Lebanon: A Special Type of Rent

Neither on October 17th, the day protests broke out in Lebanon, nor August 4th, when the horrific explosion hit Beirut’s port, did any official come out to explain or even bother to tell tales about what happened. Their silence was the ultimate expression of failure. A regime that lost its rhetoric after it did its sovereign functions, along with everything else it was supposed to administer.
2020-12-13

Nahla Chahal

Professor and researcher in political sociology
Editor in Chief, Assafir Al Arabi


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This publication has benefited from the support of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. This text may be reproduced in part or in full, provided the source is acknowledged.

“All of them means all of them!” was the main chant repeated during the October protests and unrest in Lebanon (which took off on October 17th, 2019) – most controversial chant of them all. It was conceived during the 2015 Summer “Garbage Uprising”, but would only fully realise its potential this time. That alone reveals the nature and, in a sense, the “radicalness” of the movement that has just begun.

“Kellon ya’ani kellon” (all of them means all of them), a genius formula to say much in no more than three words. Was Lebanese society indeed polarised over entrenched sectarianism, as would be repeated time and again? The revolutionary answer, however, proclaimed the contrary: They’re all to be condemned, without exception! As such, it uncovers a moment of splitting with the leader figure, who customarily represents his sect rather than his own person. Naturally, such representation extends the leader numerous advantages, both material and immaterial, whose morsels would presumably be distributed among members of his sect – disproportionately, of course. First and foremost, the chief’s core inner circle, ever changeable, is taken care of, sometimes followed by some kind of gesture to the remainder of the population. Such morsels are firmly considered a “right” any member of the sect could obtain, even if difficult to access in reality. Such is the spiderweb of the power-sharing agreement; it renders each figure’s share somewhat known, trickled down in the form of shares in projects, positions, jobs – from the most prestigious to the humblest. It manifests in access to a good amount of facilities, leverage, the “right” to all manner of interventions and intermediary actions, whose extent and efficacy articulate a leader’s status and clout (which, they say, could go as far as granting a “reprieve from the noose”).

To probe and interpret the October 17 uprising of 2019 would require a long introduction that retraces the basics, that narrates the rise and bedrock of Lebanon. It would attempt to tell the current transformation that enabled or caused such outburst, as well as its features, capabilities, and prospects. While the “October 17” moment (on its own but also as it later unfolded) surely embodies a historical turning point, it also constitutes the progeny of a broad context; though the uprising itself does manifest a moment of shock – of learning just how desolate and inept the ruling regime is.

Hallmarks of Lebanese Society

Observing – describing and analysing – the functioning mechanism of the Lebanese regime is essential not only for understanding its authority, but also its own Lebanese society. Chanting “all of them!” went hand in hand with taking down pictures of leaders in public squares. Each angry assembly took upon itself the task of picture removal – of its own local and sect leaders – to avoid triggering any political sensitivity. For a while, then, main streets were emptied of giant posters with photoshopped faces and exaggerated captions, some of which are unbelievably mistyped.

Incidentally, the Ta’if Agreement incremented the number of “leaders” and changed their sort. The agreement (Document of National Accord approved in November 1989 and designed to end the protracted Lebanese civil war) has opened the door for a regeneration of the “elite”, in which many aspired to partake. While some children or grandchildren of Lebanon’s traditional founders or leaders remained, others emerged as completely new by-products, risen atop former leaders’ elimination and that of their descendants. Such “regeneration” varied, whereby the present-day Shia representatives seemed to have effaced symbols of the former feudal system (most prominent of which are the Ass’aads in Southern Lebanon and the Hamaadas in the Beka’a Governorate), followed by an emergence of completely new class-aware and ideological formations, representing the “dispossessed”, the deprived and poor populations affiliated with their sect, which is true of Amal Movement as it is of Hezbollah – with the latter adding political Islam and fighting Israel to the aforementioned themes.

Change was a little less dramatic in other sects. Rafic al-Hariri was installed with access to a massive toolkit of services, most prominent of which at the time were thousands of scholarships, “Ogero” projects, and employments. However, while some former leadership like the Salams and Karamis, for instance, managed to remain intact, (though having to split their shares with the newcomer), others were wiped out by extinction. Similarly, Christian representation, which has lived through its own internal regeneration (Lebanese Forces born out of Lebanese Phalanges, starting with Bachir Gemayel, Pierre’s son, and continuing with the warlords who would impose themselves – despite their humble origins, that is, if examined in traditional feudal lenses or when compared to sons of modern urban dignitaries, which is Samir Geagea’s case).

“Kellon ya’ani kellon” (all of them means all of them), a genius formula to say much in no more than three words. Was Lebanese society polarised over entrenched sectarianism, as would be repeated time and again? The revolutionary answer, however, proclaimed the contrary: They’re all to be condemned, without exception! As such, it uncovers a moment of splitting with the leader figure, who customarily represents his sect rather than his own person.

Still, what stands out is how those new and non-feudal leaderships, individual and organised alike, quickly adopted former feudal customs and traditions. More importantly, they assumed power-sharing dynamics and started arguing over percentages and manifestations of power. It thus seemed that the extant “regime” was stronger than the changes it appeared to undergo, which it would absorb with relative ease, shaping them to its liking.

The secret, then, lies within the sectarian power-sharing system which – based on the 1943 National Pact, upon which Lebanon’s foundations were laid, reaffirmed in the Ta’if Agreement with a few amendments – regulates both power and wealth sharing. This, then, is rent, even if a private one, or different, for instance, from oil rent. Power and wealth are interlinked, where power constitutes the main wellspring of wealth, not only in an individual sense (of enabling leaders and their entourage to accumulate wealth), but also in the collective sense. Lebanon is thus administered, in permanent crisis mode – where each side thinks it should have gotten a bigger end of the deal or that the other was getting too much; administered with artfulness or outbursts of violence, depending on the situation. (1)

Lebanon’s “Role”: A Brief History

The current events in Lebanon cannot be understood without referring, even if briefly, to its contemporary history. Lebanon is not an “obvious” entity, as is usually the case with other states, (regardless of how complicated or intricate their history is); rather, Lebanon is the aftermath of an intentionally complex formula, glued together by precarious equations. Such is the issue raised today as Lebanon faces a fateful crisis, which seems to tackle the very supposed foundations of such formula, at the heart of which lies what could be termed Lebanon’s role, or function.

To begin with, Lebanon was founded upon an unwritten “deal”, the National Pact, whose details were negotiated in 1943 amidst dignitaries of different sects under the auspices and blessing of their international and regional “go-tos”. The Pact is considered the agreement or consensus that facilitated Lebanese independence from the French mandate. Its basis is a potential “role” to be played by this country, hastily-assembled in 1920 – following the end of the Ottoman Empire, and the transformation of a relatively autonomous Mount Lebanon Mutasarrifate into the State of Greater Lebanon (by annexation of new districts). The role Lebanon was assigned concerns its exceptionality as a state, the potential its country-people possess, and, previously, the developing region needing it, along with the foreign powers who shared it. As such, Lebanon was assigned the role of an intermediary: between the Arab World and Europe – in trade and business, import and export, all of which are centuries-old practices to which that Mediterranean coast is home – as well as in transactions enshrined in banking secrecy laws. Additionally, Lebanon enjoys a wide scope of freedoms, tolerance to all manner of lifestyles, thanks to its diversity, universities and missionary schools -some of the oldest in the region-, presses, newspapers, and multilingualism… And thanks to the beauty of this small country that renders it a tourist destination, and thus a provider of such associated, and high-quality, services.

The primary complaint then consisted of the concentration of all such facilities in Beirut, which, prior to the 1975 civil war, used to be home to more than half the Lebanese population.

The 1958 civil war would go down in history as a short-lived six-months war, instigated by then President Camille Chamoun, who decided to side with the Baghdad Pact against the alliance led by Gamal Abdel Nasser. It ended with a compromise, after which Fouad Chehab, then Commander of the Army, was elected President of the Republic. His rule lived through many reforms, the establishment of modern state institutions, all of which seemed to somehow amend that blunt sectarian and power-sharing formula of positions and profits – which was not abolished, but propped with a few guidelines and regulators. Such reform was a passing one, but is still talked of to this day as a well-regarded effort. The considerable double influence the “outside” has must also be remembered, with its direct impact on internal affairs, on the one hand, and ability to reach compromises through regional and international sway, on the other.

In 1966, the Intra Bank crisis went down in history as the first economic shock lived under such delicate political makeup (2); to be overcome by expanding the banking sector and its upper echelons. Notably, power played a big role in the adopted solution in Lebanon, as did Arab states with vested interest, and bank deposits, in such recourse.

The sectarian power-sharing system which – based on the 1943 National Pact, reaffirmed in the Ta’if Agreement with a few amendments – regulates both power and wealth sharing. This is a special type of rent. Power and wealth are interlinked, where power constitutes the main wellspring of wealth.

Then came a protracted civil war (1975-1990). It was a crushing internal war, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, huge numbers of missing persons, still missing, not to mention displacement and destruction. It comprised forceful regional and international dimensions, rendering internal and external affairs indistinguishable, as has always been the case in Lebanon. The extended civil war also held two largescale and direct wars with Israel: in 1978 (the Litani War) and in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon and occupied Beirut (with international accord). The Syrian army also entered Lebanon in 1976 as part of the Arab Deterrent Forces, then remained there alone, never to leave until 2005. Carried out under international supervision, negotiation rounds that aimed for an agreement to end all fighting and produce a new formula for governance surpassed 52 rounds. As such, the Ta’if Agreement would only be ready in 1989. The latter put forth principles and accords concerning what was termed political and administrative reform, the withdrawal of Syrian troops, and otherwise. It was understood to consist of merely decorative, or largely formal, elements, put together to reach an actual cease-fire and a structure that could take over the country in an “amicable” manner.

If we were to mark the main feature of this war, it would be its fifteen long years. Failing to reach a quicker conclusion divulges a number of meanings. First: international and regional turmoil and, thus, no sides capable of settling the situation, just as in 1958. Second, more importantly and crucially: Lebanon appeared to be dispensable. While it is true that business-making continued throughout the war, it did so under the strain of warzone rules – and not within the original framework that had defined Lebanon’s role and function. Following the Israeli invasion in 1982, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organisation) was evacuated from Lebanon, followed by the collapse of the national currency, which dove a thousand times over (3000 LBP instead of 3 LBP in exchange for 1 USD). The exchange rate of 1508 LBP per USD would only later be fixed through a “resolution”.

The Rafic Hariri Enterprise: Losing Bets

After the Ta’if Agreement, rising star Rafic al-Hariri would bet on reclaiming Lebanon’s regional role as financial metropole that provided services and became a tourist destination. He formed his first government in 1992, whose prospects, discussed then, were related to a forthcoming peace treaty with Israel throughout the region. The Madrid Conference for Peace was held in late 1991, when the destruction of Iraq by a US-lead war had only just begun early that year, in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The Madrid Conference never reached its conclusion for a number of reasons, including the collapse of the USSR, one of its co-sponsors, and for attempting to provide a multilateral regional framework, which rendered it a complicated and “ambitious” enterprise. Nonetheless, it was circumvented with the Oslo Accord, reached under the auspices of the Washington, declared and signed on September 13th, 1993.

Lebanon is not an “obvious” entity, as is usually the case with other states, (regardless of how complicated or intricate their history is); rather, Lebanon is the aftermath of an intentionally complex formula, glued together by precarious equations to serve its purpose as intermediary between the Arab World and the Western centre.

The “Plan to Reconstruct Beirut” –especially its downtown, which was completely devastated– can only be rationalised by comprehending such visions of potential peace. The achievements realised in the shadow of such plans reveal those visions. They also reveal a shocking lack of taste, and the struggle against Solidere (The Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut Central District). The endeavour was to stop Solidere from wrecking and levelling whatever buildings survived in Beirut and erecting skyscrapers in their stead – to meet the architectural and aesthetic standards suited for Gulf countries. That was one of the first civil battles that enjoyed extensive and diverse involvement and impressive merit, regardless of its small achievements. It comprised a diverse spectrum of people and respected personalities, and was able to save whatever was saved of those beautiful buildings, as well as hinder some even more disgraceful plans. That is not to say that the right-holders, whose property was appropriated, arrived at any justice or transparency; reconstruction of the entire area was carried out at large to meet an obsession of profit-generation, maxed out for the company and its biggest shareholders – behind which stood Hariri’s spectre (3). However, along with the entirety of its enterprises, whatever Solidere constructed targeted an extremely wealthy social stratum, most likely hailing from Gulf countries. Only they could afford such model of conspicuous consumption.

Hariri then constructed major cross-country highways that crossed the Lebanese coast from north to south, and sideways from Beirut to Beka’a. He relied on old plans and sketches that had never seen daylight before, and on Lebanon’s evident need for a proper road network. The improvements and modifications applied to those roadways made them cost many times their actual price (4), lining as such the pockets of politicians and notables with access to powerful inner circles, along with their affiliate contractors. Power-sharing is at its best. Then there were bitter jokes about its twists and turns, paved to pander to one person or another. For all those reasons, but mainly because they “linked” two regional countries, Lebanon’s only two neighbours, Syria and Israel, those roads attracted attention. Are these nothing but evil misgivings? Or upshots of paranoia from all-too-familiar schemes, plotted backstage only to be “innocently” executed?

In any case, the Lebanon in turmoil was not ready to invest in such horizons, which quickly unravelled as complete delusional, as no comprehensive peace would be reached. Solidere would thus begin suffering financial losses, and the entire project seemed unprofitable. Hariri himself was assassinated; the Syrian army had to withdraw from the country, following 30 years of occupation and violations; a largescale Israeli assault was launched on Lebanon in 2006; followed by a number of Gulf countries deciding to boycott Lebanon, calling their citizens to boycott travel there; rendering downtown Beirut, with its luxury hotels, restaurants, and boutiques with extravagant clothes and jewellery, and its virtually empty buildings, a ghost town.

The End of a Role

Rafic Hariri was still capable of channelling Gulf deposits into Lebanese banks, which would “boost” non-performing accounts rather than treat a seemingly non-existent economy. Such overall state implied obstinacy and fabrication, carried out for political ends rather than for an actual function.
The shift in positions was thus plainly revealed: Lebanon as shelter to Arab capital on the run from nationalisation is eradicated, barring specific cases like Syrian capital, whose own country was in a state of war and disintegration, some Yemeni funds, for those very reasons, or some Iraqi money, accumulated through big acts of corruption. Those are particular and limited cases, rather unconcerned with the concept of Lebanese partnerships that furnished Arab capital with business opportunities. Beirut has thus been outdone by Dubai, Doha, and even Amman; even Europe has long since quit its position as centre of Western economy. And now, if there need be, Gulf money and even the rest of Arab money is reeled into the United States.

Indeed, Lebanon could have found itself another “role” for which it was fully equipped: to be a state that provided quality education, quality medicine, and pleasurable tourism. However, that seemed too humble of a pursuit; it would have also failed to provide the executives with those returns from full-on financial aid, lending, and financial engineering programmes along with all their corrupt prospects, made legal through interlinked decisions and arrangements.

In a country without any notion of public interest, even an alleged one; in a country rather interested in values of “artfulness” and brokered and stolen shares – all proclaimed and adopted values with full public backing – thinking one’s way out of the existent problem seems incapacitating. (A large part of the problem, though, resulted from objective factors and variables, not just appalling acts of theft). As such, running forward would continue, as would adopting patchwork solutions, until the moment of unravelling – uncovering the barely-covered.

Uprising

“All of them means all of them” is the direct proclamation of the structural failure that had been running the country ever since the civil war ended. The Lebanese people rose up when the banks confiscated and blocked their savings accounts. A huge robbery operative appeared to have been organised, which went beyond predatory theft of public funds: the latter had gone on for many years; it was well-known and hardly condemned, handled as de facto reality, with resigned tolerance, as if it were a “normal” state of affairs. Some scrutiny would be exercised on beneficiary shares to practise “fairness” to an extent, where the Shia share would be presumed stretched out, just as the Maronites’ would be prior to the civil war. However, when it came to private funds, the entire spectrum of issues cracked open: a crisis of rent, housing, health, retirement, education, purchasing power, unemployment, and incompetent public services. That is, a crisis of everything “communal” and shared… of life itself.

Lebanon as shelter to Arab capital on the run from nationalisation is eradicated, that is, barring particular and limited cases, which are rather unconcerned with the concept of Lebanese partnerships that furnished Arab capital with business opportunities. Beirut has thus been outdone by Dubai, Doha, and even Amman. Also, Europe has long since quit its position as centre of Western economy.

The uprising movements were characterised by reintroducing this shared space, which had become – along with the abovementioned ongoing theft – the bridge connecting regions, sects, and political persuasions. It explains the joy that walked beside those movements, the genuine coming-together of groups who had been cut off from each other, the initiatives of solidarity manifest in both chants and reciprocal crowds, in the inflow of donations, especially those allocated to prepare and distribute free food for all, and in men and women’s commitment of different backgrounds, classes, and generations in public squares. It revealed qualities in Lebanese society which, for once, painted it open and tolerant, if not well integrated, and introduced shared public values.
Still, it was the merciless delegitimisation of the political establishment and State institutions that was one of the most significant outcomes of these movements, embodied in its chants as well as its unprecedented human diversity. “Politics” as well as “the parties” were condemned in a purely political manner; from holding thieves accountable to setting up symbolic gallows following the explosion of Beirut’s port.

Nonetheless, the Lebanese uprising did not seem to aspire for developing any agendas. Instead, there were groups, each with its own general vision, but none which had any perceived plans. There were technocrats, who made up many groups (perhaps the most prominent of which was the one affiliated with LCPS (the Lebanese Centre for Policy Studies, as well as the “Kulluna Irada” group [Arabic for “We are Willpower”]), who published statements with technical propositions to manage the crisis. Furthermore, there was “Citizens in a State” (which introduces itself as a political party), which developed a vision it considered it to be a political platform, circulating its proposed steps for a transitional solution, and demanded it be assumed as the true alternative and given the reins of power (!) claiming to possess the key to the solution. In addition, the Legal Agenda organisation worked diligently to contend with establishment measures, exposing its faults and shortcomings. There was also the classic communist party agenda, which had come out following a supposedly consensual meeting at Le Commodore Hotel in Beirut on November 18th, 2019; as well as some self-defined radical groups which called for the “nationalisation of banks”! There were no instances, however, where all these managed to have a discussion among themselves, or agree on a few points that could form a comprehensive framework for mobilisation. Other groups formed alongside these, some of which would hold symposiums, found clubs within the raised public tents, create publications and websites, as well as organise intellectual, cultural, and artistic events. Party blocks of various orientations were present, but were clearly incapable of candidly or effectively articulating their foster parties. The tacit agreement to adopt and raise the Lebanese flag, as a comprehensive and cross-sect and cross-movement affiliation, succeeded to a large extent and flourished in an unprecedented manner. The bulk of gatherings, however, remained spontaneous, rage-driven, and reactive – resorting to ridicule and revulsion when it came to the complicit political and banking establishment. It was therefore an easy feat for the security services to infiltrate those assemblies, which was the case in many squares and manifested in various shapes and forms.

All this strengthened the celebratory quality those assemblies had, or, as Bertrand Badie noted in one of his texts: “Those movements are not hinged on a logic of demands; they rather constitute steps to self-expression.” (5)

Perhaps the primary deficiency was the incapacity to find any common denominators or certain agreement upon which those groups could build. That is, despite there being an overall consensus over holding the responsible people accountable in a country where no acts of accountability whatsoever had ever been carried out. What also prompts discussion and provides food for thought is the disparity seen between the raised banners. “Down with the sectarian regime” was one reverberating chant, which is a seemingly perfectly radical slogan, ironically co-opted by sectarian forces that had always been part of the Lebanese confessional formula; though marginalised in recent years to the benefit of others within the governing coalition – especially following the Mar Mikhaël Memorandum of Understanding between Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement in 2006. Another much humbler demand was collectively held at the same time, which stipulated the dismissal of the Governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salamé, and holding him accountable for the financial engineering that had bankrupt the country, and for his complicity with the plundering establishment. It is the same demand which Hezbollah backed, steering its followers to adopt it by telling them to take to the streets, participate in demonstrations, and simultaneously mobilise them in order to suppress the latter whenever the “all of them” chant debilitated its leader or the reputation of his ally, Speaker of the Parliament (chairing it uninterruptedly since 1992), the leader of Amal Movement, Nabih Berri. Evidently, the banner calling for Riad Salamé’s dismissal significantly moves away from holding the entire regime accountable for what had happened.

In Short: Silence

Neither on October 17th nor on August 4th (the horrific explosion of Beirut’s port) did any official come out to explain or even bother to tell tales about what had happened. Such silence became the ultimate expression of incapacity and failure. The regime lost its rhetoric after it did its sovereign functions, along with everything else it was supposed to administer. Even someone as omnipotent as Nasrallah and his party, who used to frequently appear on television to make his interventions, did not explain what had happened, rather often jumping to what he considered solutions, though laughable.

Such silence endures. The banks still make decisions that affect citizens’ lives, some taken in accordance with the authorities, others revealing tensions between the two ruling poles. As to the how and why? Only God knows. As to how all this could end – it is mystery incarnate. However, and in fact, the Lebanese –who hold on to an ancient tradition they keep– still hope for a saviour, and for an international-regional accord to be reached that would prevent Lebanon from a complete downfall (6). And while they acknowledge corruption levels are colossal, still going strong during such crushing crisis, and joke about its mundane presence and their incompetent officials – they are equally convinced of a “conspiracy” in the making and situations that could be circumvented with a resolution. They tend to think those are put in place to pressure Hezbollah in some instances, and to impose a peace treaty with Israel in others; or that it is a Hezbollah conspiracy aiming to enforce its control over Lebanon, and so on. Such tendencies, however, might be playing into a numbing and procrastinating role.

Today, Lebanon is inundated with questions: Why could no agreements be reached? Is it an inflated ego, or that tradition of individualism? Why has no capable or persuasive statist group shown up to gain people’s support? Is it the feeling that the game is being managed from elsewhere, bigger than Lebanon? And, in any case, would reaching an agreement have changed anything “on the ground”? And many more questions that reveal contradictions within that joyous and liberating “All of them”, that cautious and flaky “Kellon” …

The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of Assafir Al-Arabi and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation cannot accept any liability for it.

Translated from Arabic by Yasmine Haj
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 12/11/2020

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1-For further reading, see السلم الأهلي البارد: لبنان المجتمع والدولة، 1964-1967، وضاح شرارة، معهد الإنماء العربي1980
and الهوية الطـائـفـيـة و الـزمـن الاجـتـمـاعـي في أعـمـال مـؤرخـي لـبـنـان الـمـعـاصـريـن، أحمد بيضون، منشورات الجامعة اللبنانية 1984
a colossal book that sets out with a question: “Does Lebanon truly exist?” [in Arabic].
2-The Intra Bank Crisis – conversation with Hicham Safieddine, lecturer in the history of political economy, the Legal Agenda, January 11th, 2020. [in Arabic].
3-https://al-akhbar.com/Community/73439 [in Arabic]. "من يملك سوليدير"؟ -02-08- 2012
4-“White Elephant Projects” is a worldwide expression derived from the symbolism of white elephants, whose exorbitant cost was out of proportion with their usefulness. The wealthy in India would rush to purchase them, squandering their money for show off.
5-Bertrand Badie : « L’acte II de la mondialisation a commencé », interview with Le Monde, November 8th, 2019 [in French].
6-Is Food Security in Lebanon Under Threat? UNESCWA policy brief, August 30th, 2020, which states that half of Lebanon’s population is now under the poverty line. The “death boats” thus made a return, this time carrying Lebanese people; and immigration rates increased too, for those who could access such an option.


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