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Bassel F. Salloukh, Associate professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University, and LCPS senior fellow

April 2020
You Can’t Imagine a More Perfect Storm

LCPS solicited the opinion of key experts to answer one question: “Will the financial crisis, exacerbated further by COVID-19, strengthen or loosen the power of Lebanon’s governing political parties?” We invite you to read their different views in the next few days.
It really depends in part on how the sectarian political elite responds to the overlapping fiscal, financial, and now public health crises. But first, we need to unpack this label of ‘governing political parties’, given the battle underway inside the sectarian political elite over economic policies and public appointments, and the variegated sources of their political support. In the following I offer a conceptual rather than an empirical answer.
It is increasingly clear that for a major section of the postwar sectarian political elite, the creation of the Hassan Diab cabinet serves a strictly diversionary tactic: Appoint a cabinet of so-called technocrats responsible for taking inescapably unpopular fiscal policies, ones that target specific classes and sectors, but do not torpedo whatever is left of the postwar political economy of sectarianism. The priority for this sectarian political elite is twofold: 1) Shield themselves from prospective popular anger behind the mantle of a purportedly independent and technocratic cabinet, and 2) ensure that the new fiscal policies aimed at shoring up state revenues and decreasing expenditures do not come at the expense of the socioeconomic wellbeing of their core clientelist bases. The populist posturing involved in this maneuver serves to hide the original sin: The monstrous debt accumulated in great measure to cover profligate state spending along largely neopatrimonial clientelist lines, but under the label of postwar state-building, reconstruction, and reconciliation.
Ultimately, we are reaping what 30 years of postwar ‘zombie power-sharing’ and its clientelist infrastructures have sown: A state stripped of the bare minimum of credibility, service delivery, and institutional capabilities. You see this in the way some diehards have weaponized the COVID-19 public health crisis along narrow sectarian, confessional, and regional lines. It also shows in the neglect of public health facilities and their limited resources in comparison to the clientelistic capabilities of sectarian parties. Likewise, it is obvious in the political elite’s failure to inspire a sense of collective will. Show me the politician, whether from inside—or even outside—the sectarian political elite club who can deliver the unifying and inspiring speech Angela Merkel gave to the German nation.
So, to return to the question on how all of this will impact political parties, we should avoid blanket binary verdicts. We may see sections of the postwar sectarian political elite imposing the kind of populist fiscal and monetary policies aimed at insulating their own clients at the expense of other classes, political constituencies, and more rational policies. Will this prove enough to preclude the unravelling of the clientelist ensembles undergirding their power? I doubt it very much. Alternatively, they may assume that if the clientelist system can be sustained for some more time by avoiding public salary cuts and downsizing, they will be saved by rents from oil and gas and the international community. But with current oil prices and the global domestic retrenchment wrought by COVID-19, this may prove a fool’s errand. You can’t imagine a more perfect storm.
Stay-tuned to what promises to be an injurious contest between the different components of the postwar political economic elite, one in which the COVID-19 crisis may prove to be but a deadly distraction.

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