Lebanon’s politicians ineffectual amid public misery



September 07, 2022

Lebanon’s politicians ineffectual amid public misery
Lebanese demonstrators chant slogans as they take part in a rally in the capital Beirut’s downtown district. (AFP/File)

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Lebanon’s nonstate actors, charities and international donors have always had an important role to play in picking up the government’s slack. Ever since a brief renaissance following the end of the country’s civil war, Lebanon’s governments have been characterized by inefficiency and corruption, constrained by powerful militias and the political movements they represent.

Given increased public apathy, the Oct. 17 Revolution of 2019 led to a countrywide condemnation of sectarian rule, economic stagnation and endemic corruption. Most recently, the Lebanese in May went to great lengths to vote in a general election in which candidates promised reform. Four months on and unable to agree on a financial stabilization plan, the wheels have come off Lebanon’s already-rickety caretaker government.

For decades, the billionaires running Lebanon’s political factions have thrived in a dysfunctional system that has been hollowed out by corruption. The allocation of state resources and economic opportunities along sectarian lines typifies a Lebanon in which the few have done very well while the majority have seen a marked decline in their standard of living. In a country where the richest 10 percent command about 70 percent of the country’s wealth, the inadequacies of the state have continually been plastered over through international aid.

This system has persisted due to the remarkable political dexterity of Lebanon’s political elite, who, while lording over local fiefdoms, meet international donors as servile supplicants courting emergency transfers. Between the Gulf-funded reconstruction of the 1990s and the 2006 war, the government failed to increase its revenue independently, instead becoming completely reliant upon aid. This trend was only compounded by the Syrian refugee crisis and the regional chaos caused by Daesh. Donor funds have flowed into Lebanon despite any semblance of structural reform and despite assurances to the contrary.

UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights Olivier De Schutter, having surveyed the country’s worst economic crisis in its history, reported in May: “Impunity, corruption and structural inequality have been baked into a venal political and economic system designed to fail those at the bottom.” His report, based on a visit to Lebanon, lamented the role of the country’s political establishment, which “knew about the looming cataclysm for years but did little to avert it.”

That cataclysm is arguably now at its worst. Lebanon is no longer a failing state, it has failed. A staggering four out of five people live in poverty, half of the country’s children are forced to skip meals, fuel and power are rationed, and basic medicines are still chronically under-supplied. Whereas previously this sad reality was not shared by those in government, the country’s complete collapse means that government officials also now find themselves stuck in elevators without power, working by candlelight and unable to flush the toilet in the impoverished country’s incongruously opulent public buildings because water supplies are so limited.

For decades, the billionaires running Lebanon’s political factions have thrived in a dysfunctional system that has been hollowed out by corruption.

Zaid M. Belbagi

The gutting of the state has now ceased as there is very little left that can be appropriated. For decades, Lebanon’s fuel was procured in a way that allowed those in power to overcharge the government for a low-grade product. Hezbollah and other sectarian factions were able to take advantage of the lack of supply to provide their own energy, administered along religious lines.

Today, the judges and soldiers whose support could once be bought are now unpaid, moonlighting to offer their services to the highest bidder. The current situation is such that the management failures of past decades have caused such widespread collapse that the country’s latest billionaire prime minister is even more compromised than his predecessors.

As public sector employees demand a five-fold salary increase to help with spiraling costs, state revenues have floundered as tax collection was halted for the two months the employees were on strike. The country’s already-disastrous cost-of-living crisis has been severely impacted by the fact that 70 percent of its grain came from Ukraine. It is therefore certain that the country will plunge toward further unrest.

Whether or not the elites who led the downward spiral of the currency and the devastation of the economy, while allowing the central bank to wipe out people’s lifetime savings, plunging the population into poverty, will remain unaffected is yet to be seen. In the medium term, however, Lebanon must seek a solution to its woes from within. A regular and dependable taxation system would allow the government to generate the income it needs. But for such a system to work, it must be focused on Lebanon’s wealthy, otherwise it will once again be the country’s poor that suffer as a result of the failings of its elites.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the GCC.
Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view

source https://www.arabnews.com/node/2158301

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