The Martyrs of Lebanon, Beirut
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The Martyrs of Lebanon, Beirut
Last updated: April 29, 2013
Victor Argo: Lebanon, the impossible state

"Lebanon doesn't need a shaky Democracy, it needs a stable Technocracy!"

After the resignation of Najib Mikati on March 22, 2013, Lebanon is without a government, again. In an attempt to avoid a descent into instability and potential conflict, Lebanon's political factions agreed to nominate Tamman Salam to succeed Mikati as prime minister. Since his nomination at the beginning of April, Salam is struggling to form a new government.

The questions have been asked before: what exactly is Lebanon and can Lebanon be governed? Reading John Agnew's "geopolitics: re-visioning world politics", and particularly the chapter dealing with different aspects of territorial states, one comes to an astonishing conclusion: Lebanon is not a state! This finding alone defines and affects every political struggle that Lebanon, and in fact many “states” in the Middle East, is facing.

What is a territorial state? According to Agnew's geopolitical theory, a territorial state has exclusive power within its territory as represented by the concept of sovereignty; it is a political entity where domestic and foreign affairs are essentially separated realms in which different rules obtain; and finally: the boundaries of a territorial state define the boundaries of society such that the latter is totally contained by the former.

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Looking at Lebanon, one can discard all three of these assumptions. The exclusive power within its territory is a mere wish for Lebanon. Israeli airplanes violate the Lebanese airspace almost daily; Israel still occupies parts of Lebanon such as the Shebaa Farms and Ghajar. Out in the Mediterranean Sea, the sea boundaries urgently need demarcation amid the discovery of gas fields and claims by Israel that these resources are on their side of an unmarked border. Already Israel has begun to exploit these gas fields, while Lebanon is still discussing how to go about this project.

In addition, the whole of Lebanon is actually claimed by Syria, which only in the last years seemed to accept the idea of an independent Lebanon. Meanwhile, Syria is forced to mind its own business, having sunk into a civil war, with increasing violations of the Lebanese border by all sides of the conflict.

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. With a central power not existing and thus failing to protect the different sub-national communities in Lebanon, these communities look to foreign supporters to give them protection in the domestic ring. That is why Lebanese politicians are constantly on the road, to consult with their mentors and to secure their support. These politicians know the 5-star hotels in Paris or their own private mansions in Jeddah much better than the road from Beirut to Tripoli or the Roman ruins of Baalbek.

So is the containment of the Lebanese society within the boundaries of the Lebanese state? There are approximately four million people living in Lebanon, but more Lebanese are living outside the country, with estimates ranging from five millions to fifteen millions (but the latter number seems inflated and includes probably everybody who quotes Kibbeh as favorite dish). In addition to the Lebanese citizens, there is a big number of Palestinians living inside Lebanon, in camps that have become the end solution of what was thought to be a transitional stage. With Syrian refugees fleeing the war in their country, there are new arrivals to Lebanon every day. The territory called Lebanon is not the society and the society is not Lebanon.

Lebanon's non-existing sovereignty of its state culminates in all matters related to Lebanese citizens working abroad. Lebanon is reliant on exporting labor, in order to keep the unemployment rate in Lebanon as low as possible. At the same time, the money these workers are sending back to Lebanon is an important economical factor. However, these dependencies make Lebanon – again – vulnerable to outside pressure. During the Syria crisis, Qatar and other Gulf countries threatened, on many occasions, to expel Lebanese foreign workers should Lebanon not come more in line with their policies in Syria. Clearly, Lebanon is not the keeper of its own fate.

Is there a Lebanese society at all? Or is it rather a collection of countless religious communities, with a layer of clan structures on top of it, which together form the entity known as Lebanon? 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.

The idea of a powerful central state has always been a hard sell in Lebanon. For Michel Chiha, the liberal thinker and journalist, and one of the fathers of the Lebanese constitution, the mission of the state was to preserve the diversity of the society. The state should refrain from interfering with the communities and certainly not intervene in economical matters. A popular slogan, used by the Phalange party during the Lebanese civil war, was: “the strength of Lebanon lies in its weakness.” One might deplore that Lebanon is part of the Middle East: in a less perilous environment, Michel Chiha's theories could have been a guarantee for peace and stability.

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A core feature of state power is its ability to grant civil rights to its citizens. As all issues of life and death in Lebanon, affairs like marriage, divorce and inheritance have been outsourced to the religious communities (or actually, they have never been insourced by a Lebanese state). You are born, you marry, you divorce, you die and you inherit under Shia, Sunni or Christian law - different rules for people with the same nationality. Everywhere you go, your religion goes with you, whether you like it or not.

The movement for a civil marriage in Lebanon has not gained much momentum until now. This is somewhat surprising since, according to a 2005 survey, a remarkable 34% of Lebanese privilege their national identity over their confessional identity (in Jordan: 23%, in Morocco: 7%). In 2013, these numbers tend to be more in favor of the confessional identity. Events in the Middle East in the last two years have led to a relapse into religious factionalism instead of giving way to an overarching understanding of a civil society and a democratic state.

Recently, a brave Lebanese couple put up with all the paperwork and the political pressure to actually push through with the first ever civil marriage in Lebanon. Only a cynic is now waiting for the first civil divorce.

The legitimacy of modern states largely rests on "infrastructural power": the state's provision of public goods and services to the people living within the boundaries of the territorial 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 creation and in the service of state élites, but acts in the name of the people and for the people.

What Lebanon desperately needs is indeed infrastructure. It needs infrastructure for handling the ever growing mobility and traffic. It needs telecommunication infrastructure; 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 the business-minded attitude of the Lebanese. And the perennial power cuts slow down every effort to get things done and are a daily reminder of the failures of the Lebanese system.

Therefore, Lebanon: forget about forming a new government that balances the various political and religious groups. Cut the never ending hours of useless political discussions down to zero. Stop leading the wrong discussions. Lebanon doesn't need politicians who see Lebanon as a self-service shop, for them and for their constituency. Lebanon needs independent, yet determined leading figures who go to church on Friday or on Sunday, and then mean business for Lebanon for the rest of the week. Lebanon needs people sitting on the board of LEB Corp. because of their vision and their deeds, not because of their religion or their foreign backers.

Only when there is infrastructural power coming out of Beirut - and when it is flowing to all places in Lebanon - will people understand that paying taxes is not a waste of money but a good investment. Lebanon doesn't need a shaky Democracy, it needs a stable Technocracy!

Hezbollah is undisputed in South Lebanon not only because it succeeded in resisting Israel. The party also provides the people of Southern Lebanon and the Bekaa with roads, bridges, 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 type of power is needed for all of Lebanon and it should be easy to realize.

Or does Lebanon need a nod from Saudi Arabia to build a subway from the Casino du Liban to Downtown Beirut? Does it need a Syrian OK, or a Russian OK for that matter, to build a plant of wind turbines in the ever windy Tripoli area? Do you have to ask the mullahs in Tehran when you want to boost the speed of the Internet in Tyre to 20MB/sec? Or does a Lebanese leader have to go to Washington, Paris or London to get the green light for enforcing emission reduced cars on Lebanese roads? If you need to do all of this, we might better call the idea of a Lebanon a day. We might 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.

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