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International aid can help Lebanon rid itself of its ruling junta

‘The fact that it will be hard is no reason to shirk this process.’

A demonstrator waves the Lebanese flag Goran Tomasevic/REUTERS
A demonstrator waves the Lebanese flag in front of riot police during a protest in Beirut, 8 August.

The blast that flattened a large section of Beirut just over two weeks ago ripped apart the lives and property of countless people. It also created a pivotal moment for the international aid system: Donors and agencies can choose to be complicit in a power structure that supports the ruling junta, or they can take a principled stance that helps us rid ourselves of our corrupt leaders and rebuild the better Lebanon we all know can exist.

Since the end of the civil war in 1990, foreign donors and aid agencies have proven a key pillar of financial sustainability for successive Lebanese governments. Yet in the wake of the 4 August explosion at the Beirut port, calls by the Lebanese people for these groups to cease funding for their government have grown to a crescendo, as they take to the streets and protest corruption.

Major donors have already pledged approximately $300 million and have been keen to suggest that aid to respond to the port blast should not fall under the control of the Lebanese government, and the UN has asked for more than $500 million more. 

These stances are principled and admirable. Yet since the post-civil war reconstruction effort began in 1990, donors and aid groups have worked hand in hand with the very same government they now decry as illegitimate and unworthy of aid. In the process, they have become partially complicit in the creation of parallel bureaucracies that have replaced government services in Lebanon, and channelled funds through government agencies immune to oversight, in effect turning a blind eye to rampant clientelism.

If various parts of the aid system are now serious about cleaning their hands of Lebanon’s so-called government, they will have to navigate the minefield of Lebanese politics, geopolitical interests and, perhaps most importantly, the moral question of what is the most efficient and effective way to deliver help to those Lebanese who need it most.

Donors and aid groups have worked hand in hand with the very same government they now decry as illegitimate and unworthy of aid.

If this is to happen, donors and aid agencies – much like the Lebanese – will have to change their view of what Lebanon’s government actually represents, and how much credibility it really has since the uprising that began in 2019, and of course since the explosion. 

They will have to decide what exactly the “government” is, and what it isn’t. That’s because, in practice, Lebanon is not really governed by its state institutions. Rather, Lebanon’s socio-political system is controlled by six major political entities, each connected to a religious sect, competing geopolitical interests, and a business oligarchy. This system is upheld by a monopoly on violence, be it through the army, security forces that belong to the religious groups, paramilitary groups like Hezbollah, or neighbourhood-level thugs.

While many have been loath to say it out loud, Lebanon, in essence, is ruled by an oligarchic sectarian junta that suppresses protest movements and persecutes activists for criticising public officials on Facebook. And when those mechanisms don’t work, the junta simply extends its own term in parliament, as it did on three occasions from 2013 to 2018. 

The Lebanese junta is not like those that have terrorised nations as diverse as Chile, Greece, and Myanmar. Shrouded in Armani suits and prestigious degrees, the Lebanese junta argues that it legitimately represents the Lebanese people, by virtue of internationally recognised elections.

But the product of the Lebanese sectarian system (where each sect is accorded a number of seats in parliament) is at best a deliberately hamstrung democracy. Sectarian quotas run through the state and all its institutions, from the parliament down to the person who makes coffee for the minister. That means true power derives from religion, and not merit. 

To anyone who has been watching carefully, it’s little surprise that this system is incapable of managing basic public services or protecting its citizens as a whole – or for that matter, storing the thousands of tonnes of ammonium nitrate that caused the port blast.

Of course, from time to time the junta maintains appearances by passing laws. But to be enforced, those laws require regulations from its cabinet, which is notorious for tying up reforms in endless bickering, which eventually results in resignations and then a reordering of the same chairs around the same table whenever the inevitable political crisis occurs. This process has already begun anew with the cabinet and prime minister’s resignation last week.

In other words, the status quo persists, all the while propped up by three financial pillars: public debt, a banking system that is nothing more than a regulated financial Ponzi scheme, and international aid. The first two of these pillars have been crashing out of control since the financial crisis that began in Lebanon around October last year, while the third has only started to crumble since the port blast.

If international donors are serious about helping the Lebanese get out of the clutches of their ruling junta, they need to hasten this process of aid independence. 

They will have to accept that Lebanon’s junta is an illegitimate political and military collective that needs to be named and blacklisted. Doing so will entail a complicated process whereby the economic and political interests of the ruling junta are mapped out, and red lines are drawn around aid to those entities. That is no easy task.

Major donors and agencies already struggle keeping to these red lines in countries like Syria and Myanmar, and sometimes compromises and exceptions are made through “principled engagement”, in order to make sure aid can be safely and efficiently delivered.

If international donors are serious about helping the Lebanese get out of the clutches of their ruling junta, they need to hasten this process of aid independence.

But the fact that it will be hard is no reason to shirk this process in Lebanon. Western governments have, at least publicly, left the Lebanese problem in the hands of French President Emmanuel Macron, with other major players taking a backseat. 

Macron and the West will likely support a return to the same old balance of power that existed before the current Hezbollah-backed government was voted in last January: In other words, we will have another “national unity” government of familiar faces plagued by the same deadlock, unable to pass any true reform. 

So despite murmurings that international aid and the threat of sanctions will be used as leverage to compel Lebanese politicians to support a transitional technocratic government, it is way too early for optimism: Lebanon’s overlords have learned how to make concessions to maintain their grip on power.

Still, this is a pivotal moment, and a chance, however small, for change. We Lebanese are well versed in the cynical interplay between geopolitics and international aid. We also know that morally grounded international support can save lives. What remains to be seen is whether or not the international community has the courage and the perseverance to finally break with the junta and help the Lebanese help themselves.

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