Lebanon has been going through ups and downs, cycles of joys and woes, repeated phases of history. It waddles along both victorious and defeated. How do its people feel about this? Are they aware of the issues at hand? Do they have an opinion or a preference? Absolutely. Are they hopeful? Unlikely. The result is a numbing state of indifference.
This article is based on information gleaned from informal interviews with Lebanese citizens – although the word ‘citizen’ does take on an ironic twist, assuming, as it does, a sense of ownership, stake-holding and awareness of their rights and duties vis-à-vis their country. Of course, citizenship also implies the presence of a functional state. The aim was to see if today’s Lebanese are politically indifferent. If so, why and what does it mean?
What is indifference?
The dictionary definitions of indifference include: privation of passion, emotion, or excitement; a state of indolence or apathy, and being incapable of being ruffled or roused to active interest. Etymologically, the word means “no difference,” an unnatural state in which the lines blur between light and darkness, good and bad. Indifference is often an outcome of a crippling set of excuses. Sometimes it is based on ignorance but often comes despite knowing that things are not going well. Finally, it is choosing to ignore that kind of knowledge and waiting for things to become better, allowing the problem to continue. As indifference by definition is being passive and inactive, it also implies no change towards the better and a definite lack of planning. It is the loss of hope and the bottling up of intense feelings that may cause sudden societal rage or lead to indoctrination by extremist groups, such as we have seen in France and the UK among disaffected Muslims. Indifference, far from being stagnant, can be very dangerous indeed.
Arab political indifference
In his article “What on earth is it with the Arabs” Robert Fisk speaks of Arab apathy. Invasions, interferences, injustices and occupation come frequently and are challenged rarely. The fact is that the West objects more than the Middle East. Whether it is violence in Sudan or the removal of Saddam Hussein and the occupation of Iraq, the Arab people simply move on. The Palestinians have been feeling Arab indifference for decades; the Lebanese felt it throughout the civil war and now the Iraqis are also feeling it.
Internally, the heavy hand of the oppressive state has been historically responsible for the apathy which grips Arab societies. They can speak of injustices in other countries but not within their own borders for that is going against the law. As Adnan El Amin says, it is as if the law is to “stay sedentary, within a circle of nonchalance and disgust.”
The sorry state of Arab societal organizations is equally to blame. The Oxford-based academic, Nadim Shehadeh, recently told Al Ahram that “too much has been expected from the man on the Arab street… The people are more cynical and just want to get on with normal life rather than pursue high ideals and become revolted and frustrated.” The public is also feeling deep distrust of their representatives who, as Talal Salman told The Weekly, have started buying their survival from the United States by discreetly agreeing to American plans, while publicly denouncing the US and suppressing all forms of public resentment. The Arab public sees this, loses faith in the regimes, realizes it can neither change the regime nor the way it functions and just gets on with life.
The Lebanese Scenario
The situation in Lebanon is different. The Lebanese allow politics into every part of their daily lives. Compared to other Arab nationals, the Lebanese have more space to express their political opinions while their political energy is more consumed by internal affairs than issues in other Arab countries.
But this does not mean they are not indifferent. If indifference is defined as lack of interest or caring, then the Lebanese are not indifferent. If, however, indifference is taken to mean a lack of hope, then, yes, they are. Elie Wiesel wrote about ‘The Perils of Indifference’ in 1999, he defined indifference as the blurring between good and bad. In the Lebanese case, the people do see the difference. It is just that they are currently in a state of feeling no differently whether they experience the good or the bad – as, you see, the good cannot be so good, the good might just as well be bad. The Lebanese spoken to in these interviews realize what it is like to have a functional, developed Lebanon. But due to a state of hopelessness, they do not see this coming any time soon.
Politics politics everywhere – show me change and not despair
Politics plays a major role in daily life in Lebanon. Jokes, cartoons, comedies and even songs revolve around political reality. “It is the bread we eat,” commented one young Lebanese. One hears political discussions everywhere: coffee shops, the living room, even the gym where small TV sets airing heated political debates grab the attention of those working out.
The space allowed for venting, however, if accompanied by the possibility for action (as in joining political parties, organizations, and demonstrations) is not accompanied by change. The act of political discussion has become an art of deliberation, as in a school debating society, if not a pastime. But what happens after one has spoken one’s mind? What happens beyond polling and opinion surveys? Democracy is only part expressing one’s opinion; the other part is being heard and taking action accordingly. The Lebanese citizen is aware of this incomplete picture. Loss of democracy then results in apathy, and apathy, in turn, results in further loss of democracy. And yet the curve of hope has waxed and waned, affected by incidents, speeches, alliances and shocks.
For 30 years, the main obstacle on the road to prosperity was considered by many to be the Syrian presence in Lebanon. This alone bred inertia, as a justifying excuse was present, obvious and persistent. There was an obvious stagnation in political feeling among the Lebanese public for many years (44.6% of interviewed Lebanese youth in 1997 stated no political preference). However, a revitalization of political energy occurred with the assassination of Former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, and the return of both Samir Geagea and Michel Aoun to the political scene. Lebanon received international attention and support, and a happy ending was perceived when the Syrian forces pulled out of Lebanon. For once, the Lebanese felt they could take their destiny into their own hands. But more recently, the feeling that different leaders had failed to demonstrate genuine concern for the state, has left the people wondering about their loyalties and judgment.
Reasons for hopelessness
It is not lack of information that makes some of the Lebanese indifferent. Information can be incomplete and it can be incorrect. It is mainly the fact that there is no new information and too much of the same morale-defeating information that has led to this inertia.
Indifference can occur as a result of a lack of awareness and interest in current issues as well as a lack of a sense of belonging to one’s country. In Lebanon, several possible reasons for indifference have surfaced:
n A feeling that one cannot do anything about the status quo, coupled with a heavy dose of cynicism.
n A lack of faith in the state, the political system, the law, the institutions, and the politicians as well as a lack of confidence in the ability to organize and achieve institutional reform.
n A feeling that the same tribal and political leaders that have ruled the country for years will continue to do so.
n Voter apathy in the election process, law and candidates.
Indifference in Lebanon
Although the 2005 elections were the first free elections in 30 years, the voter turnout was still not high. The first round turnout was 28%. In the second, third and fourth round, the turnout was between 43% and 55%. Meanwhile, citizens’ rights remain unclaimed, be they the Sheba’a dispute and war crime compensations, while national files – the disappeared, the cellular phone dispute and the quarrying scandal – remain closed. But utilitarian theory dictates that, unless the people see benefit from a certain change, they will not put the effort to bring it about. If two scenarios are similar in weight, there would be indifference in the choices on offer.
People want a dignified daily life. They want to know that they are not being robbed by the VAT and phone and water and electricity bills. They want to know where their money goes. Is the debt being paid off?
Ironically, there is a separation between daily struggle for economic and social security on one hand, and politics on the other hand, which, although very linked to the reality of the people, is often perceived as an accessory or social activity. With a growing economic gap, there has been significant growth in dissatisfaction with present political parties, and this has led to a decline in political trust. People have been marginalized by the complication of ongoing politics. As Walter Lippman pointed out in 1913, ‘indifference prevails insofar as political paradigms propose differences that are irrelevant to the lives and actions of persons.’ But maybe it was Plato who summed it up best when he wrote that, “the price of apathy towards government is to be ruled by evil men.”