8 Nov 2010

Suspended democracy and Lebanon’s paralysis

During Saad Hariri’s recent visit to London, he was questioned by a journalist about the failure to ratify the national budget for the past five years. The ‘opposition’ press has dedicated significant coverage to the subject of the budget during the past few months, especially that its ratification is linked to the funding of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon. In any other country, not ratifying the budget for 5 years would be a serious problem. In Lebanon, it’s a minor transgression, as Hariri’s matter-of-fact response indicated. The budget issue is one expression of the perpetual crisis that the Lebanese political system has been going through for years, but it’s only a symptom of the willingness of the political elites to suspend democratic mechanisms whenever convenient.

It’s easy to forget, but the last parliamentary elections took place less than a year and half ago. Public attention has shifted to other matters, but there’s no doubt that significant effort has gone into undermining the results of those elections since then. As bad as elections are in Lebanon, they still represent the choices of the Lebanese people. Characteristically, the political class turned away from the voters as soon as the elections were over in order to seek the approval of another set of constituents: the foreign powers that sponsor them in one form or another. This is not a critique of the ‘former opposition’ only; the March 14 coalition has behaved in an even less responsible manner by squandering its parliamentary majority and then relying on regional and international powers to come to its rescue.

Of course the sight of Michel El Murr being carried over his supporters’ shoulders is a strong motive to lose faith in democracy, but disengagement is not the solution. The real problem is that we ‘the people’ are willing to collude in the process of transferring decision making responsibility from our elected representatives to external powers. We’re content to watch the sequence of events unfold like a TV series that we have no control over. And we’re willing to accept the mercurial realignments within the parliament as if politicians once elected are free to change course with no accountability.

On the last point, the ‘former opposition’, a ridiculous concept in its own right, now claims that Walid Jumblatt’s political turnaround has given it a parliamentary majority. Why not pass a motion of no confidence in the government then? And why is March 14 not using its parliamentary majority to reassert its authority and public support if it really still commands such a majority? Why are both sides content to avoid democratic processes while they await an externally-inspired ‘solution’? The cynical response is that those choices are not possible ‘because of the sensitivity of the Lebanese system.’ God forbid we should offend the sensitivity of our delicate politicians, but this is more of a case of aversion to democracy that sensitive dispositions. The response of the public should not be disengagement but demanding adherence to democratic processes.


  1. Frankly, I can't see Abu Elabed from Tripoli nor Abu Hasan from Nabatieh ever demanding adherence to democratic processes. While it's easy to point out the discrepancies between campaign slogans and back-room deals post elections, I would say the public only has itself to blame. After all, those vile, corrupt, and despicable (I am sparing none) politicians are home grown and bred. They weren't imported. Lebanese vintage 100%. Why do they prevail, because they are a mirror of the society they "represent".

  2. I'm not contesting the legitimacy of Lebanese politicians, of course they 'represent' their society. The point is they should be held to account and not given license to do as they please. Perhaps Abu Elabed and Abu Hasan might not demand adherence to democratic processes, but surely this shouldn't be the limit of our expectations from the Lebanese public? Plus, I am not so sure that they would not.

    On a side note, in Lebanon if you say Abu AlAbed then you have to mention a Christian name next to it, you can't just mention to Muslim names! Otherwise, people might assume that you are a narrow-minded Christian. Lebanese formalities.


Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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