How to fix Lebanon’s political crisis

“Lebanon’s political system is the product of a decades-old power-sharing arrangement among leaders of Lebanon’s 18 religious sects, the most important being the Sunni and Shia Muslims and Maronite Christians.”

“It has helped mediate sectarian conflict, forced leaders to build consent among their constituencies, and prevented the heavy centralization of power that plunged much of the Arab world into dictatorship.
But this particular medicine has side effects. Political elites have used their positions to bleed the economy dry and monopolize control over public institutions. Parliament and many cabinets have been filled with some of the same faces for decades. The speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, has occupied the post since 1992. As members of the traditional ruling class age or die out, their sons often replace them, meaning politics has become a family business for the Gemayels, Hariris, Aouns, and Jumblatts, to name a few.

Many politicians have amassed great wealth by taking cuts of public contracts, facilitating bureaucratic processes, or directly siphoning public funds. Public servants are appointed by sect rather than on merit, and national loyalty competes with and often loses out to sectarian loyalty.

This has undermined civic life and turned politics into a zero-sum sectarian competition rather than a policy debate. Questions as mundane as where to build a waste incinerator or how to reform public utilities, for example, take on sectarian dimensions over who gets what.

Why, then, do people not simply vote this rotten elite out?

For one, they have played on sectarian insecurities to perpetuate distrust among the population, casting themselves as saviors of their community. Attempts to unseat a particular leader are quickly seen as attacks on the sect itself, leading to a rallying effect around said leader regardless of their performance.”

“The political class has also skillfully used the state to provide constituents with jobs, financial support, and other privileges. And, of course, where persuasion fails there is always coercion. Parties routinely harass and intimidate those who seek reform or even dare to criticize their leaders.
All factions are complicit to some degree, but one in particular presents an altogether more difficult problem: Hezbollah.”

“Hezbollah maintains a formidable militia with direct support from Iran. It has turned Lebanon and its Shia community into the base of its “resistance” project of open-ended conflict with Israel and the West.
Hezbollah runs a state-within-a-state, complete with a military, security forces, and infrastructure; at the same time, it has penetrated Lebanon’s institutions through politics or by cultivating powerful allies. The Lebanese military lacks the will and ability to disarm Hezbollah. Those who present a serious challenge to its armed status are intimidated or killed.”

“Attempts to constrain its military arm are violently repressed. In May 2008, for example, a cabinet decision to dismantle the militia’s independent telecommunications infrastructure was met with a military takeover of much of Beirut. Hezbollah has also been implicated in a string of assassinations of political rivals, most recently through a United Nations tribunal that convicted Salim Ayyash of complicity in the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.”

Beirut’s Blast Is a Warning for America

“The United States is becoming like Lebanon and other Middle East countries in two respects. First, our political differences are becoming so deep that our two parties now resemble religious sects in a zero-sum contest for power. They call theirs “Shiites and Sunnis and Maronites” or “Israelis and Palestinians.” We call ours “Democrats and Republicans,” but ours now behave just like rival tribes who believe they must rule or die.

And second, as in the Middle East, so increasingly in America: Everything is now politics — even the climate, even energy, even face masks in a pandemic.”

“But a society, and certainly a democracy, eventually dies when everything becomes politics. Governance gets strangled by it. Indeed, it was reportedly the failure of the corrupt Lebanese courts to act as guardians of the common good and order the removal of the explosives from the port — as the port authorities had requested years ago — that paved the way for the explosion.
“For a healthy politics to flourish it needs reference points outside itself — reference points of truth and a conception of the common good,” explained the Hebrew University religious philosopher Moshe Halbertal. “When everything becomes political, that is the end of politics.”

To put it differently, when everything is politics, it means that everything is just about power. There is no center, there are only sides; there’s no truth, there are only versions; there are no facts, there’s only a contest of wills.

If you believe that climate change is real, it must be because someone paid you off with a research grant. If you believe the president committed an impeachable offense trying to enlist the president of Ukraine to undermine Joe Biden, it’s only because you want power for your party.

Illiberal populists like Trump — or Bibi Netanyahu in Israel, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Vladimir Putin in Russia — deliberately try to undermine the guardians of facts and the common good. Their message to their people is: “Don’t believe the courts, the independent civil servants or the fake news generators — only trust me, my words and my decisions. It’s a jungle out there. My critics are killers (which is what Trump called his press corps on Friday), and only I can protect our tribe from theirs. It’s rule or die.””