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Spring, actually?

by Executive Editors

To resuscitate a dying person is a scary task. Let’s say you walk along the coast and discover a distant cousin laying there lifeless. She is not even breathing any longer, and you understand from how she looks that she must have been washed ashore after drifting in a rudderless boat under a merciless sun for days without food, drink, or even a cap to cover her head. 

Sadly, this is not just some movie script but an increasingly realistic scenario as the crisis persists in Lebanon. But in such a situation, besides making an outcry of emotional anguish, most of us will hardly know what the right thing to do is. We would perhaps carry the victim to someone who can help or try what we have seen in some TV show to make the victim breathe. Even if this works, however, chances are high that we become frantic and wouldn’t know what further aid to give for what problem and in what order. And if we seek to nurse the victim back to mental and physical health, finding and implementing adequate treatment will be another giant leap.  

Bringing an entire country back to life is incomparably more difficult than resuscitating a drowning friend. Against a constant barrage of fears – which were part rational expectations but mostly destructive rumors – that started even before the acute crisis outbreak of 2019, Lebanon has survived month after month by virtue of the people’s resilience. Some of our troubles have, in the meanwhile, diminished or look more manageable today than they did in 2020. However, none of the principal systemic challenges of 2019 and the preceding years has yet been solved. 

Still, there is good. In the realm of microeconomics, meaning the individual and collective affairs of private economic agents, the proven energy of Lebanese industrialists, women business leaders, and entrepreneurs is a source of hope (see our Gender Equity special report for evidence). In the financial economy, there are meaningful efforts afoot regarding the mobilization of finance and access to funding sources – both from private investors and under the inclusion of International Financial Institutions. In global policy matters that are essential predicators for the future development of local industries and SMEs, new initiatives aim to enhance the alignment of Lebanese ventures with climate, environmental, social, and governance standards that are defining the sustainability agenda of entire economies, including the Lebanese one (see story on GCF and ESG). 

And although one cannot honestly speak of a political economy or macroeconomic policy involving the government as a driver of better and integrative development of economic life, even the negotiations and reform efforts of the government from the beginning of 2022 up to the time of the elections appear, by a dispassionate assessment, more fruitful than what was delivered in previous attempts. 

Against all professional skeptics, habitual haters, manipulators, trolls, and naysayers, elections have happened. But at the same time, new global problems are looming, and the answers to the best method for the resuscitation of Lebanon are desperately overdue after the country has been more than two years adrift in the crisis of everything. 

That brings urgent questions back to mind. Does the agreement with the International Monetary Fund, after the recent pronunciation of a staff-level accord seemingly more in reach for this year than in the previous two years, make for the right starting point for the country’s return to economic life? How can the pound’s immediate alignment with the market rate and dismissal of the insane multiplicity of currency exchange rates be worked out, and will a massive floating-rate shock or the opposite, the imposition of an ultra-hard peg, be the best currency solution? 

Will the reform of numerous laws, taxes, state expenditures, and administrative structures be the correct starting point for building a constructive partnership between society and state, or would too many new austerity measures and dismissals of public sector employees overpower the people and stultify growth? Will the decisive spark for the development of new trust by citizens be achieved by holding crooks accountable and starting the restoration of looted and wasted funds? Will a restructuring of the banking sector and, however gradual, return of deposits to the people bring balance back to the reality of our banking experience, even though this entire sector has, with each passing month, looked more dysfunctional and absurd?  

There seems to be at least seven different answers for each of these questions for every three experts that you ask. (You can trust and entirely rely on Executive on this. In the recent past, we witnessed and participated in a plethora of presentations, economist statements, and roadmap debates dedicated to discovering the correct political economy route for recovery. The only thing more staggering than the amount of exhibited brainpower, knowledge, and the predominance of, yes, male greybeards at most of those colloquiums was the number and diversity of expert opinions.)  

Given the bipolar systemic reality of Lebanon, under which, on the one side, there simply is no out-of-the-box solution for the country’s multi-faceted political, social, and economic crisis, and which, on the other side, involves complicated geopolitical interests and regional powers on top of local communal fragmentations and divergent group identities and associated partisan interests, one can make a full-confidence bet that the parliamentary election of 2022 will not deliver easy solutions. 

No functioning democracy can deliver quick and easy solutions. Only an extreme policy simpleton would even ask if perfect solutions to everyone’s satisfaction can be instantly expected from a new parliament, be it broadly or partially representative. What aggravates this dilemma under the Lebanese system, however, is the institution’s track record of procrastination and inactivity, where the country and all observers have suffered through a decade of recurrent legitimacy vacuums, high exposure to corruption, and a consensus modality which anyone with their partisan interests could use to stifle any critical legislative decision, thus disabling actual negotiated compromise.    

Especially when a new Council of Ministers has to be formed, the juxtaposition of multiple self-interests and internal and external allegiances of elected lawmakers had historically translated into tortuous and generally futile periods of partisan negotiations over the formation of the next government – even in periods when the unity of purpose and agreement on the national good were emergency needs (which was at any political juncture of the past three decades). 

This year, in addition to the well-known political challenges and utter economic emergencies, the election outcome engenders many worries that the sharp down-the-middle split of the new parliament will only prepare the ground for more political antagonism. These fears cannot be discounted, and the fact that international observers from the EU to the UN, as well as the highest officials of the Lebanese state, are making it their first priority in post-election statements to proselytize for an urgent agreement on a new Prime Minister-designate and swift formation of a new Council of Ministers (CoM) — can only stoke those worries.

All of the above economic, policy, and political news reinforces the point that in a body’s society and its economy, a gazillion facets are interconnected, and resuscitation of the whole begins way before elections, with the public-minded efforts by countless private agents. Public actors in the best of all worlds would then submit to the wisdom of the private crowds who have told them that they are tired of their petty power games, ineffectiveness, and evident corruption. 

Whether such is a realistic hope for a working majority in the newly elected assembly or not, the country cannot bear another period of political paralysis or sharp disagreements over ideological positions. Moreover, Lebanon has seen enough brainstorming in the search for an economic paradigm. It is two things that need to be understood now: 

  1. A nation is a complex cultural, social, economic, and political ecosystem, and any new direction has to draw on diverse inputs and gather momentum. The discussion cannot afford but adhere to and strengthen democratic processes and broad participation across Lebanon’s internal cantonal lines of identity and belonging. 
  2. Mistakes will be made, never mind what Council of Ministers will come and whatever model for reform and rescue will be applied. In view of Lebanon’s horrendous current conundrum, the best thing to do right now will be to start acting based on existing knowledge and available economic road map resources. Developments should be monitored constantly and policy errors rectified as fast as possible. But to do nothing will be the biggest mistake imaginable. 

Above all, what is required is a fundemental societal, economic, and political spring today. But what is this spring? Among beginning learners of English that come from a Germanic language background, there is a didactic pun on the word spring: a recent migrant to the United States, still uncomfortable with the new language spoken there and surly in his general outlook on his economic future, takes a walk where he meets a fellow expat with stronger language proficiency and cheerful disposition. When the second émigré smiles and says, “Spring in the air,” the first one bitterly retorts, “Spring yourself!” Playing on the difference in the primary meanings of spring in English (the season of new growth) and spring in German, which is the imperative of springen, “to jump, leap,” the joke actually reveals the common root of both words as describing something vibrant that is emerging – but at the same time something that requires a massive leap of faith. 

The cultural pillars of Lebanon’s multi-faceted historic identity all affirm one thing:  when obstacles tower all around, tackling them requires a leap of faith, activating the hidden resources of the human mind and tapping into the principle of hope that is the beginning of development, vitality, and prosperity. The regional protest spring of 2011 and the spontaneous autumn protests of 2019 in Lebanon are the slowly germinating seeds of new cultures that hitherto have appeared to be hidden to the point of being invisible to ordinary minds and superficial observers (of which there is an abundance). The elections of 2022 give hope that the seeds of democratic change will be sprouting faster and better than has previously been expected. 

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Executive Editors

Executive Editors represents the voice of the magazine.
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