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Arab spring or Lebanese summer?

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9 May 2011 09:33

It's not often that Lebanon can look out at the region and consider itself an island of stability in a sea of political turmoil.

But while members of the Mubarak family go on trial, the former Tunisian leader Zein al Abidin ben Ali enjoys exile in Saudi Arabia, Muammar Qadhafi is subject to daily NATO air strikes, Bahrain continues to imprison and try hundreds of Shi'a protesters, Yemen waits to see if President Saleh will step down and Syria sends in troops to quell its domestic uprising, Lebanon is gearing up for the summer tourist season.

Lebanon has its own problems, of course — no government after nearly four months of negotiating; one of the parties seeking to form government, Hizbullah, has a militia that is stronger than the national army, and four of its members are allegedly going to be indicted for the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister; the national debt is $55 billion and rising. 

But Beirutis continue to eat, drink and be merry.

While change sweeps across the region, there is no large-scale movement for change in Lebanon, despite its ossified political system. The reasons are many, but in part it is because, even if most people wanted to agitate for political change, there is no real centre, let alone a single autocratic figure against which to mobilise. 

Political ossification in Lebanon is enshrined in both its sectarian political and majoritarian electoral system. These ensure that political families are able to perpetuate their dominance of Lebanese politics, while large sectarian parties such as Hizbullah and Amal cooperate to deny political rivals from emerging from within their community.

I have spent the past few days interviewing a range of Shi'a political figures in Lebanon and, while they all differ on their methodology for achieving an independent path for parliamentary representation, they all agree on one thing – the need to reform the electoral law to adopt proportional representation.

And therein lies the rub – electoral law reform needs to be passed by parliament, by the very same people who would lose power by doing so. To do this would require a statesman to drive it and several statesmen to ensure its passage. And in Lebanese politics, statesmen have been few and far between. Self-interest has always been, and remains, the currency of Lebanese politics.

This is not to say that the Lebanese people don't see the need for change or that they can't be mobilised to achieve political aims – the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in 2005 are testimony to that. It is more that so many people believe the system is impervious to change because its sectarian nature makes it so complex. 

While the rest of the Arab world is largely autocratic, Lebanon is an amazing combination of oligarchy and single party rule. The Berris, Jumblatts, Hariris, Franjiyyahs and Aouns comprise the oligarchy while Hizbullah provides the single party element.  With power so diffuse, the removal of one or two of the pillars is hardly going to bring the house down. 

Most of the time, the inability on the part of the political actors to think nationally has consigned Lebanon to instability. But in the current regional environment, the very weakness of the centre has protected the country from replicating the regional unrest. The veneer of democratic institutions and norms makes the system difficult to reform. But because checks and balances are exercised by people with vested short-term sectarian interests, these very safeguards serve to perpetuate the power of the oligarchs. 

Little wonder that Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries unaffected by the Arab Spring. Its people are more interested in the Lebanese Summer.

Photo by Flickr user stevendamron.

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