Challenged Lebanese merchant-politicians opted for inefficiency as they conveniently holed themselves into the March 8 and March 14 coalitions, both for ideological as well as pecuniary reasons, which bordered on the reckless.
Over the years, and after a civil war that settled nothing, so-called leaders continued to hide behind slogans, which a new class of citizens rejected.
For some, the slogan was ‘Al Jaysh, Al Sha‘ab, Al Muqawamah’ (army, people, resistance). For others, it was ‘Hurriyyah, Siyadah, Istiqlal’ (freedom, sovereignty, independence), which was replaced by ‘Haqiqah, Hurriyyah, Wahdah Wataniyyah’ (truth, freedom, national unity) after former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in 2005. Regrettably, sloganeering gained traction in a country where the basics withered at the proverbial vine, even if most benefitted from nepotism, corruption and gridlock. How long could this go on?
Nepotism does not even begin to explain what most Lebanese, political elites and ordinary citizens alike, practice. At the highest levels of government, leading families pass the torch of power — along with impressive financial holdings — to their offspring and relatives on such a regular basis that one can set the time on a digital watch by their movements. Amine Gemayel and Walid Jumblatt were thus naturally succeeded by their respective sons, Sami and Taymur, as the heads of the Phalange and Progressive Socialist parties. Meanwhile, the leader of the Free Patriotic Movement and unlucky presidential candidate Michel Aoun, effectively handed the presidency of his group to his son-in-law, Jibran Bassil, while another son-in-law, Brigadier-General Chamel Roukoz, was the undisputed FPM candidate to become the Commander of the Lebanese Armed Forces. A third son-in-law, Roy Hachem, was the head of the pro-FPM OTV television network. Loose tongues in Lebanon who opposed Michel Aoun, joked that if he had a fourth son-in-law he would surely be the Maronite Patriarch, thereby sealing the necessary power nexus that could propel him to the presidency.
Of course, these men were not the only culprits, as one could add the offspring of countless other elite families, including Hariri, Berri, and Karami, among others.
There was, to be sure, nothing wrong if leading families in any society assumed the burdens of power, but where the twain no longer seemed to meet in Beirut was how these entities fulfilled their fiduciary responsibilities. In a country that suffered from severe electricity shortages, for example — somehow it never occurs to those in power that all that is required is a mere 3,000 megawatts of power per day — few reacted to the news that the billions allocated each year to the sector failed to produce the required energy. Successive water and electricity ministers, who became wealthy men under mysterious circumstances, seldom reasoned that they needed to keep their ends of the bargain.
Even worse, few reacted when judge Ali Ebrahim recently revealed that at least a dozen politicians and wealthy merchants did not bother to pay their electric bills dating back to the year 2000 — to the tune of nearly $800,000. The magistrate promised to prepare a second list with the names of wealthy families who, apparently, did not bother to settle their invoices either.
Hundreds of thousands regularly “tapped” into the electric grid without paying either, some because they could not afford to, while others to spite a hated ruling class. Many citizens concluded that they could and ought to get away with thievery because elites were robbing the country naked too.
To be sure, corruption went beyond electricity, water, construction and various administrative formalities one submitted to but, truth be told, the Lebanese honed unprecedented survival skills that allowed them to grease palms, get their businesses going, and prosper — albeit on a much more limited scale. Where tensions rose, however, was in the growing number of those who fell by the wayside and could no longer benefit from the system.
What Beirut thus experienced after the war was nothing more than political gridlock because the two power poles—March 8 and 14—failed to apply the Ta’if Accords. Furthermore, what exacerbated everyone’s fiduciary positions was Syrian tutelage, which also milked the Lebanese cash cow, even if it disarmed all militias with the exception of Hezbollah. Buoyed by its military muscle and supported by Iran, Hezbollah thus emerged as the perfect entity to impose gridlock, which was why one of its deputies, Mohammad Raad, could actually declare with a straight face that the party was willing to wait a thousand years for the election of a president.
Under the circumstances, few should be surprised that Lebanon is mired in perpetual gridlock, which civil society movements such as “#You Stink” and “We Want Accountability” intend to change.
Naturally, while there are very competent Lebanese citizens both in and out of government who could probably govern far more efficiently than existing elites, in reality, they have as much chance of assuming the burdens of power as you or I have of walking on the planet Jupiter.
Still, for civil society movements to succeed, ordinary Lebanese ought to consider post-nepotism, corruption and gridlock options. They might need to come up with a new mechanism that will respect and apply the constitution. Something like “fairness, honour, and liberation”.
Dr Joseph A. Kechichian is the author of Iffat Al Thunayan: An Arabian Queen, London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015.