on the common issues,” which is another way of saying the government could not agree on how to respond to the Saudi move or to Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria.

But there is no Arab consensus on any major issue these days, which is why Lebanon did not support Saudi resolutions against Iran in two recent gatherings of Arab and Muslim foreign ministers. The cost to Lebanon of its dysfunctional governance system is suddenly very high, and so is the usual concern about how the country will fare in the months ahead.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global