Thursday, 22 July 2010

The more things change, the more they stay the same

Bahibak ya lubnan -- but sometimes I just have to say, what's going on here? The enchanting words of Fairuz in homage of her homeland are captivating, but unfortunately for all the love that the Lebanese profess for Lebanon, collectively it is not living up to its potential. It is a blunt assessment, but one that unfortunately continues to ring true. Outside the Sky Bars, the cityscape of Solidere, and the beautiful beaches, Beirut is a city submerged in cynism, pessimism, and disappointment. 

Living in the Gulf, you find talented Lebanese from all walks of life contributing to economic and social success of their host countries. There must be something in the cedars that cultivates a truly unique sense of entrepreneurship and wanderlust. That global talent pool of 16 million persons of Lebanese descent outside the country are responsible for remittances that contribute up to 25% of Lebanon's GDP. The wealthiest person in the world is arguably the telecommunications magnet Carlos Slim, a Mexican of Lebanese origin worth $50 billion. 

Within Lebanon, the cosmopolitan culture has a vibrancy that is almost unparalleled. You can catch international music acts at the Byblos or Beiteddine festivals, or even see Akon in concert who will be here August 7. Wander into Music Hall and you will be mesmerized. Go to AUB, and you will be surrounded by a historic and free scholarly environment in the Middle East. And up and down Gemmayzeh street there are any number of bars and lounges that conjure up a global imagination. Throughout the country, family businesses based in Lebanon do global trade from West Africa to Canada; professionals with top-level skill-sets would be the envy of any nation in the region. 

Nevertheless, for all the talent and potential of the Lebanese individually, Lebanon has failed to live up to its billing. Every now and then there is blame heaped on the civil war and a casual remark is bandied about that once upon a time Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East; today, the capital is indeed once again featured in the New York Times travel section as a top world destination. Yet the bygone past and a glossy present cannot absolve Lebanese politicians for their abysmal failure to provide a functioning state for its people today. 

The constant political turmoil, 15 year civil war, and external pressures, have made the Lebanese very resilient, and self-reliant. Moreover, a strictly sectarian dynamic of 18 recognized confessions that precludes a census from being conducted (the last in 1932) would surely slow the governance of any country. Thus, the government has become apathetic and unconditioned to true accountable, responsible, effective governing. There was always an excuse and if the government did not provide a service, the people would depend on themselves or their confessional leaders. Now, with a delicate political balance in the country, the young Prime Minister Saad Hariri has a chance to push forward an agenda of progress. However, the more things change the more they seem to stay the same in Lebanon. Unemployment hovers around 20%, Beirut residents are being priced out of their own homes, the deficit and debt are still not under control, tax evasion is pervasive, electricity in many regions is still intermittent and the list goes on. Public transportation and transparency are luxuries that probably don't even make the to do list yet. Try privatizing any institution in the country and assuredly whatever deal is reached will cause a collective rolling of the eyes. 

Recent municipal elections in Beirut were a perfect example of governance without real accountability to voters. Lists of candidates were only submitted several days before the vote, which pretty much went along predictable sectarian (or factional lines) with scant attention to issues, platforms, or track records. Lebanon is of course ahead of Syria, or other regimes. But that precisely misses the point of where Lebanon can and should be in its place among nations. Its potential surely has been undermined by war, conflict, religious tension and a number of other factors. Now, however, the political elite need to step up and demonstrate true leadership on all the unsexy necessities that have been neglected for too many years: finance, health, education, infrastructure for starters. Of course, if you ask many people here in the country, they'll tell you about the faith they have in their politicians: Kul hum haramiyin (they're all bastards). Perhaps. But shepherds are nothing without their sheep. 

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