As Lebanon picks itself up after months of enduring post-traumatic stress syndrome in the wake of Rafik Hariri’s murder, the Syrian withdrawal, and subsequent bombings and assassinations (a syndrome that will, in all probability, resume in the aftermath of the Mehlis report’s release), little has been said about revamping the country’s political-economic culture.
Yet few things seemed more useful when, in mid-August, Walid Jumblatt announced he would consider withdrawing his ministers from Fouad Siniora’s government when it came time to address privatization. There were several ways to interpret his shot across the Hariri yacht’s bow: Jumblatt was upping the ante to ensure he would profit from privatization; he was warning his Hariri camp allies that he was no potted plant on national policy; he sought to show that as a ‘socialist,’ he had little sympathy for the capitalism favored by the prime minister.
One might add that Jumblatt was also perhaps reinforcing his uneasy alliance with the Hizbullah-Amal coalition, whose political clients would likely be hardest hit by the large-scale privatization of public utilities. Politics aside, the dilemmas of privatization illustrate a more fundamental problem of the post-war state: do politicians want it to be large or small? And how does the answer fit in with the society’s traditional tendency to frame public affairs in terms of patron-client relationships? The answer seems obvious: because political life is shaped by patronage, politicians are more than happy to capitalize on whatever they can extract from the public teat. In other words, don’t expect Lebanon’s leaders to return to a perhaps imaginary time when the state was regarded as a necessary evil, tolerated by the communities, occasionally aggressive in its efforts to re-impose central authority, but always destined to slink back to irrelevance, even as the market filled the vacuum.
Certainly Lebanon is still devoted to the market, and the state is often perceived as much as a nuisance as it is considered a life raft by the prickly Lebanese. However, there are two philosophies confronting each other today as the country seeks a new center of gravity: the first, aspiring to a market-driven, largely privatized state, which would lose much of its social and economic sway – a vision the Hariri camp prefers, as do most Christian political groups; the second, a more mixed system, where the state plays a dominant role, but where the market is allowed to remain free, though it must open up to new participants. This is the view of Hizbullah and Amal, and to a lesser extent Jumblatt. The dividing line between the different political forces is historical access to the market: those who favor a strong market are already well-entrenched in it; those who do not, are not.
Which vision will prevail? The answer may come not from Lebanon but from Iraq, where a revolution of sorts occurred in August when a new constitution was proposed dividing the country along religious and ethnic lines. In one stroke, the Iraqis may have sounded the death knell for the overbearing, centralized Arab state sitting atop multi-communal and multi-ethnic societies. There are a few in the region, and they will be looking at Iraq with alarm, as they see that almost half a century of using despotism to suffocate centrifugal tendencies in their societies may be coming to an end.
Ironically, Lebanon, long considered the embodiment of the worst qualities of communal society, may be the most apt to resist the message coming from Iraq; unlike other Arab countries, the Lebanese long ago accepted their cleavages and sought to manage communal relations by accepting a weak state amid strong communities. That said, the communities, particularly the Sunni and Shiite communities, are in the process of inheriting the post-Syria order, so unless they can manage their competition, Lebanon may yet pass through a period of turbulence.
One thing they and everyone else will have to agree on however, is what role will be left for the state. Iraq can create paradoxical aftershocks: while the message may be that fragmentation is acceptable, the Lebanese, or some of them, may conclude this will make the state pie smaller, so they will insist on revamping the present confessional system while ensuring Lebanon remains united. Others may find inspiration in Iraq and ask to divide the country, though there is little to divide. Either way, the communities will have to express a clearer sense of what the state means to them, an effort they have perhaps understandably, avoided doing until now.