A KARIM MAKDISI: GLI ACCORDI DI DOHA / LA CRISI ECONOMICA IN LIBANO
Intervista al prof. Karim Makdisi, del dipartimento di scienze
politiche e pubblica amministrazione dell'Università Americana
di Beirut, all'indomani dell'accordo di Doha, nel Qatar. Makdisi espone
le varie situazioni di crisi presenti ora in Libano: crisi economica
(45 miliardi di dollari di debito pubblico a causa delle politiche
liberali degli anno '90 condotte dalla famiglia Hariri), disoccupazione
(negli ultimi due anni, 2006-2007, é arrivata al 20%),
povertà, catastrofe ambientale provocata non solo
dall'aggressione israeliana del 2006.
An interview with Lebanese political commentator and professor Karim
Makdisi offering a critique on the recently signed political agreement
on Lebanon’s future signed in Doha, Qatar as without long term
As media outlets across the world
followed closely the most recent political conflict in Lebanon, seldom
was the countries major economic crisis mentioned, with a national debt
at around $45 billion, Lebanon maintains one of the highest per capita
national debts in the world.
Neo-liberal economic policies adopted
by successive movements after Lebanon’s 15 year civil-war have left the
country in economic ruins. As the western-backed government and the
Hezbollah-lead opposition battled for political power in Lebanon
throughout recent months, both mainstream political movements seldom
placed the growing poverty rates, crumbling economy and staggering
emigration rates front and center.
This interview with professor and
political commentator Karim Makdisi offers a rare joint critique tuned
towards both mainstream political factions in Lebanon in regards to
economic and social policies that have left large numbers of Lebanese
unemployed and often in poverty.
Stefan Christoff: Throughout recent weeks Lebanon has been dragged
through another major political crisis, a conflict pitting the
western-backed government lead until by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora
against a political opposition lead by Hezbollah. In your recent
article, “In the wake of the Doha truce” you touched on larger issues
facing Lebanon, the ongoing economic crisis, corruption in the country
and the ongoing effects stemming from the 2006 Israeli attack on
Lebanon. Can you talk about the major issues that you feel have been
missing from mainstream media reporting on the ongoing political crisis
Karim Makdisi: Lebanon is facing several critical issues. First there
is a tremendous social and economic crisis in this country, there is a
forty-five billion dollar debt, one of the largest debts per capita in
the world, resulting from over a decade of neo-liberal economic
policies that simply didn’t work throughout the 1990’s.
In truth there is little opposition towards the economic policies that
the government is putting forward, that is to say that the opposition
in Lebanon is more or less in agreement with the government in regards
to social and economic policy. Both the opposition and the government
have attempted to sweep the main social and economic issues facing
Lebanon under the carpet. This is one major issue.
Stefan Christoff: Concerning this point. Can you explain how the
current social and economic crisis in Lebanon impacts people’s daily
lives in the country?
Karim Makdisi: Over the past couple years unemployment rates have gone
up between 15-20%, as Lebanon’s economy is suffering due to major
internal political crisis or military conflict in this country. Also
there is a tremendous emigration happening, especially young people or
youth who are leaving in droves, in search for jobs, a better life, a
bit more stability than is possible to find in Lebanon today.
Poverty has risen dramatically in Lebanon in recent years, especially
in areas outside of Beirut, in Northern Lebanon, in Southern Lebanon,
in the Bekka valley and also in certain Beirut suburbs. Poverty has
risen tremendously. State services from electricity, to phones,
to water have all suffered also. Today there are many electricity
cuts, also many water shortages and the summer season hasn’t yet began
where traditionally there has always been regular water shortages and
electricity cuts, so in this regard many are expecting a severe summer.
Also Lebanon is experiencing an environmental catastrophe today, both
resulting from the Israeli attack in 2006 but also more generally an
environmental disaster brought upon Lebanon over the past years.
Lebanon’s coast line has been almost entirely privatized or destroyed
due to pollution. Lebanon.s mountains are also being privatized. Many
forests in Lebanon have been cut up. Air pollution is very, very
high, while multiple important international environmental agreements
have not been implemented in Lebanon.
Now the goal isn’t to paint a drastic picture however it’s clear that
today in Lebanon many social, environmental and economic indicators
have simply been plunging in the past several years. This is not simply
due to the political crisis over the past couple years, which has
clearly made things much worse, but also due to very bad policies
created during the 1990’s within the supposed boom period for Lebanon.
All these major issues haven’t been addressed by either side. Even the
opposition, including Hezbollah, except on the margins doesn’t really
mention or talk about the economic crisis. Actually this latest
conflict covered up a very important issue in Lebanon.
Trade unions in Lebanon had called for strikes across the country in
response to; the unemployment crisis, the economic crisis, the farce of
a minimum wage which still is only a couple hundred dollars a month,
nothing in Lebanon. All these important issues were to be raised
through a general strike, however these issues were superseded by a
larger political fight that happened last week. However all these
issues in their fundamental terms remain issues that the opposition
hasn’t really touched.
It’s not comforting for a citizen to know that this Doha agreement
really doesn’t cover any of these important issues, essentially doesn’t
cover the issues that are of real interest to citizens, to normal
people in this country. However in the short term the Doha
agreement provides great relief in Lebanon as it postpones any military
conflict on the ground.
Stefan Christoff: Now concerning the Qatar negotiations and the
agreement that has been struck. In reading about the negotiations or
viewing reports it seems that despite all the Lebanese political
representatives being in Qatar, there was little democratic
participation in working to resolve the current crisis, a process that
would actually involved people in Lebanon. Could you comment on this?
Karim Makdisi: Doha agreement was created within any involvement from
ordinary Lebanese, there was no role for civil society. Clearly the
political classes that were negotiating the agreement had very little
concern for ordinary people in general. This reality in Doha
articulates the distance between the political class in Lebanon and
ordinary people as the role for non-political workers in Doha was
Each time Lebanon faces a political crisis, each time that Lebanese
politicians are in a major disagreement they have had to travel outside
of the country. This occurred with the Taif Agreement in Saudi
Arabia at the end of the civil war in 1990. This phenomenon occurred
again recently with the leaders traveling to France to negotiate, also
traveling to many other countries in recent years for political
discussions. Never holding serious talks or negotiations in Lebanon.
Now Lebanon’s politicians have traveled to Doha, Qatar to agree on
something which is allegedly a purely Lebanese internal affair. However
this external negotiation process certainly illustrates something
fundamentally wrong with the political situation here in Lebanon. No
mechanism is built into the Lebanese political system to resolve
disputes, to resolve disagreements within the political class,
internally within Lebanon. Lebanon’s constitution doesn’t provide for
it, the political process doesn’t provide for it.
Lebanon always needs to have an international or regional patron, the
external factor, to hold things together. In this most recent case it
was Qatar. Throughout the 1990’s Lebanese politicians use to
often run to Syria to resolve disputes. Despite the rhetoric in recent
times, any time there was a dispute in Lebanon all the political
leaders would get into their cars and travel to Damascus to have the
issue resolved in Syria then return.
Lebanon’s political class has always relied on some regional or
international patron and this reality has been reinforced in Doha. This
agreements spells an entrenchment for Lebanon’s sectarian system, also
this agreement continues a long history of disenfranchising Lebanon’s
Unfortunately this reality is a damming picture for all civil society
actions in Lebanon throughout the 1990’s.
Today it’s clear that civil society has failed in Lebanon and that the
major international organizations or donors have also failed as donors
backed civil society organizations which are really quite superficial,
which really have no political depth or strong analysis.
Stefan Christoff: Let’s expand on this last point that you mentioned,
Lebanese civil society. Lebanon has hundreds if not thousands of
non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the country, also
within the Palestinian refugee camps, millions if not billions in
development aid is flooding into the country, especially after the 2006
war. Could you discuss the civil society or NGO role in Lebanese
Karim Makdisi: ‘Civil society’ is a buzz word that came out during the
1990.s after Lebanon.s civil-war, something that attracted tremendous
funding from outside organizations, international organizations,
foreign governments including the U.N., the E.U. Major financing was
poured into what were dubbed ‘civil society organizations’ in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s civil society as a unified body could be understood as a
political network that is independent from the state, working on the
ground on important issues impacting people and local communities.
Today civil society has failed in Lebanon, despite multiple efforts to
form an effective civil society network in the country that could
influence the government and international organizations, these NGOs
have failed to wield any real political power or capability to organize
people in Lebanon.
Clearly there are some notable exceptions to the rule, as there are
always good people working on the ground carrying out good work, this
All this international funding sent to Lebanon after the civil-war
simply created a couple super civil society organizations, in the
environmental sector, in the social sector, the developmental sector
often removed from real people’s needs. These super civil society
organizations essentially spent most of their energy in conferences and
workshops dealing with E.U., U.N. and other agendas outside Lebanon,
spending much time writing fundraising documents, basically catering to
external political agendas not serving people in Lebanon directly.
In parallel numerous small, local and relatively isolated civil society
groups or NGOs working on the ground, isolated from these larger or
more well funded civil society groups emerged. These smaller civil
society organizations took action but clearly their resources are
limited and today they have almost zero popular political backing, so
their influence is extremely limited, extremely isolated to particular
small areas where they fill specific needs.
In response to this reality, Islamic organizations in Lebanon but also
similarly throughout the Middle East understood that there was a
serious gap between these small local local organizations and these
super civil society organizations, major NGOs backed by institutions
like the E.U. or the World Bank.
Islamic organizations were able to work more throughly on the ground,
directing money into creating important social organizations,
mobilizing local support, mobilizing people towards action, gaining
more and more support on the ground.
In talking about Hezbollah, aside from the famous military wing, it’s
also maintains a very successful network of social organizations on the
ground in Lebanon. For example Hezbollah’s networks or organizations
affiliated with the party work on projects such as rebuilding
agricultural tracts in southern Lebanon or in the Bekka, on providing
pensions to certain people in Lebanon. All these programs are
technically what the Lebanese state is suppose to be undertaking, not
only during the past few years but long before also.
An effective national civil-society in Lebanon would channel all this
international money pouring into Lebanon, all this donor money into
real projects that are politically independent but actually improve the
lives of people on the ground, while also challenging public or
government policy in a way to force it to become more manageable, more
equatable to people. This is especially important for people in the
outer-areas in Lebanon.
Stefan Christoff: Now concerning the socio-economic policy of the
opposition and Lebanon’s government, the two major political currents
in the country. You talked about both factions having similar economic
positions. You also outlined the large network of social services that
Hezbollah is involved in supporting or maintaining, that many people
view to being a key to the movement’s popular support. In this context
could you expand on your thoughts concerning Hezbollah’s economic
policies. Are they really similar to the government’s position given
the large focus on social welfare throughout the country?
Karim Makdisi: In saying that the opposition and the government’s
economic policies are similar I mean similar in regards to general
policy. Hezbollah until now hasn’t offered any comprehensive
substitutes to the neo-liberal policies that this country has had over
the past 15 to 20 years.
At times Hezbollah is critical towards government economic policy,
towards certain policies or programs, however they have not offered a
clearly different vision for the country. In effect Hezbollah has gone
along with multiple privatization schemes pushed by the government,
gone along with a multiple neo-liberal policies that this government
and previous governments have enforced throughout recent years.
Hezbollah has made it clear that as long as their political gains are
won they aren’t really going to fight for major change regarding
economic policies, this has been their record until now. Certainly
Hezbollah’s record isn’t exactly the same as March 14th, however we
still wait to see if they have any real changes to offer on the social
or economic front, changes to address Lebanon’s economic crisis.
Now concerning Hezbollah’s social services. Certainly Hezbollah has
provided many social services, they are very, very good in this
respect, however they are mainly directed to communities loyal to the
party. In other words their social services to a large extent reinforce
sectarian divisions in the country, Hezbollah has catered to
communities that support them because the state has often been absent
within these communities not just today but for decades.
A real economic alternative would cater not only to one community but
to the entire country across sectarian divisions. Building national
civil society organizations that can provide to everybody regardless of
their sect or location in Lebanon. Building a national civil society
that is able to influence public policy, remain independent and be
critical towards the government. Civil society in Lebanon should be a
watchdog to the government, it should provide real alternatives and
should be at all times independent from the government, from the state.
Hezbollah has certainly done a much better job in comparison to the
other political parties or movements have be able to do across various
regions in Lebanon. Often Hezbollah has provided much better services
than what the state has provided however often these services are
catering only to their own constituents therefore reinforcing Lebanon’s
Stefan Christoff: Let’s jump back to the negotiations in Qatar this
past week. Now mainstream media coverage concerning the recent
negotiations in Qatar certainly hasn’t addressed many issues that you
have addressed in this interview. Given that a national unity
government will be established, wondering your thoughts on the
possibility that the critical social, environmental or economic issues
you have outlined will be addressed by a unity government, which
certainly will include Hezbollah.
Karim Makdisi: Unfortunately no. This Qatar agreement, assuming it
holds which it should for the short term, is simply a redistribution of
some power here and there in Lebanon between the opposition and March
14th. In other words it includes slight changes on the margins for the
political class. This agreement doesn’t address at all the concerns of
citizens or of ordinary people in Lebanon concerning the issues that we
have been addressing in this interview. Honestly it’s difficult
to see a way that this agreement can address these critical issues in
any meaningful way.
Clearly once a national unity government is formed there must be
consensus on different policies. However until now it’s clear that any
policy that comes out is going to be quite similar to the types of
policies that prevailed during the 1990’s, economic policies lead by
the World Bank, the IMF, the E.U. and the U.N. Policies that will
certainly be about increased liberalization for Lebanon’s markets and
privatization that will ultimately worsen our economic situation.
It’s hard to see very much changing in this respect, regarding the
overall policy. Hezbollah might critique these policies from time to
time, they might use anti-corruption rhetoric to demand more
transparency which clearly makes much better.
However the overall developmental or social policy wont change, as it
hasn’t even been discussed. Doha agreement ignores many key issues,
core issues that many people in Lebanon would like to see addressed.
This process means the continued disenfranchisement for the majority in
Lebanon, while a celebration for a political class that has brought
this country either war on state corruption since the end of Lebanon’s
For fifteen years we had war throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, then we
had a tremendous level of corruption and theft of state property during
the 1990’s. Now over the past couple years we have had a total
political breakdown which has lead to many, many social problems. All
this means once again the political class that brought us into this
mess aren’t going to be held accountable.
If you recall the end to Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, there was a
general amnesty law that under which all the war criminals or leaders
for various militias received no legal sanction and even some at time
were incorporated directly into the government in the name of national
Now again we are again facing a similar situation, in which all the
people who are responsible for the economic crisis in Lebanon, for the
political crisis, for all that’s happened to Lebanon internally in
recent years are all going to be brought back into government. All the
political leaders are going to shake hands, kiss each other and they
will move on.
However the people’s lives that have been most severely impacted, those
who have gone from being middle class to being poor in a snap, those
that have emigrated, those that have been killed or have suffered, all
these people are once again are going to be dropped.
In the absence of a strong civil society in Lebanon, that’s able to
pick-up the slack and press the government on these critical issues, I
don’t see that with the absence of this independent social force that
these fundamental questions will become resolved.
Stefan Christoff: In this interview series on Lebanon, Tadamon!
recently featured an interview with journalist Anthony Shadid, who
explained that it’s not possible to understand or view the current
crisis in Lebanon without understanding it’s relationship to the Middle
East region and specifically to the role that the U.S. played in Iraq,
leading to the institutionalization of the current wave of sectarianism
across the Middle East. Let’s talk about the wider regional context to
the current situation in Lebanon from your perspective.
Karim Makdisi: Lebanon’s conflict has both an internal dimension which
we have been discussing but also an external one. There is no question
that the current crisis in Lebanon is connected to the larger U.S. ‘war
on terror’, which has only brought instability and violence across the
region throughout the past several years.
A main instrument that the U.S. Administration has used in it’s war in
this region is an effort to institutionalize the riff between Sunni and
Shi’ite, in an attempt to try to create a buffer against Iran through
promoting Sunni tribalism, a clear and documented effort to insight
tensions between the two Muslim communities.
In Lebanon such major tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite communities
didn’t really exist before the most recent internal conflict. Today
political problems are taking increasingly sectarian tones. During
Lebanon.s civil-war people internationally would talk about it as a
Christian-Muslim conflict which it never was as such, now
internationally people are talking about the current situation as a
Sunni vs. Shi’ite conflict, however it’s really not this it’s a
political conflict in which the U.S. and it’s allies in the region use
sectarian language as a divide-and-rule tactic.
In this sense the current conflict in Lebanon can not be divorced from
the larger regional and international picture. From Iraq to
Afghanistan, from Somali to Eritrea, from Palestine to certainly and of
course Lebanon, all these conflicts are connected and they will never
be resolved until the U.S. changes policy in the region.