What ‘Progress’? Lebanon Politics Impoverishes Lebanese

Hussain Abdul-Hussain

AFP Photo: Joseph Eid
Three months after the resignation of the government – a short time by the standards of Lebanese politics – the Iran-proxy, Islamist group Hezbollah and its allies have managed to cobble together a new cabinet. But the news has failed to end angry protests that precipitated then-prime minister Saad Hariri’s resignation. And while Hezbollah hoped that all eyes would be trained on the new cabinet and its unprecedented number of female ministers, what attracted attention, instead, was news that Britain, Colombia and Honduras had placed Hezbollah on their list of terrorist organizations.

The roster of countries that consider Hezbollah a terrorist group has grown steadily and is currently up to 17 countries, including the US and seven other members of the G20, in addition to the EU, the Arab League and the GCC.

Lebanon is a democracy where the will of the people counts for nothing, and where a mob of politicians organizes vast benefits for itself by playing footsie with an Islamist mafia that inflicts terror abroad and acts like a thug against ordinary Lebanese. Meanwhile, those ordinary Lebanese are steadily being impoverished. (So, what’s the definition of a failed state again?)

Popular outrage broke out in September, a month after the currency, the Lebanese pound (LBP), started sliding. Having essentially run out of foreign reserves, the central bank could not keep the LBP pegged  to the US dollar. Two exchange rates then emerged: one official, the other on the black market. The Lebanese people saw the value of their wealth take a massive cut. They took to the streets again to protest, forcing the “national unity” cabinet to resign.

Protesters demanded an emergency cabinet formed of non-partisan experts. But Hezbollah, the power merchant of Lebanese politics, ignored the protesters, and even sent out its bullies to beat them up. When Hezbollah’s opponents in parliament insisted on taking popular demands into consideration, the party and its allies used their slim majority to form a government: a political rookie, Hassan Diab, was called up and he formed a cabinet with ministers representing the Hezbollah-led alliance.

But even with the new government, the old problems persist. Indeed, no one wants any change to the status quo. An armed militia unaccountable to the state still runs amok and, as a result, the country’s economy remains supported at the margins of life by the remittances of Lebanese who have escaped unemployment for work abroad. (Who would want to start a business – and build jobs – with a trigger-happy militia running around?)

Ghazi Wazni, the new finance minister, said the new government would not try to restore the value of the Lebanese pound to its pre-devaluation level of 1,500 LBP to the dollar. Instead, it would work on stabilizing the currency at the current black-market level of 2,000 LBP to the dollar, which means that Lebanon, under Hezbollah, has officially conceded the loss of one third of the nation’s domestic wealth. Even the promised new exchange rate might prove elusive, as the central bank lacks enough reserves.

Nothing good can happen while Hezbollah runs its militia like a parallel army (only, better armed, better provisioned, better almost everything). Economies are fueled by sentiment, and the only sentiments Hezbollah prompts are fear and loathing. (But fear is admittedly more powerful.)

It’s not even as if  Hezbollah actually has any idea about economics. Its chief, Hassan Nasrallah, has proposed that Lebanon might sell produce to Iraq and solicit investments from China. But, despite the fall of the Lebanese pound, Iraq can still (incredibly) find cheaper potatoes from Egypt and Turkey. As for China, a small, impoverished market like Lebanon does not offer much promise. Besides, China already floods the Lebanese market with its exports and there is little it can do to help Beirut overcome its economic hurdles. And there isn’t any more China can gain from Lebanon to entice it to invest.

As Lebanon’s parliament debates the new cabinet’s platform on thee way to giving it a vote of “confidence,” the country’s politics will remain irrelevant to its fate. Meanwhile, ordinary Lebanese live in enforced penitence for being citizens of a democracy where the ballot paper is worthless, the currency is plunging in value and where a terrorist organization in thrall to Iran runs everything down to garbage collection (except, it isn’t being collected). In this, the third decade of the 21st century, has any polity in the ancient Near East and modern Middle East ever been run so woefully? It really makes you think about the word “progress.”

Hussain Abdul-Hussain is the Washington bureau chief of Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai and a former visiting fellow at Chatham House in London.