Lebanon has changed but the ruling political elite has not
Almost exactly a year after his resignation due to the popular protests in Lebanon, Saad Hariri is back to form a new government. President Michel Aoun last week designated him to form his fourth government. If there is anything one can conclude from this entire issue, it is that the Lebanese political class has not been influenced by the mass protests, that it will not change its behavior, and that the old guard still insists on the same sectarian-based power-sharing structure that has dragged the country into the abyss.
The irony is that Hariri has promised a government of independent technocrats — but only, of course, as long as they are nominated by the sectarian political parties. Hezbollah is not showing any flexibility and is imposing its terms while pretending to comply with the French initiative. Hariri seems set to accept Hezbollah and its ally Amal’s demands; namely their control of the Ministry of Finance. In return, Hariri will probably name the Sunni ministers and Gebran Bassil the Christian ministers. In a nutshell, Lebanon will be back to square one.
Hariri is trying to reset the situation to that of before Oct. 17, 2019, when the mass protests began. However, this is not possible because the people have changed and society has changed. Therefore, the proposed political structure no longer fits the collective Lebanese frame of mind. Hariri is also hoping that he will be able to stop the collapse of the political system by garnering international support. However, the international community is holding its ground: No aid until reforms are conducted. The current political elite cannot conduct reform because it thrives on corruption and profiteering. It was through corruption and profiteering that they were able to enrich themselves and build a base.
Every politician is taking over the denomination he represents and, in the name of that denomination, is taking over some government facilities. So you see him dealing with the government’s institutions and departments as if they belong to him or his political party. This means he allows himself to employ his followers in a department he controls, even if they do not have the required credentials, in order to retain their loyalty. The effrontery of the political system has reached the point where an applicant to a government post either needs to pay a sum to the politician who controls the department or get his blessing — “wasta” as they call it in Lebanese slang — in order to get the position.
The proposed political structure no longer fits the collective Lebanese frame of mind.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
This system pushes the employee to look at the job as a “droit acquis” (acquired right). Those who have paid for it view it as an investment, therefore legitimizing the job as a form of return on their bribe. Those who got it because of a connection to the politician or their “wasta” know that they are above the system of accountability, so they take the job for granted and only come to work at the end of the month to get their pay. This is how corruption is spread across the different levels of the state. It is impossible to solve this problem unless measures are taken regarding the political helm — i.e., unless the current sectarian power-sharing system is changed.
The leading politicians thrive on this culture. But this curse drives the country’s institutions to plunge into a state of extreme inefficiency and fail to provide services to citizens. Meanwhile, due to corruption, the different government facilities do not generate any profits for the treasury. Though this philosophy, structure or mode is driving the destruction of the country, it is the only way these politicians can survive. They need to claim ownership of their denominations and to pillage the system in order to feed their acolytes and enrich themselves. This clientelism and those perks allow the politician, or “zaeem” in Lebanese slang, to get the votes he needs to win re-election and perpetuate the same corrupt system.
Politicians also play on sectarianism and the fear of the “other.” Despite the fact that the citizen knows that his representative is stealing public money in his name and is keeping the juicy meal for himself, while giving him the crumbs, he is willing to endorse him. The citizen backs him because he thinks that the power of this politician inside the Lebanese political system will guarantee the power of his denomination and, hence, his power as an individual. However, this complicated equation that renders the citizen captive and an accomplice in corruption due to fear and need can no longer be sustained, nor is it accepted by the Lebanese people.
Nevertheless, all of the country’s powers, including the presidency and parliament, are today in the hands of the same political class. This means any new government will have to comply with the sectarian and corrupt formula. So far, the political elite does not seem to have bowed to any international or popular pressure. The only solution is for civil society to get organized and prepare a new leadership that will base its political agenda on the concept of accountability. These new leaders can uproot the likes of Hariri, Nabih Berri and Bassil in the next parliamentary elections. However, the question is: Will the current power system allow them to grow or it will conduct a witch-hunt to clamp down on them?
In any case, given that the Lebanese see with their own eyes that change is not possible with the current political elite, they have no choice but to prepare themselves for the next battle: The parliamentary elections of 2022.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is the co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building (RCCP), a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.