A state of paralysis

Parliament seems to be the only part of downtown that doesn't get a good sweeping

How many Lebanese members of Parliament does it take to make a mockery of the people they supposedly represent? At most 128 (the number in parliament), but it usually takes only two: one to propose and the other to oppose. When that happens, the country’s carpenters’ ears perk up, knowing that they will soon be called to build larger drawers in which to stuff heaps of new parliamentary committee minutes.

As I write this piece there are about 340 laws waiting to be discussed and passed by the various parliamentary committees and subcommittees, only to reach the desk of one man who will decide upon the country’s legislative fate: Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri. This year Berri will celebrate 20 years as the headmaster of the playground that is the house of Parliament. Regardless of what one thinks about his politics, his all-too-familiar snapping voice from atop the pedestal in Parliament seems to be the only thing the children below fear.

While MPs are busy calling each other ‘dogs’ or comparing their compatriot’s respectability to that of their shoe, they still salivate over 10 seconds of Berri’s time to advance their particular piece of draft legislation and move it up his infamous list of priorities.  With such a backlog, one would think Parliament meets quite often in order to get through its to-do list. But since committee meetings are held in secret, it is little wonder that all contentious issues are sent to them to be ‘studied’.

A walk past the empty and locked offices of Parliament shows how much our honorable MPs are slaving over the laws being thrown their way. Again to the carpenters’ delight, many of the 340-odd pieces of legislation are different drafts of the same law, proposed by a different MP or member of cabinet. The fact that the executive branch of government is even permitted to mingle in the affairs of the legislature is already an overt aberration of the constitution — which no one feels the urgency to apply anyhow.

The constitutional deadline for passing a budget into law will expire at the end of last month, exactly when the ministers involved will take their annual vacation. MPs too will take some time off, which are the only date in their calendar that seems set, given that Parliament still does not have a yearly work-plan. Even if the budget proposal is approved by cabinet and reaches the newly renovated Parliament building, do not assume its halls will be bustling with activity. More often than not committee meetings, not to mention sittings of Parliament, fail to meet quorum.

One of the few things Parliament did actually reach last month was its Internet quota, temporarily crashing the government’s online access. That may seem surprising, given that of 400-odd staff in Parliament it seems not one has the ability to digitize the content that their own institution produces — instead that is the task of a private company paid with public money.

By the time anything gets done in Parliament it is almost always too little, too late; not that it matters anyway. There is little point in passing laws, given that ministers choose when to apply them, and when to issue their notorious ‘implementation decrees’. This executive cop-out makes certain a non-elected cabinet, controlled by the country’s sectarian overlords, maintains real control. What it also means is that MPs can focus on their private businesses until they are asked to rubber stamp an agreed-upon text in Parliament. On the way out the door, they can also collect their salaries — something they, and their children, will do for the rest of their lives.

In such a state of affairs, it is little wonder that the institution that is meant to represent our democracy has become nothing less than a dysfunctional dictatorship. And now that the issue of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon’s funding is over, the parliamentary electoral law is likely to be tossed around in the media by politicians as their next ‘crisis’. But for the people who live in this country, where real incomes are falling and basic public services are lacking, the real crisis is that whatever the next electoral law or the next votes cast, the result will likely be the same: a body whose sole function is to give a vote of confidence to a non-elected cabinet.


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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