Panel Discussion on Lebanon – Strengths and Weaknesses of the Civil Society

civil societyIn the context of the visit of a French diplomatic delegation from the Strategic Planning Unit[1], NGC organized in Beirut an informal panel discussion on the current situation in Lebanon with representatives of the Media, Cultural and Entrepreneurial sectors.

The participants gathered on December 21st in Altcity, a social space designed to support Entrepreneurship and Innovation in Lebanon. The discussion revolved around identifying key strengths and weaknesses of the Lebanese society in the face of current political, security and economic challenges.

This stimulating exchange broadened the debate beyond traditional political and security indicators, by looking into the circumstances of other constituencies (Youth, entrepreneurs, artists…). The issue of social change informed every stage of the conversation, with participants wondering whether the present crisis will serve as a wake-up call for reform or, alternatively, push the society further towards polarization and conflict. Below is a quick brief of some ideas that came up during the discussion.

  • Participants posited a phenomenon of specialization of social mobilizations over the past decade around sectorial, less ideological causes: women’s rights movements, LGBT, growing urban movement for the right to public space (parks and beaches), protection of historical heritage… While these new, western-like issues were on the rise, others, such as the Palestinian cause had lost their mobilization potential. The panelists debated whether this segmentation of mobilizations could lead to more effective social change and was able to rally enough people. The recent adoption of a law aimed at protecting women from domestic violence was cited as a case-in-point of efficient mobilization.

  • Beyond street protests, other means, maybe more effective, to bring about social change were discussed. The main question was how best to influence Public Policy and impact decision-making processes in Lebanon. High barriers to entry (interest rates, wasta or social connections…) and rent-seeking behaviors[2] prevented outsiders from challenging the current status quo and represented a key obstacle to social change and reform. The all-pervasive corruption in the country somehow played a stabilizing role in a context of crisis, but would represent a serious obstacle for any future effort to overhaul the system. Altcity was an example of attempts at networking, lobbying and partnering up with public authorities to go around the barriers to entry and empower social entrepreneurship[3].

  • The Lebanese elite were cognizant of the growing ailments of the Lebanese political and economic system. However, none individually seemed willing to take serious steps towards reform. This myopic mindset of the local elite, whose choices seemed driven by short-term calculations and maximization strategies, could however play against their interests on the medium run. In the event of a generalized crisis, the elite would lose more than any other constituency. Hence, will there be a moment where the growing costs and dangers will push the elite to react and take constructive steps? Or will they just look for different damage control and exit strategies[4], leaving behind a failed state?

  • We also discussed whether the shock caused by the fast spread of the Islamic State (IS) in the region could lead, on the longer run, to a critical, inner thinking on a reform of Islam. For centuries, religious reformism had been the preserve of a sophisticated local elite, with no or little impact on the Muslim populations. Since the 19th century, reforming Islam has also been negatively associated with a Western liberal agenda. It is too early to say whether the reaction to IS will open a new space for reforming Islam among a wider segment of the Muslim population, but it is worth keeping this question in mind for future discussions.

  • Finally, the panel examined the repercussions of the Syrian crisis, including on the artistic and intellectual scenes. The creativity and diversity of cultural life in Lebanon had been boosted by the arrival of Syrian intellectuals, artists and musicians, leading to fruitful exchanges between the Lebanese and the Syrians. This helped challenge some negative stereotypes dating back to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. However, this positive aspect only applied to a very narrow sector of the population in a context of growing rejection of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Participants also discussed the power of humor and art to deal with the traumatizing crisis of the region and fight extremism.

Eventually, the panelists agreed that, as long as local and regional leaders have an interest in the current status quo, an all-out conflict in Lebanon is unlikely to happen. However, the status quo itself appears, on the longer run, unsustainable and local elite unwilling to take action to reform the system (political representation, fight against corruption, major infrastructure investments…). Despite clear signs of social strength and resilience, the State institutions and the very foundations of the Lebanese society are being continuously depleted, pointing at the possibility of a “death by a thousand cuts” scenario.

[1] The “Centre d’Analyse et de Prévision Stratégique » is a think tank within the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tasked with making strategic recommendations to the Foreign Minister. [2] See NGC reports “Can Entrepreneurs save the Arab World” and “How can we help Arab Entrepreneurs” [3] The Central Bank launched a new initiative last spring to power Lebanese start-ups through a special fund of $400 Million. [4] It would be interesting to collect data on the purchasing of real estate property by Lebanese well-off citizens in European capitals, especially in those countries (Greece, Portugal, Spain) where buying a house comes with a residency permit or even citizenship rights.

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