Adonis Diaries

Posts Tagged ‘Bassel F. Salloukh

Lebanon should never go back to his sectarian/plutocratic political system

The Autumn of Sectarianism?

Any credible and viable facts and society behaviors that could convince me that sectarianism in on the way out?  After 77 years of practicing this feudal/sectarian system since Lebanon “independence” in 1943?

February 2020
Bassel F. Salloukh, Associate professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University, and LCPS senior fellow

No matter the short-term outcome in this latest battle in a long Gramscian ‘war of position’ against sectarianism, something has changed irreversibly in Lebanon since 17 October, 2019.

Whether Lebanon’s sectarian political mafia elite like it or not, whether they concede it or not, they already know that their grip over society is slowly, but surely, slipping away.

To be sure, sectarianism is not gone, nor will it go anytime soon, but it just doesn’t have the monopoly it used to have over peoples’ modes of mobilization and identification.

And because they see their vivisected ‘streets’—the sectarian political elites’ favorite term to describe what they, and the Lebanese Constitution, consider as docile sectarian subjects rather than citizens with inalienable rights—slipping away from them.

This rotten “militia “leaders” have responded by weaponizing sectarianism and its other distortions in a bid to neutralize alternative types of identities and mobilization. Indeed, they were so taken aback by the protests that one of its unwelcome consequences has been to alert them to the need to reinvigorate their clientelist and corporatist ties with their sectarian base.

Perhaps the revolution’s (7iraak) greatest achievement so far was to insist that there were no grey choices in this grand battle for a new Lebanon: You are either on the side of the sectarian system and its ensemble of violent disciplinary practices, or you are Not.

You are either for the perpetuation of the lopsided political “rentier” economy, distorted social ecology, and environmental degradation, or you are willing to embrace new kinds of identities that are deeply antithetical to the sectarian system’s constructed binaries.

All of us are now faced with simple but difficult choices: Are you willing to defend your privileges in the name of the sect and what John Nagle labels ‘zombie power-sharing’, or to turn the tables on this whole violent edifice?

Are you willing and ready to speak the modern language of accountability, representation, social justice, gender equality, LGBTQI and other minority rights, shared prosperity, and environmental sustainability, regardless of your private sentiments and practices?

And to the angst of the sectarian system’s apologists, the battle over these choices has entered the intimacy of every household and friendship. It sometimes pits parents against their post-ideological siblings, siblings and cousins against each other despite family and religious affiliations.

It even opposes friends who used to assume they shared a minimum of common civic values, only to discover that it was all a fake reverie.

It is in the turbulence of these intimate relations, and the emotional and discursive ruptures they give rise to, that one finds the humble origins of an invented new polyphonic “Lebanese  State” in-the-making.

But this time around it is a nation imagined neither via the homogenizing frameworks of confessional binaries once expressed in the form of the deux negations, (Two negations do Not constitute a nation) nor their postwar sectarian derivatives.

It is imagined instead in anti- and cross-sectarian visions, ones that do not deny alternative sectarian imaginings of the nation yet refuse to allow them a privileged place or monopoly over how to define this nation.

Whether in the graffiti adorning Beirut’s walls (shlah ta’eftak, take off your confession, is my favorite), the explosive rap songs giving voice to late millennials and Generation Zs once assumed disconnected and apolitical, or in every Nasawiya rally (feminism rally) and chant, the public expression of these new imaginings of the nation can no longer be reversed. They are here to stay and make a better Lebanon.

But we should not be carried away by the energy and creativity of this anti-sectarian moment. What the sectarian counter-revolution has shown is just how many continue to hold on to the sectarian system.

Whether for sheer clientelist purposes—despite the near end of the political economy of sectarian—the power of sectarianism ideological hegemony buttressed by a complicated institutional edifice, or the naked fear of the unknown that comes with any kind of systemic change in a plural society still haunted by memories of a 15–year civil war, so many Lebanese refuse to budge and dream a different dream.

And this helps explain some of the more bizarre commentary emerging on social media or in private conversations, as people try to explain their impossible choices.

After absorbing the initial shock, the sectarian political elites are now on the offensive, acting as if they have been preparing for this challenge to their supremacy ever since the war ended.

They spent decades colonizing the state’s public and coercive institutions and packing them with loyal clients who will do their dirty work when the time comes, clients who are now devouring around 40% of government expenditures.

Also, there is no shortage of opportunists willing to parachute themselves under the label of technocrats and stab the revolution in the back. The problem with that group is not a lack of technical talent, but rather that they do not represent in any shape or form the new community and forces that emerged in the past months.

The sectarian political elites have shifted tactics: From playing what in International Relations is called a game of chicken to a game of billiards, by using one bland actor to hit multiple targets.

And yet, the 17 October revolution has achieved so much, despite its many setbacks, with some that are yet to come. It is primarily an introspective interrogation at the very intimate level, a thawra ‘alal-nafs in Bou Nasser al-Tuffar’s beautiful rendition in his song Khayr al-Shaghab featuring Al-Darwish.

This revolution gave us a new calendar—are you still living in the pre-17 October era or have you made that mental leap to the post-17 October dream—and a new lexicon—who would have thought NERDS could stand for Nasty Economy Requires Drastic Solutions?

The past months have witnessed an oversupply of political analysis.

It is now time to invest more heavily in the concrete building blocks of political practice and organization. Disaggregated and competing modes of political organization reflecting varying ideological choices have to be imagined, created, and then institutionalized.

Existing sites for alternative political contestation need to be liberated from within, a process that has already started among the youth, professionals, and inside the Beirut Bar Association.

Disaggregated political and organizational alternatives connecting people across classes, vocations, and regions are the sectarian system’s worst enemy.

Only then will the present moment look as part of a cumulative longer struggle to penetrate the sectarian political system and transform it from within, gradually and democratically.

And only then can we make sure that what today looks like the autumn of sectarianism will not be one day remembered as that autumn of 2019 when sectarianism was jolted, only to reassert itself with a vengeance.

Note: This militia/mafia sectarian elite (1%), which monopolized 80% of the economy and banks, have robbed the budgets of $120 bn in the last 30 years.

7% of the citizens accounts are below $100, 000 and less than $10,000 for the other 90% of the citizens.

And it is this large sector of the poor citizens who are subjected to severe restriction in withdrawing money from their accounts.

Add tho these economic/financial difficulties, the purchase power of our local currency had devalued 30% and higher prices have reduced the monthly intake of the pay to 40%.

Romanticizing Paris IV conference

March 2018  (I already love the title)

Bassel F. Salloukh, Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University, Beirut
Lebanon’s financial moment of reckoning seems to have finally arrived.
At least this is what the latest IMF mission concluding statement of 2 February 2018 suggests.
It warns that “Lebanon’s debt is unsustainable under the baseline scenario. In the context of Lebanon’s low growth and rising global interest rates, debt dynamics will deteriorate further and public debt will increase rapidly to just below 180% of GDP by 2023 under the baseline and continue to rise thereafter.

Similarly, without adjustment, government financing needs will continue to rise; the underlying co-dependence between banks and the sovereign will intensify; and Lebanon’s growing reliance on deposit inflows will expose the economy even more to sudden swings in depositors’ confidence.”

Reaction in Lebanon to the IMF’s report is at best mixed.

Some consider it nothing more than déjà vu hubris. Lebanon’s balance of payments problems are not new, they argue, and have always been managed by creative monetary policies.
Others are alarmed but hold on to hope that the anticipated Paris 4 conference will buy the country enough time, at least until prospective oil and gas extraction starts generating revenues that make it possible for the government to stabilize the budget deficit and reverse the country’s galloping public debt and its ratio to GDP.

On this latter view, then, Paris 4 seems to be the perfect half-time break the country needs between present difficult economic conditions and what promises to be a haven of prosperity awaiting us in the future.

This indeed seems to be the economic logic behind Paris 4.

Assuming news reports are accurate, the Lebanese government is going to Paris 4 with the hope of raising funds for a long wish list of infrastructural projects that amount to, at most, $16-17 billion over the span of eight to ten years, through a mix of grants, long-term loans, and public private partnerships (PPP).
The assumption is that investments in infrastructural projects will create some 120,000-160,000 new jobs annually (ridiculous, may be for the duration of the 10 years?), and growth rates in the range of 6% to 8% (far fetched illusions).

More importantly, infrastructural investments will automatically lead to GDP growth, which in turn will reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Bracketing the timing of the Paris 4 conference, as it is scheduled just before the long-anticipated parliamentary elections, and the clientelist carnival they often unleash, these are high hopes indeed.

No one doubts the urgent need to overhaul the country’s infrastructure. Compare Beirut’s  infrastructure to Dubai’s, and you would think the latter comes from a sci-fi movie. It does not. It comes from a government possessing not just resources, but a true futuristic master plan of what it wants to make of its emirate, in addition to that government being bent on holding contractors responsible for their work.
The dilapidated state of Lebanon’s infrastructure is a result not just of many years of government neglect. It is also the consequence of stress that comes with refugee flows generated by the war in Syria. (This is the master excuse, since it is the Syrians running the greedy Lebanese businesses)
The Lebanese government has every right to demand that the international community assume its share of the geopolitical price tag. Other states, especially Turkey, have unabashedly done so.
But, who guarantees, in a state anchored on clientelist practices and neo-patrimonial networks, a transparent process of tenders and project execution?
If the experience of postwar reconstruction is any guide, then future spending on infrastructural development is not the panacea now promised by the government.

As for those who condition the success of Paris 4 on PPPs and progress in the country’s privatization laws, they seem to have missed the deep organic connection between clientelism and the public sector, the revolving door between the private and the public sectors, have no idea how contracting and sub-contracting operates in the so-called “Lebanese miracle”, or, alternatively, want to use the recent gloom and doom media reports to extract more financial concessions from those sectors of society who can barely make ends meet.

Unfathomably, only a minority in this country is willing to consider what looks like a gathering perfect storm as an opportunity to undertake real economic reforms.

The recipe is neither new nor complicated.

It requires a radically different vision of what Lebanon is and should be, and views the country as more than just a tax haven and a cash cow on steroids for the privileged few.

It entails policies similar to those undertaken by many countries in the global South, ones that ultimately set them on a long-term growth trajectory, and enabled them to ultimately reduce income inequalities.

PPP to develop the country’s battered infrastructure is a necessary but certainly insufficient condition to solve Lebanon’s economic problems. Alongside infrastructural projects, the Lebanese economy is in dire need of public and private investments in both old and new sectors.

Agriculture and industry have long been neglected sectors because of the hegemony of the rentier, service-based ruling ideology, and the concentration of economic activities in Beirut and its environs. As a result, Lebanon’s hinterland is a veritable ticking-bomb, a barren and lonely place, bereft of job opportunities and hope.

Anyone who has done work on countering violent extremism (CVE) will tell you that extremist ideologies attract mainly those who have no socio-economic prospects.

Whole rural generations have no alternative but to make their way to a congested and suffocating Beirut seeking low-paying menial jobs. The lucky ones emigrate in search of a better life.

A more caring political economy would make use of the roaring talents of the country’s millennials to turn Lebanon’s rural areas into a haven for agri-solutions, eco-tourism, and alternative forms of domestic tourism, recreation, and development.

This entails more than a road here and a football field there. Rather, it would encompass the kind of “destination development” that not only makes these regions attractive to tourists on a year-long basis but also supports the living standards of host communities.

After all, and despite their success in attracting a special kind but ultimately limited clientele, Faqra and Faraya alone do not make for a successful tourist model for the whole country. State-led or PPP development of Lebanon’s rural areas—including its infrastructure—is a far more efficient strategy than the demonizing discourse and practices with which its inhabitants are always treated.

Industry is the other casualty of Lebanon’s rentier-driven economic ideology. The obsession with the service sector at the expense of the job-producing industrial sector means that nearly 85% of what Lebanese consume is imported at a cost of $23.1 billion in 2017, generating a trade deficit of some $20.3 billion in the same year.

A persistent bias against this sector in a country with a talented population but with high unemployment and consumption rates remains a puzzle. Is it the fear that an organized labor force tends to mobilize along socioeconomic rather than sectarian lines, as the experience of the pre-war years suggests, and that this ends up denying the sectarian political elite a significant but docile constituency disciplined through clientelist strategies?

Or is it the agony of admitting that what Lebanon has always needed is a variant of the developmental state, one that nurtures infant local industries and allocates credit selectively, rather than the blind powers of the free market?

A robust but invariably mixed import substitution and export-oriented industrial sector would surely offer Lebanon’s army of unemployed—camouflaged in creative but horrendously low-paying jobs, as in the case of the omnipresent and indefatigable valet—a more decent and humane life.

It would also decrease the import bill and hence the trade deficit. Or is the developmental state too much to ask of a bureaucracy infested by clientelist allegiances?

Alongside investments in the aforementioned sectors, there is also a need for bold initiatives in new, futuristic, sectors. To name just a few, there is a need to invest in sustainable technologies that make use of the country’s solar resources, waste management facilities that put an end to present cancerous environmental conditions, social enterprises that harness the country’s creative talents, and a new kind of educational system that prepares future generations for the challenges awaiting them in the 21st century.

Aren’t our children taught the myth that the Lebanese are the inheritors of the Phoenician entrepreneurial spirit? Then why not give the younger generations the opportunity to deploy their skills here at home, instead of belatedly celebrating their success in exile?

Let us then hope—a little against hope—that Paris 4 will invite a reevaluation of exactly what type of state all Lebanese deserve. There is a healthy debate in academic literature on the true capabilities of the Lebanese state given the substantial internal autonomy enjoyed by sects and the power of special interest groups.

Often assumed as insignificant, this “state” can sometimes surprise us. For example, and despite immense opposition from the business community, it managed to increase salary scales at a cost of about $1.9 billion, mitigated partly—again, despite immense opposition—by a package of tax increases on corporate profits (from 15% to 17%), on interest rates on deposits (from 5% to 7%), on VAT (from 10% to 11%), and on proceeds from treasury bills and Eurobonds. Albeit belatedly, but the Lebanese “state” demonstrated that it can act as a state when it wants.

Those who command Lebanon’s political economy today have only two choices: They can either ignore the warning signs—as they have done with the fiscal Photoshop of the 2018 budget—and embrace the same economic choices that avalanched into the current fiasco.

Or, alternatively, they can use Paris 4 to rethink what kind of economy Lebanon can and should have. Let them turn crisis into opportunity and—like Michigan Governor George Romney in 1963—ask themselves: “If not us, who? If not now, when?” And let’s hope they do so before it is truly too late.

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Note 1: Finally, Hezbollah decided in its election program that fighting corruption and increased interest rates on foreign debt is its priority. Without tackling the $80 bn foreign debt, there are no viable solutions to resolve our endemic economic crisis.
Note 2: Many associations fear that much of the aids will be destined to keep Syrian refugees in Lebanon for many years to come
Notes 3: Lebanon sank into an  anomy system where every deputy became a major businessman after decades of occupying a seat in the parliament




April 2021

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