x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Drifting through a leaderless limbo, exposed and alone

Government or no government, and regional instability, Lebanon will probably still muddle through.

Easter weekend in Beirut offered a dramatic contrast to events less than 160km away in Syria, where the security forces were shooting at protesters on the streets of the major cities, despite lifting a 48-year ban on peaceful demonstrations.

The cafes at the ABC shopping mall, one of Beirut's main retail centres, were overflowing with people eating, drinking and smoking away their immediate concerns, which could be quite considerable given the obvious political and economic threats posed by the crackdown next door.

These threats would be ominous enough even if Lebanon were a genuine functioning entity, but there has been no government for three months, and the business community especially is feeling very exposed, given the amount of trade that flows across the Syrian border and the real possibility of further sanctions on the Assad regime.

Growth is predicted to drop off by more than half to about 2 per cent, and already inflation has hit 6.5 per cent. Hotel occupancy rates have fallen by nearly half, and the number of tourists has dropped by just under 5 per cent for the first quarter.

A senior partner in one of Lebanon's biggest car importers admitted over dinner last week that business was worryingly slow. "People are in a wait and see mood, given the local position and events in Syria," he said.

It was a sentiment echoed by the head sommelier at one of Beirut's most prestigious hotels: "Our expectations for the [summer] season are low."

Lack of leadership from Saad Hariri's caretaker administration is another problem (given that he was forced out of office in what amounted to a coup, it is hardly surprising). But government or no government, and regional instability, Lebanon will probably still muddle through.

Over the past 35 years, since the start of the 1975 civil war, the state has been unwittingly emasculated by a private sector that knows it must fend for itself if it is to get anything done. As we know, getting things done in the pursuit of financial security is what Lebanese businesspeople are programmed to do.

The garbage hasn't piled up on the street because Sukleen, the green lorries of which pick up our rubbish, is a private company.

Meanwhile, we have all learnt to pay for private water and electricity to cover the government shortfall. There is no state education to talk of; ditto health.

So it was with guffaws that many Lebanese businesspeople greeted Hizbollah's announcement that a programme of "economic reform" would follow the eventual formation of the new cabinet, as no government in the post-war period has succeeded (only a few have tried) in delivering on anything close to that.

Given the new March 8 majority is more a pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian gathering than a cohesive alliance committed to wholesale change, one must once again dismiss these claims as nothing more than populist hot air.

Or to put it another way, as an American friend confessed on Saturday as we sat amid the holidaying families who appeared oblivious to the gathering storm clouds: "I often wonder what it would be like if I hadn't been born a US citizen.

"I know that wherever I go in the world I have a country that can, and will, do its best protect my interests. This gives me a sense of security. It's no wonder the Lebanese put their sect or their tribe before the state, because the state doesn't really look after them. I can't imagine what that must feel like, and I'm glad I don't have to."

Go to Mukhtara, the feudal seat of the Druze bigwig Walid Jumblatt on any given Saturday, and you will see throngs of underlings come to petition for a job for a useless son, an education for a promising daughter, or a even a hip replacement for an ageing mother.

Hizbollah offers the same to the Shia, except on a party rather than individual level, a strategy that it has spun into making people believe it is an organisation without personal interests.

Either way, the state has been marginalised.

As Michael Young wrote in his book The Ghosts of Martyrs Square, "Better to have a politician or a party on one's side when the problems come, and there are many, than to face one's travails alone."

Consider the relatively new pay-and-display parking spaces on many of Beirut's streets. They are a private-sector initiative with a percentage of the proceeds going to the state.

I reversed into one recently, only to be told by a man in mirrored sunglasses that the space was reserved for the shop in front of which I was parking.

But surely, I argued, the shop didn't own the street, one that was clearly designated for public parking. Our man simply pointed down the road to a free space.

"Park there," he ordered. "This is for customers."

At this point you are all egging me to storm into the shop and confront the manager, but I didn't. What was the point in arguing? I have neither a politician nor a party. I am alone.