The Hyper-normalisation of Crisis in Lebanon

26th Apr 2022 by Ibrahim Halawi

The Hyper-normalisation of Crisis in Lebanon

One of the key motives behind sectarian politics is representation. When sectarianism encroaches on state institutions, representation becomes a euphemistic language for sectarian contentions over state resources. As part of formally ending the civil war in Lebanon in 1989, the sectarian encroachment on state institutions was legitimised by external actors. So, the state’s legitimacy was reduced to sectarian representation. In other words, the state did not have to play any role in society, other than ensuring that it represents sects as per the post-war agreement. This, in practice, meant that the state was merely a cow to be milked proportionately by different sects, because the state has no other function than representing the warring sects. Consequently, its resources become mere spoils of war shared by the victors. Then began large-scale sect-based recruitment into the state, in which former warlords-turned politicians colonised the state through bringing ex-militia men into its institutions. Whilst recruitment into the state has been hap-hazard and inefficient, with strictly clientelist calculations, the sectarian shares were efficiently allocated in almost all of these recruitment trends, again reflecting the exclusive role of the postwar state in Lebanon: representation. 

Now the cow is almost milked to death. The country is facing existential and overlapping fiscal, economic, and political crises. State-based clientelist channels have dried up. But sect-based clientelism continues outside the state, in shadow institutions such as traditional political parties and new non-governmental organisations working explicitly and implicitly based on sectarian considerations. Of course, this does not compensate for the death of the cow. But it buys the traditional elites some time, with the hopes that some regional geopolitical arrangement would resurrect the cow in Lebanon. Therefore, despite the near collapse of the postwar state, the logic of sectarianism, manifested itself in the language of representation and the political economy of clientelism, lives on. 

This is not news to many followers, students and scholars of Lebanon. But the sense of normalcy attained, at both the level of the elites and society at large, during one of the deepest social, financial and economic crises in contemporary international history, is baffling. As I write these words, thousands of cancer patients, among tens of thousands of patients with severe illnesses, have little or no access to medication or even painkillers. Overnight, hundreds of thousands of people have lost their pensions, social security, and savings as the banking sectors all but collapsed. Tens of thousands have migrated in the midst of a global pandemic and hundreds of thousands are preparing to do so. Almost half of the healthcare staff has left the country already. The same can be said about the educational sector. 

Yet, traditional and aspiring elites are hyping up for parliamentary elections scheduled in May 2022 with discourse and programmes that speak mostly to one issue: representation. Of course, parliamentary elections in particular invites representative discourse, let alone in a country where politics have been reduced to representation. Aspiring elites are selling people inflated hope that, if “new faces” (some refer to themselves as more competent faces) were to be represented inside the parliament, they will table decrees and laws in favour of the people. Traditional sectarian elites revisit old fault-lines to vilify the “other”, victimise themselves, and encourage people to vote either to protect their representative share or advance their representation vis-à-vis other sects. 

Most Lebanese families have at least one member employed in the state, thanks to sectarian shares. Now, the logic of representation, which protects this access to jobs, contributes to collective denial to the severity of the crisis. The public is not confronting this reality precisely because its traditional and aspiring elites are acting as if what has just happened can be reversed through representation. The absence of the state in the politics of postwar Lebanon was a source of humour for many Lebanese, with the famous rhetorical question: “wayn el dawle?” (where is the state). Now, this question remains rhetorical, overshadowed by bickering elites, despite it being the most pressing one for a society subjected to the harsh realities of state erosion. 

The state has to be the answer to what was missing after the war and what should be done from here onwards. Any serious effort to do so cannot coincide with the logic of representation in this ailing system. The question of the state can only be brought to the table seriously based on the logic of civil rights: healthcare, housing, and education. Otherwise, the Lebanese people’s resources, dignity and future will continue to be sacrificed under the pretence of representation by old and new elites. And much like the Lebanese state was the spoils of war for sectarian warlords, the Lebanese society will be the spoils of peace. 

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"thomas hirschhorn_detail" by MANYBITS is marked with CC BY-NC 2.0.