Since the time of antiquity, almost every place in the Middle East has suffered from way too much government, but Lebanon is an intriguing exception. It’s the one country in the region that doesn’t have nearly enough.
Its government is so weak and dysfunctional that it can no longer carry out the most basic functions. Months have now passed since municipal workers have removed trash from garbage cans and dumpsters in Beirut. Mountains of garbage the size of buildings are piled up everywhere. The city—which looks like a fascinating and sometimes beautiful hybrid of Miami, Paris, Baghdad, and Tel Aviv—reeks like the worst slum in the world.
Surely by now the place is a biohazard.
Anti-government protestors and even rioters have taken to the streets with the message, “You Stink.” People from every political sect and every conceivable political party from the communists and Hezbollah to right-wing Christians and anti-sectarian liberals have banded together to demand the government take out the garbage—not just the trash on the streets, but the entire political class.
Anti-government riots are generally the result of real or perceived political repression, but the Lebanese are rebelling against a vacuum.
Lebanon was purposely designed to have weak state, not so much because the Lebanese are naturally libertarian (though many of them are, in their own Levantine way) but because the country is too diverse to cohere around a central leadership. It’s divided more or less equally between Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and Christians. A smaller Druze minority makes things even more interesting and complicated.
Each of Lebanon’s three principle religious communities have different social and political values, and a weak central government allows each some measure of self-determination in its local and social affairs. A weak central state also prevents one sect from riding roughshod over the others. That’s the theory anyway. If one sect tries to seize total control, war is inevitable.
And so, for the most part, nobody tries. Not even Hezbollah has attempted to impose its rule over the entire country like its patron regime in Iran. Any attempt to Iranianize the whole society would be met with ferocious bloody resistance from just about everyone. Hezbollah knows this. So Hezbollah does not even bother. Despite Hezbollah’s fanaticism, most of Beirut remains as decadent and freewheeling as Amsterdam.
So the system works, sort of. It has so far prevented Lebanon from being taken over by someone like Saddam Hussein or Moammar Qaddafi. Syria’s Assad family ruled there for a while, but only because the Syrian army conquered the place with overwhelming force from the outside. Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party—created and maintained by Syria’s Alawite religious minority—is from somewhere else. It was an invasive species, an alien transplant, and in 2005 the Lebanese vomited it out.
So Lebanon figured out a way to free itself from the despotism endemic to the rest of the region. Hooray for the weak state. But the state is so weak that the capital is now drowning in its own filth.
How much government is just the right amount? We all have opinions, but nobody really knows. It goes without saying that Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union had far too much government while Somalia, with its bloody anarchy, has the opposite problem.
What about countries closer to the center? The United States or Canada? The United Kingdom or The Netherlands?
The Middle East’s options are more extreme. Would you rather live amidst Lebanon’s mild anarchy or Jordan’s moderate authoritarianism? Jordan isn’t experiencing much trouble with garbage collection these days, but the Jordanians can’t vote for or against the king, and there isn’t much in the way of freedom of speech.
It’s a bit of a quandary, isn’t it? “Even Syrians fleeing war pronounce themselves shocked at the lack of infrastructure in Lebanon,” Anne Barnard writes in The New York Times. “Some of them, however, express a hint of jealousy that Lebanon’s weak state allows freedoms unavailable in Syria, where protests were crushed with deadly force.”
Lebanon is obviously a better place than Syria right now despite all its problems. No one would flee the Beirut garbage dump for the killing fields of Aleppo. Lebanon, at least, isn’t a war zone. The government isn’t dropping barrel bombs on residential neighborhood, and there’s no genocidal terrorist army forcing children to execute its enemies.
But the World Economic Forum ranks Lebanon’s government as the fourth-least efficient in the entire world.
There are some advantages to that. You can live more or less like a free human being there. I know because I did it myself in 2005 and 2006. Peter Grimsditch, a British transplant who used to run Beirut’sDaily Star newspaper, once told me that he’d never been anywhere in the world where he felt the power of the state bearing down on him less.
There are some serious disadvantages, though, too.
There’s the trash problem, of course.
And the fact that an Iranian-sponsored militia—Hezbollah—has managed to amass more military capacity than the national army.
And here’s a fun fact: Lebanon hasn’t had a president for more than a year. Imagine a chronically authoritarian place like Egypt having that problem.
And imagine if Barack Obama were followed in office by…nobody. Not Hillary Clinton. Not Jeb Bush. Not Donald Trump. Not Bernie Sanders.
The idea is actually appealing in some ways. Americans could probably muddle through for years with a ghost Oval Office.
But imagine if that also meant no new power plants for the next 30 years. No road repairs. No functioning water system. No trash collection. Militias rising up everywhere that start wars with Canada and Mexico.
The country might yearn for some kind of dictator after putting up with that kind of dysfunction for too many years.
Will that happen in Lebanon? I doubt it. The Lebanese wouldn’t be able to agree on which kind of dictator they’d tolerate anyway. But honestly I have no idea. It’s a strange place. There’s nowhere else in the world—certainly nowhere else in the Middle East—quite like it.
For Lebanon to resolve the root cause of most of its problems, Lebanon will have to stop being Lebanon. But that’s not going to happen any more than Syria will stop being Syria or Iraq will stop being Iraq.