Weeks after blast, Lebanon patronage system immune to reform

Three weeks after a catastrophic explosion ripped through Beirut, killing nearly 200 people and rendering thousands homeless, the change many hoped for is nowhere in sight. Instead, activists said they are back to square one.

The same politicians whose corruption and negligence the public blames for the disaster are negotiating among themselves over forming a new government. Calls for early elections have petered out. To devastated Beirutis, still sweeping shards of glass and fixing broken homes, the blast revealed the extent to which an entrenched system of patronage remains impervious to reform.

In fact, the tools that the ruling elite have used to ensure a lock on power the past 30 years are only more powerful.

Rising poverty amid a severe economic crisis gives them greater leverage, with more people desperate for the income their patronage provides. Their grip on electoral politics was made tighter by an election law they passed in 2017, making it harder for independents to win seats. And there are armed groups affiliated with political parties.

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“Basically, we have no way to force them out,” said Nizar Hassan, a civil activist and an organizer with LiHaqqi, a political movement active in the October mass anti-government protests.

Lebanon’s political parties are strictly sectarian, each rooted in one of the country’s multiple religious or ethnic communities. Most are headed by sectarian warlords from Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war — or their families — who stand at the top of powerful local business holdings. The factions pass out positions in government ministries and public institutions to their followers or carve out business sectors for them, ensuring their backing.

Opposition parties that cross sectarian lines with a reform agenda struggle to break that barrier. They are divided and lack grassroots support. They have also increasingly been met with brute force by security agencies.

Street protests have been dramatic. But the array of anti-government movements were not sizable enough to push for sea-change reforms, Hassan said.

“To seize the moment, you need people on grassroots level that are ready to announce they support it, and this doesn’t really exist in Lebanon,” he said.

Civic movements like LiHaqqi are not well-financed, face intimidation and can hardly afford to book airtime on mainstream channels, where elites are regular talking heads.

A sliver of hope is found in growing support from businessmen who once financed elites but have become increasingly frustrated, Hassan and other activists said.

Business owners began having a change of heart around the beginning of the year, as the economy deteriorated, hyperinflation flared and many people fell into poverty, said Paul Abi Nasr, a member of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists.

“The business community used to stay out of this from fear of retribution on their businesses,” he said. “But with the situation so dire already, a lot are now much more forthcoming.”

That has translated into a small stream of money to civil groups, though limited to covering organization and lobbying.

Industrialists and businessmen have helped prop up the patronage system, but most “were forced to play along,” Abi Nasr said. Politicians helped businesses in return for kickbacks and political support when needed.

Those in government who have witnessed the system from the inside maintain it cannot reform itself.

“People like me, after years in the world of government, basically feel that the system is immune to reform,” said Khalil Gebara, who left his job as an adviser to the Interior Ministry.

“But at the same point, the total collapse of the system will unleash a Pandora’s box of all kinds of sectarian conflicts,” said Gebara, now a consultant to the World Bank. “I don’t know what I should hope for.”

The wake-up call for Lebanon’s activists came not during the October uprising, when tens of thousands took to the streets in protest against the corrupt political class, but four years ago when Beirut held municipal elections.

It was the first time that a candidate slate emerging from a protest movement, Beirut Madinati, won in an electoral district. The small victory emboldened activists to look to polls to bring change.

It also spooked elites. The following year, they passed a new electoral law. It created a proportional representation system that ostensibly aimed to address demands of civil society and improve representation for minority sects.

But they “gerrymandered every aspect of the law in order to ensure that all political parties in power will be re-elected and none of the voices in the opposition could be,” said elections expert Amal Hamdan.

Under the law, a special formula determines the minimum threshold of votes for candidates to win seats. The factions worked to ensure those thresholds were high — ranging from 8% to 20% — and difficult for independents to gain, lawmakers and advisers with knowledge of the drafting of the law said.

In the south, for example. Shiite Hezbollah rejected proposals for a 5% threshold and arranged one as high as 20%, said Chantal Sarkis, an expert in political affairs and former adviser to Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces throughout negotiations over the law.

Activists like Hassan said the core problem lies with lack of grassroots support to initiate real political change. “When it comes to actual political dominance over the social fabric — everything is really manifest on local level.”

In his home district in the Chouf, where former warlord and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is dominant, LiHaqqi supporters faced intimidation on the ground during the 2018 general election, Hassan said.

The father of one activist was sacked from his government job; mothers begged their activist children to stop canvassing in case powerful politicians got wind; others said they would vote for establishment parties because they wanted jobs. Not a single village allowed them to hold public events.

In the wake of the Aug. 4 explosion, when nearly 3,000 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate ignited at the Beirut port, political parties have set up field offices offering humanitarian and other assistance to victims.

Now with the falling Lebanese lira, Hassan fears establishment parties have more clout than before.

“It’s even cheaper for them to buy people.”

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