Accountability: A “National Security Threat” to Lebanon’s Elites
Two months into protests over Lebanon’s garbage crisis, the government has taken a hard stance: It will not be held accountable by the people. It has unleashed state institutions against protesters, which used unnecessary violence against them, arrested some of them while leaving armed party thugs to go free, and more recently, sent protesters to be prosecuted in military courts. The Lebanese state, which often is absent when needed most, is flexing its muscles against peaceful citizens whose crime is to demand better services, starting with waste management. Little did we know that such demands represent a threat to ‘national security’. The government and political elite are not the only culprits; business organizations and some media outlets have joined their chorus in defending the failed political system.
As for the protesters, one can disagree with them on many tactical issues. However, the core of their demands, which is accountability, is legitimate and their persistence so far must be celebrated and encouraged. For one, accountability (with no attribution to the movement ‘badna nhasseb’) is not only a foundational pillar of democracy but also key to securing better public services. Putting it differently, without accountability, Lebanese citizens will not receive better services because politicians have no incentive to provide them. Putting it even more bluntly, those who think they will receive better services if they are governed by leaders from their own sect are wrong. No politician or political party has served the people they claim to represent. In fact, in the name of sectarian politics, politicians have managed to enrich themselves and their colleagues at the expense of the population. To them, citizens are only useful in that they cast votes during election season.
For the last twenty-five years, successive Lebanese governments and the political elite have worked hard to undermine all shapes and forms of accountability in our political system. For one, they have crafted electoral districts in such a way that most seats are distributed by those in power rather without being subjected to any serious competition, hence rendering elections meaningless. As a consequence, the parliament has failed to exercise its two crucial roles: Legislating and oversight of the government. The judiciary has been largely subservient to political demands, including the recent Constitutional Council decision to rubber stamp the illegal extension of the parliament’s mandate. Oversight agencies which are awkwardly housed in the Presidency of the Council of Ministers remain understaffed and their disclosures of violations are left unheeded. Labor unions, which could have challenged the dominant sectarian discourse to highlight differences between the haves and the have nots, have been largely decimated since the early 1990s. The recent emergence of the Teachers’ Union in 2013 to spearhead a drive for public sector salary adjustment managed to incur the wrath of almost every main political party. This was aimed at ensuring the union does not succeed in changing the dominant political discourse from sectarian- to class-based. In brief, politicians have shielded the political system from any hint of accountability.
No doubt, the rise of the recent protest movement, which was sparked by the garbage crisis, took the political establishment by surprise. Political elites from the Free Patriotic Movement, the Kataeb party, and the Progressive Socialist Party tried to exploit protesters initially by supporting them, in an effort to score points with their own constituencies against their political rivals. Others, such as the Future Movement, dismissed the protesters while Hezbollah wished them “good luck”. In the meantime, many accused them of being leftists, Hezbollah party supporters, American agents, and even stooges of a small Arab country, laying bare their desperate attempt to undermine the protesters’ agenda.
By adopting such courses of action, politicians from all these parties have effectively demonstrated their disregard for citizens’ needs, showing once again how disconnected they are from the reality on the ground. They are unable to conceive of the notion that people should or could hold them accountable. This concept is vehemently rejected by the elite and the only way they can interpret the protests is through the prism of manipulation and conspiracy; some other party is behind the protestors seeking to undermine ‘my’ power. This is amusing when we remember how some ministers in this government have been hand-picked to head specific ministries by a ‘not so small’ Arab country. So, the fact that members of this government—that was, at least in part, formed by foreign powers—accused protesters of being foreign agents is quite hypocritical at best. When accusing protesters of being foreign agents did not work, the political elite were joined by business organizations and some media outlets, who claimed to sympathize with the protesters’ demands but not the methods they have adopted to go about claiming them.
In reality, it is the disregard of citizens’ needs vis-à-vis the provision of water, electricity, waste management, and road networks, among others, that made citizens fed up with the system that has failed them time and again. Additionally, it is the indifference of parliamentarians toward people’s democratic rights to hold elections that triggered people’s anger. Once again, politicians have failed to feel the pulse of the streets, thinking that they can act with impunity. The protesters did not incite chaos as many elites are claiming. Rather, demonstrators have disturbed the system of distribution of state resources among the political elite.
The other accusation against protesters is that they are damaging public and private property. However, it is important to remember that the political elite and their friends have usurped public and coastal properties, used legal gimmicks to acquire key locations like Dalieh, and privatized public lands in Zeitouneh Bay at a fraction of the market price, all while lining politicians’ pockets. It is they who have closed off public streets and neighborhoods to secure their strongholds—worsening mobility and transportation in the city, and thus negatively impacting the private sector. It is they who have overseen the mismanagement of public property on a grand scale, leading to theft and grand corruption.
Mr. Nicolas Chammas, the head of the Beirut Traders Association, went further in defense of downtown Beirut, claiming that it is Lebanon’s “civilized” face and that they, the association, will not allow protesters to undermine it. In fact, for those who have not yet noticed, downtown Beirut has been dysfunctional for some time. This is not because of protesters but because it was ill-conceived from the start, with its actual purpose being to serve the rich few rather than to function as a real city center, open to all, and bustling with life.
In his infamous speech, Mr. Chammas went further, calling for the protection of the liberal economic order that is being threatened by a few “communist” economists. What he forgot to mention is that the order he is protecting so adamantly is not a competitive market-based economy in the first place. It is one that privileges the rich through strong government intervention. He should be reminded that our tax system is highly regressive, favoring the rich at the expense of the poor; how our economic organization is controlled by the few rich and powerful through exclusivity licenses; and how this very system has generated major income inequality whereby 0.3% of the population owns half of the country’s wealth. What he is defending is not the liberal economic order that we aspire for, which is a competitive and productive economy regulated by a strong state, but crony capitalism whereby wealth is generated by the visible hand of the government that dishes out privileges to the few well connected businessmen and not the invisible hand of the market that rewards those with merit.
It is not surprising that any talk about accountability is fought ferociously by both political and economic elites. It is something they refuse to be subjected to. It is a discourse that undermines their very existence and they are ready to go to great lengths to fight it. However, if we do not uphold this discourse, and monitor and hold the government accountable, we are doomed to receive poor services, if at all, and things will worsen if this protest fails.
Lebanon is at a crossroad. This is not about March 8 vs. March 14, it is not about Hezbollah’s weapons vs. the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, and it is not about Iran vs. Saudi Arabia. It is about a political system that uses sectarian discourse to benefit political leaders and the economic elite at the expense of the majority of the population vs. a new social contract where the state serves its citizens, political parties represent the people, and accountability is its foundational pillar.
Choosing the latter allows us to claim back our rights as citizens. Otherwise, people will remain clients, subservient to politicians and their sectarian tools, leave the country, or mourn its demise. The time is now to make a decision.