Arabs across the Middle East and North Africa took action for social, political and economic change in 2011; the Lebanese, meanwhile, largely stood silently by as their country continued to revel in sectarianism and a sham ‘democracy’. No more can we claim to be more enlightened or forward thinking than our Arab brethren. What has been made clear over the past year is Lebanon’s rot: from its politics, to its economics, its food and even its collective psychology.
The Lebanese should take a lesson in empowerment from the rest of the region; the longer our situation persists, the more backward we are shown to be. If we continue to avoid the needed fundamental structural change, the socioeconomic situation will only deteriorate, putting us at risk of our society snapping — as it has many times before — resulting in sectarian violence.
But toppling the people at the top is not the answer. At the start of the year, the Hariri government came down and by the middle, Mikati’s had emerged. Yet little changed on the ground.
When Hezbollah and its backers pulled out of the cabinet, causing the Hariri government to crumble, the main reason was that Hezbollah could not tolerate being part of a government headed by a man who would accept it being targeted by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). The manner in which the excuse given for bringing down the government — the controversy over the so-called ‘false witnesses’ issue — was duly swept under the rug by the new government is yet another example of how internal political squabbling produces few results other than personal political gain.
When the Mikati government emerged in June, it was a by-product of both Syrian pressure to have a government in place that could support it as it came under fire for its brutal crackdown on dissent, and Saudi consent for a prime minister that would protect their interests by playing it down the middle.
What these two instances show is that despite people across the region taking to the streets chanting “Al shaab yurid isqat al nizam” — the people want the fall of the regime (or system) — we are still unable to break the cycle of internal stagnation brought on by external influences. What has kept us in our current state is the self-fulfilling mantra that the people alone cannot change the basic realities of life in Lebanon because there are larger tribes outside the country that manipulate our chieftains. We, their subjects, render ourselves helpless and apathetic because we believe any action taken toward change will ultimately fail. This proved to be true this year, when disorganization and internal bickering caused a youth movement that called for secular change to fall apart from the inside.
But, as the external factors began to change in 2011 — most notably on the Syrian front — a unique opportunity to change how the country is run presented itself. During a year when our economic growth has been erased because of failing infrastructure and a region in turmoil, our socioeconomic sectarian system entrenched by the threat of ‘fitna’ — sectarian discord — is proving unable to protect those it claims it does.
In the absence of societal progress and productive economic growth there is little left for sectarian chiefs to dole out to their subjects. Emigration is proving less of an option as the world deals with the global reality of fewer jobs and less pay. Thus, the support mechanism is, in effect, running low on fuel.
The debacle over raising the minimum wage, which erupted in October, is the best example of this. Once the chieftains realized that simply dishing out more cash to their subjects would bring on further, unsustainable demands due to increasing inflation and unemployment, they backtracked and their impotence became apparent.
When the people realize that the problem is the monopolistic structure of the economy, they will also realize that the solutions necessitate changing the economic nizam. This will undoubtedly play itself out in other areas, from the elections to the water supply, as 2012 progresses. To maintain their system, the chieftains will try to use a weapon they know how to wield best to maintain their power: fear. If it does not work, the only other option for them is fitna, because structural change will result in their own self-destruction.
It is up to the rest of us to decide whether we will continue to be duped by the old ways, or turn on our chieftains and hold them to account.
Sami Halabi is Executive's economics and policy editor