Either the global COVID-19 pandemic or the catastrophic blast at the port of Beirut on August 4 could not have hit Lebanon at a worse time. The explosion killed nearly 200 people and displaced 300,000 residents, resulting in damage worth an estimated $15 billion. Prior to the tragedy, Lebanon was already experiencing daily blackouts. Given the strained infrastructure following the explosion, there is a real risk that the pandemic could spiral out of control.
Mired in a severe crisis that shook the country and the instability stemming from last year’s “WhatsApp Revolution,” both developments unfolded as Lebanon’s volatile political order has been falling apart. According to the country’s 1926 constitution, the state is non-denominational, but it has the obligation to protect and guarantee the free exercise of all recognized faiths.
Beirushima: What Lebanon Needs to Survive
In practice, the system, commonly called muhasasa taifiya, means that political posts are proportionally allocated along confessional criteria. The presidency of the republic goes to a Maronite Christian since Maronites represented the majority confession at the time of the system’s conception; the prime minister is a Sunni, and the president of the chamber a Shia. Over time, expanding Muslim communities demanded a revision to reflect the demographic changes.
In 1989, the Taif Accords, which ended the Lebanese Civil War, rebalanced the distribution of powers, but only partially. The system has influenced all areas of public life while exacerbating tensions among various communities. More significantly, many Lebanese blame the taifiya for clientelism, which breeds corruption. The thousands of protesters who descended on the streets of Lebanon through much of 2019 demanded radical amendments to the constitution to overturn its confessional nature.
Sectarian Health Care
The pandemic, in its most intense phase, managed to bring the anti-government demonstrations, which led to Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation, to a halt. But now the Lebanese people will have to deal with the aftermath of the explosion, a deepening economic crisis and a potential second wave of coronavirus infections.
Lebanon’s physical and institutional structures are in a state of decay. The World Health Organization (WHO) has launched an international campaign to raise some $15 million for the country’s hospitals to help confront the shortage of medicines, exacerbated by the eroding purchasing power of the Lebanese lira. This might prove insufficient given that a large part of Lebanon’s population lives in refugee camps. Syrian refugees alone account for 30% of the country’s total population, and many could be excluded from securing help.
The situation could have been worse. Fortunately, only 20% of Lebanon’s available hospital beds are filled by COVID-19 patients. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs monitored 55 Beirut area hospitals, concluding that only 47% of these facilities are able to work at full capacity, guaranteeing all services. This has increased pressure on remaining facilities, which happen to be privately owned — as are 85% of all hospitals and clinics in the country — by the various confessional parties.
The complex network of taifiya clientelism has reached far beyond the political into the social sphere. This heightens the very sectarian frictions that have weakened Lebanon’s socio-political fabric, hampering the provision of adequate care. Public spending on health, as well as education and other social services, has been geographically distributed according to confessional criteria on the basis of the political or confessional affiliation of the minister in charge of the relevant portfolio. Thus, it is the minister’s position that plays a decisive role in resource allocation instead of the actual needs of the population in a given area or region.
The combination of deeply-rooted clientelist mechanisms and the wild privatization drive of the 1990s and early 2000s under Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri have resulted in many, mostly poor, Lebanese being effectively denied access to adequate medical care. The pandemic and the financial crisis have worsened an already intolerable situation. The American University Medical Center, one of the finest hospitals in Lebanon, was forced to dismiss hundreds of staff last July.
Already struggling with inflation and unemployment, Lebanon lacks the resources to compensate workers who have lost their jobs or offer free medicines to those most in need, who are destined to increase in number. In other words, Lebanon faces the unenviable choice of either enforcing a lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus or losing total control of the contagion by allowing businesses to stay open in order to keep its struggling economy afloat.
The pandemic — and the lockdown it mandated — came during the worst financial crisis in Lebanon’s history. Just days before the WHO declared the coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced a default on Lebanon’s €1.2-billion eurobond. The default triggered a massive devaluation of the lira. The resulting hyperinflation hit both the most vulnerable sections of the population as well as the middle class. Prices for most food and consumer products doubled.
Estimates suggest that one in three Lebanese is either unemployed or has received half, or sometimes just a quarter, of their salary due to the lockdown restrictions. And the official statistics fail to consider Palestinian and Syrian refugees, who face economic hardships in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic.
The Lebanese people blame their country’s banking sector, specifically the central bank, Banque du Liban, and its governor, Riad Salameh, for their plight. Hezbollah, the largest party in parliament, demanded Salameh be fired, describing the banker as a stooge for American efforts to bankrupt the armed group, which Washington has designated as a terrorist organization since 1997. But the speaker of parliament, Nabih Berri, has refused to sack Salameh, who has played a key role in negotiating with foreign shareholders to cut Lebanon’s massive $87-billion debt, which stands at 170% of the country’s GDP.
Most Lebanese people face economic challenges worse than those of the 1975-1990 civil war, and there’s some truth to the assumption that the chances of dying from COVID-19 or starvation are roughly the same today. The lockdown and a nationwide curfew, coupled with the country’s chronic economic vulnerabilities, have dealt a deadly blow even against the types of businesses that had managed to survive wars. Restaurants and bars have closed under the pressure of surging prices for basic goods and low demand due to financial collapse.
Perpetuating the System
Despite the debilitating effects of the pandemic, these appear as a mere footnote to the longstanding problems that have led some to label Lebanon as a failed state long before 2020. But for Hezbollah, which enjoys a parliamentary majority, and for the other political actors as well, a radical shift away from Lebanon’s confessional underpinnings implies political suicide. It will be difficult, if not impossible, for Lebanon’s political class to regain the people’s trust.
The Special Tribunal for Lebanon, which is tasked with investigating the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri, has convicted just one of the four Hezbollah-affiliated defendants. The verdict, which many Lebanese believed would find all four guilty, was widely expected to trigger riots and potentially plunge Lebanon into a political death spiral, pitting Sunni supporters of Saad Hariri’s Mustaqbal Party against Shia supporters of Hezbollah.
That death spiral could still occur, but for the time being, the Lebanese people appear to have little energy for protesting, let alone for violent riots or another civil war, considering the current and seemingly intractable socio-economic crisis. Indeed, the lenient verdict in the Hariri case opens a narrow path, but a path nonetheless, toward unblocking loans and donations that have been hindered by sanctions against Hezbollah.
It is, therefore, not entirely futile to maintain hope that Lebanon might find the fortitude to survive the complex combination of calamities hanging over the country. In the medium and longer terms, there are few economic solutions to effect substantial changes. Lebanon’s neoliberal economic order has few outlets for manufacturing or other production-based activities. Only heavy cash injections into the banking system from allies can fill the gap.
Yet this economic model serves to perpetuate the sectarian political system that encourages foreign meddling. Notably, the rise of a Shia political consciousness in the 1960s and 1970s, which led to the formation of parties such as Amal and later Hezbollah, has invited considerable Iranian interest and support. Iranian interference contrasted with the Christian links to France or Sunni connections to Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, rather than helping to end the cycle of foreign meddling, the COVID-19 emergency and the port explosion appear to have reinvited France to the messy Lebanese chessboard.
France is ready to take advantage of this weakness. President Emmanuel Macron, during his recent visits to Beirut, has shown that he clearly wants Lebanon back in France’s sphere of interest, tying economic aid for reconstruction to political reform — in the sense of weakening Hezbollah, which has benefited from the taifiya, and links to Iran. But Turkey appears ready to challenge Macron’s ambitions. Turkish vice president, Fuat Oktay, also received a warm welcome in Beirut. He was keen to express solidarity and even happier to condemn French neo-colonialism.
Of course, history suggests that Turkey’s aims might not be too different than those of France, namely to play a major hand in reshaping Lebanese politics in order to advance its own neo-Ottoman projection. Lebanon, before becoming a French protectorate, was an integral part of the Ottoman Empire, and the link between Turkey and Lebanon’s Turkmen population is still strong. It is to this minority that the Turkish foreign minister has promised citizenship after proposing to the Lebanese government the use of the port of Mersin until the port of Beirut is operational again.
Failure to Reform
As for the kind of radical political reform calling for a complete overhaul of the sectarian division of power, there are few opportunities for any significant change. The pandemic, along with the limited financial resources, may, in fact, serve to perpetuate the taifiya system as people become forced to rely on their traditional sources of solidarity and support, all of which are competing over a smaller pie of resources.
The appointment of Mustapha Adib as Lebanon’s new prime minister suggests that the system will continue for the time being. Adib takes over from Hassan Diab, who resigned on August 10, and is a relative unknown. His career has been largely in academia and diplomacy, and he most recently served as ambassador to Berlin. It appears that former leaders Saad Hariri, Fouad Siniora and Najib Mikati backed Adib’s appointment. Adib is a Sunni Muslim, as the taifiya demands, and he has a good relationship with Hezbollah. But it is unlikely that the new head of government will have the ability to engage in anything more than a cosmetic change.
In Lebanese politics, it has always been a case of “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” — The more it changes, the more it remains the same. It is clear that while the population at large has demanded radical changes and the de facto dissolution of the taifiya, such a change will not be forthcoming without considerable struggle, both social and political. On September 1, demonstrators poured into the streets of Beirut to demand the resignation of the government in toto. Before Adib could even settle in his role, he is faced with the kind of popular mobilization that forced the resignation of his predecessor.
Fixing Lebanon now and reforming, let alone scrapping the taifiya — after a string of failed governments, in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic compounded by one of the worst non-nuclear explosions in history, as competing foreign interests create further tensions — would require nothing short of a biblical effort.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.