Rami G. Khouri is the director of global engagement at the American University of Beirut, a nonresident senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Middle East Initiative, and an internationally syndicated columnist.
It was once the exceptional Arab state that, despite civil war and constant political turmoil, still safeguarded pluralism and personal freedoms. But Lebanon now looks like a dozen other countries in the Middle East, in slow, seemingly inexorable decline into deprivation and autocracy. While too many Lebanese increasingly face poverty, lower living standards and diminished personal rights, entrenched ruling elites have embraced ever more militaristic and authoritarian ways to remain in power, continually rejecting reforms and condemning the country to further suffering.
Lebanon's sad transformation over the past three years is significant for two reasons, at least. The first is that Lebanon's pluralistic system, which allowed vibrant educational, media, business and cultural sectors to flourish in the country in the years before and after its 15-year civil war, also contributed repeatedly to the economic and social development of many other Arab countries in the same period. Whether in health care, education or private business, these other countries benefited from an influx of Lebanese enterprise and skills. But this signature Lebanese export is now declining and may ultimately disappear in due course, as the country's economy collapses. The second reason is that Lebanon's slide into pauperization and securitized governance seals the almost total retreat of Arab political rule into the club of autocrats, generals and dangerous young royals.
Lebanon has quickly turned into just another impoverished, troubled Arab country: Its citizens suffer more and more socioeconomic stress, while their political rights are seized by the heavy hand of a worried government that cannot seem to maintain social stability, except with battalions of police, soldiers and plain-clothed regime thugs wielding batons and throwing tear gas. One of the Lebanese government's new favored tactics against its critics is to call in citizens for questioning by the security services—or, in some cases, to detain individuals and refer them to courts for allegedly "harming the state" through their activism or social media activity. This is new for Lebanon, but it has been common practice during the last decade in Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Jordan.
Lebanon's decline has been mirrored in Palestine, where the inept and increasingly autocratic Palestinian Authority—answering more to Israel than to its own people—arrests or beats up protesters calling on President Mahmoud Abbas, whose original four-year term ended way back in 2009, to resign. The recent case of a Palestinian journalist, Nizar Banat, who died in the custody of Palestinian police sparked major street protests throughout the West Bank, which Abbas' government met with heavily armed police and more plain-clothed security thugs.
These episodes, all too routine for countries like Egypt, rarely happened before in Lebanon or Palestine. Now that such repression is a reality for them, too, Lebanese and Palestinians are doubly angered by their inability to do anything about draconian state security forces. It also adds to the long list of cases, documented for too long by international and local human rights groups, of civilian protesters across the Arab world who are harassed, arrested, detained or even killed for simply demanding a better system of governance that protects their social, economic and political rights—especially the right to free expression.
Lebanon was for years a holdout in a region where too many states are defined by their crumbling economies, poverty-stricken citizens and militant governments. Now that Lebanon has joined that miserable club, it highlights a striking feature of the modern Arab political system that came into being a century ago, at the hands of European colonial powers and their favorite local elites: The entire region often seems to move to the beat of a common drum. This probably reflects the fact that most citizens share the same feelings of hope or frustration, because they seem to be governed by similar political systems that have never embraced genuine pluralistic democracy or political accountability.
The record on this is clear. The common struggle for independence from colonial rule in the early 20th century rippled through most Arab-majority societies. Then a shared focus on national development and state-building defined all Arab countries in the period roughly between 1930 and 1960. Starting in the early 1970s, the oil boom era funded a common rush toward brisk spending on both useful infrastructure as well as profligate, corruption-induced showcase ventures. This was followed by a two-decade period, from about 1980 to 2000, when most Arab countries saw erratic economic development that reflected fluctuating oil and gas incomes and ever-expanding corruption, in countries that never seriously built productive and balanced economies. At the same time, some states like Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Sudan and Libya felt the pain of being governed by one-man military dictatorships that proved to be incompetent at both military action and national development.
Of course, by late 2010 and early 2011, spontaneous citizen rebellions erupted across half of the region. Some of them succeeded in toppling despots—most of all, in Tunisia and Egypt—while others morphed into civil wars—in Syria, Libya and later Yemen—that quickly attracted regional and international involvement. Despite various setbacks, this wave of uprisings and revolutions continues today—outside of the small, oil-rich sheikhdoms in the Gulf—because a majority of citizens despair of living a decent life or passing on any future promise to their children. Sudan, Algeria and Iraq—and Lebanon, too—have all experienced two years or more of nonstop popular protest, but in most cases with little or no sign of the ruling elites giving up the power they have long monopolized.
Unlike other Arab states that have seen these surges of protest, Lebanon has not had a tradition of a strong central government that monopolizes power and dominates all aspects of national life, from politics and the economy to security, the media and even popular culture and the arts. Lebanon has instead been broken by the persistence of the current sectarian power-sharing system that has ruled the country since the end of its civil war in 1990. Rather than a power-sharing system, it is really a power-hogging one by various sectarian warlords, supported by the single strongest actor in the country: Hezbollah. In the past few years, Lebanon's sectarian leaders have collectively copied many other Arab states, whose deep-seated elites allow no serious political participation, zealously guarding their own interests.
The results are the multiple banking, foreign exchange and fiscal crises that have left Lebanon's once vibrant culture and economy as a skeleton of its former self. The elites in Beirut that refuse to budge in the face of sustained street protests and public outcries—just like elites in Baghdad or Algiers—have robbed Lebanon blind and shattered its infrastructure. The evidence on the streets of Beirut is in the piles of uncollected garbage, the rolling power outages and the ruins of the city's port. Nearly a year after last August's devastating port explosion, investigations by Lebanese judges and prosecutors, which identified officials to be tried in court, have been repeatedly blocked, hindered or postponed by actors in the security sector, the presidency, the judiciary and parliament. Prices of almost everything in the country have tripled in the past two years, as the value of the Lebanese pound continues to decline every week.
About 60 percent of Lebanese now live in poverty, bringing the country closer to the average of nearly 70 percent of citizens in the Arab world who are either poor or vulnerable to poverty, according to U.N. data. Mirroring regional trends, the pauperized Lebanese continue to rise up in sustained and bitter public protest—to the point where demonstrators now carry nooses as a symbol of their desire to hang all leaders. The wealthy and holders of foreign passports steadily leave for other lands, but the vast majority cannot. They suffer and seethe with anger and a handful of other emotions like fear, humiliation, helplessness and, ultimately, dehumanization at the hands of their own leaders.
Protesters and ordinary citizens alike continue to search for a way out of this national trauma, having been unable through sustained protests or foreign pressure to force any concessions from those in power. Opposition and reformist victories in recent elections for professional associations and syndicates have prompted many Lebanese to organize for the 2022 parliamentary and presidential elections as a way to drive out the current rulers. Yet they are also all too aware that those same rulers can simply postpone the elections, as they have before.
Meanwhile, a strong spirit of communal solidarity and self-help has kicked in, with Lebanese all over the country aiding each other however they can—sharing food, water, medicine, electricity, gasoline and shelter. Many see it as setting the example for how a real and decent government should operate. But others fear that by meeting some urgent needs now, this communal solidarity will just let the government off the hook, so it can postpone any reforms.
Lebanon, like so many other Arab societies today, is now in an unfamiliar new zone where life for most of its citizens is a daily struggle for things as basic as food; no breakthroughs are on the horizon. The rest of the world, to most Lebanese, seems not to care, or in some cases even supports some of the sectarian leaders in the ruling oligarchy responsible for Lebanon's collapse. Like most other Arab societies, the Lebanese now curse the political class that has made them suffer like this, and they cope as best they can. They keep searching for the magic key that will one day unlock the door to a better future. They insist they can and will become an Arab citizenry that defines its own values, rights and national policies—for the first time, perhaps, since the modern Arab state system was born a century ago.