Then and Now: Lebanese State Institutions During the Early Years of Independence
Q&A with Ziad Abu-Rish, Assistant Professor of Middle East History at Ohio University.
The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies spoke with Dr. Ziad Abu-Rish to discuss the history of state institutions in early independence Lebanon and some of the legacies they left behind. Dr. Abu-Rish is an Assistant Professor of Middle East History at Ohio University who is currently working on a book project entitled “Making the Economy, Producing the State: Conflict and Institution Building in Lebanon, 1946-1955.” He earned his doctorate from the University of California Los Angeles, where he completed a dissertation on the same topic. We asked Dr. Abu-Rish to consider his historical interests in light of current debates, and whether Lebanese citizens then had similar views about the state as they do today.
There have been discussions over the last few years concerning the Lebanese state, or lack thereof, in terms of public policy, public interest, and national development. As a historian of state formation and institution building in early independence Lebanon, what are some of the ways you believe a historical perspective on this topic can help shed light on contemporary debates?
Reading primary sources from the early independence period, whether they are local newspapers, personal memoirs, or foreign reports, I am always taken aback by how invested elites and the broader population of Lebanon were in the process of post-colonial state building. In the first decade of independence, various social actors held a very different set of expectations and motivations. Most of these were anchored in a belief in the normative and transformative role Lebanese state institutions should and could play in terms of political representation, economic development, and social peace. Such expectations and motivations pre-date the political polarization, social fragmentation, and militia mobilization that characterized the Lebanese Civil War period and the years immediately preceding it. By pre-date, I do not mean foreshadow. Rather, they represent a divergence, an alternative possibility, even if that alternative was eventually foreclosed by certain events, dynamics, and choices.
I think it is important to understand that Lebanese citizens living in the first decade of independence could not have predicted the civil war was coming. Therefore, for those of us dealing with the present, it is important to understand the relevance of the civil war beyond destroying infrastructure and/or restructuring social and institutional relations. We need to appreciate that the experience of the war itself has cast a long shadow on how people in Lebanon as well as those who study Lebanon view the period (or periods) before the war, and with it the efficacy and meaning of what people term “the state in Lebanon.” We need to be wary of taking our present understandings of political, social, institutional, and sectarian dynamics as being fixed, and thus casting a retrospective view across Lebanon’s history. For example, the dominant (or common sense) meaning of sectarianism of the everyday Lebanese person was something very different before 1958 than it was after 1958, to say nothing of the post-1975 period. Each of these periods represented a very different set of assumptions and expectations, to say nothing of the configuration of political forces. Similarly, our current set of assumptions about the workings of “the state” in Lebanon is not one that was necessarily shared by contemporaries of the early independence period. Put differently, the meaning of “the state” in Lebanon, not to mention state building, sectarianism, and a plethora of other processes, is historically contingent and subject to competing frames.
Therefore, I would argue that a historical perspective helps highlight the contingent nature of political identities, social polarization, and levels of investment in the state, nation, and other forms of organizing a political community. It helps us break out of deterministic claims about the so-called failure of state building, the endemic nature of corruption, and the futility of inclusive economic development. There was a time when community activists, political groups, and certain state elites fundamentally believed in a project of state building; one that was responsive to the needs of a majority of the population. This was not because of the absence of corrupt, rent-seeking, and politically exploitative state officials and local elites—far from it. After all, those dynamics were not that different from any other early post-colonial state. So the question is really one of the necessary conditions and choices concerning successful state building, rather than an outright impossibility of such a project by mere virtue of the fact that we are talking about Lebanon.
What are some of the specific state institutions that were created in the period you study and what does the timing and context of the establishment of those institutions tell us about why they were created?
Social scientists and other scholars who study institutions have frequently pointed to the ways in which institutional engineering is typically a contextual process that responds to specific moments, interests, and mobilizations, while at the same time drawing on particular legacies. In the case of commentary and scholarship on Lebanon, there is a prevalent (yet problematic) assumption that “the state” has not been a meaningful concept or force within Lebanese society. This assumption has led most scholars to neglect the variety of institutions that make up “the state,” their roles vis-à-vis various communities, and their particular histories. Nevertheless, there are important and notable exceptions among scholars working on Lebanon—and increasingly so.
Some institutions like the Parliament, the Office of the Prime Minister, and the Office of the President, not to mention others like the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Interior, predate independence. Nevertheless, these institutions themselves featured significant (if uneven) change in the wake of independence. Furthermore, the first ten years or so of post-colonialism in Lebanon were characterized by the creation of a number of new institutions that represented new (or expanded) arenas for state policy. These include, but are not limited to, new ministries such as those of defense, information, social affairs, and planning. They also included a number of other smaller-scale public institutions such as the Lebanese University or the Department of Electricity and Public Transportation. This latter institution was created in 1954 and formed one of several institutional origins of the present-day Ministry of Energy and Water. Why, for example, was this department created in 1954? Where are the institutional origins of its water component? Why was the Ministry of Energy and Water not created until several decades later? The answers to all of these questions have to do with very specific contexts and developments in each of the electricity, water, and transportation sectors. Thus, we can see how questions about state institutions can serve as windows into the history of spheres of life that are also much less historicized than they should be. As a counter example, one can wonder: Why was it that a ministry exclusively devoted to industry does not appear until much further along in the trajectory of institution building? Yet at the same time, one can then also wonder about the ways in which questions of industry (i.e., manufacturing) were dealt with in the absence such a ministry.
All of these newly created institutions certainly drew on particular legacies of the French mandate. However, they also responded to the immediate context of independence, and the prevailing political, economic, and social conditions in Lebanon at the time. For example, one cannot understand the timing of the creation of the Ministry of Information without properly appreciating the attempt of the Lebanese bureaucracy to consolidate the country’s independence and of the ruling coalition to consolidate its incumbency. The contexts for these attempts was a mushrooming of newspaper and book publications, the growing influence of radio as a communication technology, and a variety of politically-sensitive developments such as labor mobilization, foreign journalists, and so forth.
Looking at the strongest state institutions in early independence Lebanon, were they mostly a product of French mandate Lebanon or was the Lebanese state at that time capable of singlehandedly establishing and sustaining strong and reliable institutions that adequately delivered services to citizens? In other words, is the failure/weakness of Lebanese institutions today mostly a result of the civil war, or have government institutions never had strong roles/adequate capacities in independent Lebanon?
This is a really important question that would require more space than this present exercise permits. From what I can tell, there is not a pattern of French-created institutions performing more efficiently or effectively than those created after independence. One need only consider the roles of the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Social Affairs, and the Ministry of Planning to appreciate the “strength” of institutions created in the aftermath of French evacuations. These three institutions played an important role in shaping the political field and its attendant social mobilizations. In terms of the question of causality, it really depends on what level of analysis we want to engage in. For example, I would argue—drawing on the work of some key scholars (e.g., Reinoud Leenders)—that the “weakness” of state institutions today has much more to do with the dynamics of the civil war and the post-war settlement than any inherent institutional capacity in Lebanon. On another level, Lebanon’s state institutions never played the role that state institutions in countries such as Syria, Egypt, and Iraq did during the latter’s statist periods. Yet, that specific (and relative) “failure” has more to do with the contingency of authoritarian state formation and attending populist economic development that took place, than any inherent “problem” with state institutions in Lebanon. This is not to idealize the Lebanese past, as it is certainly rife with its own specificities and problematic elements. Yet, if we compare Lebanon in the early independence period with Syria, Egypt, and Iraq during their authoritarian state building period, we are comparing apples and oranges. If, however, we compare Lebanon in the late 1940s and early 1950s with Syria, Egypt, and Iraq during that same time, we are likely to see far more similarities in state capacities, policies, and discourses than many have cared to admit. This is once again, of course, notwithstanding the legacies, contingencies, and social conflicts specific to each country. The question therefore highlights the elephant in the room when discussing Lebanon. Are our notions of “failure/weakness” relative to Lebanon’s own history, or that of other countries with radically different trajectories? It is time we devote the necessary attention to researching and analyzing Lebanon’s early independence period in its own right.
Much of popular memory and historical analysis of Lebanon claims that the state has played a minimal role in economic development throughout the country’s modern history. In what ways does your research confirm or challenge such views of state-market relations?
Lebanese state institutions have played a central role in economic development. I should be clear that I do not mean to say that Lebanon experienced a phase of state-led economic development. What I mean to say is that the idea of Lebanon as an open, laissez-faire, service-based economy is deeply implicated in the history of state institutions, and was itself a product of debates, struggles, and policies that defined the early independence period. I mean this in two ways. First, it was specific state policies that made possible many of the economic dynamics that observers consider to be features of market- or private sector-led development. For example, the role Lebanon has played as an entrepôt trade center would not have been possible without the role of state institutions in managing the Lebanese currency exchange and money supply, expanding the country’s road network, constructing the Beirut airport, and continuously upgrading ports—all of which experienced critical turning points in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Even more so, government-negotiated trade agreements were a central component of Lebanon’s emerging post-World War Two regional and global trade role. Trade does not simply happen as a default relationship. It requires partners, legal infrastructure, exchanges, and facilities. It was during the early independence period that key trade agreements were established with a number of Arab and non-Arab states. The histories of these agreements are yet to be narrated and analyzed beyond the simplistic notion that they were foregone conclusions. We thus need to move away from exclusively equating state intervention in the economy with state-led economic development a la Egypt and Syria, and instead explore the specific ways in which state institutions were implicated in the making of the very economy that we have come to assume is defined by the “absence” of the state. There are specific moments in which state institutions played a very direct and interventionist role in the economy, broadly defined. These include the subsidization of certain basic goods, the nationalization of certain sectors, and the monopolization of certain activities. In Lebanon, one can consider the role of the state in subsidizing the price of wheat and fuel, or even shifts in the tax base of the Lebanese budget (i.e., transformations in the types and amounts of taxes the government collected).
In the time period that your research focuses on, to what extent were there popular calls for better state services and service delivery? How might one compare the level of public engagement or interest in state services between that time period and the present day?
This question brings us back to my earlier point about the level of elite and popular investment in the project of state building and economic development during the early independence period. Turning to the primary sources available from the period, one regularly comes across a broad array of political groups, social movements, public events, and all sorts of publications that directly address the issue of state-funded and state-operated services—or the lack thereof. If anything, the early independence period can be described as one in which formal and informal politics focused on one main question: “Now that we have our independence, what are we going to do with it?” A central axis around which responses to that question pivoted was that of the role of the state in providing certain services, whether they be public utilities such as water and electricity or other services such as education, healthcare, and consumer protection. As for comparing the level of public engagement, I am not sure how productive that would be given a variety of theoretical and methodological factors. That being said, it is clear that today there is a significant degree of pessimism and cynicism vis-à-vis the government and the role of state institutions in bringing about meaningful change in the lives of everyday citizens. In this regard, I would simply refer back to my earlier point about retrospective claims. Public engagement in Lebanon during the early independence period was premised on a belief in both the potential transformative role of state institutions as well as the normativity of such a role when it came to questions of public services and economic development. One need only look at the example of the public campaign against the Beirut Electricity Company in the early 1950s. The campaign called on the government to further regulate consumer prices—let alone nationalize the electricity sector—as the best means of protecting both the national interests of the Lebanese state and the everyday wellbeing of its citizens.
What geographic/spatial logic did service delivery/development follow during the time period you studied? Was it more concentrated on the capital city (or more broadly speaking key cities), or did it tend to be more balanced regionally? How would you qualify the role of municipalities during this period in terms of development?
These are really excellent questions that demonstrate the need to move beyond traditional political and economic narratives of history in Lebanon. There is no doubt that state-sponsored service delivery in Lebanon during early independence was organized around an urban-biased and Beirut-centric logic. Yet, even such an assessment is in need of further qualification and specificity. Beirut, for instance, was subjected to a very stratified provisioning of public utilities such as water, electricity, and tramway service. Similarly, not all rural areas were equally neglected, whether we analyze such neglect in qualitative or quantitative terms. Akkar, the Beqaa, and Jabal Amil represent three very different rural areas, which received very different forms of state intervention, patronage, and planning, examples of which include irrigation, electrification, and road construction—to say nothing of health and educational services as well as military recruitment. Even the cadastral survey and land registry took on very different trajectories in these areas. So while we might be on the right track in our general understanding of the rural neglect, urban bias, and Beirut centrism, we have much to account for as scholars and policy analysts. The same can be said of the role of municipalities during early independence. One of the most frequently reformed set of laws during that period pertains to the establishment, governing, and funding of municipalities, along with the overall web of relations in which they were embedded. Central to this was the relationship between municipalities, the offices of the mukhtar and muhafiz, as well as nationally-elected and appointed offices to one another and to various ministries. However, despite a few studies in Arabic, we are yet to fully understand how they called for what we today call “centralization” or “decentralization” manifested in the early independence period, despite repeated references to those very terms—even if they meant different things then.
What about sectarianism? How does sectarianism play a role in the early independence period?
The early independence period has important insights regarding these dynamics. Particularly important, as mentioned above, is to recognize that the meaning of sectarianism in this period is really different than what we think of today. While there certainly was the memory of sectarian violence from the nineteenth century, very few people seem to have had in mind an idea of sectarianism parallel to what manifested during the 1975-1990 civil war or thereafter. This is important for several reasons. First of all, we should note that the principle of confessional representation was openly discussed by politicians, lawyers, and several other interest groups as a temporary (rather than permanent) measure. However one views the honesty of such claims, it is important to realize that, at least in so far as the level of formal speech is concerned, sectarian allotment was not necessarily viewed as the raison d’etre of the state. More so, there were frequent calls for ending sectarian practices, either at the level of the state bureaucracy or that of personal status courts. Newspaper coverage from the period highlights important strikes and protest campaigns seeking to directly challenge sect-based hiring practices and sectarian differences in the management of personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and so forth.
Also important is the fact that sectarian-based political parties were not necessarily as dominant during this time, to say nothing of being sectarian in the same way. For example, it was the Constitutional Bloc and the National Party that represented the dominant elite-based political groupings, into which we saw the entrance of several reformist coalitions and parties that periodically disrupted this binarization of politics. Even the Kataib Party, which was out of power prior to 1958, was both more populist in its demands and frequently sought temporary strategic alliances with Sunni-identified groups such as al-Najada and al-Nida’ al-Watani. This is of course to say nothing of the Communist Party or the Progressive Socialist Party, before the defection from the latter group to the ranks of the Ba‘th Party and others.
My purpose in highlighting these dynamics is not to create a utopic vision of the past. Rather, it is to point to historical developments that do not fit the received wisdom about the early independence period and thus are not even subject to inquiry. The early independence period was very much one in which primary political mobilizations featured cross-sectarian coalitions that fundamentally challenge our assumptions of how Lebanese citizens identified themselves, their interests, and their allies and adversaries—irrespective of whether these experiments ultimately failed, were derailed, or carried through to their alleged logical conclusions. This is not to say that sectarianism was non-existent. It is simply to argue that its manifestations were different. In fact, I believe that one of the more lacking areas of inquiries in the history of Lebanon is the workings of sectarianism during the early independence period. Similar to the question relating to the nature and functioning of state institutions, much of what we allegedly know about this period vis-à-vis sectarianism is either assumed or projected backward from the post 1958 or 1975 periods.