The Lebanese state is in a miserable condition, plagued by several chronic problems that include long-lasting political vacuum, a major burden of 1.5 million Syrian refugee, a colossal garbage crisis, and more recently, deterioration of services at Beirut International Airport.
The country’s streets are filthy, and so are its waters; corruption thrives, unsolicited arms are abundant, and the service-oriented economy is tottering after Gulf tourists stopped coming to their once-favourite vacation destination. Prolonged electricity cuts are part of day-to-day life, forcing people to rely on generators.
GDP growth, which was 9.3 per cent in 2007, it is now down to 1.2 per cent. Tax evasion is rampant, and although Lebanon boasts of $44 billion in foreign reserves, it is one of the most indebted countries in the world, after Greece and Japan, with its debt currently standing at $80 billion.
Part of the country’s south remains occupied by Israel, and Palestinian refugee camps are off-limits for the Lebanese army. Until last year, pockets of the country where occupied by Daesh. The Shiite armed group Hezbollah is a powerful state-within-a-state, with its own flag, social services, funds, arms, and intelligence, making Prime Minister-designate Sa’ad Hariri look weak before his Western and Arab allies.
Last June, the Christian village of Ras Baalbak drowned because of its terrible sewage system, destroying fields, shops, homes, and electricity polls. One civilian was killed. Hariri was out of town, attending the World Cup matches in Moscow.
A country is branded a failed state when it disintegrates to a point where the government is unable to perform its basic duties, and the standard of living declines sharply. In May 2017, former prime minister Tammam Salam described his country as a “failed state”.
For two and a half years, the presidential seat was vacant in Lebanon, until it was filled in October 2016 by incumbent Michel Aoun, after Hezbollah reached a deal with Hariri, making him prime minister in exchange for Aoun’s rise to power, at the ripe age of 81. Two years later, the aging president is reportedly unable to perform all his duties, confined to three hours of work every day, which has greatly empowered his 48-year-old son-in-law and foreign minister, Gibran Basil.
Four months after last May’s parliamentary elections. Hariri is still struggling to form a government, trying to please various political actors who have their eyes set on sovereignty posts.
Hezbollah is demanding that its Sunni allies in the March 8 Coalition are accommodated with one to two seats in government, which Hariri has refused, claiming they don’t have a proper bloc in Parliament, wanting Sunni representation to remain in the hands of his Future Movement.
The Iran-backed party is also pressuring him to normalise relations with Syria and re-open channels with its ally, President Bashar Al Assad, which Hariri also sees a red-line that he doesn’t want to cross, fearing it would infuriate Saudi Arabia.
Ignoring his instructions, Hezbollah ministers have been making the rounds in Syria, where their fighters have been engaged in a bloody battle to bolster the Syrian regime since 2012.
They have also been pressuring Hariri to send Syrian refugees back home, claiming the cost of their livelihood is too high for the Lebanese state, which has been feeding, housing, and schooling them since 2011. Hariri — who controls the Ministry of Refugee Affairs — refuses to force them out, claiming death or arrest awaits them in Syria. Hezbollah has frequently accused his Future Movement of profiteering at the expense of Syrian refugees, while Hariri’s allies are saying Hezbollah wants them out because the majority of them are Sunni Muslims. If they overstay their welcome and integrate Lebanese society or marry Lebanese citizens, they might tip the delicate Sunni-Shiite sectarian balance in Lebanon.
Mona Sukkarieh, co-founder of Middle East Strategic Perspectives, a Beirut-based consultancy, spoke to Gulf News about her country’s problems. She said: “The complications Lebanon is currently facing are a recurrent feature of a power-sharing system that has been stretched to the extremes and sometimes presents cases of ‘mechanical failure’.” She points to legal loopholes, saying the Lebanese Constitution does not set a deadline for a Prime Minister-designate to form a government, adding that the “ power-sharing system has – over the last decade – imposed national unity governments and often required governmental decisions to be taken unanimously, to the point of giving de facto veto powers to any faction that doesn’t provide consent.”
The chronic waste problem that Lebanon has been facing for three years isn’t making things any easier. It started in 2015, when the country’s main landfill closed down, after years of overuse, unleashed a wave of health hazards, where according to Ala’a Al Din Hospital, south of the city of Sidon, lung cancer cases increased from six in the first six months of 2016 to 60 in the last six months of 2017.
Ad hoc solutions have included the open burning of rubbish at temporary emergency sites across the country, which has raised the ire of neighbouring residents. Mountains of garbage fill the streets of the country, even the capital that was once dubbed “Switzerland of the East.” Instead of admitting the government had no back-up plan, Environment Minister Tarek Khatib came out on television, saying: “We should not alarm people with a problem that does not exist.”
On September 7, an overnight system failure at Beirut International Airport led to the cancellation of flights, forcing employees to register passengers in hand-writing, and to decline accepting e-tickets. Thousands were stranded at the airport, which the Lebanese State says is working way above capacity, attending to 1.1 million passengers in August 2018. Its capacity is no more than 6 million passengers for an entire year. According to Lebanese officials, a $500 million expansion project is needed, but it won’t start before the summer of 2020, because of lack of funds.
Political analyst Nidal Al Sabe told Gulf News: “Not creating the government until now, four months after the parliamentary elections, has led to a paralysis of government institutions. Although the civil war is long over, we still don’t have proper electricity in this country” pointing out that most of the private sector generators, and subscriptions that are sold to the people, are owned by politicians and “covered” by the political parties. “Lebanese citizens pay two electricity bills” he noted, “one for the state, which provides half of our electricity needs in 24 hours, and the second to the private electricity providers.”
Published in Gulf News on 22 September 2018.