Change must come from within Lebanon, but Emmanuel Macron and others can help by ending their patronage of a disastrous regime
In the aftermath of the devastating Beirut port explosion last week, it is not just the role of the Lebanese political class that has come under scrutiny, but that of their international peers too. Sunday’s international donor conference led by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, raised €253m (£228m) in relief funds, but it also signalled an important change in rhetoric. For the first time, donors affirmed that relief funds would directly go to the Lebanese people, and that longer-term economic assistance would be dependent on Lebanon implementing structural reforms.
This affirmation came hot on the heels of growing international attention on rampant corruption among Lebanon’s ruling political class, which is widely blamed for the port explosion. It sends the message to Lebanon’s rulers that, while their country desperately needs foreign assistance to stand on its feet, no one can help Lebanon if it does not also help itself. But the communique issued following the conference glossed over the international community’s own role in sustaining Lebanon’s corrupt political class over a period of decades. At the aid conference, Macron said that Lebanon’s future is at stake. What donors need to recognise is that this future is a shared responsibility for them and Lebanon’s leaders alike.
With Lebanon’s debt greater than 170% of its GDP, and with the port explosion costing an estimated $15bn of damage, Lebanon needs foreign assistance to prevent it becoming a failed state. But what it needs even more desperately are reforms that would counter the corruption and lack of accountability that led it to this sorry state of affairs in the first place. It is Lebanon’s existing political system – a power-sharing pact between different sects rather than a system of governance on the basis of competence – that facilitates its leaders’ reckless behaviour.
The international community is partly responsible for sustaining this system through cascading patronage. For decades, Lebanese leaders grew accustomed to neglecting the national interest and eventually being bailed out by international assistance. Dollar deposits would land in the central bank from Gulf donors, loans would be offered by European countries and foreign aid packages would flow to Lebanese state institutions – only for the majority of this money to end up lining the pockets of the country’s rulers, who frequently overcame their political differences to share state resources between them. The Lebanese state came to exist as a shell in the eyes of its citizens.
Lebanon’s rulers benefited from citizens’ low expectations from the state and the lack of measures ensuring transparency and accountability in the country. They brokered a social contract that cast the leaders as patrons and the people as clients rather than citizens. Foreign powers were well aware of this dynamic but they often turned a blind eye to it, and even nurtured it, because they believed the Lebanese political system brought stability and predictability following the tumultuous civil war.
With time the leaders’ greed grew, and with that the economic situation worsened. Leaders who behaved as de facto local authorities, granting constituents civil service jobs or minor privileges, provided them less and less. There was some international recognition that this dynamic was becoming unsustainable – international donors pledged $11bn during the CEDRE conference of 2018 on condition that Lebanon implemented structural reforms. And in the wake of Lebanon’s recent economic deterioration, the International Monetary Fund said in April that any discussion of a loan to Lebanon would be subject to more reforms. On both occasions, Lebanon’s rulers ignored the calls for reform, counting on foreign support eventually coming in unconditionally as it used to in the past. International donor follow-up was sluggish.
The port explosion needs to be a wake-up call for any international entity seeking a stable Lebanon. The blast is ultimately the result of the decades during which political classes in Lebanon and outside it fostered the country’s dysfunctional political system. No long-term assistance should flow into Lebanon without strong conditions on transparency and accountability in how this assistance would be employed. Foreign support is not the problem per se, but rather when it is handed on a plate unconditionally, maintaining the patronage cascade, exacerbating the weakness of state institutions, and further impoverishing Lebanese citizens.
With Lebanon’s economy almost crumbling in the aftermath of the explosion, there is an opportunity for the international community to exert leverage over Lebanese leaders – whose personal wealth grew partially from legal and illegal transactions through the devastated port – so that necessary reforms are implemented. Such leverage would not remove Lebanon’s defective political system, but would pressure its leaders to accept at least some basic reforms.
But for Lebanon to really turn a new page, it needs a new social contract and a new political system based on fairness, transparency and accountability. This is a change that can only start from within Lebanon, but it also depends on the international community abandoning their tacit support of a disastrous political status quo.