The massive explosion in Beirut that devastated half the city, killed at least 200, injured 5,000, and left 300,000 homeless, was a particularly crushing blow in a long saga for the city – and the country. Beirut’s residents have periodically protested the lack of basic public services (garbage collection, regular electricity) and pervasive corruption. Widespread demonstrations beginning last October were triggered by an attempt to tax WhatsApp messages amid an economic crisis and by the government’s inability to battle wildfires; they escalated quickly into persistent calls for systemic change. But the popular rage toward the country’s entrenched political elite has never been as pronounced as it is now, with calls to execute members of the ruling class and amplified appeals for thawra – revolution.
The root of all these problems is Lebanon’s systemic malgovernance. The 15-year civil war, brought to an end with the Taif Accords in 1989, but only taking root in 1991 after a particularly bloody round of fighting, had killed 120,000 people and pulled in nations far and wide, from Syria and Israel next door to Iran, the United States and France. But the deeply needed peace came at a heavy price: Syrian quasi-colonization and the entrenchment of permanent for-profit politics of its warlords, ostensibly representing the country’s 18 confessional and ethnic groups — Maronite and Orthodox Christians, Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, Druze, Armenians, and numerous others. The conflict simply recalibrated an existing power-sharing formula dating back to the country’s independence from France during World War II – what I have come to call a peace cartel.
Lebanon’s self-perpetuating and self-replicating political and economic elite are both predatory and parasitic. Their legitimacy – at home and abroad – has relied on patronage and fear. Such durable assemblages of erstwhile belligerents (and their successors) share a common interest in maintaining the perks of power without accountability to their citizens. In researching the durability of such arrangements, I have focused mainly on Bosnia and North Macedonia, which also were subject to internationally brokered, elite-centered power-sharing deals to end violent conflict. But the Taif agreement predates them both. As I devised my research on the durability of such arrangements, my engagement with Lebanon, in person and from afar, demonstrated that this formula applies there.
All the Familiar Faces
The structure that emerged from Lebanon’s civil war was led by all the familiar belligerents from the conflict that are still among the ruling elite today: current President Michel Aoun, current Speaker of Parliament and leader of the Amal Movement Nabih Berri, and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, alongside former Prime Minister Saad Hariri, longtime Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, among others.
Despite lasting disputes among the erstwhile combatants, the ruling political class maintained, as a collective, unfettered control over not only governance and the public sector (including lucrative government procurement deals), but the bulk of the economy. Even Hezbollah’s successful effort to tweak the power-sharing formula in 2008 did not affect the mechanics of the deal, only how the slices of the pie were served up. The system can absorb challengers, who ultimately want a piece of the (highly lucrative) action rather than to replace the system.
Thus, Lebanon has become an archetypal case of a peace cartel. The patronage factor – how peace cartels rent support (or acquiescence) – is readily apparent. The mechanics are both intricate and familiarly feudal, built on a structure of local fiefdoms, assembled into an unwritten – but to date effectively unchallenged – national pact of theft, in which public resources are the fuel. This corruption by design is made durable by the ability to defuse public outrage and maintain local dependency, making the organic whole of the system highly resilient for its prime beneficiaries. This has left the country in chronically dire physical condition. In the aftermath of the port blast, citizens cleaning up immediately observed with outrage that connected firms had been contracted to deal with the immediate damage.
To simply call this “corruption” – as if it were an aberration from a norm, or a malady soluble with a law or set of laws – misses the point. The ability of ruling elites to personally profit from the public trust is the point of political power in systems like the one that has developed in Lebanon. Descriptors such as “dysfunctional” or “incompetent” aren’t quite right either; the system has worked brilliantly for its prime beneficiaries, and they are quite competent at exploiting it for their own benefit. Citizens’ dissatisfaction is irrelevant, despite the occasional lip service from political leaders, since the warlords control economic and coercive power.
But the second factor upon which the cartel’s survival depends, fear, is not only directed inward toward their own people, but also outward – including toward the peace brokers and the peace’s external underwriters (all of whom have their own interests, both in stability maintenance and often factionally as well). The “peace” that peace cartels offer is always conditional, packaged with an implicit threat of violence, often made explicit when required. This capability has been vital for them, and helps explain their continued dominance despite their unpopularity.
The cartel’s reflex, when challenged, is to threaten renewed civil war, as well as to gravitate to religious or ethnic strife to deflect opprobrium directed at it. As if on cue, Hezbollah leader Nasrallah – the newest and best-positioned member of the cartel, did just that last weekend. But Hezbollah is now only a part of the peace cartel, not the only or even the biggest problem. Counterintuitive as it may seem, Nasrallah’s “don’t tread on me” statement works for all cartel members — the threat of chaos is the last refuge of the legitimized warlords in a peace cartel, their trump card.
On the domestic front, the valence of fear has been diminishing over time, as demonstrated by the protests launched last fall (and dulled by the Covid-19 crisis, which has also had devastating effect). The likelihood that Lebanon’s peace cartel can continue to leverage fear against a public so evidently fed up seems exceedingly low. But that is where the outside world may provide it a lifeline.
French President Emmanuel Macron saw the public fury at — and utter distrust of — the country’s self-serving elites during his visit to Beirut on Aug. 6. When citizens told him that any foreign aid would certainly be stolen by those in power – a view born of years of experience – Macron replied that the assistance he aimed to marshal would bypass elites. Most critically, he called for creation of a “new political order in Lebanon,” which the crowd welcomed, albeit with some skepticism. They are painfully aware of how deeply rooted the cartel is; the resignation of Prime Minister Hassan Diab’s government on Aug. 11 does not necessarily portend meaningful change.
While the Beirut crowd welcomed Macron’s message, they had ample reasons to doubt, given Paris’ standing ties with members of the existing power structure. France is infamous for prioritizing stability over democracy and accountability throughout the Mediterranean, leading to deep relationships with unsavory regimes. The war in Syria and the resulting migration crisis have only amplified this tendency, as France calculates solutions based on its priority of keeping migrants away. It is hardly alone in Europe or the West in these priorities.
This nests nicely with the self-preservation reflexes of Lebanon’s peace cartel. Peace cartels exploit disasters as profitable extraction opportunities. Sure enough, international donors including the United States, the European Union and others, convened online by Macron on Aug. 9, pledged nearly $300 million in emergency aid. Several, including Acting Administrator John Barsa of the U.S. Agency for International Development, made great pains to state they would not fund the discredited Lebanese authorities.
But the routing of relief via the United Nations is also problematic in this regard, given the requirements that the UN’s member states impose on it to operate in countries only with the approval of their governments. President Aoun’s resistance to an independent international investigation of the port explosion also needs to be read in the frame of the peace cartel seeking to maintain control.
Listen to the Street
The destination of assistance matters not only for the immediate disaster response, but also for the leverage of those who have suffered the disaster against those who enabled it. It is this equation that the outside world, if it really wants to help Lebanon recover and rebound, must seek to affect.
The popular outrage – protesters have revived an Arab Spring-era chant “The people demand the fall of the regime” – has another aspect: remarkable civic self-reliance. The neighborly response of average citizens to the Beirut port explosion has been overwhelming. Mutual assistance enabled by civil society writ large, ignoring sectarian labels, has filled the void of the long-derelict state.
They should not be pressed to cede agency back to the powers-that-be. This is a society that has demonstrated, not just in the past week, but in the months and years preceding, an increasing level of self-confidence and trust in each other as citizens.
The message from protesters and local experts, as well as numerous experienced outsiders, has been remarkably consistent: there can be no solution within the existing system, and any resources provided to it would be worse than wasted – they would enable the survival of the criminal elite. Those outside wishing to help should take heed. External actors of goodwill cannot fix Lebanon – but they can assist a trans-confessional constituency that wants to do so. Encouraging the development of a new social contract, including an accountable governance system, ought to be an explicit element of assistance from the International Monetary Fund and others.
There is wide recognition that Lebanon needs a popularly legitimate governance system of internal design. The role of external actors, including donors and international financial institutions, should be first and foremost not to obstruct this process, but then also to use its leverage as a catalyst to enable such a development. The international community essentially would lend its top-down support to Beirut’s bottom-up pressure for change – squeezing the peace cartel in the middle. This would enable external actors, particularly in the West, to be a force multiplier for those advocating for positive change, after long serving as force multipliers for the peace cartel. At the same time, the international community needs to be sensitive to the needs of Lebanon’s change agents, making sure to avoid tainting them as tools for foreign agendas, a common way to discredit political opponents in Lebanon. The point is to support a popular democratic reconstruction agenda, not to impose an external one.
Clarify the Terms
Resignation of Lebanon’s government may enable a path forward, though it is hard to be confident, given past practice. Much remains uncertain. A mere reshuffling of the deck under the current system would signify no meaningful change.
Lebanon’s civil society is demanding a transitional government to replace the current regime and oversee the design of a new governing order, accountable to citizens and capable of delivering justice for past misdeeds, as well as dealing with the country’s economic, social, and political challenges. This is a demand the West, international financial institutions, and the wider international community ought to embrace and support morally and materially. A precondition for the follow-on donor conference in September should be to have a popularly legitimate transitional government composed of new, competent personnel as an interlocutor.
Taking advantage of the government’s collapse, the UN, World Bank and IMF should call for a popular commission for aid distribution, to be composed of ad hoc neighborhood committees, advised by nongovernmental aid groups, with real-time, transparent accounting and an expert domestic auditor selected for the purpose. Selection of an expert, technocratic transitional government, to rule under a set timetable, could build on this framework – ensuring that the country beyond the blast radius of the latest disaster is also plugged in.
The longer-term question – refoundation of Lebanon’s social contract and governance – demands serious consideration and innovation. In other countries, the method of sortition – the random selection of individual citizens to address an important public policy question, has been employed. Such a method might enable a popularly representative collection of citizens to set the terms for and/or validate a transitional government, as well as set forth the ingredients and principles of a new, truly democratic, representative, accountable and just political and social order in Lebanon. Some experts fear that this method could be hijacked or discredited by the beneficiaries of the current system. Whatever path is taken, Lebanon’s economic and social recovery depends on its designing a genuinely accountable governance system. The resulting constitution requires acclimation by popular vote.
A credible independent investigation of the explosion is imperative. Other avenues of assistance should include support for forensic accounting and investigative journalism to find ill-gotten gains of peace cartel members, so those proceeds might be frozen and directed back to the society from whom they were stolen – as well as serve as evidence for prosecution.
The Beirut port disaster’s final casualty should be Lebanon’s peace cartel. The international community’s policy decisions can help tip the odds in favor of citizens who want to make a real change. Nothing is guaranteed. But the sense of hope and possibility, despite the devastation, is palpable among Lebanese. Lebanon’s friends have a moral responsibility and an interest in ensuring they can capture it and sustain it.