Michael Karam: Empty promises from Lebanese politicians

Lebanon is back to 1 per cent GDP and facing an economic and social crisis with a political class that has become even more of a hindrance.

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The other day the cousin of a friend thought he was having a heart attack. He was driven to the emergency department of the American University Hospital in Beirut, only to find the entrance blocked by a big black SUV. The hospital security guard shrugged. It was a minister’s car. He was, my friend said, unable to grasp the notion, that public servants were not only above the law but should set a higher standard of conduct.

I heard this after having spent a few days in England, where the leader of the Labour opposition, Ed Miliband, was ridiculed for the way he ate a sandwich. I wondered what plague and pestilence would be visited upon a British cabinet minister who deliberately blocked a hospital emergency.

And yet we Lebanese just suck it up. We tolerate the fact that not only has the economy been mismanaged to the point of abandonment for nigh on three years, but that we grin and bear the extra burden placed on productivity and morale by the fatuous antics and terrible policies of our political class.

The public sector, a hotbed of sinecure and waste at the best of times, is demanding a pay rise with regular strikes and demonstrations that burden our daily lives. Parliament knows the money just isn’t there (and that it would set a dangerous precedent for the private sector), but when so much political loyalty is based on patronage, especially within the ranks of Hizbollah and the Amal Movement, the result is deadlock. Enter the IMF, which declared that the issue “has diverted attention away from the need for broader fiscal consolidation”. You think?

Elsewhere, there are rumblings from the tens of thousands of protected tenants who for decades have been paying “old rent”– rates set before the civil war when 5 Lebanese pounds, rather than today’s 1,500 pounds (Dh3.6), bought US$1. Understandably, landlords want them out, but even with relatively generous compensation they would be unable to find similar housing.

On so many levels, the chickens are coming come home to roost. OK, the Central Bank still has $33.6 billion worth of gross foreign currency reserves and is sitting on 286.8 tonnes of gold, but let us not forget that Lebanon had the second and third-fastest growing Arab economies in 2009 and 2010. By 2012, it had the slowest and we haven’t looked back. In that time, GDP has plummeted from 9 per cent in 2009-10 to 1 per cent today. Not only have we been unable to sufficiently insulate ourselves from the Syrian civil war, our political class deliberately took sides and to hell with the consequences.

As the economy ran out of steam, the public was served up a spectacular and well-timed, red herring: Lebanon was on track to generate billions of dollars from our plentiful natural oil and gas reserves. We would, we were told, be the Norway of the Middle East.

The former energy minister, Gebran Bassil, of the whiter than white Free Patriotic Movement, even had the audacity to publish an illustrated brochure in which a father, with an uncanny likeness to himself, shows his son a future in a Lebanon all green and clean and modern, no doubt as a result of how the FPM skilfully, benevolently and transparently husbanded our natural assets.

Of course it was all smoke and mirrors. There are still no guarantees we have any exploitable reserves as no exploration licenses have been issued; there is still an irritating boundary dispute with Israel and the story seems to have fallen off the front pages as oil companies remain in a holding pattern to see if it is worth doing business in a system that will never fast-track anything unless all political parties can wet their beaks.

So we’re back to 1 per cent GDP and facing an economic and social crisis with a political class that has become even more of a hindrance.

It’s enough to give you a heart attack.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut