Breaking Down Lebanon

August 16, 2015

The air smells like trash, the sea feels like fuel oil, and the road looks like a dumpster. 25 years after the civil war and with an additional USD 60 billion of debt, almost nothing in Lebanon has changed for the better. While the same politicians, feudal lords, warlords, and ambassadors still rule, the capital has turned into a landfill, food has become poisonous, security has deteriorated, and electricity and water have become scarcer. They said that the country would become better after the Israelis left, but nothing has changed since. They also said that the country would become better after the Syrians left, but nothing has changed since. Politicians and those who worship them see the speck of sawdust in their brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in their own eye. They convinced us that their opponents are traitors, corrupt, sectarian, and feudal; but the truth is that they all are traitors, corrupt, sectarian, and feudal. They are the sons of war, occupation, and feudalism. They lack culture and they almost know nothing about democracy and the rule of law. President Chehab once called them “les fromagistes” as they opposed any modernist political reform for fear that it might deprive them from their privileges and monopoly of power.[1] Our politicians don’t understand that the cheese wheel and their share out of it become bigger if the economy is left alone; they just want to share and eat the cheese right away. As their grandfathers and fathers took orders from the Ottomans and the French, our politicians currently take orders from foreign ambassadors. Their peace, built on spoils of war, is fragile. They have made people wish for war and occupation to come back for they were better off then.

Some in Lebanon have come to believe that “war is peace; freedom is slavery; ignorance is strength”[2] as do the characters of 1984, George Orwell’s famous dystopian novel. Look at us: we are lost, incapable, and living in a non-ending exodus. Look at yourself; look at all the educated, talented people around you; and ask yourself what can you or they do? Can you change something? Can you aspire to make your life better? Can you become the president, the prime minister, or a deputy one day? Does the parliament represent you? How many people did the last president or the ones before him represent? How can the speaker of the parliament assume his position for 25 years? Isn’t he ashamed to say that the president is elected outside Lebanon? What is the political program of the prime minister? Why do the unelected patriarch and mufti have a say in politics? Why are the heads of political parties taking money from foreign nations? You know that “qui donne ordonne”. But unfortunately you are desperate and destroyed; all you can do is pay your bills or emigrate. They made you believe that paying taxes is your duty and that emigrating is the rule of life. But why do you pay taxes and to whom? Where is your money going? Would you invest in a company if you didn’t have a say in how the company was managed? So why do you pay taxes to politicians who don’t listen to you?

Do you really believe that you live in a democracy?  Do you really think that you live in a free economy?

Sukleen controls trash collection; Ogero controls landlines and internet; Alfa and MTC control mobile communications; MEA controls the airport; Électricité Du Liban controls electricity; Casino du Liban controls gambling; Solidaire controls our capital’s downtown; and different cartels control cement, steel, banking, energy, gas, and tobacco. Tens of monopolies and cartels control your economy. Do you know how much the state is paying to those companies? Do you know how much tax money the ministries are funneling to those companies? Who owns all those monopolies and cartels? How much those companies are paying to ministers in commissions and bribes? Do your representatives want to break the monopolies or do they want to replace those companies with their own companies?

Forget about the rigged elections. Forget about the fenced freedoms. Forget about the fake liberalism. Forget about the free economy. Forget about the bullshit they taught you in school. And forget that sectarianism is our problem.

The truth is that we live in a dictatorship. But unlike Syria, Lebanon is controlled by 6 dictators, each ruling a region or a portion of the state. Each sect has one or two “Big Brothers”[3], who pretend to run political parties with political programs. I challenge you to explain the political program of your party. It wants to liberate Syria and Palestine. It wants to know the truth about who assassinated the politicians. It wants to remove paramilitary weapons. It wants to protect or reclaim the rights of your sect. What about your rights as a citizen? What about fixing the economy? What about fixing the political system? What about providing weapons to the army without begging? What about roads, electricity, healthcare, and trash? Do you really think any of your party’s slogans will make your life better?

Our politicians preach causes, brainwash pupils, and demand martyrs. Their slogans are empty and their parties are fronts for their families, their sons, their wives, and their in-laws. Beneath all those slogans, their parties are no different than the Baath party. “One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution – or a civil war - in order to establish a dictatorship.”[4] They ally to share the cheese and they fight to claim a bigger portion of the cheese. Kamal Salibi, the renowned Lebanese historian, described Lebanon as “A House of Many Mansions.” My friends, that’s the real game of thrones among the houses of Lebanon, who slaughtered each other during the civil war.

Ronald Reagan believed that “government is not a solution to our problem; government is the problem.” We don’t need a government that steals from us and controls our lives. We just need a government that protects us and establishes the rule of law. It is time for us in Lebanon to break this corrupt, bureaucratic government and get rid of those oligarchic politicians. If they really wanted to respect the constitution, they would return the power of the state and the government to the people.

Article D of our constitution stipulates that “the people are the source of authority and sovereignty; they shall exercise these powers through the constitutional institutions.”[5] Every taxpaying citizen must be able to elect his or her president, prime minister, mohafez, and ka’m makam. The decision makers in the government must be directly elected by those who are paying their salaries and funding their budgets so that they become accountable to the ones they represent. The parliamentary elections must be held under a proportional electoral system, instead of a majoritarian electoral system, so that new political parties can emerge and so that the parliament becomes more representative.

“We need smaller, more decentralized government” according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the Lebanese-American author of the The Black Swan.[6] If you are convinced that decentralization doesn’t work, at least consider the somehow successful example of most municipalities in Lebanon. Or look at Switzerland, the most stable country in the world, or the UAE, the most stable country in the Middle East. Dubai and Sharjah are fifteen minutes away from each other and each one of them has its own local government and is developing in its own way. Likewise, each region in Lebanon must be responsible for its own infrastructure and affairs. If you pay taxes where you live, you want those taxes to be spent where you live so that you benefit from them. Each region should take care of its own infrastructure, including its electricity and trash collection. Instead, we have a bunch of people sitting in the Grand Serail in Downtown Beirut pretending that they know what is best for each one of us. The policies that work for an urban city like Beirut do not work for rural areas like Aakar or Hermel. Beirut, Tripoli, and the other cities must be run like city states such as Dubai and Singapore and as they were run during all their glorious history.[7] Perhaps size doesn’t matter, but when it comes to government, smaller is more efficient and more representative.

“The essence of oligarchical rule is not father-to-son inheritance, but the persistence of a certain world-view and a certain way of life, imposed by the dead upon the living.”[8] It is time to change our political system and our lives. We must not live as our parents lived. We are not taxpayer slaves for a handful of self-proclaimed leaders. It is time to break down the government and break down the misery out of our lives.

By Raghid Mahfouz