Wondering Aloud, Can It Get Any Worse? Oh Yes!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

In this blog, rather than focus on Lebanon’s economic and political issues and others in the region, I’m offering my analysis of current events. These are my personal opinions. I am concerned that as Lebanon’s leaders make statements that exacerbate differences with no apparent purpose but to churn up constituencies to harden their positions, larger threats to Lebanon’s independence and integrity are mounting. The Lebanese should not underestimate the threats to the country’s survival, maybe the most serious since the end of the civil war.

The most important issue facing Lebanon is to question if its leaders will summon the political will to implement reforms desperately needed to reshape the country’s government or will Lebanon move inevitably towards becoming a failed or fragile state? While one would like to avoid such stark terms, this is the reality that must be faced. The definition of a failed state is “a state whose political or economic system has become so weak that the government is no longer in control.” And a fragile state is defined as “a developing country characterized by weak state capacity or weak state legitimacy leaving citizens vulnerable to a range of shocks.”

Inside Lebanon, citizens from all sides would argue against either category being applied to Lebanon, while at the same time expressing disdain for the political system, politicians, political parties, government services, corruption, environmental degradation, etc. etc. Their reflexive response is not puzzling considering that the many Lebanese believe that their country is exceptional.

However, categorizing Lebanon in harsh terms without repercussions illustrates the challenge of labeling a phenomenon so that it can be categorized and analyzed ad nauseam without effective change. If the manipulation of the state in political and security affairs by Hezbollah does not indicate a lack of government control, and inconclusive implementation of critically needed reforms show a weak state capacity, it is only because of the trade-off that keeps the current leadership in place.

Domestically, while proud of their country’s capacity for survival, Lebanese families are resigned to the reality that they must pay high tariffs to have their children educated, that many of their children will work abroad to earn a suitable living, that costs for health care, sanitation, and basic power and telecommunications continue to rise despite miserable service, and that every government action of any consequence is decided less on its merits than on its benefits to the powers that be.

Lebanon hosts refugees, Palestinian and Syrian among others, and the social and psychological costs are borne by local communities that have to endure erosion of their quality of life. This is hardly the fault of the refugees, who really would like to go home no matter what some politicians claim. Of those who returned home, a significant proportion has returned to Lebanon, usually illegally, because their communities, their homes, their livelihoods, and security have been devastated by the war.

On the regional stage, the current offensive against the Kurds should make the Lebanese think twice about their alliances. The US and Russia, as great powers, have little regard, given their current leadership, for propping up little friends like Lebanon when they have larger interests to pursue such as Turkey and Iran. On the other hand, maybe President Trump is a strategic genius who believes that Russia will implode if it tries to establish its unilateral influence in the Middle East. Maybe he thinks this will happen to China in Asia, but alas, it’s not that simple.

The current US administration is neither clever, nor strategic, nor visionary in plotting US policy. Self-interest and disengagement seem to be the watchwords of actions that hardly reflect a consensus of US policy makers if the current atmosphere is any indicator. While self-interest is useful, especially in addressing domestic audiences, elevating it to a virtue is overreach and hubris. And we have plenty of that in both our domestic and foreign affairs.

Some of the indicators about Lebanon, noted in the weekly analysis by the Economic & Analysis Department of Byblos Bank, make it difficult to imagine if Lebanon can ever reclaim its role as a leader in the region. In the Rule of Law Indicator, for example, which measures government effectiveness, regulatory quality, control of corruption, political stability and absence of violence, and voice and accountability, Lebanon places in the lower half of Arab countries, following Mauritania and ahead of Algeria, Djibouti, Sudan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. While Lebanon has recently improved its score since 2016’s restart of the government, its score is still almost half of what it was in 2004 (44% vs 23.6%).

In terms of global competitiveness, Lebanon is 10th among the 14 Arab countries, polling ahead of only Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, and Yemen. Even 41.4% of Lebanon’s business leaders consider unemployment or underemployment to be the major risk that their business will face in the next 10 years, followed by the failure of national governance, a fiscal crisis, failure of critical infrastructure, and the state collapse or crisis, before other economic concerns.

There are few options available for Lebanon at this point – economic reforms that have a political impact are on the table demanding action. Without a rigorous and penetrating shakeup of the status quo, Lebanon faces a crisis that is exacerbated by regional pressures. However, those forces cannot continue to be an excuse for little or no action by Lebanese leaders. As Pogo famously remarked, “We have met the enemy, and they are us.” It will properly be labeled a miracle if Lebanon can achieve even a modest recovery of its economic and political wellness in the coming years. Let us pray…