The Meaning of Lebanon’s Stalled Governance System

The Lebanese are very able, resilient, and creative, and they will have to draw on all their assets to get out of this embarrassing and unprecedented situation.

I generally refrain from writing about domestic politics in Lebanon, except when events here reflect wider regional patters. We are passing through such a situation today, when several things are happening at once: decision-making systems have become totally blocked, the citizenry is deeply polarized, angry, and alienated, and foreign lifesavers appear nowhere on the horizon, as life for most citizens becomes increasingly expensive and difficult.

The Lebanese governance system has just registered another troubling milestone with the failure of the three-day “national dialogue” gathering that brought together representatives of all major political and sectarian groups. The national dialogue itself epitomizes the frailties of the governance system that has slowly ground to a halt.

The national dialogue was launched a decade ago precisely to overcome the logjam brought about by the division of the political class into two opposing camps, after the Syrians were forced to withdraw from Lebanon following the assassination of the late Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005. One camp was broadly aligned with Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, and the other with Saudi Arabia, the United States and others.

In the political shorthand of contemporary Lebanon, if Iran and Saudi Arabia disagree on a domestic Lebanese issue, that issue is not resolved, and remains hanging. The political system remains hostage to these and other regional rivalries, making it necessary to try and agree on some critical national matters through the national dialogue process. This has been structured under the chairmanship of the president of the country as a means of discussing big sticker items that could not be resolved in the existing mechanisms of governance that also should represent all Lebanese, such as the cabinet and the parliament.

Even national elections are difficult to hold, and parliament has extended its term twice in a row because the country’s political elite cannot agree on an election law to use for the elections. The presidency (by tradition held by a Maronite Christian) also has been vacant for over two years, due to the same lack of top-level and regional agreement.

The national dialogue’s attempt to overcome this kind of frazzled and hollowed governance has included numerous sessions, where the heads of the major demographic-political groups in the country neither acted like responsible national leaders nor acted like politicians and made deals based on mutual compromises.

The national dialogue approach has repeatedly failed, leaving the situation in Lebanon today more troubling than ever, because the failure of the political class now coincides with the deteriorating conditions on the ground that impact every family (except the well-to-do political class that is sheltered from things like piles of uncollected garbage or daily multiple electricity cut-offs). This is a most serious development for Lebanon because in the past decade the country has caught up with many other Arab countries that suffer a combination of derelict and corrupt governance and deteriorating life conditions for millions of increasingly desperate citizens.

Ordinary citizens are irritated and frustrated by the cumulative impacts of the vacant presidency, moribund parliament, lack of agreement on an election law to hold a new parliamentary vote, and the cabinet’s occasional handling of only routine administrative issues while leaving more important items on hold. More ominously for the system as a whole, citizens get the message that the political elite—their own sectarian leaders—does not really care very much about the quality of citizens’ daily life. The pressures citizens feel include lack of jobs and low salaries, weak social protection policies, growing poverty and income disparities, expanding electricity cuts, erratic water supply and quality, deteriorating education quality, chaotic public transport, ineffective and now dangerous rubbish collection practices, and other aspects of life that were never a problem before.

Tens of thousands of Lebanese reacted to these stresses through street protests last year, and some historic electoral rebellions during the municipal elections a few months ago. They are clearly fed up, but they have not indicated what they can or plan to do about their difficult situation.

Here is the critical dilemma for Lebanese: In the past 75 years of national life, they could reliably count on the three main actors in their life—the government, their local sectarian leaders, and their foreign patrons—to provide them with the material and political means of a decent life. Today, all three of these providers have started to fail, while stop-gap efforts to overcome this problem through the national dialogue only confirm the underlying, apparently structural, inefficacy of the governance system.

We may be dealing here with more than merely a short-term political hiccup that can be overcome through compromise and deal-making. We may be witnessing the early signs of a catastrophic systemic failure of those novel creatures that were born in this region in the 1920s and 30s: foreign-backed sectarian governance systems anchored in post-colonial structures. The Lebanese are very able, resilient, and creative, and they will have to draw on all their assets to get out of this embarrassing and unprecedented situation.

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