Lebanon, Lebanoff: a nation in danger of stagnation

I’m finally updating the blog with my final two columns from the openDemocracy Arab Awakening section so that they’re all in the same place. Here is the first of those, from 16 July:

Sometimes it feels as though Lebanon is programmed to grind to a halt.  Beirut is infamous for its rush hour gridlock, and Lebanese people discuss traffic the way Brits discuss the weather. But recent months have seen this problem exacerbated by a seemingly unending series of road-blocking protests, where assorted protesters burn tyres and restrict traffic to make their voices heard. Barely a day goes by without such demonstrations strangling Lebanon’s traffic, and they cover an astonishingly varied set of grievances, including events in Syria, perceived abuses by the army, workers’ contracts, arrests, prisoner releases, petrol prices and even the eviction of vegetable sellers from their old selling grounds. Sunni Sheikh Ahmad Assir’s on-going sit-in protest on the highway into Saida, against Hezbollah’s arms, has garnered the most attention by virtue of its duration (now entering its third week) and continued aggravation for those living/working in the south. Remarkably, Saida merchants who have lost business due to the sit-in carried out their own road-blocking counter-protest this week.

But it’s not just traffic that isn’t flowing as it should. This month has seen the worsening of the country’s chronic electricity crisis, with blackouts exceeding 20 hours per day in some areas, due to severe power rationing from the state-owned Electricite du Liban, and faults at power plants. Only the privileged can afford to pay for generators to guarantee uninterrupted power supply, and so many have no choice but to accept darkness. As the summer heat starts to swelter here, power outages also mean it is hard for poorer families to keep food and their homes cool.

Even the internet ceased to function this month when almost the entire nation was knocked offline for the better part of three days after an undersea cable ruptured. That this happened on the same day that a UN report declaring access to the internet to be a human right only served to make the timing of this outage more embarrassing for the powers that be (though admittedly the UN report focused more on the intentional blocking of the internet for political ends). Lebanon’s internet is notoriously slow at the best of times, and provision exists in a state of near-monopoly. In a service-based economy like Lebanon’s, such problems cause not only frustration for the inhabitants, but also notable harm to businesses. From my own work I can testify to the loss of productivity that organisations such as NGOs can face with long internet outages.

Lebanon’s infrastructure has been damaged by repeated conflict, with the country even now still reeling from the destruction of civilian infrastructure (including power and water plants and transport infrastructure) by Israel in the 2006 war. A lack of investment, institutional inertia and crippling political gridlock mean that a solution to these problems is not immediately in sight.

People here generally discuss these difficulties with remarkable good humour, albeit with a tinge of exasperation and frequent curses directed at a government incapable of solving them. But in truth such stagnation is starting to bite, not only in terms of day-to-day frustration, but also the economic woes to which it is both contributor and symptom. Solutions need to be found, not least because in conflict-stalked countries like Lebanon such frustrations can get all-too-easily tangled up with political grievances and stir resentment and unrest.

 

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