A few years ago, the late Robert Fisk had said about corruption in Lebanon: “It’s almost impossible to get rid of it.”
Fisk, the legendary Irish-British journalist, had reached this conclusion shortly before he passed away in 2020 after nearly 40 years of living in and reporting from Lebanon and after writing several books on the Middle East, including his authoritative record of the civil war in Lebanon, ‘Pity the Nation.’
Sadly, the beautiful country has become synonymous, regionally and worldwide, with institutional corruption. Its state of affairs since the late 1970s has become a cautionary tale for other governments. For some perplexing reasons, the Lebanese have learnt to live with it. As if they do not mind.
At least that is the perception I get every time I travel there. It is an overwhelming perception that I cannot escape, often as soon as I step into Beirut’s Rafiq Al Hariri Airport.
So much has been written about the root of this Lebanese phenomenon and the possible ways to at least trim it. But for the past 32 years, after the end of the civil war, corruption seemed like an extension of life in the once ‘jewel of the Middle East’.
That was until some glimmer of hope was born out of calamity two years ago following the August 4, 2020 Beirut port explosion, which killed 200 people, injured thousands and damaged large parts of the Lebanese capital.
For weeks after the unprecedented tragedy, people were out on the streets not only to demand accountability but also to call for a regime change. They have had enough of the corrupt ruling class. The government resigned, however, the one that succeeded it was formed entirely by the same parties that dominated the previous one. It is the Lebanese way, you can say.
Opportunity to rebel
But that flicker of hope didn’t go away. The youth whose voices seemed to be drowned by the formation of the new cabinet had one more chance to go at it — the May 14 general elections.
The Lebanese people would have the opportunity to rebel against the deeply entrenched corrupt system, which in the past few years plunged Lebanon into its worst ever economic crisis. The World Bank recently described the ongoing economic meltdown as “one of the worst since 1850”.
Even before the final results of the elections, the international media declared the polls a victory of the ‘change forces’, the independent candidates and the democracy activists and anti- corruption advocates.
They won 15 seats in the 128 seat Council of Representatives. By all means it is a great accomplishment. They won in an election that is always tightly controlled and manipulated by leading parties and family alliances.
Some of these brave candidates have even managed to breach the main parties’ lists in some of the traditional strongholds of members of the ruling class, nearly an impossible deed. There is hope thus after all. Not really! Why is that?
New breed of politicians
Let us look at the bigger picture. Although this new breed of politicians has won 15 seats, the main parties, the culprits which the people should have rejected in the polls, such as Hezbollah, the Free Patriotic Movement, Speaker Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement and Walid Jumblatt’s Socialist Democratic Party, won most of the seats.
While the results show that the Hezbollah-led alliance, which held the largest number of seats in the previous parliament, has lost its majority, the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, for example, has in fact managed to win the same number of seats again this time.
Lebanese analysts argue that the ‘protest movement’ was not able to penetrate the ‘Hezbollah base’, in reference to its Shiite majority electoral districts in the south, Beqaa and parts of the capital where the armed group wields undisputed power.
Most of the votes for the anti-establishment candidates came from mainly the Sunni and Christian areas. The same can be said of Hezbollah key Christian ally, President Michel Aoun’s party, the Free Patriotic Movement. This argument is right. But it is a dangerous one. Why? The big picture again.
As this argument shows, the election results indicated without any doubt that Lebanon today is an extremely polarised society. The current divide, one analyst was saying on TV the other day, is “reminiscent of the atmosphere that prevailed in the 1972 elections and paved the way for civil war.”
Will this sharp divide lead to another civil war? I am not sure. But I am certain it will paralyse the country further as it will stall any effort to form a new government or elect a new president.
The term of current president General Aoun ends in October. It is virtually impossible to see how such a divided parliament, along political lines, and a society, divided along sectarian and religious lines, can agree on a government or a president.
We are on to a long Lebanese-style process to fulfil these constitutional responsibilities. The Lebanese have learnt for years to live without a proper functioning government; however, today there is a dire need for a consensual regime to address the suffocating economic crisis. The latest news talks about a severe shortage in bread and fuel, due understandably to the rising prices of oil and disruption of wheat imports because of the Ukraine crisis.
The new parliament, the result of the polarising polls in which all dirty tricks were used, is more of a problem than a solution henceforth. And it is a consequence of the inability of the people themselves to leave their sectarian and party attachments outside the polling station.
It is their doing and as much as other countries will probably help, it has to be a Lebanese undoing to save their country. But we all have to wait a long time before that happens. For the time being, and even in the foreseeable future, this looks close to impossible.
For one who loves deeply and care about Lebanon, I have given up.