x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The blast that killed Mohammad Chattah served to shunt Lebanon further down the road to oblivion. Not only do the Lebanese need a government but they also need one stuffed to the gills with the likes of him.

We Lebanese have a sad tradition of losing our best and brightest.

In 2005, we witnessed the murders of Basil Fleihan, the economist and former minister in the same blast that killed the former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Three months later Samir Kassir, the journalist, writer and activist, died in his booby-trapped car. The newspaper publisher Gebran Tueni met a similar fate six months after that. And on Friday morning, Mohammad Chattah, the former finance minister, IMF economist and ambassador, was blown up as he drove through downtown Beirut.

If you haven’t witnessed it first hand, it’s hard to explain just how depressing it is to watch a country fall apart so efficiently. We were doing it very well even before Mr Chattah met his terrible end.

The blast only served to shunt Lebanon further down the road to oblivion. Not only do we need a government but we also need one stuffed to the gills with the likes of Chattah.

Say what you want about Lebanon’s political class and its universal breathtaking incompetence, but the one difference between the March 14 and the March 8 blocs, the two entities that, since the eponymous month in 2005, have defined Lebanon’s two main political impulses – essentially pro and anti Syrian – is that the former at least understood that a country needs a functional economy.

Sure, it also has its share of dinosaurs with dubious CVs – Amin Gemayel, Samir Geagea and, depending on his mood, Walid Jumblatt – and a clutch of feudal shoe-ins who don’t do much but it also has, and had in Chattah and Fleihan, proven technocrats with internationally respected track records.

It is also the bloc that attracted what I will call the unaligned Lebanese, those non-partisan people who simply want to live in peace and prosperity. That March 14 has thrown the game away and lost much of this support (mine included) in the past nine years should not diminish the sense of expectation we all felt during those heady days in Spring 2005.

March 8 on the other hand – essentially Hizbollah and thuggish Amal Movement – claim to have their own technocrats, mostly drawn from its Christian allies in the Free Patriotic Movement, but none has any serious pedigree.

One is the energy minister Gebran Bassil, the son-in-law of the party boss Michel Aoun, whose term in office has been dogged with accusations of corruption and attempts to expedite the natural oil and gas exploration and drilling contracts before a new government is formed and his portfolio is given to someone else.

I’m not saying that if it were given to a March 14 minister all deals would be totally above board – this is Lebanon after all – but, and this is just to illustrate that he was cut from a different cloth, consider what Chattah, in an essay that appeared in the local media last year, suggested we do with any new-found natural wealth.

Not only did he propose direct cash distribution of the proceeds to all Lebanese, arguing that it was the fairest way as these resources would essentially belong to the people, he also posited this question to those who might argue that the government would need the money to “spend” on resuscitating the country: “Is it really the lack of money that is making the state weak and ineffective? Or is it the ineffectiveness of the state that has ensured that Lebanon’s public finances have remained so weak? Would throwing easy money at the state be the right answer for resolving our national ills? Would state corruption decrease? Would state institutions suddenly begin to function normally? In fact, would the state be better at managing the income of Lebanese from the sale of natural resources than the Lebanese themselves?”

I doubt it. Mohammad Chattah was a rare class act. Many of those who went to his Beirut home to pay their condolences said the same thing, and I paraphrase. “This is not a country for cultured and educated people. It is a country for crooks”.

Michael Karam is a Beirut-based freelance writer.