Nadim Houry on Lebanon: “The public sphere is left to rot”

Acting as the executive director at the Arab Reform Initiative (ARI) since June 2019, Nadim Houry brings up the many challenges Arab World countries – and more particularly Lebanon – are facing nowadays. In the current crisis, the Lebanese society needs to rely on its forces of changes to lead its revolution to its term. Otherwise…

nadim houry interview ARI bytheeast
"At ARI, we undertake studies, including why did the reformist movements fail during the last Lebanese elections? Part of its failure can be explained due to existing corruption in the established system. Another reason stems from the movement itself, which lacked organization and ability to mobilize at the grass roots level." ©All rights reserved
ByTheEast: Since 2011, the Arab countries followed different paths. What have they in common in 2020?

Nadim Houry: The Arab world and the MENA region are plunged into a deep crisis, which based on a country’s standpoint can take different facets. Despite this apparent potential difference in approach, they all share one thing in common: in all of these societies, the social contract has been broken for a very long time. This fracture between society and the State has been particularly profound and is increasingly more visible since 2011.

In Lebanon, it has presented itself through several iterations with the latest being the bankruptcy of the State due to abject mismanagement by successive governments due to widespread and deep rooted corruption.

Since the 2011 revolutions, we have seen the emergence of new players in the region who have demanded change, be it young activists, new feminist movements, diaspora actors, trade union or professional movements (from Sudan to Lebanon via Algeria); there is an effervescence of social movements and ARI aspires to better understand and support them towards a real meaningful transition in the region.

One of the great forgotten topics of the 2011 Arab Spring is the question of social justice, which has come into the fore with renewed vigor.

Revolutionaries at that time had the right slogans but did not think about the tools. Case in point: in Tunisia which has seen a relatively successful revolution, social quality has not improved in the last ten years. Although the democratic regime has succeeded politically, with a transfer of power, but failed in implementing social justice.

The political parties in place are unable to formulate a plan on this subject, which explains, for example, the two finalist candidates in the presidential election being outsiders.

History typically has proven, if a revolution does not come to its logical end in the span of a few months, it is likely to slump back to its stupor while conservative forces strengthen their grip over society. It is said, exceptions define the rule, and we may very well experience the “Lebanese exception”, so let us keep our fingers crossed.

BTE: What are the specifities of Lebanon in this Arab world?

Houry: What is the raison d’être of a country like Lebanon given its geography? By destroying the mountain and the sea, we are losing everything. Until very recently, issues surrounding the environment were approached very casually and in a very superficial way – trees were planted to make the surrounding “look pretty”. However, to get to the bottom of things, to do a root-cause analysis, we need to delve deeper and talk about accessibility and sharing of resources, which essentially are political issues.

In past years, there was a pretty large consensus in Lebanon – within the political class and large segments of the population – that big projects such as dams were the right way forward for development. The question needs to be asked, but is this really the case? Who are the stakeholders? Who are the beneficiaries? Are these projects cost effective? Large projects of dams and quarries have been scandalous, with the Bisri dam project being a prime example. Unfortunately, as is too often seen in Lebanon, the parties involved have vested interests; there is collusion between the interests of major financial players and political parties.

“There is a vital need to reform the Lebanese judicial system and put an end to impunity.”

BTE: Is the Lebanese civil society asking the right questions?

Houry: With Lebanon being caught in the winds of change, the country is undergoing a revolutionary process with people finally asking the right questions and trying to place the interest of citizens at the center of discussions. Lebanon’s citizens are undergoing a fundamental change, there are indications of the emergence of a new citizen class less beholden to their zaims and traditional communities. The question is how big is this new citizen class. 

There is a vital need to reform the Lebanese judicial system and put an end to impunity. Thanks to the hard work of many civil society actors, there is a renewed social and political interest in the issue of the independence of the judiciary and the mechanisms necessary to end impunity. This work, albeit a herculean task riddled with potential minefields, will act as the bedrock and lay the foundation for a new social contract that is not based on sectarian and clientelist networks.

The period of change we are living in must be a period of questioning, much like it was the case in German society after the Second World War. Lebanon will start to get better when everyone, around their own table with their family and friends, begins to ask questions that bother or shake things up.

When we have the courage to start pointing the finger at the pompous cousin who has made a pile of cash dishonestly and the family no longer supporting and promoting it as an example of success.

The elites and the ruling class never like to handed over power, and Lebanon is no exception to that rule. The balance of power is therefore very uneven. So far, civil society has been divided, its various movements have failed to reach any meaningful agreement. They have also been accused of being elitists, and their campaigns often lacked grass roots supports and there is a need to develop better political programs beyond a few slogans. It has been their weakness.

BTE: You mentioned new active players in the Lebanese civil society. How can the youth focus its energy?

Houry: The new generation is organized differently, it does not conform to existing political vertical hierarchies. It is more horizontally structured. At ARI, we undertake studies, including why did the reformist movements fail during the last Lebanese elections? Part of its failure can be explained due to existing corruption in the established system. Another reason stems from the movement itself, which lacked organization and ability to mobilize at the grass roots level.

The youth of the Arab world aspire to something else. They are asking the right questions and in the process are breaking many taboos. But while the youth know what they don’t want, they are yet to articulate what is it that they truly want. Theirs is an evolution in progress. Although their movement has no structural ideology much like socialism or nationalism, its echo in the Arab world is loud and clear.

The youth know that preparing alternatives can be complicated, especially in today’s Lebanon, which like other Arab countries, no longer has the tools to cope. The youth must organize themselves and prepare alternative means of success. There is no quick-fix solution. It is a long term job.

“How can we talk about social justice without talking about fiscal policies? It’s impossible.”

BTE: What can be expected from the new professional associations, knowing that unions and professional associations are linked to politicians and often corrupted as well?

Houry: One prime example is the Bar Association: the Beirut Bar Association, a union, was completely at the service of power. Melhem Khalaf’s election as its head came at the right time, in the midst of a rout for the traditional political parties. Its timing was perfect: the right candidate at the right time. His election created a very positive shock, and scared the government. Other groups are being organized, such as that of independent journalists because the press union is also controlled by politicians.

Since 2019, it is very interesting to analyze the rise of the professional associations’ movement in Lebanon, much like in Sudan or Algeria. Their rise was a response to the Arab Spring of 2011. In that year, apart from Tunisia where civil society was well structured, there was obvious organizational weakness. Since then, one of the models that has capture attention – in particular after Sudan’s experience – is that of professional associations.

In Arab countries, traditional unions are usually dominated by traditional political parties and those in power. They are corrupt and no longer carry projects for more social justice. We therefore study these new professional groups, including the challenges faced by them and their economic model.

During the last Lebanese general elections, neither Beirut Madinati nor the other reformist movements were able to bring essential subjects to the table. For example, nobody talks about fiscal policy and taxation system in Lebanon. How can we talk about social justice without talking about fiscal policies? It’s impossible. Since 2011, we have made the following diagnosis: there is a lot of energy, desire for change and courage, but we are in societies which are unable to broaden the debate on public policies. We desperately need to ask the right questions and discuss the solutions. The forces of change must propose concrete ideas , in order to show that, if they win the elections one day, they will have a program to set up quickly.

“The reality is that we have become deeply mediocre. We let things rot thinking somehow that Lebanon could avoid the laws of economic gravity.”

BTE: Yes, but as you said, this system seems deeply rooted at many levels into the Lebanese society, such as the universities or the private sector…

Houry: At the end of 2019, university professors from the Lebanese University (LU) were very active in the protest movement and were discussing the future of the Lebanese University. In a country like Lebanon, the metastasized cancer of corruption is no longer limited to the upper echelons of power. It can also be seen in public universities or in hospitals. At the LU, reformist professors who reject the system of corruption will have to organize themselves internally. The – public – Lebanese University will play an increasingly important role in the future given the economic crisis. If a democracy does not have a functioning public university system, it will inevitably have an elitist issue. The LU will have to be reformed, since certain faculties are dominated by various political parties. When I had given a conference on human rights in one of the LU law schools, the first row was reserved for the student representative of the Amal movement as if he were the dean …

In Lebanon, one of the developments which will be very interesting to observe will be that of the industrial and banking sectors. Until now, many industrialists, who were not corrupted, had quietly stuck to just running their businesses. Today, they realize that their silence has contributed to the collapse in Lebanon. In a country as small as Lebanon, where everyone is a familiar face, how did we get to the current situation? Where were those who should have sounded the alarm? Many bankers were aware of the backstage machinations. For too long, has there been an omerta based on corruption and on an acceptance of mediocrity in the name of the famous Lebanese resilience. The reality is that we have become deeply mediocre. We let things rot thinking somehow that Lebanon could avoid the laws of economic gravity. We have been lying to each other for so long that we have believed a lie. Riad Salameh, the governor of the central bank, had even become a national hero even after no one understood any longer what he was doing.

BTE: Since October 17, 2019, we have seen many demonstrations leaded by women, all over Lebanon. How do you access the role of Lebanese women?

Houry: The new feminist movement is fantastic. Not only because of the amount of people involved and the courage of these women on the streets, but because of the introduction of a speech that challenges many things in power structures and dissects the problems of the Lebanese feudal system. This new movement offers a real political discourse, on many themes.

In Lebanon, the movement created in October 2019 has also been built on lessons learned from the past, such as during the trash crisis. As we go along, we see new groups forming, relationships of trust that are created between different groups. Lebanese activists know that the 2019 revolt will not be the last, but that with each episode, the wave will grow. Today, the field of action is widening because it is more and more decentralized.

BTE: The fourth power of change you point out is the Lebanese diaspora. How Lebanese people abroad can make a difference?

Houry: The diaspora is not only a source of income for families in Lebanon, it must be seen as a political actor. We are currently witnessing a clear evolution of its political role. Case in point: the Lebanese think tank Kulluna Irada is funded by the Lebanese diaspora, a first for the diaspora’s involvement in bringing about structural reforms in Lebanon’s financial structural. I myself have met groups of Lebanese, in New York, Paris or Berlin, which are trying to organize themselves. Previously, the diaspora was organized as an extension of Lebanese political divisions. Traditional political parties had very strong branches in foreign countries. Today, part of the diaspora rejects this model.

BTE: What political evolution do you expect in the coming months?

Houry: At ARI we are very interested in the emergence of new social and political players (I am now waiting to see new political parties form) and how initiatives and new political parties such as Charbel Nahas’ MMDF (Mouwatinoun wa mouwatinat fi dawla), the National Bloc, which is trying to reinvent itself, Beirut Madinati, and the Li Haqqi, which is a political movement that emerged during the last elections, evolve and consolidate their efforts..

These initiatives, nascent and currently marginal compared to the traditional parties, must be nurtured and supported so that they can take their place in the political sphere. Above all, we must fight against the passivity and silence of the private sector. In Lebanon, the solution will come from a convergence of struggles and interests and possible solutions from these emerging diverse groups. Unity in diversity is very much possible, but to begin with these players have to congregate on certain issues – a sort of minimum common denominator of common ideas, principles and programs. Otherwise, they will have no ability to take on and defeat the established sectarian parties.

While we are witnessing some important emerging initiatives in Lebanon, the road ahead is still long. Lebanon will need a political institutional change but also a dramatic shift in societal dynamics. There is a generational aspect to the current uprising and a rejection by an increasing percentage of youth of the compromises made by their parents. We are unlikely to experience a revolution on the French or Iranian model. There is no unifying symbol of despotism nor a unifying leader or ideology. Rather, there is a bottom up demand for a new model given the absolute incompetence and corruption of the current political class. As a whole, the Arab world, is aspiring to a change of model – whether it is rejecting the repressive Syrian or Egyptian model, or the model of Lebanese or Iraqi corruption. Change is coming, though the path and outcome is yet to be determined.

BTE: Everybody talks about corruption in Lebanon. What’s the magnitude of this cancer?

Houry: We can criticize the feudal spirit of Lebanese politics, but the parties are very strong and very deeply rooted. They know their files well since they know how they benefit from them. Unfortunately, they are corrupt, and rarely choose to put forward the public interest. They often know the files and issues better than international donors and in some cases better than civil society.

Corruption has many faces. I remember an interview with Michel el-Murr, the archetype of the Lebanese politician, in the 90s. On Marcel Ghanem’s set on LBC, he had shown an Excel table which allowed him to predict the exact number of votes he would have during elections in the Metn district. This system represents a powerful electoral machine. If you want to take power, you will necessarily have to build an electoral machine to deal with it, an electoral machine that is not corrupt and that is not dependent on patronage. It should be based on local networks and on solidarity between social groups.

The power leverage used by traditional parties is not only the $100 banknote that politicians distribute on polling day. This $100 bill is just the icing on the cake. In the last election, I saw it around me: many voters who said they wanted reforms ended up voting for traditional candidates. This can be explained by family loyalty, a feeling of accountability because a cousin works in the company of a candidate even if the candidate is inept… The question that needs to be asked today is: how to deconstruct this mode of operation? I think it will not be done in one election, it is a cumulative process of different changes. This is where young people have their role to play because they have new aspirations.

The Lebanese do not know their own History, but neither do they know their geography, even though it is a very small country. Today, no one learns geography anymore, no one knows how much Lebanon imports and exports and of which commodities. As there is no longer a social contract in Lebanon today, everything in the public sphere is left to rot. There is not necessarily a single way of reading History, but it is necessary to reconnect with the understanding of History and geography.

“The unholy alliance between political and economic powers is a model of political economy based on corruption.”

BTE: I understand that the corruption is due to the connivance between political and economic powers. Is there any hope to unravel this incestuous relationship?

Houry: We realized that political economy is often overlooked in requests for change. The current economic structures have evolved over the years to support the existing political order. And it’s impossible to get rid of one without the other.

If we think of political reform, we must also think of the basis of the new economy. There are many examples to rethink, such as electricity, waste management or monopolies organized by exclusive agents. Unfortunately today, all the major players of the economic world are aligned with political figures. Not necessarily out of conviction, but in order to gain access to public markets. This unholy alliance is a model of political economy based on corruption.

This clientelist structure is further complicated by  the religious and sectarian factor. If a public figure is accused of corruption, his community will take out the red card saying that he cannot be touched because he belongs to a particular religious group. We see it today with Riad Salameh: by whom is he defended? By Patriarch Raï because he is a Maronite. But should we still worry about the confession of this or that public figure? Political economy needs to be completely rethought.

The irony in Lebanon is that we should have protected some sectors like agriculture for our food sovereignty and we completely ignored it. We preferred to protect through monopolies and licenses purely commercial sectors centered on consumption which do not create wealth. I cannot understand this. But since October 2019, this type of debate is finally taking place.

Political and economic corruption has been known for a very long time, for electricity for example, but also in other sectors such as wastewater treatment plants, along the Lebanese coast. These factories were built with funding from international donors, but were never connected to the network because politicians were unable to agree on who would benefit.

We also have a problem with the shareholders of the major private banks where we clearly find the political class as a whole represented. If the identified forces of change really want to replace this corrupt political class, they will have to think of alternatives. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but it is obvious that the old development models no longer work.

BTE: What practical differences can ARI make as a think tank?

Houry: Our role as a think tank is to highlight the promising role of the forces of change, to better understand them and to support them in one way or another with exchanges of experience from other countries. We can no longer simply say that we are against corruption, we must make concrete proposals.

One of the initiatives launched by ARI is called the Activist Toolkit: we post videos presenting different activists from the Arab world where they explain how they overcame a particular problem. This is not just in terms of providing lessons, but also promoting an exchange to expose concrete solutions, organized by themes and by country, ranging from Algeria to Lebanon.

In Lebanon, we are going to set up 3 specific projects:

1/ We will collaborate with professional associations to understand their needs, and facilitate their contacts with similar groups in other Arab countries, notably Tunisia, Algeria, and Sudan…

2/ We will try and get a more integral understanding about the roles the Lebanese diaspora can undertake in the next stage. This will not be limited to the individual level – sending money – but include assimilation of lessons the Lebanese diaspora can learn from other diaspora; for example, we are looking at what lessons can the Lebanese diaspora learn from these experiences so that they stop strengthening sectarian parties abroad. Today, unfortunately, much of the funding for our diaspora still goes to traditional political parties.

3/ We will focus our energies on understanding the security and social protection system amidst the current economic breakdown, with studies carried out in partnership with the LCPS research center; this will include understanding current policies, thinking about what frameworks can be put in place to protect the unemployed as well as the most vulnerable families. We aim to study how assistance programs in Lebanon are often leveraged by traditional political parties, when in fact they are supposed to be part of the social contract between the State and the citizens. These topics will become a priority, especially in the context of the Covid-19 crisis.

“The involvement of the IMF could have certain positive repercussions since their involvement will result in the scrutiny of Lebanon’s public finances as well as audit its books of accounts.”

BTE: Final question! Last May, the Lebanese government finally opened negotiations with the IMF. Can it be a solid solution to the economic crisis?

Houry: The economists we consulted with ARI indicate that Lebanon will eventually need financing, with very significant amounts, to continue to import essential foodstuffs for the life of the citizens. In the current context, where can this funding come from? Even among those who are very critical of the IMF, there is a recognition that the question of the IMF is not just about the institution but also about getting other international donors to commit. But we have seen in many countries how the IMF involvement has further marginalized economically challenged segments of society.

From another perspective, the involvement of the IMF could have certain positive repercussions since their involvement will result in the scrutiny of Lebanon’s public finances as well as audit its books of accounts. This will naturally bring about an increase in transparency, an important step for a country such as ours.

Beyond the ideological debate around the IMF, the real question is that of social justice, and even simply that of justice. Who is going to pay the cost of Lebanon’s bankruptcy and decay? We must continue to mobilize citizens to ensure that the middle and lower classes do not end up footing the bill, once again.


About Arab Reform Initiative (ARI)

  • Founded in 2005, ARI is intended as a resource for reformist movements in the Arab world countries, including Lebanon. Historically, ARI has brought together local organizations and partners in each country of the Arab world, and has acted through them. Today, ARI’s structure is evolving: it already has a presence in Tunisia, and is in the process of setting an office in Lebanon, with its executive office is located in Paris.