Sunday, January 16, 2011

Lebanon, the impossible state

Since last wednesday Lebanon is without a government, again. 11 ministers representing the Hezbollah-led March 8 coalition resigned their Cabinet positions, forcing Prime Minister Saad Hariri out of office. The move was designed to thwart Hariri from working with the US-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL) to indict Hezbollah members for their alleged involvement in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Prime Minister of Lebanon.

I went back to reading John Agnew's "geopolitics: re-visioning world politics" this week, and particularily to the chapter dealing with different aspects of territorial states. What is a territorial state? Following geopolitical theory, a territorial state
  • has exclusive power within its territory as represented by the concept of sovereignity (ha!);
  • is a political entity where domestic and foreign affairs are essentially seperated realms in which different rules obtain (haha!);
  • and finally the boundaries of a territorial state define the boundaries of society such that the latter is totally contained by the former (hahaha!). 

Looking at Lebanon, one can just about dismiss all three of these assumptions. The exclusive power within its territory is just a distant wish for Lebanon. Israeli airplanes violate the Lebanese airspace daily; Israel still occupies parts of Lebanon such as the Shebaa Farms and Ghajar; out in the Mediterranean Sea the sea boundaries need urgent definition amid the discovery of gas fields and claims by Israel that these ressources are on their side of the unmarked border; and the whole of Lebanon is actually claimed by Syria which only recently and half-heartedly seems to accept the idea of an independent Lebanon.

Domestic and foreign policy are clearly one and the same in Lebanon, at least at the level of the political class pretending to govern Lebanon. Lebanese politicians are constantly on the road. Jumblatt goes to Damascus meeting Assad, deploring the foreign meddling in Lebanon while at the same time asking for regional solutions (that is foreign too, no?). Hariri meets Obama in Washington in the same hour he is sacked at home, then talking with Sarkozy in Paris and Erdogan in Ankara first before sneaking back to his residence in downtown Beirut. And Nasrallah, who usually stays safe in his bunker, out of reach of Mossad hitmen, is nevertheless regularily consulting with his Godfathers in Tehran, who tell him that Lebanon must always remain the first line of resistance against Israel. These politicians know the 5-star hotels in Paris or their own private mansions in Ryadh much better then the road from Beirut to Tripoli or the Roman ruins of Baalbek. 

And the containment of the Lebanese society within the boundaries of the Lebanese state? There are approximately 4 million people living in Lebanon but more Lebanese are living outside, with estimates ranging from 5 millions to 15 millions (but this number seems inflated and includes probably everybody who cites Kibbeh Nayyeh as his or her favourite dish). And their is quite a number of Palestinian refugees living inside the Lebanese territory, in camps that have become the end solution of what was thought to be a transitional stage. The territory called Lebanon is not the society and the society is not Lebanon.

Is there a Lebanese society at all? Or is it rather a collection of innumberable large, small and tiny religious communities which together form the entitiy known as Lebanon? It is this fabric of communities that bring out the best and the worst in Lebanese - I say it again - society. As Michael Young argues in his book "the Ghosts of Martyr Square", it is precisely this net of communities that make Lebanon the most liberal state in the Middle East, because all together these communities are more powerful than the state - the main barrier to personal freedom in the Middle East. But this personal freedom comes with a price: the power of the communities has deadlocked the state system on so many levels and occasions that it is in dire need of reform.

A core feature of state sovereignity is its ability to grant civil rights to its citizens. Marriage, divorce, inheritance: the sovereign state handles these matters and treats every citizen equally. Well, in Lebanon even this has been outsourced to the religious communities (or never been insourced by the Lebanese state). You are born, you marry, you divorce, you die, you inherit under Shia, Sunni or Christian law - different rules for people with the same nationality. Everywhere you go, your religion goes with you, if you like it or not. The movement for a civil marriage in Lebanon has not taken up much momentum until now. Somewhat surprisingly since, according to a 2005 survey, a remarkable 34% of Lebanese privilege their national identiy over their confessional identiy (in Jordan: 23%, in Morocco: 7%!). How does this one third of Lebanese live with the system of confessional checks and balances? They enjoy the balances and deplore the checks and curse the politicians who even want to go deeper down the road of this theocratic rule of law. Like Labour minister Boutros Harb who recently proposed a new law, conjuring up all kinds of reasons for it, that would restrict the sale of real estate to buyers within the same religious community (Christians can't sell to Muslim, and vice versa). The confessions entering the free market? Sectarianism stops here! Already real estate prices are sky high in Lebanon and any additional restriction on the market would only push prices higher. A limited number of possible sellers, a limited number of commodities for sale, a market that has to act in the dark zone to circumvent restricting laws: sound familiar? These are the characteristics of the drug market. It's a sellers market, they dictate the prices and I wonder how many pieces of real estate Mr. Harb has to sell for him to come up with such a law.

Lebanon needs infrastructure: the clock is ticking

Let's pause and contemplate for a while: Lebanon is no state and has no government. Ok, that is not ideal but there is nothing we can do about it. What Lebanon desperately needs is INFRASTRUCTURE. It needs infrastructure for handling the ever growing mobility and traffic (roads and public transportation). It needs telecommunication infrastructure (a reliable high speed internet for an affordable price). And it needs electricity, uncut. Everyday Lebanon is losing millions of dollars because of the lacking or wanting infrastructure! People in the Beirut area spend hours in nerve wrecking traffic jams instead of being productively at work. A working high speed internet would further enhance and exploit the creativity and business-like attitude of the Lebanese. And the eternal power cuts slow down every effort to get things done and are a daily reminder of the failures of the Lebanese system. Except for the guys with the generator farms of course, who are always ready to fill the official electrical void with their privately generated power. But Lebanon does need things that work, not things that work around!

The legitimacy of modern states largely rests on "infrastructural power". With this we mean the state provision of public goods and services to the people living within the boundaries of the terroritorial state. With the ability to provide centrally and territorially organized services, the state delivers something other organizations cannot. In return for the infrastructure provided by the state authorities, the people grant power to these authorities and allow them to govern. It is a typical do ut des situation. The territorial state is no longer entirely the creature and in the service of state élites, but acts in the name of the people and for the people.

Lebanon: forget about finding a new Prime Minister, be he (or she? just kidding!) from March 8 or March 14. Cut the never ending hours of useless political discussions down to zero. Forget about balancing confessions and leave religion to the private or community realm. Stop leading the wrong discussions! Lebanon doesn't need politicians, it needs business executives efficiently running the Lebanon Corporation. Lebanon doesn't need a shaky Democracy, it needs a stable Technocracy! Only when there is infrastructural power coming out of Beirut will people understand that paying taxes is not a waste of money but a good investment. We need people chairing the board of LEB Corp. who don't have (and don't have to have!) their religious community in mind when they think about solving Lebanon's problems, but Lebanon as a whole. Hezbollah draws its success in South Lebanon not only from resisting to Israel but also because they provide the people of Southern Lebanon and the Bekaa with roads, brigdes, schools, hospitals and public housing - which are destroyed by Israel in every new war which only increases the infrastructural power of Hezbollah when they rebuild it. This is what is needed for all of Lebanon and it should be easy to realize. It's free of political power games and it's free of religious proselytism. 

Or do you need a Saudi agreement to build a subway from Casino du Liban to Downtown Beirut? Do you need a Syrian OK to build a plant of wind turbines in the ever windy Tripoli area? Do you have to ask Ayatollah Khamenei when you want to boost the speed of the internet in Tyre to 20MB/sec? Or do you need to undertake a trip to Washington to get the green light for enforcing smoke free zones in Lebanese restaurants or fume reduced cars? If you need to do all of this, we might better call the idea of a Lebanon a day, sell parts of it to Iran, some to Syria and some to Saudi Arabia and leave Beirut for the Americans, to have them make a Disneyland Middle East out of it, shopping malls and fancy clubs included. But then, Lebanon is history.