Charged with tragic comedy

The half lit sign at the entrance of Lebanon's public sector electricity provider is an apt representation of just how much the Lebanese are willing to put up with the bare minimum (Photo: Sam Tarling)

Lebanon’s political theater played out another scene last month with a host of government actors trying to elbow their way to center stage, propped up by a supporting cast of journalists and media figures. Entitled “Utterly Missing the Point”, the plot of this tragic comedy pitted these two groups in a mischievous conspiracy against the Lebanese in which they engineered dramatic distractions to obfuscate the true reason for the country’s failing public services. The scene opened with the infamous General Michel Aoun and his son-in-law, Minister of Energy and Water Gebran Bassil, initiating a blistering quarrel in cabinet over how to divvy up $1.2 billion amongst different contractors and authorities in the installation of new power generation — a project that would, when finished in 2015, supply just barely enough electricity to meet what was needed in 2009. The argument was then duly taken up by a chorus of objecting cabinet blocs and members of parliament who, in the end, decided against implementing any effective checks and balances on the expense.

The obfuscation of the spectacle would not have been possible without the generous support of Lebanon’s newsrooms, which proceeded, with passion and dedication, to cover the controversy ad nauseam without ever elucidating the reasons behind the objections to the proposed legislation, or even the content of the initial proposal. In not focusing on the plan or the law, they scuttled any chance of a counter-narrative that may have pressured the government to actually implement the long-awaited basket of solutions to the country’s most basic needs.

Then there were the exhibitions in befuddlement (misleadingly labeled press conferences) of the principal architect, Minister Bassil, at the beginning of the month.

At the first exhibition, the media dutifully fulfilled their part of the bargain, focusing on why Bassil had not attended a meeting of other ministerial virtuosos aimed at putting the finishing touches on the plan earlier in the day, and not on the details themselves — a particularly canny contrivance. For sending their headliner journalists to the first exhibition and, after the bickering had subsided, their lower tier to the next — where the issues of how to actually realize the objectives of the newly finished piece were up for discussion — we should extend applause to Lebanon’s news agencies.

This propensity of the media to focus on the petty infighting and sound bites espoused by Lebanon’s sectarian leaders, as opposed to dissecting legislative deficiencies and potential solutions, arrives from the intersection of habit and our sectarian media landscape. Maintaining their routine throughout, the media furthers the narrative of “Utterly Missing the Point” by attributing utmost importance to Lebanese leaders’ intentionally insidious and vacuous polemics, entrenching in the mind of the public the insurmountability of the status quo.

The media and its partners in both the ruling majority and opposition have inspired journalists to usher in a new era of reporting and construct the closest thing we have to a national narrative. From here on out, we should endeavor to set the framework for a new philosophy, which all Lebanese, regardless of creed or social standing, can adhere to. As we have done recently, we must seek to adhere to the principle of the bare minimum: demanding only that reform allow us to continue our present state of existence, relative to the world at large, without aiming to actually effect any substantive structural reform.

After two post-war decades with the same headlines, and the same figures making headlines, it should be clear that no leader truly seeks structural reform. Then again, who among us really wants to be hamstrung by the laws and institutions propelling the rest of the civilized world? We would have to sacrifice our freedom to litter at will, to drive in the wrong direction, to smoke in public. We may even lose our entitlement to treat with disdain the foreign workers who build and clean our homes and streets because they work for salaries that we would never accept.  This is what gives our country a unique charm that outsiders can only marvel at. Indeed, who needs real reform when you can have chaos and liberty that is only checked by the haphazard application of a law that you can get around with a little wasta?

Perhaps we should not express this notion too loudly lest we tip off those who will never understand how sublime our cycle of freewheeling really is under the surface of constant complaints and invective. So (in a lowered voice), if there is any lasting lesson in “Utterly Missing the Point”, let it be that we stop complaining, accept who we are and stick to the bare minimum.


Author: Sami Halabi

Sami Halabi is a policy consultant who covers a range of policy issues and analyses development programmes, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. Sami specialises in analysing policies and programmes in order to provide evidence-based recommendations to policy-makers and international development agencies. Sami holds a Master of Public Policy with Distinction from The University of Edinburgh.

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