Saturday, October 27, 2007

A Banana-less Republic

Lebanon is living a deranged version of Groundhog Day as two rival political groups fight for control of the presidency. Meetings are held, gabbers gab, and everyday the headlines are the same. What no one notices is that while the two groups fight to get their man in the lead role in the play, the producer is running out of money, the theater is on fire and no tickets have been sold. That's why I hate writing about the place now. It's just too depressing.

Enjoy it while it lasts.

When I last lived in Lebanon, my aunt and I would meet once or twice a week or so and go down to the Corniche for a walk along the seaside, a berd'aan (orange juice) and the occasional pistachio ice cream.
She has a doctorate in Middle East history and knows Lebanon intimately (she's lived there from birth and never left during the war).
Our conversations were often political, and when they were no country's politics were more discussed than Lebanon's. As two (we think) reasonable people we were often bewildered by what passed as acceptable behavior from our politicians.
A line that that I often repeated was that "Lebanon is like a banana republic without any bananas." I always drew a laugh, but it's a lot less funny right now.

It's a country with a population of medium sized metropolis and with an area akin to some American and Canadian national parks. Running the place is not exactly the most difficult logistical challenge governance has to offer. That being said Lebanon teeters on the edge of self-annihilation.

Lebanese national debt tops 50 billion dollars. I'm going to write that in full, along with population and GDP, so you get the full picture (the zeroes bring to life).
50,000,000,000 $
4 ,000,000
That means that each man, woman and child owes approximately 12,500$ but makes less than half of that year. That's not even the worst part. The worst part is that most of that debt is owed in at interest rates in the neighborhood of 20% and in American dollars. And, just as a topper, the government is still running annual deficits in the billions of dollars. So, the debt will continue to grow, and become more and more difficult to service every fiscal year. No country on Earth faces such a macroeconomic problem. Without foreign assistance Lebanon would already be in default.

But wait... there's more. The country's infrastructure is crumbling. Population density is almost 350 per square km (putting Lebanon in the top twenty densest nations) but much of the infrastructure was built before the civil war and is simply not equipped to deal with the extra input. Sewage is dumped out of an overloaded system directly into the sea. The electricity grid, powered by some of the most economically inefficient generating systems in the world, lurches along, Frankenstein-like, somehow still delivering electricity - but for how long? Garbage is brunt as there is no room for it. Tap water isn't potable. One third of the population lives below the poverty line. And those are just some of the problems... education and health haven't even been mentioned.

How is it possible that after 60 years of independence we have still not figured out how to rule ourselves semi-competently? China and India have populations made up of a variety of ethnic groups and surpass 1 billion and manage to self-govern. Vietnam's population is 87 million, has survived a devastating civil war and now boasts a surging economy. Meanwhile tiny Lebanon cannot even organize itself in a rudimentary manner.

Honestly, I'm tired of it. Lebanon is a basket case. It's a prize barely worth fighting for, yet our politicians fight over it like mangy dogs struggling over a carcass. I'd like to call such behavior irresponsible but I don't think the word fully encompasses the moral depravity of their actions. The real danger in Lebanon is not falling into one sphere of influence or another but that the country will collapse into an unlivable giant ghetto.

We don't need resistance or pride or freedom. At the end of the day all three and a dollar will buy you a cup of coffee. What Lebanon needs is a modicum of competency and sanity. It's not our place to be the flag bearer for Islam or liberal democracy. We are a tiny country with gigantic problems. Let's try and solve those first. They'll be plenty of time for fighting and foreign affairs later. Use all the clich├ęs you want - now or never, the last chance, crunch time, etc - if we don't get our act together soon, the whole edifice of state will come crashing down on our heads and we won't be able to dig ourselves out.

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