As the first decade of this century draws to a close, Lebanese public policy is face down in a stagnant swamp. Of more than 60 draft laws put before parliament since it was elected more than a year and a half ago, it has passed only two.
Despite this, headlines in 2010 heralded Lebanon’s renaissance, with storied statistics glorifying the banks and real estate developers for propping up the country’s soaring gross domestic product. But if times are so good, then why has it become so common to see people digging through trash bins for recyclables to sell? Why can so few wage-earning Beirutis afford a home in the city?
It is because Lebanon’s economic growth has produced few new jobs and wealth accumulation has been limited to the already affluent, who also frequently happen to be members of parliament, ministers and their associated entourages with major stakes in banks and real estate companies. While a handful of MPs seem genuinely concerned for the nation’s welfare, most elected officials show little initiative to operate more than a semblance of a state — one functional enough for them to protect their interests, but not so functional as to provide the Lebanese with services independent of their patronage.
Even the exclusionary growth Lebanon has been experiencing is unsustainable, however, with global organizations — such as the International Monetary Fund — and prominent Lebanese economists sounding warnings. The intensity of wealth concentration in Lebanon is starving the wider free market of capital, while government deadlock on infrastructure reforms is hobbling our productive sectors: industry lacks reliable electricity, our archaic telecommunications network stunts the service sector and entrepreneurial innovation, while agriculture needs a clean, secure water supply. The sprinting GDP growth is slowing and without new investments in infrastructure to carry it, the economy will run out of road.
A positive note over the past year is that an understanding seems to be building in government that something needs to be done; the Council of Ministers, Lebanon’s cabinet, approved an electricity reform plan and a blueprint to overhaul the water sector is in the works, as is a new fiber-optic network. On paper at least, these plans show promise.
The problem is the different branches of government are not performing their most basic functions: parliamentarians are not passing legislation and thus cabinet’s reform plans have not been made law; reams of legislation that was passed in years gone by remain unimplemented by the ministries, and the judiciary has been impotent in holding ministers to accountable for this.
The current excuse MPs, cabinet and the courts have for not doing their job is the confrontation between the government and the opposition over the United Nations’ Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), which has degraded political dialogue in the country to imbecilic chest thumping. The STL, however, for everything else it is, is also a scapegoat. The intransigence of Lebanon’s political and sectarian chiefs preceded the STL and will most likely survive its passing.
It is not the STL stopping the implementation of widely beneficial, desperately needed socio-economic reforms — our so-called leaders are doing that.