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Is “Lebanon” the Tea Party Utopia?

Tensions are very high in Lebanon right now, as the tiny country teeters on the verge of being swept into the of civil war in neighboring Syria.  The fighting across the border – and spilling at times into Lebanon itself — has polarized the already fractious population as the various confessional and political communities are drawn to take one side or another.

However, “crisis” is nothing new to the Lebanese scene.  It can be said to be endemic to its political structure.

Lebanon is a middle-income country with a per-capita GDP about equivalent to the less wealthy states of Europe (Croatia, Russia, Bulgaria) and some of the more prosperous economies of Latin America (Uruguay, Panama, Mexico).  It’s capital, Beirut, is a lively metropolis, housing about half of the country’s 4 million permanent inhabitants, and the site of a flourishing business, banking and high-tech economy.  The frenetic pace of construction is visible everywhere you look.  And yet amid this hyper-commercialism and rampant but unregulated new building, the country remains a dysfunctional mess, even a nightmare.

A few illustrations:

–Electricity is cut frequently — supposedly according to a regular schedule, but often unpredictable; in Beirut power is available on the average 12-16 hours a day, sometimes less.  The government attributes the shortage to destruction of the country’s infrastructure during the Civil War after 1975. But what is the excuse for failing to remedy the situation 23 years after the war’s end?

People are forced to cope with the power shortages in whatever way they can.  The poor do without, some better-off families have back-up battery supply and others their own generators.  In Beirut there are private power suppliers in many neighborhoods with their own ramshackle distribution networks that kick in when the public power is off.  Where I was staying, in South Beirut, low-amperage power (enough to run some lights, a TV or a computer) turns on when the public electricity is cut — at an additional monthly cost of double what the public power company charges. The wealthy, of course, have made their own arrangements and are scarcely inconvenienced by the power cuts.

–Lebanon is probably the best-watered country in the Middle East.  It has many rivers and even now in June there is snow on the mountaintops of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon peaks.  Yet in Beirut, what comes out of the taps is saltwater, literally. It is undrinkable, and It’s even hard to wash properly, as soap does not lather very well in this brackish water.  Plumbing fixtures in bathrooms and kitchens are corroded and difficult to maintain in good working order. Why? Uncontrolled development and poor protection of the local aquifer has allowed it to be completely infiltrated by seawater.  So everyone has to buy potable water, at significant expense.  Again, the rich make their own arrangements.

–Almost all the beautiful shoreline of Beirut is private, with swanky beach and swim clubs, fancy restaurants and yacht moorings.  The only access to the sea for Beirut’s poor is the litter-strewn Ramlet al-Bayda public beach to the south. Recent press reports have shown it to be heavily polluted by illegal private sewer connections from unregulated housing developments just inland.  So if you are poor in Beirut and you want to bathe in the sea you are literally forced to swim in shit.

–In fact, almost everything is privatized in Lebanon, even politics, some would say. The government is postponing parliamentary elections due this month because of the unstable situation in the country, but few people take much notice. “Politics” matters little in Lebanon, outside of the elites contending for the spoils of public office and the favors they can sell to influential business interests.

–Of course, inequality is very extreme here.  Lebanon is a playground for Gulf Sheiks and wealthy tycoons from all over the world, while the poor can barely survive.  And the job prospects for those without family or government connections is further undermined by the ubiquitous low-paid labor of impoverished Syrians and Palestinians or imported semi-free workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines or Africa.

Tax avoidance and corruption is rampant; commercialism and finance reign.  Private interests maintain their own port facilities and organize routine under-the-table smuggling of goods across the borders.

In Lebanon, the state is so feeble it barely exists. By some measures it is not even a state at all, failed or otherwise. If we take Max Weber’s definition of a state as an entity which claims a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order” then Lebanon clearly does not qualify.  Even armed force is largely privatized here in the form of various sectarian militias.

Rather Lebanon is a state that never quite came fully into existence out of its colonial past and the contending claims of locality, religious sect and family.  Reform efforts sputtered briefly during the beginning of the “Arab Spring” two years ago, but failed to mobilize mass support among a population dependent on local patronage and private power bases.

This brings us back to the Tea Party reference in the title of this essay.  The Rightwing fantasy of shrinking the US government until it is small enough to “drown in a bathtub” is not necessary in Lebanon. It is already a reality.  Efforts to create a modern state were largely thwarted by its illegitimate and unwieldy colonial legacy, then drowned in blood during more than a decade of civil war.

What developed instead was a kind of commercial anarchy — a free-market utopia or a nightmarish capitalist “state of nature,” depending on your point of view.

So, Tea Partiers, if you want to know what an Ayn Rand-ish fantasy of the future might look like, you can see it now in Lebanon.  Paul Ryan, you are invited to Beirut – but bring extra batteries.

Jeff Klein is a retired local union president, peace and justice activist, Palestinian rights supporter.  He just started a blog at http://atmyangle.blogspot.com/ and can be reached at jjk123@comcast.net

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Jeff Klein is a writer and speaker on Middle East issues who travels frequently to the region.  An earlier version of this piece, with illustrations, can be found in his occasional blog: “At a Slight Angle to the Universe.” He can be reached at jjk123@comcast.net.

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