It's been two years since the Arab Spring, and surely by now only the most committed Kool-Aid drinkers would deny that what started as a genuine bid to be part of a vibrant democratic and aspiration-driven global village has morphed into a battle between the reform-minded and the religious over the turf vacated by ousted autocrats. It was easy to get romantic, but events in Syria have woken us up to the grim reality that what started as a struggle for a better life has descended into sectarian slaughter.
Nonetheless, many organisations have seized on the phenomenon as an excuse to call for fundamental change across the region. "Rethinking Economic Growth: Towards Productive and Inclusive Arab Societies" is a joint report of the United Nations Development Programme and the International Labour Organization on the importance of good governance in maximising economic output after, what its authors see as 20 years of "skewed development policies, social justice deficits and … poorly managed economic liberalisation".
New regimes, it says, need to set new standards in good governance. It is not enough just to create jobs. There must be jobs with dignity, government accountability and what it calls "democratic participation". On the business side, the report cites the need for "a level playing field in order to be able to pursue legitimate profit-seeking activities, from micro and small-scale undertakings to full-scale investments".
This is all true and all very worthy, but, and you can call me an old curmudgeon if you like, the fundamental behavioural shift required for the report's recommendations to be put into practice would have to be so seismic that I can't see it happening in my lifetime.
Still, as part of its bid to spread the gospel, the two bodies held what policy wonks like to call a round-table in Beirut last week, during which Mary Kawar, a senior regional policy specialist for the ILO, said that Lebanon had to "rethink its economic model".
My first reaction to this was to ask: what model? There is no model. The Corleones were better organised.
Still, the fact remains that 70 per cent of Lebanese jobs are in the low-paying service industries in a country where there is little opportunity for the training of skilled workers.
Yet one of the saddest ironies of modern Lebanese society is that, while we place huge stock on educating our children, we have 23 per cent youth unemployment.
Lebanon is full of trilingual taxi drivers and bilingual valet parkers, fast-food deliverymen and supermarket bag packers. An MBA graduate from the American University of Beirut, if he can find a job without travelling abroad, is unlikely to command more than US$1,500 (Dh5,509) per month. It is hardly a decent return on the $37,000 tuition fees and barely enough to eke an existence in a country where the cost of living rivals western Europe.
If there is a Lebanese "model", it works like this: the talented go abroad, perpetuating the centuries-old, not to mention romanticised, tradition of emigration. These dutiful sons and daughters send money (30 per cent of GDP) to those living under the toxic influence of a corrupt political class and a stern religious establishment.
The talent that stays - bankers, importers, and the professional classes - carve out a cosy niche for themselves and are allowed to flourish. The rest of the country works for a pittance and lives under the protection of one of the sectarian-based political parties, despite showing outward allegiance to the flag.
It is a system that snuffs out both motivation and aspiration and operates on a far from level playing field. The politicians who are dutifully elected every four years are widely acknowledged as crooks and gangsters by those who send them to parliament, hence the belief that the ladder cannot be climbed through hard work alone. Cynicism sets in. The only way to break out is to leave.
I will wager that it is unlikely to change any time soon.
Michael Karam is a writer based in Beirut