Saturday evening, while walking in Sassine Square, I came upon a nauseating scene. Two young men had gotten out of their car and were furiously punching the Syrian driver of a delivery vehicle, over what appeared to be a traffic dispute.
The Syrian protested that he had said nothing, which only brought on more blows. Eventually some bystanders broke up the altercation, and the two thugs got into their car and left. But what was most disturbing was the ease with which the men assaulted someone in the middle of Beirut, with no apparent fear that they would be arrested for their actions.
Similarly, I recently met a young foreigner whose ankle was broken after he was hit by a car. The driver sped off, leaving his victim lying in the street. At such moments, and many more in Lebanese daily life, you cannot help but ask: What has gotten into the Lebanese?
Traffic casts the brightest and most disquieting light on our national pathologies. The latent violence and aggression of many drivers, their rudeness, selfishness and utter indifference to the consequences of their foolish risk-taking, are but three of the familiar characteristics of what is a daily descent into Lebanon’s heart of darkness.
Unfortunately, there is much more. Everywhere, it seems, the Lebanese are swindled, and feel it. Restaurants charge European-standard prices, but the vast majority serve mediocre food. Many contractors will demand the highest fees for their work, but take no pride in it. They will bring in cheap laborers to save money, so that one must pay nearly double to repair the myriad errors.
Every day, it seems, Lebanon has become a vast con game, an unprincipled country where violence is given free rein, where charlatanism is rewarded, where incompetence is generalized and where legalized theft is widespread – a country which it is easy to leave and from which the young understandably seek escape.
Such a broad accusation may invite protests. Lebanon also has its advantages – its beautiful mountains, its joie de vivre, a people that can often behave insufferably, yes, but have talent and initiative. Perhaps, but talent and initiative are cruelly lacking these days, as the country finds itself mired in crisis after crisis, without hope, without much of a functioning state and with a deteriorating economy.
But blaming the state, as many do, is also a way the Lebanese have of denying their own responsibility for the decline in the country. The Lebanese never tire of complaining of the “political class,” but will faithfully elect the same leaders time and again. They will lament the absence of law and principles in their society, but then routinely behave outside the law, without principles. The worst thing is that there is some truth in their defense that Lebanon is not a place where one gets much done by scrupulously applying the law.
Paradoxically, in this explanation lies a clue to a long-term Lebanese advantage: the flexibility of its society. In Lebanon, as in much of the Mediterranean, the law isn’t absolute. Mediterranean societies are old and the states frequently weak (though not everywhere), so that traditional instruments of mediation outside the scope of the state have more importance than they do in countries formed around the core of a strong legal system, buttressed by a respected constitution.
That is one reason why Lebanese society is more resilient to crises, and more resistant in times of conflict, than those in which the breakdown of the state means a breakdown of everything emanating from the state. That’s why the ultimate dystopia in many Western cultures is one in which state authority has collapsed and where people are living in anarchy, relying on their wits to survive.
In Lebanon, with some exaggeration but not too much, aspects of this image seem to exist today. Institutions and services substituting for those the state has failed to provide are so prevalent that emergencies are better absorbed, even as society functions in parallel to the state.
Wide spaces outside the state do not always lead to desirable outcomes. In a place such as Sicily, surprisingly similar to Lebanon in many regards, it led to the strengthening of the Mafia, which infiltrated and came to dominate the state. But in the early 1990s, after the assassination of two prominent magistrates investigating the Mafia, Sicilian society rose up and forced the government in Rome to take stronger action against organized crime. The Mafia wasn’t eliminated, but it was weakened, with many of its leaders arrested.
Though prisoners of their past, with its unbending strictures, the Lebanese also have no difficulty destroying their past. Rare are the cities more hideous than Beirut, with its systematic obliteration of all that is beautiful. Since we mentioned Sicily, to this day Sicilians lament the so-called “Sack of Palermo” in the decades following World War II. During that period, the city’s historic center was allowed to deteriorate and was demolished, to be replaced by lucrative modern apartment blocks. The Mafia benefited from the construction contracts, which it won thanks to a corrupt Palermo city government.
The “Sack of Beirut” is well advanced, as entire neighborhoods have been razed to make room for monstrous buildings in which very few people can afford to live. Beirut’s history and architecture are being annihilated without any legal restriction, even as its most basic and essential laws – those governing everyday relations between citizens – are ignored. What kind of country so willingly erases its past in favor of a present that is both lawless and repugnant?
The solution will require conditions that are so difficult to achieve that any revival may be doomed from the start. Certainly, it will also require a revolution in the mindset of the Lebanese themselves. That means working to improve the next generation, in that short interregnum before the young race to an airplane and depart from the country.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.