Lebanon: Passing the Failed State Test
By: Patrick Galey
Published Friday, July 20, 2012
Scoring forty-fifth on Foreign Policy magazine's list of the world’s most failed states, Lebanon seems to be getting some things right, but so very much wrong.
Beirut – There recently came a point, during the first blush of summer, when even the most ardent of Lebanon's cheerleaders could be forgiven for thinking that things just weren't working out.
Rolling blackouts, a daily occurrence across rural and remote urban areas, had hit even lush neighborhoods in Beirut. Main transport arteries were cut by protesters airing myriad grievances. The internet was broken.
Wildcat strikes paralyzed what little infrastructure there was and MPs continued to bicker with each other instead of progressing with sorely needed reform.
The armed crisis in Syria continued to worsen, with Lebanon sat helplessly by, barely insulated from the chaos by a border yet to be marked and on the verge of being dragged unwillingly into the morass. Neighborhoods in Beirut and Tripoli were still recovering from the chaos such contagion had already wrought.
Add to this increasingly incendiary political rhetoric, a resource shortage and a so-called “security month,” ordered by the Ministry of Interior, that couldn't keep gunmen off Beirut's streets for so much as one night, and things seemed to have gone badly awry.
The release, then, of Foreign Policy magazine's annual list of doomed countries, which has Lebanon down as the 45th most failed state on the planet, was aptly timed for the country's inhabitants.
As with any global list, the normal caveats apply. Lebanon is often described as being difficult to describe, much less to classify in a ranking system that inevitably falls short of accounting for local idiosyncrasies. Then there is the issue of relativity, with Lebanon being either a pretty good under-developed nation or a pretty bad well-developed one, depending on your interpretation of the data.
Nevertheless, the report raises some interesting – and timely – questions. Just how much of a failed state is Lebanon? Why is that the case? And is it going to get better or worse?
The methodology of the list, topped for the fourth year in a row by Somalia, can be viewed here. Taking a selection of the criteria, how is Lebanon, with the benefit of some local knowledge, really shaping up?
The concept that the state should have a monopoly on all arms within a country has long been foreign to Lebanon. Since the end of the Civil War, non-state militias have maintained and even bolstered weapons stocks, stashed in caches around the country and drawn on the slightest provocation. Recent clashes in Beirut and Tripoli between rival Lebanese militias are just the latest examples of a powder keg never fully defused after the Taif Accord.
Robert Springborg, Middle East program manager for the US-based Center for Civil-Military Relations, said that a failure by the state to bring rogue arms under control was one of the biggest reasons Lebanon ranks among the world's most failed nations.
“If you have a demanding definition of a state then Lebanon might not make it. The state should have legal and security capacities. The de facto situation in Lebanon is that other parties have those capacities,” he told Al-Akhbar.
This is not for a lack of state capacity to enforce order. Foreign defense attaches frequently express their admiration for the Lebanese Army which, from humble beginnings, has grown into a functioning and respected force, even if most of its deployment is arranged to prevent Lebanese shooting Lebanese. The problem lies in the lack of political will to agree on disarmament – a major bar against functioning statehood.
As well as an inability to control its weapons, Lebanon also struggles to control its frontiers. As well as the potential for Syrian security ripples to create waves here, there are often clear and present threats to Lebanon’s territorial integrity.
While the cross-border fire aimed at Lebanon from fighting positions within Syria has made headlines recently, it is Israel that impinges most on Lebanese dominion with hundreds of overflights and dozens of ground incursions each year.
“A state that does not control its territory is not fully sovereign,” Springborg said. “In the case of Lebanon this results in the state not controlling illegal contraband – such as drugs and arms – and in it being unable to control its borders and to compel the allegiance of its citizens.”
Successive conflicts with Israel have led to the presence of more than 12,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops in South Lebanon – a level of foreign assistance (or intervention) pointing to the state's failure to protect its citizens across its territories.
Foreign Policy's methodology states: “When local and national politicians engage in deadlock and brinkmanship for political gain, this undermines the social contract.” It is hard to think of a more apposite maxim for Lebanon's political arena.
Both history and legislation has reinforced Lebanon's factionalization. The Taif Accord, while often cited as the document that helped end the civil war, crystallized into statute many of the sectarian power divisions extant since the National Pact of 1943. And given Lebanon's long history of ineffective governance, parties have formed and reformed supra-parliamentary alliances in lieu of a strong, centralized state.
Sahar Atrache, a Beirut-based analyst for International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa division, argued that Lebanon's bickering factions prioritized caring for themselves and their own constituents over most national strategies.
“Most of the time the consensus is reached by non-state institutions and the government is there just to ratify these agreements,” she told Al-Akhbar.
“Its state institutions are very weak, but most of the time when the institutions are weak, you have communities filling in the gap. This is the main problem but also a paradox because this is what prevents the state from failing.”
Indeed, most of the most powerful group leaders in Lebanon deliberately eschew government to avoid any abstract sense of social duty; the state is merely a conglomeration of delegates, each directed by their own strongman, who in turn is liberated from the constraints of national governance to pursue individual agendas.
“[Issues] are negotiated and ameliorated, not resolved on a permanent, structural basis such that the government assumes a role and stature above those factionalized elites,” said Springborg.
Simply put, the balance of power in Lebanon does not reside in government, but rather in the hands of a few party leaders who each seek influence over a particular constituency, demographic or sect. It is a vicious circle: the state is weak because of the strong endeavor to keep it that way, to their benefit and the public's detriment.
Lebanon, for all its shortcomings, has been steadily improving in the failed state rankings, falling from 29th in 2008.
Atrache attributed this advance to the fact that for a period of a few months between late 2007 and mid-2008 Lebanon didn't have a functioning parliament, a government, or a president. If it has made some progress away from the dubious club of most failed states in recent years, it is at least partly down to it simply having some sort of administration.
But it is a peculiar type of administration, fed from a parliament voted for on a majoritarian, sectarian basis. Critics of Lebanon's voting system point to fact that many politicians are elected simply by forming coalitions with other popular statesmen – democracy as a tool for personal expediency rather than public representation.
Lebanon's political elites are particularly good at arguing between themselves, and government as such faces a mounting agenda of reforms waiting to be implemented, some dating back a decade or more. When a decision is finally taken – as happened earlier in the month when parliament passed a bill allowing striking Electricité du Liban workers to get paid – dispute and boycott is never far behind.
A lot of the legislative paralysis hampering civil society efforts to modernize Lebanese laws – everything from freedom of information to martial rape definition – can be attributed to mind-boggling levels of corruption and bureaucracy.
“Unscrupulous politicians and unscrupulous businessmen have let the situation deteriorate to such a point that today we cannot even reach stupid, basic decisions,” Yahya Hakim, board member of the Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA), told Al-Akhbar.
The LTA is the local representative of anti-graft watchdog Transparency International, which recently ranked Lebanon among the most corrupt countries in the world.
Hakim argued that while the lack of accountability for power holders has turned Lebanon into a “rogue state,” the real barrier against better governance was a near total void of state guidelines. There are no ministerial procedural manuals, not even at the Central Bank. There is no ombudsman to keep an eye on the judiciary. The list goes on.
“Ministers don't know what is happening in their own ministries,” Hakim said.
That being the case, Lebanon robustly fails even basic governance tests; the chaos within the administration prevents it from properly functioning.
Poverty and Economic Decline
A recent World Bank report said that while Lebanon remained strong at attracting inflowing capital, the distribution of wealth, once imported, remained wildly inconsistent.
“Economic activity in Lebanon is strongly affected by exogenous factors, is limited to few sectors and does not generate enough employment for Lebanese nationals,” it said.
As Lebanon lacks the natural resources enjoyed in excess by other Arab states, it is almost uniquely susceptible to fluctuations in key commodities, most obviously oil. Since it imports most of its raw materials, Lebanon's economy, while relatively sound from a financial perspective, is only ever one global price spike away from serious difficulty.
The World Bank was also critical of Lebanon's lack of infrastructure, with its intermittent electricity, poorly maintained and gridlocked roads and access to services all coming under fire.
“At the same time, efficiency of public spending is poor and many infrastructure sectors suffer from deficiencies in their regulatory frameworks, poor governance, and inefficiencies of public utilities,” the report added.
Economists contacted by Al-Akhbar agreed that while Lebanon is a relatively affluent country in terms of capital, the wealth distribution here is severely uneven – a surefire indicator of a state failing to ensure its riches are correctly managed.
Lebanon ranks 71st on the United Nations Development Program Human Development Index – which takes into account average life expectancy, median education levels and GDP. But according to Hakim, this doesn't tell the whole story of its inequality and wealth gap.
As a government economic adviser in back in 1992, Hakim calculated that for the average Lebanese family to comfortably survive, the main breadwinner would need to pull in the equivalent of $600 per month. Twenty years later, the national minimum wage still doesn't approach this figure.
“You don't only have graduates without jobs; you have people in their 40s and 50s who have no social security, no medical care, no roof over their head, and no food for their children,” he said.
Human Rights and Rule of Law
One of the reasons Lebanon frequently hits the headlines for the wrong reasons is its application of human rights. Vulnerable groups, in particular, are frequently denied the basic freedoms those within society's main, middle/upper class strata are afforded.
Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa, said government and state security apparatuses were unable to protect most people from abuse or discrimination.
“The basic function of the state – national protection – has been outsourced to non-state actors. The state does not protect people on its territory,” he told Al-Akhbar.
The Higher Relief Commission announced last week that it was no longer able to provide food or medical aid to Syrians who had fled to Lebanon. The Commission itself had overseen only nominal support to refugees in the North, without accounting for the thousands that have resettled in the Bekaa and the South. With no centralized healthcare provisions, the story of not being able to afford medical treatment is one that resonates with thousands of Lebanese and migrants alike.
“There are still people not being allowed access to hospitals and being left to die. The state should not interference in people's lives but still be able to provide safety nets,” Houry said.
In the failed states list, Lebanon scores well on rule of law, due to its large security corps and sheer number of police. But as Atrache points out, having officers on the street is not necessarily an attribute if people fail to heed their orders.
“There is no respect for institutions – be they the judiciary or security forces,” she said. “Normally, rule of law occurs where people actually respect the laws and I think one of Lebanon's main problems is [the fact] that laws are not respected, nor are they implemented equally.”
This is without mention of Lebanon's severely swollen prison population. Thousands of inmates still rot in the country's penitentiaries awaiting trial; hundreds more have actually served their sentences, but administrative shortcomings mean they continue to languish behind bars.
Houry said the justice system is yet another example of how the state is failing its citizens.
“Prison, conceptually, is the area of exclusive state control. The state has taken away your liberty and in some ways they are responsible for your well-being. It is actually a judicial problem rather than a capacity problem,” he said.
But in a typically reactive move, the government has announced it will build more prisons to accommodate transgressors, rather than reform the judiciary that sees so many of them cut loose by the state.
The trend of tire burning as a form of protest is born from several grievances. It could be done by citizens angry at the lack of electricity or clean drinking water, the rising cost of living, or the butterfingered handling of a kidnapping case.
Whenever people take to the streets, as has been happening more and more frequently over the past few weeks, it is to protest a partial failure of the state – an accusation that the government cannot keep its citizens safe, fed or even out of darkness for more than an hour or two at a time.
Still, however bad Lebanon appears to be, its tribulations pale in comparison to some Arab states. This can be seen most clearly by the sheer volume of refugees and asylum seekers – as well as migrant workers – that continue to flock here in spite of the aforementioned pitfalls.
One might therefore be tempted to focus on Lebanon's good side: its relative lack of oppression, its relative openness, its relative functionality. This, according to analysts interviewed by Al-Akhbar, clean misses the point.
“Lebanon has to realize that it is actually falling behind on so many measures: Women’s rights, protection of vulnerable groups, lack of protection for the elderly, the right to education, increasing inequality, lack of urban planning – you name it,” Houry said.
“The accumulation of all this has led to a problem that has reached the burning tires in the streets, with an unsympathetic government. You cannot tell the police and the armed forces to punish people for asking for basic rights,” Hakim added.
There may well be 44 worse states on Earth in worse shape than Lebanon. But with deteriorating security, crumbling infrastructure, stagnating legislation, a wobbling economy, spreading protests and regressing human rights, those who live here could be forgiven if they struggle to imagine them.