July 2008


According to Information International’s The Monthly publication, the 11 families owning 11 out of 63 banks, control 80% of the total desposits in Lebanon (al-akhbar, Arabic link). They cash in 85% of all profits, a total of $641.7 million a year. The banks are Awdah, BLOM, Byblos, Fransabank, Société générale, Credit Libanais, Bank MED, Bank of Beirut, Bank of Beirut and Arab Countries, Lebanese Canadian Bank, and Banque Libano-Française. The families are Awdah, Azhari, Basil, Qassar, Sahnaoui, Hariri, Assaf, Rufayil, Zard, Abu Jawdah, and Sfayr.

Some have blamed the public debt on crude Niqula-Fattoush-style corruption, others on bad management and exorbitant rebuilding costs. Neither, however, are half as dangerous as the legislated modes of enrichment made possible only by the political-familial-capitalist tripod which stands at the heart of our system. This reached its peak under Rafiq Hariri where government bonds were issued with abnormally high returns – once reaching so much as 37%! The banks gorged themselves – and are still doing so – at the expense of the public pocket.

That this particular, if not unique, blend of capitalism and familialism which is older than Grand Liban itself has its tentacles deep in the political system is evinced by the number of politicians hailing from those families – the latest welcome having just been extended to Awdah, minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants. It is further evinced by the fact that almost half the public debt ($17.8 billion) we owe to these 11 families.

The banking system in Lebanon, that miraculous basis of our service economy, is said to have amazed Paul van Zeeland, the Belgian economist and advisor to the Lebanese government around 1950: “I don’t know what makes the economy work, but it’s doing very well and I wouldn’t advise you to touch it” (quote, possibly apocryphal, from Carolyn Gates’ The Merchant Republic of Lebanon, xv). Others have dubbed it “the Lebanese miracle.” The only miracle about Lebanon is that with such short-sighted and narrow-minded management, it still holds together… just.

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During the last 45 days of labor, all the ideological crap and the window dressing about two camps and two irreconcilable visions for the future of Lebanon have fallen to reveal the one tenacious political practice that will always bind us together: pie sharing.

Sanioura finally makes some sense when he calls the national unity government 100% Lebanese. The Doha agreement set the rink – even specifying the composition of the government – and left it to the Lebanese to sort it out. And sort they did! After several weeks of punching it out between pro- and anti-government coalitions, the last period was spent bickering over the division of seats within the same political coalition, namely March 14, in what can best be described as family feuds between Hariri’s Christian allies. But of course, when these feuds cross the religion line, we start calling them “politics.”

Other hanging points (such as Murr and Qanso) were concluded with the usual vacuous “everyone’s a winner” for the sake of meeting the “Club Med” deadline and, although I am not sure this was even a priority, evading more bloodshed. Even when that much is evident, some Hariri spokesperson insists on insulting our intelligence by justifying Hariri’s diligent work in smoothing among his allies the acceptance of Ali Qanso, prototype Syrian ally, as minister:

There is an intention to send Sulayman to France without a government, such that the discussion in the French capital between the French and Syrian sides would be derailed into how Damascus can help facilitate the formation of a government instead of looking into the core issues that the international community is asking of the Syrian leadership regarding its relationship with Lebanon.

Apart from the obvious re-emergent friendliness in the emphasis I placed above, how short does one’s memory have to be to forget that “helping facilitate” the formation of a government was one of the “core issues” the international community was asking of the Syrian leadership? And who, pray, intended to send Sulayman to France without a government when both the Syrians and the French are obviously planning to move on? The famous fifth column, no doubt! Syria’s allies, by virtue or vice of their being allies of Syria, cannot be blamed for their coherence in allying with Syria – in the strict logical sense, that is. But to interpret Hariri’s (seeker-of-truth) facilitation of Qanso’s appointment as anything but scoring a brownie point with Assad, who will be sitting ostrich-necked and self-satiated – with one more Lebanese achievement under his belt – next to Sarkozy on 14e juillet, means inbreeding has really gone too far in Lebanon.

To end on a merry note, here is Jean Aziz describing the new government based on a literal translation of the names of its ministers:

جميلة جداً مصادفات الأسماء والألقاب الوزارية في حكومة الوحدة الوطنية. فهي حكومة دفاعها مرّ وداخليتها بارود. صحتها خليفة وطاقتها طابور. تربيتها بهيّة وثقافتها سلام. عدلها نجار وماليتها شطحٌ. بيئتها كرم، ولمهجريها… عودة.

The coincidence of ministerial names and titles is truly beautiful in the national unity government: Its defense is bitter and its interior is gun powder. Its health is in-born and its energy is in queue. Its education is splendor and its culture is peace. Its justice is carpentry and its finance is gone astray. Its environment is generous and to its emigrants… a return.