In Lebanon, corruption has shattered the political system. Can it be rebuilt?

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The devastating explosion that ravaged Beirut earlier this month exposed the corruption of the elites at the heart of Lebanese governance. The explosion itself, which was almost certainly caused by a stockpile of highly explosive ammonium nitrate that had remained unattended in the Port of Beirut since 2013, may not have been deliberate. But it had everything to do with Lebanon’s conflict history and aging politicians, many of them former warlords, who still hold power in its dysfunctional, sectarian and patronage political system. As public opinion rallies against the country’s kleptocracy, the survival of the status quo is called into question. But it remains uncertain whether a reformist alternative can take its place.

Since the 1970s, Lebanese political elites have avoided the hard work of governing in favor of plundering the country’s resources and concentrating power among them. Nowadays, up to $ 100 billion has been wasted of the country’s banking system in corrupt transactions. Today, with more than 200 dead in the blast and thousands more injured and displaced, Lebanese leaders are once again determined to escape responsibility for a disaster on their own by dismissing an international inquiry on its causes and culprits.

Lebanon was already boiling before the explosion. In last year’s so-called “October Revolution”, a series of protests erupted over a new tax on the popular WhatsApp messaging service, a sign of growing public frustration with the old order. At the forefront of this uprising was a new generation of activists who recognized the serious issues facing Lebanese society and the failure of the political class to address them in any meaningful way. The fact that the recent catastrophe was caused by neglect has only sharpened their resolve to find an alternative.

Demands for an overhaul of the entire system of government have also become synonymous with calls for the disarmament of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia and political party who have taken advantage of the weakness of the state to become a central player in the Lebanese kleptocracy. . Despite high rates of disaffection with the political establishment, the last legislative elections of 2018 – after nine years of political paralysis – resulted in a Parliament dominated by the incumbents of the traditional parties, with more than 70 of the 128 seats in total go to Hezbollah and its allies. This came as a surprise to many reformists who had relied on greater youth participation in politics to bring about real change.

This shows that the transformation of Lebanese political culture will not be easy. Implementing the necessary reforms involves overhauling a system of perverse incentives that perpetuate kleptocratic practices, such as the uncontrolled and opaque patronage network that controls appointments to public office. Lebanese citizens feel the damaging impacts in multiple ways. In 2015, for example, mountains of uncollected waste piled up on the streets as elites fought over lucrative waste management contracts. Yet the recent protests have had minimal impact on the quality of governance, attesting to the need for more structured political advocacy that not only mobilizes a wide range of the Lebanese population, but also recruits reformist candidates and influences. political party platforms. .

As the public mobilizes against the Lebanese kleptocracy, the survival of the status quo is called into question. But it remains uncertain whether a reformist alternative can take its place.

But it is a long term project. For now, the next phase will probably go through the appointment of a new technocratic government that will not be very different from the previous one, led by Prime Minister Hassan Diab, who resigned after the explosion. Without changing the rules of the game, whoever takes Diab’s place will likely accept the concessions demanded by the International Monetary Fund for the bailout needed to extend a short-term lifeline for the Lebanese economy, and possibly even for early elections. Yet none of these measures are sufficient to save Lebanon from further disintegration, and radical changes are unlikely to be secured by the protest movement. And despite popular outrage against Hezbollah, it remains the only party in Lebanon that is both part of and above the system. Its military power is greater than that of the Lebanese Armed Forces, and if threatened, Hezbollah will resort to violence.

The dire state of the economy also presents serious challenges for political reform. For decades, the government has kept its currency pegged to the dollar at a rate of 1,500 Lebanese pounds. This system amounted to a multi-billion dollar pyramid scheme, subsidizing imports to the detriment of domestic industries, while large firms were allowed to access dollar loans at low rates. Deposits held in Lebanese pounds earned high interest, helping to attract remittances.

But the system reached its breaking point last fall, when the central bank fell dangerously short on dollars and cut conversions, causing the currency’s peg to implode. The Lebanese pound depreciated sharply; it is currently trading on the black market at a rate of about 7,000 to 7,500 per dollar. Monthly inflation reached 112 percent in July, as food prices skyrocket and imports are scarce. The banking sector is no longer functioning and the economy is expected to contract this year by 25%. More importantly, Lebanon’s debt, at a staggering 170% of GDP, exceeds $ 92 billion. The millions pledged in international aid fall far short of meeting Lebanon’s needs.

For this reason, any financial bailout must be linked to concrete measures to improve transparency and governance, introduce financial stability and crack down on institutionalized corruption. As the international community sends emergency aid to rebuild after the explosion, it must ensure that its benefits are fairly distributed and that new divisions do not emerge among the communities affected by the disaster. Local initiatives must be strengthened as engines of civic empowerment.

However, while the international community has an important role to play in spurring reform, the Lebanese themselves must ultimately change their political culture. Given the resilience of the existing system and the limits of what protests can achieve, the opposition must play the game long and focus on using future elections as opportunities for new reformist politicians to acquire. more political power. This includes building organizational structures and voting machinery to compete with established sectarian groups that rely on deep-rooted patronage networks. As part of this strategy, the positive momentum and energy of citizen responses to the explosion provide an opportunity. New emerging solidarity networks are mobilizing in response to the crisis, highlighting a stark contrast to government absenteeism.

Lebanon needs a new social pact based on the democratic principles of accountability, fair play and the rule of law. The Lebanese need to be able to imagine a sovereign and prosperous future that rejects the scourges of bigotry, corruption and dependence. Despite the multiple crises it has gone through over the past year, the country is endowed with a source of untapped potential, including a large pool of skilled workers eager to put their talents to use. Now it is up to the Lebanese – with the support of the international community – to undertake the arduous task of rebuilding not only the rubble-strewn streets of Beirut, but the crumbling foundations of their political regime.

Patricia Karam is the Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Republican Institute.

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