The Signs Were Clear – Lebanon’s Dysfunctional Government was a Heavy Burden on the People

Tuesday, December 17, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

When discussing Lebanon with those who only follow the general contours of what’s going on, you often hear the questions: what went wrong, how long have there been problems, and why weren’t they resolved before? In light of the weeks of demonstrations, now turning violent; the inability of President and Parliament to name a new Prime Minister; and the continued lack of a meaningful dialogue to repair Lebanon’s dislocated economy and political system, recent statements and reports clearly point out additional support for the negative public perceptions of the government held by the Lebanese people, well in advance of the October 17 people’s revolution.

The statement by the International Support Group for Lebanon reinforced messages that have been evident since the Arab Barometer reflected dissatisfaction with the political, economic, and social services fabric of the country. It expressed the need to install a competent, reform-minded government that would implement immediate and medium-term restructuring of the economic and political regime that has brought Lebanon to its status as a fragile state.

The statement recognized the “aspirations expressed by the Lebanese people,” the need for projects “in line with the people’s needs and expectations,” and that “the right to peaceful protest must continue to be respected.” If the state’s failures were so endemic and generational in the making, what was the fuse that set off the people? Some point to the inadequate response to wildfires in the summer; and others add the tax proposed on WhatsApp, without considering the inadequate tax regime that exempted the wealthy from their share of responsibility.

Two other documents are worth reviewing for a deeper appreciation of Lebanese perceptions of their government. The first profiles their quality of life as reported in the UN Human Development Index for 2019, which uses longevity, education, and income to assess the level of human development in a country. Lebanon is barely in the top half, at 93rd out of 189 countries overall. The same position is reflected in the Gender Inequality Index where it is 79th out of 162 countries in terms of reproductive health, empowerment, and women in the workplace. Lebanon’s mean years of schooling at 8.7 barely exceeds the world average of 8.4 years, while it is below the world and Arab countries average in purchasing power and expected years of schooling. At the same time, Lebanon, at 91.7%, has one of the highest literacy rates in the world…so you have an educated, literate, unemployed, functioning society that has not met the needs of its people.

The extent of the deficit between the political system and the people was tallied in Transparency International’s report on the Middle East and North Africa, which interviewed 1,000 Lebanese citizens in the summer of 2019. The results point to the powder keg that exploded in October. In this survey, while the questions were comparable, it

was not a comparison among the six countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Tunisia, Morocco, and Sudan. The data speaks for itself and paints stark realities that frame the current demonstrations.

  • 89% think that corruption in government is a big problem.

  • 87% believe that the government is doing badly at tackling corruption.

  • 80% have little or not trust in their government.

  • 68% responded that corruption has increased since the summer of 2018.

  • 68% said that most or all government officials are involved in corruption.

  • 65% are not satisfied with how well their democracy works.

  • 65% report using “wasta” to resolve issues through the courts; “wasta” being defined as influence or connections of third parties.

  • 54% said that wasta was needed to access public services.

  • 51% said that wasta was necessary to secure access to utilities.

  • 47% were offered a bribe for their vote.

  • 39% noted that while informal payments were expected, they were not asked for.

  • 36% had paid a bribe to police.

  • 28% were threatened to vote for a specific candidate.

  • 23% had experienced or knew someone who experienced sextortion – sex demanded for favors.

Interestingly, 54% of Lebanese responded that they can report incidents of corruption without fear, the highest ranking of the six countries; while, on the other hand, they had the lowest ranking for “Can ordinary people make a difference in the fight against corruption? (39%)” This anomaly has been exploded by the widespread protests cutting across regional, sectarian, age, and gender differences.

So the steam has been building and now the people are speaking for change, for reform, for dignity, for quality of life. How long they will continue to postpone their goals will determine how challenging the long road to reconciliation and rebuilding the country will be.