A Glimpse of a Functioning Democracy

Politics in Lebanon feels today like politics in real democracies

Hanna making many politicians uncomfortable (photo by Jean Assi)

The conventional wisdom on the tug of war going on in Lebanon today between public sector workers on one hand and employers and bankers on the other is that the Lebanese economy is finally finding its limits and giving in to the weight of its burdens. Journalists and politicians are talking casually of a looming economic disaster and there are warnings of doom and gloom on all sides of the political divide. But a silver lining can still be found.

Good Kind of Pressure

Forget for a moment the terrible things like the Syrian civil war and refugees. Instead, take a look at what’s going on in our parliament. Our MPs are in a real quandary, facing on one hand a well organized and well lead labour movement that is threatening a large-scale disturbance if its demands aren’t met. On the other, bankers, employers and economic bigwigs like BDL Governor Riad Salemeh are warning of the catastrophic economic results bowing to these demands would entail (checking the impulse MPs may have had to give in to populist demands).

Our MPs are in a rare moment of weary head scratching where they have to conjure up solutions that require both legislative craftsmanship and political skill. Their ultimate objective is to appease the unions (to be reelected and to avoid social unrest) without plunging the country into a back-breaking deficit. This requires skill, creative thinking, deal making, and most significantly, redistributive action that may anger rich and powerful proteges of some politicians. Sacred cows like Electricité du Liban (privatizing it), the telecom duopoly (adding more competition) and Middle East Airlines (ending exclusivity) may also have to be reformed.

Something has changed and the dividing lines in this latest crisis are less about politics and more about class and causes. Civil society and interest groups are finding more and more creative ways to get organized and put real pressure on parliamentarians, and this trend is only going to accelerate.

Economic scarcity, scrounging for money, powerful interests pitted against one another with politicians in the middle. Painful reform, consequential legislation that steps on powerful toes. This is the stuff that real democracies are made of. Democracy was never meant to be a friction-free panacea, it was invented as a way to manage the inevitable conflicts that arise within societies.

Lebanon is ideally placed to make use of the tools of Democracy. Our army is not strong enough (like that of Egypt) to repress the poor and and discipline the rich. Our state is not rich enough (Like Saudi Arabia) to bribe the population into acquiescence. There is no central authoritative figure who can lay down the law of the land (like in many Arab countries). All we’ve got are the compromises we can forge under that flawed parliament’s roof, and that is a good if messy thing.

Granted, we still have a lot of problems, but the tension in parliament and on the streets are not one of them

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  • LElena

    I really liked this article and couldn’t agree more !
    It is time to focus on our interest as a whole nation and this starts by pressuring the parliament, they represent our nation as a whole, as lebaneese. This are the tools of democracy, a social contract between the people and their government to provide their respected needs.
    I would love to see projects with one goal in mind in order to develop our country and make it self efficient when people are not fighting to choose sides, but their own country.

  • M. Karim

    Authentic economic development and stability in Lebanon require the transition from the current poor economic model to a productive economy. Unfortunately, the necessary reforms can be achieved only through the restructuring of institutions involved in the management of the national economy and the adoption of a development strategy to give priority to infrastructure projects, activating anti-corruption institutions and applying the principles of fairness and transparency.

    Until these issues are resolved and there is a stable political and social climate, sustainable development as well as economic growth in Lebanon will continue to remain an impossible mission.

  • Abeer

    Problems do exist, however, especially in the Lebanese infrastructure, which sustained major destruction during the civil war. Reconstruction has been a major ongoing enterprise for decades with no serious improvements. The civil war in Syria beside the sluggish economic growth and high foreign currency lending is weighing negatively on investments and the main confidence-sensitive business sectors in Lebanon, such as tourism and financial services. Analysts consider that the combined reversal in the domestic economy and regional unrest may push up cost of risk substantially in the country in the next few years and momentarily stall banks’ asset diversification away from sovereign exposure.