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Protests in Lebanon seek an end to corruption--but will a long-term solution require a complete change in their system of governance?

October 24, 2019

 

“The best long-term solution to ending corruption in Lebanon is an overhaul of the political system”

 

In the past week, the people of Lebanon have engaged in mass protests against chronic corruption. The protests started on October 17, spurred by a tax on WhatsApp, the country’s most popular messaging device. The tax was merely the tip of the iceberg, though--discontent has been brewing for years. The effects of the protests are pervasive. In many areas, roads are shut down, work has been canceled and schools put on pause. While Lebanon has struggled to manage ethnic and religious diversity, the protests remain non-sectarian, engaging people from every region and religion in the country. They’re fun, too--In true Lebanese style, the protests almost resemble a party, complete with DJs, dancing and marriage proposals.

 

The protests should not be a surprise. I studied in Lebanon for two months over the summer, and the political tension was palpable. No one wanted to talk about politics--and why should they? It was a country that had been roiled by civil war, Israeli invasion, and Syrian occupation. I got the sense that people were tired of talking about politics, and perhaps even afraid such discussion would devolve into arguments, and then maybe something more. There were clear economic disparities, as well. While 33 percent of Lebanese live below the poverty line (United Nations Development Programme, 2016), restaurants in areas like Zaitunay Bay or the Old Souks would charge $10 US dollars for hummus, and young people might purchase a table for $100 US dollars each, with a group of 5 or more people, at a popular nightclub (1 USD = 1.5 LBP).

 

Still, everyone could agree they disliked the government. From employees at local sajs (traditional bakeries) to teachers at the American University of Beirut (AUB), to our Uber drivers, everyone we talked to believed the government to be corrupt and incapable of true governance. It’s a fair assumption. The WhatsApp tax sought to pay off damage from wildfires in Chouf, an area of Lebanon that houses most of the country’s famous cedar trees. The government showed a startling inability to handle the situation, which led to more damage than necessary. Lebanon also experiences chronic power outages, but only because powerful members of Parliament control the generator industry and power outages are profitable for them. The outages occur in hospitals, too, forcing them to buy generators or risk letting patients die.

 

The government has pursued fiscal policies that produce large-scale debt and inequality (this year, Lebanon will pay interest that’s 10 percent of GDP). Youth unemployment is also approaching 40 percent. On top of all this, the sea is heavily polluted, air quality is diminished and trash is mishandled, leading to a looming waste-management crisis where trash will pile up in the streets, or may even be burned (leading to further air pollution). Every night, people would congregate by the corniche outside AUB’s campus, looking at the sea, yet very few people would swim in it--they feared falling sick from the pollution.

 

The protests could be effective, to some extent. While other pro-democracy, anti-corruption efforts in the Arab Spring were largely ineffective, Lebanon has a parliamentary-style government and an inept military (militias like Hezbollah are much more powerful). The government looks as if it’s taking steps to appease protestors. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who apparently gave $16 million to a South African bikini model he dated for a short period, told protestors there would be a 50 percent reduction in salaries of current and former officials, no additional taxes and an overhaul of the power generation sector. Yet these “concessions” were not part of protesters’ demands, except for the elimination of the WhatsApp tax. People continued protesting in the streets, regarding them as empty promises. Nevertheless, the concessions are a sign that politicians are responsive and willing to negotiate, even if it is surface-level and most likely just an appeasement tactic. 

 

The best long-term solution to ending corruption in Lebanon is an overhaul of the political system. The system, put in place by the French, divides parliament across sectarian lines. 50 percent of the seats are allocated towards Christians, while the other 50 percent are reserved for Muslims. Within each half of parliament, seat allocations are further divided by intra-religious sect (Maronites, Greek Orthodox, etc. for Christians; Sunni, Shia, etc. for Muslims). The system proves problematic on a number of grounds. 

 

First, population changes dramatically affect representation and power dynamics in government. That’s why Lebanon hasn’t conducted a census since 1932 under the French mandate. This is also the reason the government hasn’t given citizenship to Syrian or Palestinian refugees, despite many Palestinian refugees living in the country since their exile in 1948. 

 

Second, the confessional system cannot adapt to changes in religious attitudes. Young people in Lebanon are more secular than their parents. What happens when children from mixed-religion marriages become a significant demographic--how will they vote? What about the country’s atheists? 

 

Third, the confessional system divides Lebanese identity. What does it mean to assume that a person of another religion could never represent your interests to government, despite both being Lebanese? It erodes a sense of national identity. No one can simply be Lebanese--they are Lebanese-Christian or Lebanese-Shia. This is unhealthy for an effective state system. 

 

Fourth, and most importantly, the confessional system encourages corruption. Politicians might represent (or claim to represent) sectarian interests at the cost of the national good. It also limits competition for good politicians. A politician does not have to be the best person for the job, but the best Maronite or best Druze. 

 

Of course, overhauling Lebanon’s entire system of politics is unlikely to occur in the near future. It is costly and could bring about another civil war. Many Lebanese also don’t consider it a problem--they are happy their interests are accounted for in this system of governance. Who’s to say that will continue under another system, especially with minority groups? Still, Lebanon cannot truly grapple with pressing issues plaguing the country without considering its root cause. Long-term corruption will not go away with a few concessions. Protestors know that, and they would be wise to deliberate about the validity of the confessional system as well.

 

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