When the Lebanese lose trust in their institutions

The aspirations of the Lebanese are now limited to a return to the institutions that inspired public trust and reassurance before the civil war.
by Bassem Ajami

27 June 2019 | 11:08

Source: by Annahar

  • by Bassem Ajami
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 27 June 2019 | 11:08

Representational photo (AFP)

Political bickering and sectarian strife are eroding public confidence in Lebanon's state institutions.

When the "presidential deal" was reached in the summer of 2016, the Lebanese were promised reforms and political practices that will restore public trust in the country's institutions.

Public trust in government institutions began to wear down during the 1975-90 civil war. It replaced the relative reassurance that the Lebanese received from their institutions since their independence from French colonial rule.

Any Lebanese today under the age of 45 has no idea what it is like to respect the rule of law, trust the judicial process and to have respect for the constitution. Instead, corruption is rampant within government institutions, while adherence to the constitution is selective.

The Lebanese cheered when the latest government declared its intention to combat corruption. But their aspirations were frustrated when the fight against corruption was limited to charging a few junior civil servants. When it reached a high level in the judiciary and the security services, the two most crucial public institutions, it stalled.

The most recent example is the case of artist Ziad Itani. All the charges against him, which included spying for Israel and conspiring to assassinate the minister of the interior, together with other officials, turned out to have been falsified by a rogue security officer. But thanks to direct political intervention with the court, the rogue security officer was cleared of any wrongdoing. The issue was immediately given a sectarian character since Itani was a Muslim and the officer in question was a Christian.

How could this happen? What message does it send to the public about trust in the security services and the justice system?

Still, most serious is the practice of circumvention of the constitution. The Foreign Minister, Gebran Basil, proudly announces that he is amending the constitution by setting precedents. In other words, he is telling us that he is amending the constitution by violating it.

Gebran shields his unconstitutional practice by championing the cause of recovering the rights of the Christians. Yet his real aim is to silence other Christian parties by outbidding their efforts to safeguard Christian political rights through constitutional means.

Moreover, that is not the way to establish precedents. A precedent is established when a practice is repeated several times without raising objections. Also, it must not be in violation of the constitution.

Still, the post-civil war era established the era of "deal-making." Major issues are settled not by invoking the constitution, but by concluding deals between political groups. "Shares" are allocated to satisfy the ambitions of different political actors; such practices are cloaked by invoking sectarian fears that appeal to the public of all sects at large.

Such state of affairs is so different from the pre-civil war era, when political life was active, and the Lebanese anxiously awaited the results of the parliament's election, for example, of the next speaker, or president, or the results of the proceedings regarding bills proposed to the general assembly. Yet today, matters are precooked, and parliament only rubber-stamps the deals. The ongoing proceedings regarding the budget are one example. No wonder the legislature lost public trust.

Recovering confidence in public institutions is possible if the ruling class takes certain steps in that direction. One key step is appointing irremovable judges to superior courts, including the constitutional court. This is crucial for liberating the justice system from political influence. Once confidence in the judicial process is restored, all fall into place.

No one is seeking a perfect system. The aspirations of the Lebanese are now limited to a return to the institutions that inspired public trust and reassurance before the civil war. Unfortunately, with the existing ruling class, such goal remains a distant objective. 

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