Ayman Mhanna, director of the Samir Kassir Foundation and executive committee member of the Democratic Renewal Movement.
Rival Lebanese political parties may have finally reached consensus on two issues that have drawn much attention over the last three years: the public sector’s salary scale increase and the management of the Syrian refugee crisis. However, the processes and circumstances that have led to the consensus embody all that is wrong about governance in Lebanon today.
On September 6, 2012, the Lebanese Council of Ministers, led by then-Prime Minister Najib Mikati, approved a bill to increase the wages of public sector employees. Given the absence of an agreement on how to fund the bill—which originally would have cost an estimated $1.9 billion—discussions stalled in parliament. Civil servants and teachers’ unions organized large scale demonstrations and boycotts in response. Graduating students were in turn at risk of being unable to enroll in university the next academic term until the Minister of Education devised a stopgap measure and issued attendance certificates.
But suddenly, political parties that had long clashed over the issue announced in mid-September 2014 an agreement to approve a revised bill. The measure, however, was not in response to citizens’ social concerns; it was the price to pay to secure a new extension of parliament’s term. Speaker Nabih Berri had tied the extension to the resumption of legislative activity; therefore, the Sunni Future Movement-led March 14 coalition, which sought to postpone the parliamentary elections, had to abandon its declared opposition to legislating under presidential vacuum.
Likewise, political gridlock characterized the government’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis. It took Lebanon two years to begin discussing a coordinated response, spurred by the recent clashes between the army and Islamist militants in Arsal, followed by the kidnapping of 30 Lebanese soldiers and the subsequent execution of three of them. The first proposal to emerge was to relocate more than 100,000 refugees in Arsal to another area. While commendable in theory, the plan lacks practical implementation mechanisms and any mismanagement might deepen the problems between the Lebanese army and the refugees, with all the dangerous security implications that would ensue.
The salary scale debate and the handling of the fallout from the Syrian war are two key examples of the Lebanese government’s failure to plan ahead. Major policies, affecting the lives of Lebanese and Syrians for decades to come, are decided hastily, either to achieve short-sighted political gains or in response to dramatic developments. While the Lebanese political class has so far managed to avoid a complete collapse of the security and economic situation in Lebanon, its way of doing politics is not sustainable. Lebanon’s leaders ignore its fundamental problems in the hope that negotiations among its regional sponsors would reduce political tensions and magically solve all pending issues. Such an approach might bring about the election of a president, but will neither wipe out the growing budget deficit nor solve the political gridlock and the myriad challenges caused by the influx of over 1.1 million registered Syrian refugees into Lebanon.