“Kullun haramiyyeh” — “they’re all thieves” — is the most common sentiment about Lebanon’s politics on the streets of Beirut. You’ll hear it from street vendors, waiters, students, teachers, architects, taxi drivers, doctors, Muslims, and Christians. It’s a view, in short, that unites this perpetually fragmented country.
So when Michel Aoun, the maverick general-turned-politician, achieved his long-held ambition of becoming president on Monday, most ordinary Lebanese reacted with indifference. The new president is just another name, another title, and another episode in the country’s endless — and ultimately meaningless — political drama.
To become president, Aoun, the country’s main Christian leader, struck a deal with his longtime opponent, Saad Hariri, head of the rival Sunni Future Movement. As part of the deal, Hariri will now become prime minister. But for the deal to work, it also needed (and duly received) the approval of arguably the most powerful man in Lebanon — Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah.
For ordinary people, this is all a game of musical chairs. Such is the disconnect between the country’s political class and the people that the average Lebanese can’t tell the difference between having a president and not having one. Prior to Monday, Lebanon had, in fact, been without a president for two years — but this fact could not be discerned on the streets of Beirut. President or no, Lebanon has had no effective governance for decades.
Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement has long touted its ambition to strengthen the state and reform its institutions. But Lebanon’s political system is based on power-sharing, not leadership. Before anything can get done, the most prominent leaders within the country’s Sunni, Shiite, Christian, and Druze communities must agree. And Lebanon’s warlords seldom agree on anything. No wonder it took two years to settle on a president.
But this week’s deal masks the real power dynamics in the country. Hezbollah — the only faction from the civil war in the 1980s that still retains an active paramilitary force — is Lebanon’s most powerful political player. It receives financial and military aid from Iran, and its forces are tough and battle-hardened, steeled by long years of war against Israel. The group’s military prowess has grown even further as a result of its current campaign in support of the Assad regime in Syria. No other force in the country, including the Lebanese army, can contend with Hezbollah’s armed wing.
That’s why its blessing is required for a president to take his seat or for a government to form. But even once a government is functioning, it won’t be able to pass any policies without Nasrallah’s consent. And Hezbollah’s policy over the past decade has not been conducive to effective governance. Instead, it wants to render Lebanon’s government so weak that it is incapable of challenging the “Party of God’s” own state-within-a-state.
Though Hezbollah enjoys extraordinary influence over Lebanon’s domestic political scene, the Shiite militant group prefers to run its own affairs within its community while playing a minimal role in the central government. It draws much of its legitimacy from providing basic services such as health care, education, employment, and security to the country’s large Shiite population. A capable government that could provide these basic functions would cut into Hezbollah’s pie. Therefore, though he may be an ally, Nasrallah will not allow Aoun’s vision of an empowered state come to pass.
Instead, rival factions will take their respective portfolios in the Hariri-led government, empower and enrich themselves, and fail to accomplish much of anything. This is how the game has been played since the signing of the Taif Agreement in 1989. That agreement put an end to the civil war, but effectively devolved the power of the state to three key positions that are reserved for Lebanon’s three main constituencies: the president (a Maronite Christian), the prime minister (a Sunni Muslim), and the speaker of parliament (a Shiite Muslim). In this system, by design, no leader or party can govern alone, and all major factions hold a veto on policy. The result, when the various groups can’t agree on a compromise, is paralysis.
This dysfunctional system is why, after 26 years, Lebanon still cannot provide its people with 24-hour electricity or a year-long supply of fresh water despite an abundance of water resources. This is why there is no investment in job growth, infrastructure, or industry, which has resulted in consistently high emigration. It is why the cost of living is so exorbitant. It is why there is no coherent policy on dealing with the Syrian refugee crisis, or even on how to deliver the most basic services, such as garbage disposal. Lebanon’s power-sharing formula has not worked — it has merely entrenched the power of the very actors who fought the civil war and ravaged the country.
But this is how the warlords want it. For all their bickering, the various factions benefit from a weak, ineffective central government that allows each one of them to carve out its own fiefdom. The state’s complete paralysis has forced Lebanese to get by in a largely informal economy. That’s why the reliance on patronage networks for employment, housing, and security is so significant. Most Lebanese are dependent on the very haramiyyeh that they deeply resent, and this dependence prevents collective popular action against their rulers. While many Lebanese share a disdain for their country’s leaders, to revolt against them would threaten their livelihoods.
There have been attempts to mobilize and break the political oligarchy, such as the independent Beirut Madinati list that ran and gallantly lost in this year’s Beirut municipal elections. This movement is now planning to enter the parliamentary race that is likely to take place in 2017. But whether it can make an impact remains to be seen.
The Lebanese are trapped in a corrupt, vicious system that keeps them at the mercy of leaders who have no interest in improving their lives. Their new president will offer no escape from this system, only its continuation. While Aoun’s supporters celebrate his triumph, for most Lebanese, it’s business as usual.
In the photo, president-elect Michel Aoun sits in the presidential palace in Baabda, east of Beirut, Lebanon, on October 31.
Photo credit: PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images