The art of not governing

How Lebanon's rulers got away with doing so little for so long

Christiana Parreira

Perhaps the most unprecedented feature of Lebanon’s current demonstrations lies in their geographic scope. From Sour and Saida in the south to Tripoli in the north and Baalbek in the east, Lebanese have coalesced into a movement that blends local grievances with a unifying rage at the national elites that bind the system together. This overlap between central and local politics lies at the heart of Lebanon’s failing political system. It helps explain one of the country’s defining riddles: a state that provided virtually nothing to its citizens, who nonetheless reelected, so far, the same politicians over and over again.

Since gaining independence in 1943, the Lebanese state has existed in astonishingly minimalist form, failing to deliver satisfactory levels of social welfare and public services. The country ranks 113th out of 137 in terms of infrastructural quality, according to the consulting firm McKinsey. Electricity provision stands as the fourth worst in the world, per the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index. Public schools and hospitals are avoided by all Lebanese who can afford to do so and many who cannot. Lebanon’s political class thus presides over a system serving little more than its own interests. How has it been so skilled at doing so little for so long?

Untangling this paradox requires looking away from politicking in Beirut and toward the Lebanese periphery. Though most politicians reside and bicker in the capital, virtually all draw their social base and electoral power from smaller urban centers and adjacent villages. To maintain their supremacy over these areas, Beirut-based elites nurtured a diverse set of intermediaries who distribute patronage, rally electoral support, and preempt potential opposition. These local power-brokers—heads of prominent families, business owners, well-educated technocrats, and neighborhood strongmen—have long held the keys to the ruling class’ political fate.

Across Lebanon, this symbiotic relationship was institutionalized in the form of municipalities: local councils ranging in size from 9 to 24 elected members, depending on a locality’s size. Their quotidian duties—such as road repairs, trash collection, and street lighting—make them immediately relevant to ordinary Lebanese and thus vital to bridging the gap between national elites and the people who elect them. While these bodies historically served to project state control and services into far-flung territories, they have in recent decades evolved to do the opposite: help ruling parties do less and less for their supposed constituents. 

State-building and unbuilding

Lebanon’s first municipalities were established as a tool for expanding the reach of the Ottoman state, which had been rattled by a wave of unrest that spread across Mount Lebanon in the 1840s. The Ottoman rulers created the very first elected municipality in Deir al-Qamar in 1864 and others soon followed in Beirut, Saida, and Tripoli. In an era prior to cars or modern sanitation systems, these councils did little more than resolve disputes and feed information upward to Ottoman officials.

A loose but powerful compact bound the Ottoman state to these satellites. Authorities at the center provided local leaders with funds they could redistribute to constituents and thus cement their popularity. In return, these notables quelled dissent whenever necessary. The country’s French colonial rulers tapped into and expanded this system during the mandate era (1923-43), as did the post-independence national government. Local elites previously detached from the idea of a Lebanese nation-state were thus brought into its fold. This cooptation helped the state apparatus transform from abstraction to reality, as the number of municipal councils and their range of responsibilities increased. 

This process of consolidation, however, ground to a halt. After the elections of 1963, local polls were repeatedly delayed—first amid regional tensions following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and then due to the onset of civil war in 1975. In 1977, however, a brief pause in fighting convinced national leaders to begin planning reconstruction and their own return to grace. Parliament ruled to vastly expand the scope of municipal authority, to encompass waste management, road works, and the maintenance of public spaces. When the war reignited soon thereafter, Lebanon’s local governments found themselves powerful on paper, but entirely untethered from a central government that had lost any semblance of sovereignty. 

Lebanon’s local governments found themselves powerful only on paper

By this time, municipal officials faced a catastrophic set of circumstances. Their constituents were more in need than ever, due to ongoing violence, economic decline, and collapsing public services. Yet municipalities lacked the financial resources or administrative capacity to act. Their mandate to hold office was also flagging. Everywhere, unelected stand-ins took over from the many council members who died or emigrated; in many cases, the governorate or district heads only loosely oversaw these council’s remnants.

Takeover and transformation

Simultaneously, a new political class was forming, comprising a mix of militia leaders and wealthy business figures. Both groups cultivated their influence by stepping in for longstanding local elites. An exemplary case of this takeover occurred in the southern coastal city of Saida. There, a construction magnate, Rafic Hariri, upturned a political equilibrium built around the decades-long dominance of the Bizri clan. The latter had used its clout to dominate locally while also entering national politics: Nazih Bizri, elected mayor of Saida in 1952, won the following year a Parliamentary seat he held onto intermittently for almost four decades.

The civil war, however, severed the family’s access to central government resources, leaving the municipal council bankrupt and unable to fulfill even the most basic functions. To make matters worse, Saida felt the full force of the 1982 Israeli invasion: After days of shelling, residents walked out of their homes to see roads destroyed, electricity lines torn down, and the municipality burned to the ground. With Beirut offering scant support, Saida’s sitting mayor—a former real estate developer named Ahmad Kalash—sought help from Hariri, a wealthy acquaintance of his. Hariri promised to donate over a million dollars in reconstruction funds by the end of the week. “It was the beginning of the Hariri era,” recalled a councilor who served at the time.

Hariri went on to bankroll the repair of roads, street lighting, and sanitation services. He revitalized the local market and hired experts to design a citywide rezoning initiative. In the process, he established the Higher Council for Municipal Projects, a local foundation he renamed after the war the Hariri Foundation. Rather than seek municipal approvals and financing, Hariri paid for his own projects, hired his own staff to implement them, and then handed over the final outcomes back to the municipality for future management.

This shadow government quickly came to tower above Saida’s political life. The Bizri clan’s networks withered, as did various others. Hariri even stepped in to fund a cultural center to honor the martyr of a rival Sidonian family—politician Maarouf Saad, who had been assassinated in 1975. “Ultimately,” said an advisor to the city’s council at the time, “everyone just wanted a cut of what Hariri had to offer.”

An analogous process was underway in other places, as wartime militias worked to build ties to municipalities in areas they controlled. In the southern regional capital of Sour, the Amal Movement—a political party born just before the civil war and which later founded an armed branch—assumed a similar role. A current councilor and Amal member recalled that, after Israel’s 1985 incursion into the city, Amal formed the Committee for the Development of Sour, which funded infrastructural repairs and, like Hariri’s Higher Council for Municipal Projects, subsequently transferred responsibility over to the municipality. 

Ties between militias and municipalities grew denser and more widespread

In villages and cities across the country, ties between militias and municipalities grew denser and more widespread. By the end of the war, a new cohort of leaders had solidified by replacing the central state as the primary supplier of financial assistance. This nascent political class gained popularity, reinforced its territorial control, and snuffed out potential challengers. The post-conflict environment, however, required new tactics to maintain control under far less anarchic circumstances—working alongside, rather than in the absence of a central state. Until 1998, almost a decade after the war ended, the factions oscillated between supporting and opposing the reinstitution of municipal elections depending on whether they thought they would win. But stalling could only last for so long.

As the 1998 municipal elections drew closer, wartime elites scrambled to reinforce their local networks of support, which they understood as key to victory at the ballot box. Territorial control via violence or patronage would no longer suffice, as people were now expected to vote their representatives formally into power. Even in Sour, then and now the most dependable of Amal strongholds, the party leadership faced existential uncertainty. “We had no experience, no precedent,” the current councilor admitted. “What did people want? What could we promise? Our vision was unclear. We were so naïve.”

The polls brought mixed results for Lebanon’s ascendant political class. Hariri, by then prime minister, backed successful lists in Beirut and Saida, while Amal won in Sour. In contrast, Hezbollah—another militia forged during the war and keen to institutionalize its influence—suffered a stinging defeat in Baalbek, the largest city in the Beqaa Valley. Confident in its dominance, Hezbollah had shunned alliances with other factions. Meanwhile, notable families coalesced against what they perceived as the party’s heavy-handed politics and religious conservatism. Their low-cost, door-to-door canvassing paid off, earning them a majority in the council.

Pre-war notables clung on to other major urban centers, including Tripoli and Zahle. The clans that had dominated these areas before the conflict posed an existential threat to the emerging political leadership. From the latter’s perspective, the old guard’s influence had to be severed at its root—namely, in the territories where it continued to hold sway.

Governance as hostage-taking

The sectarian parties that crystallized during and after the war faced challenges much like those confronting other post-colonial Arab regimes. In Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and beyond, a narrow elite has long shielded itself from accountability through a mixture of armed coercion and the manipulation of state institutions and elections. Lebanon’s emerging regime, however, enjoyed neither the military nor the administrative and financial capacity to deploy the harsh repression or lavish spending of other states. Instead, Lebanese factions used their control of the central government to present the country’s peripheries with a crude choice: Municipalities who fell in line with the dominant parties would receive a bare minimum of social welfare, while those who pushed back would be effectively cut off from the state.

Recalcitrant cities and villages were quickly made to understand these new rules. Baalbek’s anti-Hezbollah list, for example, paid a high price for its independence. The new council focused on improving public infrastructure, hoping to transform the city into a regional tourist hub. This entailed building everything from a functioning landfill to citywide public restrooms—all of which required sign-off by state ministries and financial transfers from the central government. Beirut withheld approval for the restrooms for several years, without explanation. Plans for a World Bank-funded sanitary landfill stalled as various state entities dithered. A post-war reconstruction fund intended for the Baalbek-Hermel governorate was distributed to every major municipality except Baalbek—the governorate’s capital. A councilor who served at the time recalled: “Hezbollah was sending us a message – you did not elect our people, so now you won’t get anything you want.”

An upstart political faction thus slowly chipped away at the legitimacy of the city’s pre-war power brokers. As the 2004 elections neared, the Baalbek Council found itself in a strange position. It sat on a large budgetary surplus, yet could not secure the central state’s consent to actually spend the money. Meanwhile, Hezbollah updated its approach and began reaching out to the more sympathetic wings of Baalbek’s prominent families. This process of cooptation pitted those siding with the municipality against those aligned with the party, splitting many clans in half. By using this strategy, Hezbollah’s list ultimately won all seats on the council, setting the stage for victories in every race since. City governance improved, albeit moderately.

Without us, your city will not function

Tellingly, Hezbollah’s success in Baalbek relied remarkably little on the armed force with which the party is often associated. Instead, like other factions, it used insider access to the national government to ensure that it would be recognized as the only possible guarantor of the city’s welfare. Contained in its strategy was an implicit threat that carried forward in subsequent elections: without us, your city will not function.

Municipalities as a tool of extraction

This de facto ultimatum is crucial to understanding why challengers outside the political establishment have failed to garner more than marginal popular support so far. To the contrary, the dominant sectarian parties have all too often, in recent years, managed to secure fervent displays of devotion from the very people they neglect. Lacking competitors, they went even further, leveraging their power for relentless personal enrichment. Extraction of public resources for private gain is not, of course, a practice specific to Lebanon or the Middle East. Lebanese party insiders, however, have developed extraordinarily sophisticated ways of ensuring that this behavior goes unchecked. 

Local governance indeed serves as a linchpin for the siphoning of public resources. A municipality’s access to state funding requires accepting some level of favoritism, often in the form of contracts doled out to private companies controlled by individuals tied to the political elite. This mechanism for quietly, indirectly, and often legally extracting public resources binds local development, managed by firms with real or imagined expertise, with the lining of elite pocketbooks.

A paradigmatic example comes from Saida, where a decades-old waste management crisis culminated, in the mid-2000s, with the rise of a local “trash mountain” bordering the sea. Fearing its collapse, the municipal council, then headed by an opponent of the Hariri family, developed plans to construct a new waste treatment facility, which fizzled out amid bureaucratic inertia. When a Hariri ally took over as mayor following the 2010 elections, the new council increased the contract price and awarded the tender to a firm reportedly connected to the Hariri family. At the time, Sidonians would discuss this widely-known story not with anger, but resignation: Something was done, even if it seemed to require exorbitant costs and backroom dealing. Indeed, Lebanese have long been forced to view such arrangements as essential to preserving a modicum of services. 

This trade-off shaped local governance in most urban centers. In Tripoli, the country’s second largest city, the Karami family once used its position in the post-independence central government to control provision of social services, particularly healthcare. After the end of the civil war, however, their statist connections could no longer compete with nouveau riche entrepreneurs like Najib Mikati, Mohamad Safadi, and Rafic Hariri. No single leader has been able to assert dominance, leaving city politics to devolve into chaos, with extractive beneficence giving way to anarchy.

In the latest municipal elections, held in 2016, a relative outsider, Ashraf Rifi, fielded a winning list against one supported by a slew of local power players, including Faisal Karami (son of a Tripoletan ex-prime minister), Najib Miqati (a former prime minister himself), and Saad Hariri (Rafic Hariri’s son, and yet another prime minister). Rifi had for years served as head of Lebanon’s Internal Security Forces before becoming Minister of Justice—a position he resigned ostentatiously from in early 2016. Buoyed by the popularity he gained from this anti-establishment gesture, Rifi saw control over Tripoli as a stepping-stone to national power.

The road to progress runs through loyalty to time-honored political patrons

His hand-picked municipal council, however, soon found itself obstructed on multiple fronts. Many of its members maintained personal ties to the city’s traditional patrons, who are widely said to have intervened in order to stymy even basic processes and thus cut Rifi down to size. Moreover, even when the municipality itself reached a consensus on issues of everyday governance, requests for approval from government ministries tended to be ignored outright or delayed indefinitely. Both dynamics, a current councilor noted, had the same root cause: “Rifi slapped the Sunni elites in the face. They slapped back.” The same councilor recalled being asked to withhold his own well-researched policy proposals. “Some Tripoletan politicians approached me and said: `If you have a good idea, don’t say it out loud. We want to take revenge.’”

From the establishment’s standpoint, such tactics quickly paid off. Within a year of its election, the municipality devolved into a state of chaos, with meetings frequently dissolving into shouting matches. Rifi’s national political prospects collapsed following an unsuccessful campaign in the 2018 parliamentary elections. In July 2019, the mayor and vice-mayor he had appointed were ousted in a vote of no-confidence.Unless ongoing protests change the rules of the game, the councilors that remain will wrestle with a foregone conclusion: In Lebanese local politics, the road to progress runs through loyalty to time-honored political patrons.  

* * *

In search of reform

The Lebanese state’s blatant failure to provide basic welfare has prompted frequent, misdirected attempts at reform. The parliament periodically drafts progressive legislature, for instance on administrative decentralization, only to then shelve the laws—or simply fail to implement them. Foreign donors often fund programs promising to build the capacity of state institutions, while generally ignoring the existential reasons behind their malfunctions. Lebanon’s Western backers thus end up subsidizing the broken system they hope to fix.

Similarly, municipalities across Lebanon have spent years presiding over failed development projects from which no one ever seems to learn. In one tragic example, three separate Western donors—American, German, and Canadian—financed three separate renovations of the same public garden in Tripoli. They repaved sidewalks, planted trees, and constructed benches. Rather than coordinate with the local government or community members, the implementers carried out the work independently and again handed future management over to the municipality. The latter neglected to maintain the site; benches were destroyed and the grounds left abandoned. The mayor, according to a local observer, joked about bulldozing the site. In this way, a tiny block of the city came to embody the dereliction of local governments in exactly the arenas where they should matter most.

Such malpractices are so entrenched that virtually no effort at reforming the system can be said to have paid off. Thefounder of a Beirut-based NGO recalled the failure of a project aiming to promote municipal transparency, by requiring the country’s largest municipal councils to digitally  publish their policies and budgets. At a Saida town hall meeting, a council member shot down the initiative with a curiously self-incriminating critique: “He insisted that such transparency was not feasible,” said the NGO manager, describing the scene. “Because then people would know who got money and who did not.” Such examples are so startlingly common that most ordinary Lebanese can cite cases of their own. This explains why the government’s latest round of promises can only fall on deaf ears. Lebanese society has been handcuffed to a political leadership that must now contend with decades of pent up anger.

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Lebanon’s ruling class seemed to have perfected the art of not governing—an approach to governance that has crept across the Arab region. In the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, elites in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere have assumed an increasingly hands-off role in policymaking and service provision. Old and new faces stand united to accomplish one goal: stay in power as cheaply as possible, at the expense of any aspirations toward broader prosperity. Lebanese society, however, is now making a statement that seems to echo the world over: Do-nothing governance will do nothing but stir up even more anger.

23 October 2019

Christiana Parreira is a consultant with Synaps, working on governance, and a PhD candidate in political science at Stanford.

Grateful illustration credits: © Margot Becka, La jetée, Untitled, Untitled, La cage, Untitled, Beirut 2011.

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