04 August 2021 13:05
It was once the exception that, among the Arab states and despite the civil war and constant political unrest, it still managed to safeguard pluralism and personal freedoms. But now Lebanon appears similar to a dozen other Middle Eastern countries, subject to a slow and seemingly inexorable decline towards deprivation and authoritarianism.
As more and more Lebanese face poverty, lower living standards and reduced personal rights, rulers have adopted more authoritarian methods to stay in power, consistently rejecting reforms and condemning the country to further suffering.
The sad transformation of Lebanon over the past three years is significant for at least two reasons. The first is that its pluralistic system, which allowed sectors such as education, the media, business and culture to flourish before and after the fifteen-year civil war, had also contributed to the economic and social development of many other countries. Arabs in the same period. From the point of view of health, education, private enterprise, these other countries had benefited from Lebanon’s initiative and skills. But all of this is in decline today and may disappear in the future, as the country’s economy collapses.
The second reason is that Lebanon’s descent into impoverishment and a security system of government sanctions the almost total control over the Arab political world exercised by a club of autocrats, generals and dangerous young members of royal families.
Political rights seized
Lebanon has quickly transformed into yet another troubled and impoverished Arab country: its citizens are prey to ever stronger socio-economic pressure, while their political rights are seized by the heavy hand of nervous governments, which seem capable of maintaining stability. social only through battalions of policemen, soldiers and thugs of the plainclothes regime, armed with batons and tear gas.
One of the new and preferred techniques of the Lebanese regime against its opponents is to summon citizens for questioning by the security services. Or, in some cases, arrest people and then have them tried in court for allegedly “damaging the state” through their activism or their social media posts. This is new for Lebanon, but it is a common practice over the past decade in Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Jordan.
Police crackdown on demonstrations, all too common in countries like Egypt, was once rare in Lebanon or Palestine
The decline of Lebanon reflects that of Palestine, where the inept and increasingly authoritarian Palestinian Authority – which responds more to Israel than to its own people – is arresting or beating up protesters who invite President Mahmoud Abbas, whose original mandate should have ended. in 2009, to resign. The recent case of Palestinian journalist Nizar Banat, who died while in the hands of the Palestinian police, sparked major street demonstrations across the West Bank, to which the Abbas government responded with heavily armed police and additional plainclothes thugs.
These incidents, all too common in countries like Egypt, had rarely happened before in Lebanon or Palestine. Now that such repression is a reality for them too, Palestinians and Lebanese are doubly enraged by their powerlessness towards the security forces.
The past is clear
All this also adds to the list of cases, documented for some time by international and local human rights associations, of civilian protesters from the Arab world intimidated, arrested, imprisoned or even killed simply for asking for a better system of government, which protects their social, economic and political rights: in particular the right to freedom of expression.
For years, Lebanon has been an exception in a region where too many countries are marked by a collapsing economy, poor citizens and violent governments. Now that Lebanon has joined this sad club, a particular feature of the contemporary Arab political system is evident, which emerged a century ago thanks to the European colonial powers and the local elites they protected: the whole region often seems to move in unison.
This probably reflects the fact that most citizens share the same feelings of hope or frustration, as they appear to be governed by political systems that have never sincerely adopted a pluralistic democracy and have never answered for their actions.
Between 1980 and 2000, most Arab countries experienced mixed economic developments
Their work, in this sense, speaks clearly. The common struggle for independence from colonial rule in the early twentieth century swept through most Arab-majority societies. Then a shared interest in national development and state-building marked all Arab countries in the period between roughly 1930 and 1960. In the early 1970s, the oil boom financed a common race for large expenses. , both for useful infrastructures and for very expensive initiatives, the result of corruption and useless.
Two decades followed, roughly between 1980 and 2000, in which most Arab countries experienced mixed economic developments, reflecting fluctuations in oil and gas revenues, and increasingly widespread corruption, in countries that did not. have ever created productive and balanced economies. At the same time, some states such as Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Sudan and Libya have felt the pain of being ruled by one-man military dictatorships, which have proved incompetent on all levels.
As a result, spontaneous citizen rebellions erupted in half of the region in late 2010 and early 2011. Some of these managed to overthrow the despots – in Tunisia and Egypt – while others turned into civil wars – in Syria, Libya and then Yemen – which quickly generated regional and international involvement. Despite various setbacks, this wave of upheavals and revolutions still has repercussions – outside the small oil-rich emirates of the Persian Gulf – because the majority of citizens have lost hope of living a decent life or being able to promise anything for the future. of their children.
Sudan, Algeria and Iraq – and now Lebanon too – have all experienced two years or more of uninterrupted popular protest. But in most cases there have been no signs that the elites want to hand over power.
A country on its knees
Unlike other Arab states that have experienced these waves of protest, Lebanon did not have a tradition of central government that monopolizes power and dominates all aspects of national life: politics, economics, security, media and even culture. folk and the arts. On the other hand, Lebanon has been brought to its knees by the persistence of the current sectarian power-sharing model that has governed the country since the end of the civil war in 1990. More than a power-sharing system, it is actually a system of occupation by part of various warlords, supported by the single strongest actor in the country: Hezbollah. In recent years, Lebanon’s sectarian leaders have collectively copied various other Arab states, whose deeply entrenched elites do not allow any serious political participation and zealously guard their own interests.
This has resulted in multiple banking, currency and fiscal crises that have made the once vibrant Lebanese culture and economy a shadow of itself. Beirut’s elites who refuse to move in the face of protests and complaints from the population – just like the elites in Baghdad or Algiers – have robbed Lebanon and destroyed its infrastructure. Evidence in the streets of Beirut is piles of uncollected garbage, power outages and the ruins of the port. Almost a year after the devastating explosion of 4 August 2020, the investigations of Lebanese judges and prosecutors, who identified the officials to be tried in court, have been repeatedly blocked, hindered or delayed by figures linked to the security, presidency, of the judiciary and parliament. Over the past two years, prices across most of the country have tripled, while the value of the Lebanese currency continues to drop every week.
About 60 percent of Lebanese live in poverty today, which brings the country closer to the average of around 70 percent of Arab citizens who are poor or exposed to poverty, according to UN data. In the image of regional trends, poor Lebanese continue to protest publicly, in a harsh and participatory manner. To the point that they now exhibit nooses as a symbol of their desire to hang all leaders. The rich and foreign passport holders emigrate, but the majority cannot. They suffer and seethe with anger and various other emotions such as fear, humiliation, helplessness and, ultimately, dehumanization at the hands of their own leaders.
Protesters and ordinary citizens continue to seek a way out, having not been able, through foreign protests or pressure, to wrest any concessions from those in power. The victories of the opposition and the reformists in the recent elections of professional associations and unions have prompted many to organize themselves for the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2022, in hopes of changing government. But they are also all too aware that those same rulers can simply postpone the elections, as they have done in the past.
Meanwhile, a strong spirit of solidarity and mutual aid has emerged, with Lebanese across the country helping each other as best they can: sharing food, water, medicine, electricity, gasoline and hospitality. Many see it as an example of how a decent and worthy government should operate. But others fear that by meeting some urgent needs now, this solidarity will simply allow the government to get out of trouble, thus postponing any reform.
Lebanon, like many other contemporary Arab societies, finds itself in a new and unknown situation in which life, for most of its citizens, is characterized by a daily struggle for basic things like food, without the horizon see no breakthrough. In the eyes of most Lebanese the rest of the world seems indifferent, and at times even seems to support some of the sectarian leaders of the ruling oligarchy responsible for the collapse.
As in most other Arab societies, the Lebanese curse the political class that made them suffer so much, and get by as best they can. They continue to search for the magic word that will one day open the door to a better future for them. They are convinced that they can build, and that they will build, an Arab citizenship capable of defining its own values, rights and national policies: for the first time, perhaps, since the birth of the contemporary Arab state system a century ago.
(Translation by Federico Ferrone)