As The Lebanese Elites Play House…
When the 2019 protests in Lebanon began to fizzle, a few of us sat over dinner discussing what might be the key lesson of that season of discontent. The most chilling one so far, I said, is that the ruling cabal realized they can pretty much do whatever they want to us. In a way, without ever intending to, we had done them the biggest favor. We stress tested an utterly defunct system, and to their relief, it held.
True enough, in the following months, Lebanon became the site of a mass behavioral experiment. The cabal would each round strengthen the dose of pain, cutback on more essential services, further decrease access to what remained of wiped out US dollar savings, and introduce increasingly draconian economic schemes, all while burying their head in the sand and slinging mud at each other and us, as if to test our tolerance for misery. And each time they discovered that, indeed, they could squeeze some more and kick the can down the road, awaiting some miracle.
Even the 2020 Beirut port explosion that bore into whole neighborhoods and lives and livelihoods and communal fabric and history didn’t stir us from our silence. In fact, the jarring juxtaposition between our collective quietude and the piercingly loud collapse of the country became the defining feature of the times and the talk of the town. “Where are the people?” we kept asking as we sipped our morning coffee and bantered over lunch.
But it wasn’t the emptiness of the streets per se that reassured those lording over us. It was the reasons for it. The violence of sectarian parties against protestors in their dominions was swift and effective; newly formed independent political parties were uninspired and lifeless; the committed activists who manned the squares and tents were dispersed and fragmented; the NGOs, in an acute case of ambition far outpacing mission, thought they were mounting a revolution; and professional associations and trade unions remained largely beholden to the system.
What this said about us was very telling. It revealed how politically illiterate we are, how impoverished in skills, how atomized in motivation, how weary of the sacrifice true change demands, and how quickly we succumb to sectarianism’s manipulations and bullying. All with good reason, perhaps. These are the rewards regimes like ours reap from their hard work of killing the fight in their people.
The eruption, then, was the orphaned moment of an orphan revolt. For the big guys that was tantamount to a carte blanche.
There is no public electricity, there are severe shortages of water, entire economies have come to a halt, the banking sector is bankrupt, our children’s education is in jeopardy as public schools starve for funds, the state’s ministries and departments are in a coma, garbage regularly overflows around bins and surrounding sidewalks, political and financial scandals headline the news almost daily…But life ticks along.
As the poor grow poorer and more invisible, the well-off continue to have fun. Batroun, by the coast towards the north, rocks, and so do Beirut’s Gimmeyzeh and Monot. Tyre’s hotels and beaches are packed, equally the restaurants and clubs everywhere else. Traffic jams have stayed the same even as the price of petrol has skyrocketed. The more fortunate have generators and batteries, the less fortunate sweat like hell and live by candlelight.
Against this backdrop, we had a carnival last May: the parliamentary elections. In no time at all, in the minds of many frustrated with the status quo, this event morphed from the usual meaningless drill into a titanic clash of wills. Somehow, a conviction among them quickly took root that, with enough “change” votes, the elections can beat back the creeps; that the “change” candidates had more than a decent chance to win big, or big enough to tip the scales in parliament and come after the beast in his sanctum.
In my own milieu, I was the only one to skip the ballot box. The apparent surge that swept 13 of the “change” candidates into victory suggested that my circle was right to cast its vote and I was wrong to withhold mine. The journalist Hazem Ameen, a friend himself, cheekily dedicated a line in his celebratory article after the elections to my type: “ The naïve among us achieved the numbers, while those burdened by their intelligence thought voting too heavy a task.”
I didn’t vote because I was almost sure we would be doing the ruling clique yet another big favor. They wanted elections to inject vigor into their spent order—and here’s the kicker—with our help. And, of course, they chose the easiest of a sham democracy’s rituals to achieve just that. But consider this: we ourselves also chose the most effortless act of dissent. We raced to the voting booths but fell into silence in every other arena that counts. When the state declared election season, we lined up, gleeful at the opportunity to play the citizens that we are not.
Some of us did it with the best of intentions and most modest of hopes; some did it precisely because this political space was the safest; others did it just to land a punch or perform their civic duty. Still others for all of the above. But, curiously, the expectation among many grew that the “change” candidates would, indeed, be “change” makers able to outwit and intimidate the old guard and wrest from them concessions consequential enough to make a difference to our lives.
I offer all this context to make this point.
The performance of these parliamentarians over the past five months was bound to disappoint.
Not because they are each bad, but because in our political theater they are little more than props, there only to accessories the plot. However, their stubbornly soaring rhetoric in full view of their glaring powerlessness points to something altogether different: these people are either genuinely clueless or they’re playing house. Either way, the spectacle has made our politics even more agonizingly ridiculous.
Last week the changers collectively issued a statement so bizarre, it invited a question no politician ever wants to be asked: what in God’s name have you been smoking? The statement first declared the presidential elections as “the major, watershed, decisive, transformational step” in Lebanon. The verbosity alone was its own siren about what was coming next: the qualities of the president on which this so-called bloc insists.
Here are a few of them: He/she “believes in the state, in the constitution, in the law; is above political parties and factions…the monopolization of power and decision making, and subservience to others; is free from all commitments except to his oath; is sensitive to and aware of [Lebanon’s] contradictions, multiplicities, frictions, and internal and external conflicts; adheres to the constitution, is armed with a culture of law and fortified with reason and wisdom…” He/she “will uphold the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon, consecrate citizenship…work to change the balance of forces to ensure an accurate accounting of [financial] losses, the preservation of state assets, the identification of culpability where it lies…”
In conclusion, the bloc had this warning for the powers that be: if such a president is not elected, they will mobilize the throngs. You get the tragicomic irony in all this, right? In one swoop they did the regime yet another favor by demonstrating to all of us the futility of them and of it all.
On Another Note
I listened this week to a very interesting and informative conversation between Peter Beinart and Erik Skare, an expert on Islamic Jihad, the second most powerful party in Gaza after Hamas. You can only watch the interview if you are a subscriber to Peter Beinart’s substack newsletter. So this is a good chance to subscribe in case you haven’t already. There is no better newsletter on Israel and Palestine, frankly.
If you would like to know more about Erik Skare, this SceincesPo interview is a good place to start.
The Arab world in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s fascinates me to no end: the agitation, the early promise, the infinite possibilities…
Marina Warner, in “Esmond and Ilia: An Unreliable Memoir,” offers a glimpse of the Cairo of those days in this memoir of her parents. Here’s an excerpt from Clair Wills’ review of the book in the NYRB:
“But she also takes us on a journey that encompasses (among many other subjects) the Italian community in wartime Egypt; Ungaretti, Montale, and Marinetti, who were all born in Alexandria; the Art et Liberté movement; Esmond’s polyglot staff at the bookshop (“a world within a world, a convex mirror in little of the larger horizons of the Middle East”); Cairo’s Beaux-Arts architecture; Jean Cocteau’s 1949 tour of Cairo and Alexandria; the dictionary definitions and derivations of one of their favorite words, rastaquouère, meaning someone living on the edge of respectability; the colonial background to Tintin; Ali Smith’s novel Autumn; the racism of the colonial elite…”