Anyone who had the misfortune of flying out of Beirut this summer, but especially on that now infamous black Thursday of 6 September 2018, witnessed a whole sordid political economy in full swing, a microcosm of the one operating outside the airport. Bracket the jejune voices that keep complaining about the lack of funds for more expansions and more infrastructural development, or those who do not tire of reminding us that there is something culturally inevitable about the way Lebanese simply cannot follow rules. What was on display that memorable day was how all-too-human choices anchored in narrow clientelist calculations create the mess and indignity that has become, for the many but not the privileged few, everyday life in Lebanon. For what otherwise explains why the same Lebanese who found it impossible to queue in a proper line that day willingly did so when they were boarding their planes from any other airport? Or why more check-in counters were available for fewer passengers in other airports? It is simplistic to blame people for acting lawlessly when they find themselves operating in incentive structures that invite and reward lawless behavior. After all, those inhabiting Thomas Hobbes’ imagined “state of nature” are expected to act selfishly and brutishly, otherwise they perish.
Whether it is the spike in the rate of unfathomable but increasingly casual incidents of violence, especially against women and children; the callous disregard for the basic developmental needs of whole regions, and the concomitant predictable backlash this produces in the form of exiting the boundaries of the law and the national economy; the way driving against traffic has become an end in itself rather than an illicit mean to reach one’s destination faster—a fact of Lebanese life dexterously rendered by Ziad Rahbani in that memorable bakery scene in his postwar play bikhsous al-karame wel-sha‘b al-‘anid; or the manner in which the minutest details of public space have become sites for appropriation by individuals, cars, shops, businesses, Vespas, and the indomitable valet—notice how perfect the art of parking and double-parking at road junctions has become. All these normalized acts of lawlessness turn the republic in which we live into one dystopian battleground for personal survival; a veritable state of nature incentivized by public institutions that have suspended their regulatory prerogatives and duties and have become colonized by clientelist interests.
This great unravelling of the postwar republic has reached perilous levels. Lebanon is now ranked first among countries in Western Asia in terms of cancer patients per population, proof, if there ever was need for it, of the catastrophic environmental disaster wrought upon the country’s once dreamy and pristine landscape by the inability of state institutions to apply the most basic environmental regulations. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 242 cancer cases per hundred thousand people in Lebanon, with seventeen thousand new cancer cases registered in 2018 alone. A 2017 study by the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) puts the number of Lebanese living on a meagre four dollars a day at a staggering 1.5 million, this out of a total population of five million, and where the unemployment rate has reached thirty-six percent. These figures take on harrowing proportions when placed in their proper economic and fiscal contexts: A two percent economic growth rate and a fiscal deficit of 8.3 percent of GDP for 2018; a five percent inflation rate for 2017, climbing to 7.6 percent in June 2018 in a year-on-year comparison of the consumer price index (CPI); a galloping public debt that reached 81.9 billion dollars in June 2018; and a debt-to-GDP ratio of 152.8 percent for the same period.
Yet, despite these miserable socioeconomic conditions and alarming fiscal indicators, the republic’s political elite behave as if time is infinite; as if the war ended yesterday, not some three decades ago. Political vindictiveness and bickering over government quotas and ministerial portfolios expose the usual intra-sectarian divisions and deep inter-confessional disagreements over the postwar political balance of power, for the demons of the war are always lurking in the background. It also serves as a perfect smokescreen to divert attention from any semblance of accountability and responsibility for the economic policies and clientelist practices that produced the present socioeconomic crisis. Not that we should expect anything else from a postwar political elite versed in the art of ignoring the suffering of those they claim to represent, always waiting for an eleventh-hour geopolitical miracle to deliver the country from its economic woes—one that this time around may not come.
But if the present socioeconomic crisis is so severe, as the aforementioned indicators suggest, then where have all the protestors gone? Why are those suffering from difficult socioeconomic conditions and abysmal government services not demonstrating in Beirut the way their counterparts are demonstrating in Basra? Have they long decided to exit from the republic and are now languishing in exile? Are they silenced by the disciplinary technologies and ideological hegemony of the sectarian system or coopted by the sectarian system’s clientelist political economy and the state’s nonchalant attitude toward corruption and everyday lawlessness? Of course, it is all of the above reasons. To paraphrase Lenin: Numbness to the devastating socioeconomic disasters besieging us is the highest stage of sectarianism.
Perhaps the real lesson of the Basra protests for Lebanon is that only when people liberate themselves from narrow sectarian sentiments and the clientelist political economic bargains they have willingly accepted, prioritizing instead socioeconomic and other trans-sectarian national identities and demands, can they then invoke the civic responsibility that comes with behaving as law-abiding citizens who care about the present and future of the republic. Only then will the political elite consider them more than just docile sectarian subjects who can be whimsically mobilized as fodder in useless political battles, humiliated in long agonizing queues and maddening traffic jams, or silenced via selective populist strategies. Otherwise they—minus the silent minority that insists on following the law—have only themselves to blame for what increasingly looks like the twilight of the Lebanese republic, followed by the inevitable darkness.
[This article was originally posted by Lebanese Center for Policy Studies on October 2018]