It was the waste crisis that ignited the protests around the Lebanese Parliament, across Downtown, on the doorsteps of numerous ministries and on highways and sites around the country. On different occasions, such as August 22 and September 20, protests flared into massive demonstrations. On many other days, protest activities were small manifestations of discontent on a street here or in a town square there. All the while, backdoor planning sessions and meetings have been taking place among protest stakeholders from several civil society groups that comprise a new “protest movement” that for many is an embodiment of hope for changing Lebanon for the better.
In speaking with five of the movement’s groups, Executive encountered an array of activists and took note of several facts. Participants are spirited and united when viewed from afar, but up close cracks and dissonances appear. Groups that drive the movement have yet to institute organizational structures and codes of conduct. Opinions which members of the protest movement convey to Executive are generally strong but some are somewhat underdeveloped when it comes to assessing issues such as the role of the private sector. As of today, the movement brims with good intentions that are seeded with the power of constructive rebelliousness and will for change – which is great. But the ambition to force fundamental change is, by universal human experience, highly combustible.
Can this movement build a sustainable system? This skeptical question obviously begs for an emphatic “no” as answer – but it is an irrelevant question. The true question in the view of Executive editors is, what has the movement already proven? The answer to that is simple and compelling. The movement has proven that the Lebanese will not tolerate the country’s dysfunctional system. Not any longer.
This is dangerous for those people whose welfare depends on the Lebanese status quo. Luckily for Lebanon, these people are but a few – the holders of secto-political ancien regime outposts and their cronies who form less than “one percent” of the population. All the others – the entrepreneurial private sector, the public servants, the retirees, the young and everyone whose economic contributions keep the country alive – have much to lose under a continued status quo. How much? That is innumerable. Think erosion of property rights and economic opportunities but also loss of fundamentals for a modern civilization such as a sound environment, electricity, water, and now health due to the risks of garbage-born epidemics.
Lebanon is in danger because of a system that has grown more dysfunctional with each year for at least a decade and that has been surviving because its beneficiaries could exploit unnatural social dichotomies and economic dependencies. For example, some regions in the south and north of the country have deliberately been denied their rights for development to maintain a poverty hierarchy.
What is needed is a complex development of responsibilities and institutions that must start with a simple premise. We the people must accept that the Lebanese social contract with the state is broken and has to be rewritten.
Why rewrite a social contract?
In the period after the civil war, the social contract was ruled by the Taif Accord that facilitated a return to national order. According to scholar Hassan Krayem, the agreement “tackled many essential points pertaining to the structure of the political system and to the sovereignty of the Lebanese state.” But, as Krayem wrote in 1997, the system established under the Taif Accord failed “to establish a clear and relatively stable formula to rule, govern, and exercise authority” and left the country in unfulfilled need to transcend sectarian identities and “establish a clear conception of the national identity”.
In the context of addressing the ongoing problem of Lebanon’s dysfunctional system of governance, we can identify two salient points from the National Pact and Taif Accord. The first is the observation that the National Pact was produced by a few for the many. As another scholar Farid Khazen wrote in 1991, “this informal agreement was neither restricted to Lebanese parties, nor was it a national one. Rather, it was an arrangement involving Lebanese politicians (mostly Maronite and Sunni), Arab leaders (mainly Syrians and Egyptians), and western powers (the French and the British in particular).” Taif, as Krayem states, “constituted a compromise among the Lebanese deputies, political groups and parties, militias and leaders”. Neither contract was “written by” the Lebanese people.
The second point is that both agreements were smart and fairly workable expressions of “Realpolitik”, and addressed immediate and practical concerns of coexistence. However, neither agreement qualified as a nation building tool. The system governed by the objective of balancing communal interests has served its purpose of maintaining stability, but it has aged to the point of not reflecting the needs of the people who it was designed to serve and protect. In recent years, it has increasingly served the needs of minute, self-styled elites. Twenty years after it was written, Krayem’s final statements seem more relevant than ever: the implementation of systemic reform and creation of a stable modern Lebanese state “needs perhaps the existence of a different vision, different political forces, a different notion of politics, and a new generation.”
The right generation
As evidenced by the protest movement of this summer, the new generation is finally in town and it aspires to its rights. When compared to Lebanon’s previous generations, namely those from the civil war and prior to 1975, the under 30s of today have the advantages of a broader education, fewer experiences of violent external disruptions, and benefit from the millennial tech troika of computing power, connectivity and social networks. What’s more, they are acting in an environment that is ripe for change.
Certainly, not everyone today feels the need to craft a new social contract for Lebanon. However, the vast majority has been waking up to the daily realities of their increasing powerlessness in terms of both political and electrical power, water shortages, inundation with waste and not enough money to get children to college, let alone through it.
These failures of the Lebanese state and of traditional power figures have caused desperation which in turn has destroyed a lot of vertical trust and horizontal social capital. Viewed positively, this is a fertilizer for change. Thus, based on the impulse provided by the protest movement and with buy-in from the important stakeholders – academic, economic, civil societal and even genuine reform-willing political and traditional change makers – the rewriting of our social contract becomes a real possibility.
Although a contract evokes the image of pen and paper, this is seldom the case save for a few declarations made throughout history. The “writing” of a new social contract is a multi-tiered enterprise and done through mutual cooperation. From the perspective of Executive, this would involve mobilizing every available human resource and embarking immediately on an array of projects, of which we emphasize three for starters.
As a polity, Lebanon needs the rule of law and the guarantee of constitutional rights. At the present time, this requires rectifying the disastrous failure of the electoral and representation systems, beginning with the definition of a clear electoral law and implementation of the constitutional mandate to abolish political confessionalism.
As a body social and economic, the Lebanese cannot dispense of knowing who they are, how they live and what they are capable of producing. This requires a complete and detailed census of relevant demographic, social and economic data. Public and private establishments, and all citizens, must have access to comprehensive social and economic information to optimize their ability to plan and perform.
As a community, Lebanon needs to preserve the resources of its historic diversity and at the same time develop its inclusiveness. In regard to the multiple infrastructure emergencies that the country is facing, and especially the waste management crisis, this means that the protest movement and private sector should collaborate with vigor and intensity to produce workable solutions.