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Why is the Lebanese State still unable to assert itself 29 years after the end of the war?

“The war system is still present, and is prevailing. The law is being permanently violated”: the regretful opinion of the historian Wissam Saade.

April 13 1975 marks the “official” start of the Lebanese Civil War, a conflict that will last 15 years, leaving tens of thousands of dead and displaced. If today the famous incident of the Ain el-Remmaneh bus seems but a distant memory, the consequences of the war are very much felt, even today. Twenty-nine years after the conflict ended, the State proves incapable of asserting itself as a central authority, and continues to suffer the fallout of the socio-economical system set up by the militias from 1975 to 1990.

The sociologist Salim Nasr (1948-2008), one of the first to study the Lebanese Civil War and its effect on the population, talks about a “war system” established by the players in the conflict. A system that generated its own economical sphere, its own social strata, an ideology of division that justified the continuation of hostilities, and economic, political and military infrastructures, all of which helped to hold the country in a state of war.

“It obviously took several years, and numerous stages for this “war system” to consolidate [itself] and to turn into a sort of counter-society able to fully dominate the Lebanese scene and the state’s civil society”, wrote Nasr in an article published in January 1990 in a French political science journal “Cultures et Conflits” titled “Anatomy of an internal war system: the case of Lebanon”.

In parallel to this “war system”, Nasr notices the gradual wartime rise of a parallel economy or “black economy” that relies on all kinds of trafficking (illegal customs charges, racketeering, drug trafficking and more) controlled by the various militias. The drivers behind this economy are “the warlords” working hand-in-hand with the “war profiteers, who made their fortunes through the various trafficking, extortions and profits related to the conflict”, says the sociologist. An infrastructure that unfortunately has remained in place ever since.

Laws permanently violated and ignored

Although the fighting stopped some time ago, the fact remains that the war’s “black economy” continues to function, albeit adjusted to a post-war Lebanon. For the historian and writer Wissam Saade, there is no doubt that Lebanon continues to be a hostage of this parallel economy, and of the “war system” mentioned by Salim Nasr. “It is certain that a society that has gone through years of war cannot rebuild itself from one day to the next. But it has been 29 years since the Civil War ended in Lebanon”, says Saade. “The electricity issue is extremely indicative. This sector has worsened since the end of the war. It was better in the 90’s”, he tells L’Orient- le Jour. “People’s financial and economic situations were better in the 90’s, probably because the country was in a phase of reconstruction, and there were plenty of projects”, he adds.

Today, the historian brings up “dysfunctions on all levels”, which, according to him, means “that the war has not really ended”. “The war system is still present. The militia structure is still engrained, and it is ruling. We agree that there is no more armed fighting, but there is neither political stability nor sovereign institutions. The law is being constantly violated and breached,” he notes. “The collection of taxes and monies owed to the State is uneven across regions. In certain regions there is literally a state within the state. We cannot have a country with two armies”, he says. “Saad Hariri’s government is trying to put the issues that cause conflict aside, and focus on services that are vital to the citizens, but it is almost impossible to do so with the current system in place”, Saade went on, denouncing the confessional and centralized mode of governance: “The State is being prevented from collapsing by the use of partial solutions and the patching up of problems”.

The lack of “counter-powers”

For Carole Charabati, professor at The Institute of Political Science at Saint-Joseph University, the problem lies above all in the absence of “counter- powers”, that are supposed to play the role of regulators and controllers in the country. “After the war, we thought about launching major reconstruction projects in the country (Solidere, the airport, road networks, etc.), but no initiative was taken in the development of the counter-powers needed for democracy to work properly. According to Montesquieu, in order to stop abuses of power, there need to be mechanisms put in place to counter powerful individuals and institutions. “Which powers are stopping the power in Lebanon? None.”, she told L’Orient-Le Jour. The drifting of the Lebanese system towards a consensual democracy has proven that is it is quite difficult to hold the state accountable when the government is a replica of the Parliament, and that no real opposition exists…”One of the main obstacles to efficient and proper parliamentary control in Lebanon resides in the privileged relations of mutual interests (including with the bureaucracy), that exist between the deputies and the executive.

The ability to question and investigate the executive system remains superficial. The existing vote of censure hasn’t been implemented since the Independence. The Parliament has often delegated the power of legislation to the executive by means of decree-laws”, says Mrs. Charabati.

“The monitoring apparatuses such as the Central Inspection, the Court of Auditors, and the High Disciplinary Council remain extremely weak, hence unable to play their roles. These counter-powers were wiped out after the war”, Charabati laments. “When institutions aren’t functioning in an optimal way, resources become depleted. Corruption, the patronage system, nepotism, fraud and conflicts of interests corrupt and destroy the system. Public services are hence no longer able to meet the needs of the citizens, and there is no way to control and regulate. Parallel mechanisms, such as bribes, for instance, become established, which reinforce the discomfort, allowing us to get into a vicious circle”, she concludes.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour)

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