* Illustration by Sara El-Yafi
“Lebanon is divided between the pro-West-Saudi Arabia March 14 party and the Iran-Syria-leaning March 8” … If we could get a dollar for every time some pundit simplified our problems to such an offensive vulgarization of our nation, we’d have enough money to pay off our debt and fund the extradition of all the politicians. I despise that statement because it is a dangerous statement. Dangerous because it removes the real reasons that impede this nation; dangerous because it lures the Lebanese people into believing that they are weak enough to be spoken for by the venal and degenerate division of March 14 and March 8. This division is an insult. It is a flagrant, barefaced, shameless insult, and every person who perpetuates this insult is responsible for perpetuating the failure of the Lebanese state, politicians and civilians alike. How can a country be divided between two groups with absolutely no national policies or plans that we can debate amongst ourselves? Where are their plans that we can agree and disagree on, and therefore be divided on? The only “divided” people are the politicians and their beneficiaries over their self-serving roles. If you are neither a politician, nor a beneficiary, and yet have effectively aligned yourself as “March 14” or “March 8”, then I believe that you do not understand what governance entails, nor do you recognize the responsibilities of public service. Once you recognize what you have unlawfully been deprived of, once you understand how pseudo-political representatives have hijacked this nation from your hands by perpetuating a self-serving political system that not only deprives you from development, but actually harms you and your family, you will surely revisit your stance as a follower of either current and demand immediate answers to vital national questions. Hopefully this post here can start that process.
The reasons behind poverty and “third-worldism” are universally known to be the following four points.
1. Closed political system: Social scientists determine this to be the first culprit of state failure because a closed political system concentrates power in a narrow faction of society that ends up manipulating its power to set up political and economic institutions where the rulers enrich themselves and increase their power/wealth at the expense of society.
→ Lebanon has a closed political system because it is commanded by our own version of the caste system. Specific religions and specific people, i.e. specific families and former/current militiamen, dictate rulership, therefore closing off political participation to all those who were born in the wrong religion and in the wrong family/militia. Running for office is thus not readily available to anyone unless you hold “a standing” with one of the established men of politics who will “take you under his wing”, men who inherit their seats by a self-invented sanctioned right and pass them on to whom they choose. The political system is closed; wealth and power is thus limited and usurped and our nation fails.
2. Corruption: It is no secret that corruption kills a nation’s development. Corruption showcases a weak rule of law and a strong grip by the corrupt on governance, thereby suffocating the people and their institutions. It widens the rich-poor gap, degrades society, and retards the potential of every nation.
→ In 2013, Transparency International ranked Lebanon 127th out of 175 countries in the Corruption Perception Index. This means that if you divided the world into 3 transparent categories being Good, Fair and Bad, we are located in “Bad.” Ethiopia, Nigeria, Djibouti and Tanzania are in “Fair”, so are the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Egypt, and those are some of the poorest countries in the world. Elections are won thanks to huge political machines that buy votes and dispense patronage, then the winners design policies to deliver power in excess to themselves through corrupt manipulative transactions where they take a cut from everything, and curtail others’ ambitions if they don’t include them. The corruption in the country is not even hidden. The politicians fight over it on television, in broad daylight, and still, most people actually find it OK to take sides. If this does not revolt you, I don’t know what does.
3. Lack of equality of opportunity due to inappropriate economic establishments and self-serving political institutions: Economies that “stratify” societies fail them. This forms a feedback loop with the above two mentioned points. The “controlling rulers” structure political and economic institutions to their benefit. This is why, in such a system, the rulers will never vouch for laws that might bother them, such as economic equal opportunities or opening the market to competitors when they are benefiting from monopolies they have established.
→ In Lebanon, take for instance the example of the “exclusive agencies” (وكالات حصرية) that reserve the rights of ownership of a brand to one particular seller, never to be changed. The traders are few and freely engage in price fixing that serves them (think of the car dealerships) and saturate the important markets. Or take the very exclusive deals that the government strikes with certain companies, such as the telecommunication companies or the airline company MEA. They turn all governmental ventures into monopolies or duopolies that persist for as long as the beneficiaries are in power, limiting equality of opportunity and therefore, annihilating growth for the nation and its people. The prices remain high, competition is forbidden and growth is limited to a few. Result? Third-world nation. In addition, we are left with a shortage of jobs in the country and dismal salaries because there is no flux in the market, which leads to a terrible hemorrhage of talent, yet our cost of living remains exorbitant. According to the 2013 Cost of Living Index, we are the 38th most expensive country to live in in the world, only preceded by first world countries except for Venezuela, Nigeria, Uruguay and Azerbaijan; this means that save for those four countries, we are the most expensive third world nation in the entire world, yet on average, our salaries remain those of the deep third world.
4. Absence of rule of law: This shortcoming is very closely linked to the points of corruption and inappropriate institutions. But I am singling it out.
→ The law in Lebanon is relative, meaning it is corrupt. You can override the law if you belong to the powerful, yet the law eats your eyes if you are not. Furthermore, the system begs to be breached, for those who follow the law end up losing; bribes and participation in nepotism become a must for survival.
Now take a look at March 14 and March 8, the only two available political trends today that so acceptably “divide” this nation, and tell me, what is their agenda to tackle all the above-mentioned problems? What is their manifesto for nation building? Where is their proposed plan for electricity, telephones, sewage system, public health, road network linking our cities, and law and order? Where is their budget plan? What are their funding priorities? What are the judiciary regulatory measures they wish to undertake? What about the right of women to pass on the nationality to their children? What is their angle on environmentalism and climate change and what do they wish to do about it in Lebanon? Any plan to create green environmental laws that encourage the use of renewable energy sources and reduce pollution? Do they have plans to give access to potable water in households? How do they plan on exploiting our new natural gas bounty? Will they pair it with the highest environmental extraction rules and a national renewable energy portfolio that makes sure we bridge our way to a cleaner energy future? Do they have their own version of a red line that makes us go to war? Is there a contingency plan regarding terrorism? Will they work on civil marriage? Gay rights? What are their economic policies? How will they create jobs? Any plans to remedy in joint action with fellow neighboring states to the humanitarian disaster that is the dismal living conditions in the Palestinian camps? What about the living conditions of the most remote areas of Lebanon where electricity has yet to be introduced? Any urban planning reforms to protect our trees and encourage the creation of parks? Any tax reform? Any plans to raise minimum wages? What about the rights of immigrant workers? Any plan to increase funding to our national laboratories and research clinics to start supporting our scientists? What about technology ventures? How will they work on having Lebanese people be granted visas more easily to visit foreign nations? If elected, what do they promise to deliver within the term of their public service concerning all the above-mentioned questions? Why and why not?
Do you think it’s normal that we know nothing of all this? How can you decide whether they represent you or not if you cannot answer these vital governance questions about their stances? Have you decided to support them based solely on your feelings towards Syria and Assad? Based on your feelings towards Israel and the US? Those are your benchmarks? The only standpoint we know that concerns March 14 and March 8 is their stance on foreign countries, but that does not even qualify for foreign policy, because foreign policy is about safeguarding national interests within the setting of international relations. If our national interests were safeguarded, we would not have explosions killing our civilian population. If our national interests were safeguarded, we would not be red flagged for “visa acquirement” by most countries in the world.
I reject this division because it is not legitimate. I reject this division because it fails our nation. This “divided Lebanon” is the byproduct of corruption and self-serving politics that disembowel our nation from its first-world potential, division standards that do not speak for me, nor for anyone who views their citizenship with integrity.
Listen to me. Listen to me now if that is the last time you ever do.
Lebanon is a FAILED STATE, by all standards, measures and attributes, and it is fully, effusively and entirely due to the fact that we allow rulership to be in the hands of gray-faced corrupt men who harbor a blasphemous sense for division, but absolutely no sense for public service. It is a contemporary social science fact that first-world nations like Great Britain, the United States, France and Japan all became rich because their citizens toppled the elites who manipulated power and controlled wealth, and their people effectively redistributed political rights across a broader segment of society, a society where the majority of people took advantage of economic opportunities available to all, and where the government stood accountable and responsive to its citizens. There is no secret to how a country becomes developed, it is entirely and exclusively due to the development of egalitarian, transparent politics and economics by the people, for the people.
This is not a call for revolution. This is a call for awakening; awakening through knowledge. Our development rests in our own ability to demand egalitarian political and economic institutions, where opportunity is available to all, where team players are rewarded for leveling playing fields and increasing national wealth and those who dare play the sectarian, exclusive card carry the burden of their own extractive attitude. Know that the men in power will never create those institutions for us today. They will perpetuate the status quo, as will their children and their children’s children, until they are effectively denounced, and the demands and actions of those of us who are vying for more honest institutions are mobilized.
But we need to acknowledge this. Such actions can only result in significant change when an extensive section of society rallies and heavily lobbies for prompt political change, and mobilizes not for sectarian reasons, nor to dominate the self-serving political and economic systems, but to turn these self-serving institutions into more egalitarian ones. Whether this all-encompassing national spirit and this contingent course of action can empower our nation and result in long-lasting political reform will depend fully on us and what we decide to create together.