Doha Agreement | Economic Crisis

May 22nd, 2008 | Posted in Beirut, Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Independent Media, Politics
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    Broadcasts from Beirut V: An interview with Professor Karim Makdisi.

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    Photo: Krystel Kfoury, Beirut from a distance.

A Tadamon! interview project aiming to highlight progressive voices from the ground in Lebanon on the ongoing conflict, voices independent from major political parties…

An interview with Lebanese political commentator and professor Karim Makdisi offering a critique on the recently signed political agreement on Lebanon’s future signed in Doha, Qatar as without long term substance. As media outlets across the world followed closely the most recent political conflict in Lebanon, seldom was the countries major economic crisis mentioned, with a national debt at around $45 billion, Lebanon maintains one of the highest per capita national debts in the world.

Neo-liberal economic policies adopted by successive movements after Lebanon’s 15 year civil-war have left the country in economic ruins. As the western-backed government and the Hezbollah-lead opposition battled for political power in Lebanon throughout recent months, both mainstream political movements seldom placed the growing poverty rates, crumbling economy and staggering emigration rates front and center.

This interview with professor and political commentator Karim Makdisi offers a rare joint critique tuned towards both mainstream political factions in Lebanon in regards to economic and social policies that have left large numbers of Lebanese unemployed and often in poverty.

Stefan Christoff: Throughout recent weeks Lebanon has been dragged through another major political crisis, a conflict pitting the western-backed government lead until by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against a political opposition lead by Hezbollah. In your recent article, “In the wake of the Doha truce” you touched on larger issues facing Lebanon, the ongoing economic crisis, corruption in the country and the ongoing effects stemming from the 2006 Israeli attack on Lebanon. Can you talk about the major issues that you feel have been missing from mainstream media reporting on the ongoing political crisis in Lebanon?

Karim Makdisi: Lebanon is facing several critical issues. First there is a tremendous social and economic crisis in this country, there is a forty-five billion dollar debt, one of the largest debts per capita in the world, resulting from over a decade of neo-liberal economic policies that simply didn’t work throughout the 1990’s.

In truth there is little opposition towards the economic policies that the government is putting forward, that is to say that the opposition in Lebanon is more or less in agreement with the government in regards to social and economic policy. Both the opposition and the government have attempted to sweep the main social and economic issues facing Lebanon under the carpet. This is one major issue.

Stefan Christoff: Concerning this point. Can you explain how the current social and economic crisis in Lebanon impacts people’s daily lives in the country?

Karim Makdisi: Over the past couple years unemployment rates have gone up between 15-20%, as Lebanon’s economy is suffering due to major internal political crisis or military conflict in this country. Also there is a tremendous emigration happening, especially young people or youth who are leaving in droves, in search for jobs, a better life, a bit more stability than is possible to find in Lebanon today.

Poverty has risen dramatically in Lebanon in recent years, especially in areas outside of Beirut, in Northern Lebanon, in Southern Lebanon, in the Bekka valley and also in certain Beirut suburbs. Poverty has risen tremendously. State services from electricity, to phones, to water have all suffered also. Today there are many electricity cuts, also many water shortages and the summer season hasn’t yet began where traditionally there has always been regular water shortages and electricity cuts, so in this regard many are expecting a severe summer.

Also Lebanon is experiencing an environmental catastrophe today, both resulting from the Israeli attack in 2006 but also more generally an environmental disaster brought upon Lebanon over the past years. Lebanon’s coast line has been almost entirely privatized or destroyed due to pollution. Lebanon’s mountains are also being privatized. Many forests in Lebanon have been cut up. Air pollution is very, very high, while multiple important international environmental agreements have not been implemented in Lebanon.

Now the goal isn’t to paint a drastic picture however it’s clear that today in Lebanon many social, environmental and economic indicators have simply been plunging in the past several years. This is not simply due to the political crisis over the past couple years, which has clearly made things much worse, but also due to very bad policies created during the 1990’s within the supposed boom period for Lebanon.

All these major issues haven’t been addressed by either side. Even the opposition, including Hezbollah, except on the margins doesn’t really mention or talk about the economic crisis. Actually this latest conflict covered up a very important issue in Lebanon.

Trade unions in Lebanon had called for strikes across the country in response to; the unemployment crisis, the economic crisis, the farce of a minimum wage which still is only a couple hundred dollars a month, nothing in Lebanon. All these important issues were to be raised through a general strike, however these issues were superseded by a larger political fight that happened last week. However all these issues in their fundamental terms remain issues that the opposition hasn’t really touched.

It’s not comforting for a citizen to know that this Doha agreement really doesn’t cover any of these important issues, essentially doesn’t cover the issues that are of real interest to citizens, to normal people in this country. However in the short term the Doha agreement provides great relief in Lebanon as it postpones any military conflict on the ground.

Stefan Christoff: Now concerning the Qatar negotiations and the agreement that has been struck. In reading about the negotiations or viewing reports it seems that despite all the Lebanese political representatives being in Qatar, there was little democratic participation in working to resolve the current crisis, a process that would actually involved people in Lebanon. Could you comment on this?

Karim Makdisi: Doha agreement was created within any involvement from ordinary Lebanese, there was no role for civil society. Clearly the political classes that were negotiating the agreement had very little concern for ordinary people in general. This reality in Doha articulates the distance between the political class in Lebanon and ordinary people as the role for non-political workers in Doha was extremely limited.

Each time Lebanon faces a political crisis, each time that Lebanese politicians are in a major disagreement they have had to travel outside of the country. This occurred with the Taif Agreement in Saudi Arabia at the end of the civil war in 1990. This phenomenon occurred again recently with the leaders traveling to France to negotiate, also traveling to many other countries in recent years for political discussions. Never holding serious talks or negotiations in Lebanon.

Now Lebanon’s politicians have traveled to Doha, Qatar to agree on something which is allegedly a purely Lebanese internal affair. However this external negotiation process certainly illustrates something fundamentally wrong with the political situation here in Lebanon. No mechanism is built into the Lebanese political system to resolve disputes, to resolve disagreements within the political class, internally within Lebanon. Lebanon’s constitution doesn’t provide for it, the political process doesn’t provide for it.

Lebanon always needs to have an international or regional patron, the external factor, to hold things together. In this most recent case it was Qatar. Throughout the 1990’s Lebanese politicians use to often run to Syria to resolve disputes. Despite the rhetoric in recent times, any time there was a dispute in Lebanon all the political leaders would get into their cars and travel to Damascus to have the issue resolved in Syria then return.

Lebanon’s political class has always relied on some regional or international patron and this reality has been reinforced in Doha. This agreements spells an entrenchment for Lebanon’s sectarian system, also this agreement continues a long history of disenfranchising Lebanon’s people.

Unfortunately this reality is a damming picture for all civil society actions in Lebanon throughout the 1990’s.

Today it’s clear that civil society has failed in Lebanon and that the major international organizations or donors have also failed as donors backed civil society organizations which are really quite superficial, which really have no political depth or strong analysis.

Stefan Christoff: Let’s expand on this last point that you mentioned, Lebanese civil society. Lebanon has hundreds if not thousands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country, also within the Palestinian refugee camps, millions if not billions in development aid is flooding into the country, especially after the 2006 war. Could you discuss the civil society or NGO role in Lebanese politics today?

Karim Makdisi: ‘Civil society’ is a buzz word that came out during the 1990’s after Lebanon’s civil-war, something that attracted tremendous funding from outside organizations, international organizations, foreign governments including the U.N., the E.U. Major financing was poured into what were dubbed ‘civil society organizations’ in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s civil society as a unified body could be understood as a political network that is independent from the state, working on the ground on important issues impacting people and local communities. Today civil society has failed in Lebanon, despite multiple efforts to form an effective civil society network in the country that could influence the government and international organizations, these NGOs have failed to wield any real political power or capability to organize people in Lebanon.

Clearly there are some notable exceptions to the rule, as there are always good people working on the ground carrying out good work, this is unquestionable.

All this international funding sent to Lebanon after the civil-war simply created a couple super civil society organizations, in the environmental sector, in the social sector, the developmental sector often removed from real people’s needs. These super civil society organizations essentially spent most of their energy in conferences and workshops dealing with E.U., U.N. and other agendas outside Lebanon, spending much time writing fundraising documents, basically catering to external political agendas not serving people in Lebanon directly.

In parallel numerous small, local and relatively isolated civil society groups or NGOs working on the ground, isolated from these larger or more well funded civil society groups emerged. These smaller civil society organizations took action but clearly their resources are limited and today they have almost zero popular political backing, so their influence is extremely limited, extremely isolated to particular small areas where they fill specific needs.

In response to this reality, Islamic organizations in Lebanon but also similarly throughout the Middle East understood that there was a serious gap between these small local local organizations and these super civil society organizations, major NGOs backed by institutions like the E.U. or the World Bank.

Islamic organizations were able to work more throughly on the ground, directing money into creating important social organizations, mobilizing local support, mobilizing people towards action, gaining more and more support on the ground.

In talking about Hezbollah, aside from the famous military wing, it’s also maintains a very successful network of social organizations on the ground in Lebanon. For example Hezbollah’s networks or organizations affiliated with the party work on projects such as rebuilding agricultural tracts in southern Lebanon or in the Bekka, on providing pensions to certain people in Lebanon. All these programs are technically what the Lebanese state is suppose to be undertaking, not only during the past few years but long before also.

An effective national civil-society in Lebanon would channel all this international money pouring into Lebanon, all this donor money into real projects that are politically independent but actually improve the lives of people on the ground, while also challenging public or government policy in a way to force it to become more manageable, more equatable to people. This is especially important for people in the outer-areas in Lebanon.

Stefan Christoff: Now concerning the socio-economic policy of the opposition and Lebanon’s government, the two major political currents in the country. You talked about both factions having similar economic positions. You also outlined the large network of social services that Hezbollah is involved in supporting or maintaining, that many people view to being a key to the movement’s popular support. In this context could you expand on your thoughts concerning Hezbollah’s economic policies. Are they really similar to the government’s position given the large focus on social welfare throughout the country?

Karim Makdisi: In saying that the opposition and the government’s economic policies are similar I mean similar in regards to general policy. Hezbollah until now hasn’t offered any comprehensive substitutes to the neo-liberal policies that this country has had over the past 15 to 20 years.

At times Hezbollah is critical towards government economic policy, towards certain policies or programs, however they have not offered a clearly different vision for the country. In effect Hezbollah has gone along with multiple privatization schemes pushed by the government, gone along with a multiple neo-liberal policies that this government and previous governments have enforced throughout recent years.

Hezbollah has made it clear that as long as their political gains are won they aren’t really going to fight for major change regarding economic policies, this has been their record until now. Certainly Hezbollah’s record isn’t exactly the same as March 14th, however we still wait to see if they have any real changes to offer on the social or economic front, changes to address Lebanon’s economic crisis.

Now concerning Hezbollah’s social services. Certainly Hezbollah has provided many social services, they are very, very good in this respect, however they are mainly directed to communities loyal to the party. In other words their social services to a large extent reinforce sectarian divisions in the country, Hezbollah has catered to communities that support them because the state has often been absent within these communities not just today but for decades.

A real economic alternative would cater not only to one community but to the entire country across sectarian divisions. Building national civil society organizations that can provide to everybody regardless of their sect or location in Lebanon. Building a national civil society that is able to influence public policy, remain independent and be critical towards the government. Civil society in Lebanon should be a watchdog to the government, it should provide real alternatives and should be at all times independent from the government, from the state.

Hezbollah has certainly done a much better job in comparison to the other political parties or movements have be able to do across various regions in Lebanon. Often Hezbollah has provided much better services than what the state has provided however often these services are catering only to their own constituents therefore reinforcing Lebanon’s sectarian logic.

Stefan Christoff: Let’s jump back to the negotiations in Qatar this past week. Now mainstream media coverage concerning the recent negotiations in Qatar certainly hasn’t addressed many issues that you have addressed in this interview. Given that a national unity government will be established, wondering your thoughts on the possibility that the critical social, environmental or economic issues you have outlined will be addressed by a unity government, which certainly will include Hezbollah.

Karim Makdisi: Unfortunately no. This Qatar agreement, assuming it holds which it should for the short term, is simply a redistribution of some power here and there in Lebanon between the opposition and March 14th. In other words it includes slight changes on the margins for the political class. This agreement doesn’t address at all the concerns of citizens or of ordinary people in Lebanon concerning the issues that we have been addressing in this interview. Honestly it’s difficult to see a way that this agreement can address these critical issues in any meaningful way.

Clearly once a national unity government is formed there must be consensus on different policies. However until now it’s clear that any policy that comes out is going to be quite similar to the types of policies that prevailed during the 1990’s, economic policies lead by the World Bank, the IMF, the E.U. and the U.N. Policies that will certainly be about increased liberalization for Lebanon’s markets and privatization that will ultimately worsen our economic situation.

It’s hard to see very much changing in this respect, regarding the overall policy. Hezbollah might critique these policies from time to time, they might use anti-corruption rhetoric to demand more transparency which clearly makes much better.

However the overall developmental or social policy wont change, as it hasn’t even been discussed. Doha agreement ignores many key issues, core issues that many people in Lebanon would like to see addressed. This process means the continued disenfranchisement for the majority in Lebanon, while a celebration for a political class that has brought this country either war on state corruption since the end of Lebanon’s civil-war.

For fifteen years we had war throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, then we had a tremendous level of corruption and theft of state property during the 1990’s. Now over the past couple years we have had a total political breakdown which has lead to many, many social problems. All this means once again the political class that brought us into this mess aren’t going to be held accountable.

If you recall the end to Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, there was a general amnesty law that under which all the war criminals or leaders for various militias received no legal sanction and even some at time were incorporated directly into the government in the name of national unity.

Now again we are again facing a similar situation, in which all the people who are responsible for the economic crisis in Lebanon, for the political crisis, for all that’s happened to Lebanon internally in recent years are all going to be brought back into government. All the political leaders are going to shake hands, kiss each other and they will move on.

However the people’s lives that have been most severely impacted, those who have gone from being middle class to being poor in a snap, those that have emigrated, those that have been killed or have suffered, all these people are once again are going to be dropped.

In the absence of a strong civil society in Lebanon, that’s able to pick-up the slack and press the government on these critical issues, I don’t see that with the absence of this independent social force that these fundamental questions will become resolved.

Stefan Christoff: In this interview series on Lebanon, Tadamon! recently featured an interview with journalist Anthony Shadid, who explained that it’s not possible to understand or view the current crisis in Lebanon without understanding it’s relationship to the Middle East region and specifically to the role that the U.S. played in Iraq, leading to the institutionalization of the current wave of sectarianism across the Middle East. Let’s talk about the wider regional context to the current situation in Lebanon from your perspective.

Karim Makdisi: Lebanon’s conflict has both an internal dimension which we have been discussing but also an external one. There is no question that the current crisis in Lebanon is connected to the larger U.S. ‘war on terror’, which has only brought instability and violence across the region throughout the past several years.

A main instrument that the U.S. Administration has used in it’s war in this region is an effort to institutionalize the riff between Sunni and Shi’ite, in an attempt to try to create a buffer against Iran through promoting Sunni tribalism, a clear and documented effort to insight tensions between the two Muslim communities.

In Lebanon such major tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite communities didn’t really exist before the most recent internal conflict. Today political problems are taking increasingly sectarian tones. During Lebanon’s civil-war people internationally would talk about it as a Christian-Muslim conflict which it never was as such, now internationally people are talking about the current situation as a Sunni vs. Shi’ite conflict, however it’s really not this it’s a political conflict in which the U.S. and it’s allies in the region use sectarian language as a divide-and-rule tactic.

In this sense the current conflict in Lebanon can not be divorced from the larger regional and international picture. From Iraq to Afghanistan, from Somali to Eritrea, from Palestine to certainly and of course Lebanon, all these conflicts are connected and they will never be resolved until the U.S. changes policy in the region.

Karim Makdisi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Studies and Public Administration at the American University of Beirut. He can be reached at: km18(at)aub.edu.lb

Broadcasts from Beirut is broadcast in audio format on CKUT Radio in Montreal.

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