economy


On Thursday, Bank of Beirut and the Arab Countries celebrated the first Lebanese woman to open a bank account for her minor children. The Women’s Union of the Progressive Socialist Party (i.e. Walid Junblat’s party), in coordination with the Central Bank and the Association of Banks in Lebanon, was instrumental in bringing about this accomplishment. Initiated locally, the project was funded by USAID and based on a legal study by the young lawyer Paul Morcos of Justicia.

PSP’s Women’s Union marketed the project primarily using the language of rights. But the problematic and the way Morcos proceeds to deal with it is a bit more complicated. The full study can be found here, but the main obstacle, according to the banks, was that in Lebanon the father is the compulsory legal guardian (وليّ جبري) for minor children. This is according to “secular” and religious law, both Christian and Muslim. This is a long story, but “secular” in this particular case relates to an article from Majallat al-Ahkam al-Shar`iyya, or Mecelle in Turkish — this being the Ottoman civil code of 1877 which was an attempt to codify the principles of the religious (Hanafi) court. Byzantine indeed!

The issue, hence, risked stepping on spiritual toes and questioning the patriarchal and sectarian foundations of Lebanon (God forbid). Morcos circumvented the problem by shifting the focus from the Gordian knot of guardianship and highlighting instead how allowing a woman to open such accounts not only does not threaten this existing structure, but also contradicts rights accorded to women and enshrined in Lebanese law. A very intelligent solution given the imperfect circumstances. The recommendations in Morcos’s study deal with the woman not from the point of view of her rights as a mother, but as a “stipulator/assignor in trust” in a commercial contract. Her son or daughter is “the beneficiary” and the bank “the assignor.” The achievement, nevertheless, is not to be underestimated. More so because it had to do with asserting rights already accorded to women by law and of which she has been stripped through cultural/economic practices. To meet this recommendation halfway, the banks need to engineer account types to allow it to progress legally.

Which brings me to another aspect of this accomplishment. The other study that fed into the project was led by economist Kamal Hamdan and dealt with a completely different aspect of the issue at stake: economic benefits. The study demonstrates that this bank “service” would lead to an additional 100,000 bank accounts over the next ten years with a cumulative value of $400 thousand. I think this too is key to understanding how concrete results were achieved in less than a year. The project has all the right ingredients, indicating broad political support: a civil society actor linked to a sectarian party, private banks interested in expanding their economic possibilities, public institutions interested in empowering private interests, and outside funding interested in shaping the world in its own image. Far from ideal, but it seems to get things done.

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One of  Slavoj Žižek‘s recent pieces in Le Monde Diplomatique has nothing to do with Lebanon… and everything to do with it. It is about the war in Congo, but — like this previous post — it is also about how seemingly archaic forms of civil strife are actually embedded in their “modern” conditions and about the banality of trying to separate the one from the other. It is also about why Africa receives less attention in the media than places like Lebanon or Palestine: the more “tribal” the conflict seemingly is, the more “natural” its violence is perceived to be.

I have not been able to find the original article, so some of the subtleties might be lost in this translation of a translation, but Žižek’s main point is this:

We can discern the contours of global capitalism under the facade of ethnic conflict. After the fall of Mobutu, Congo no longer existed as a unified, operational state, especially not the eastern part which is a patchwork of territories ruled by local warlords each controlling their own patch of land with an army which normally includes doped children. All the warlords have business contacts with foreign companies or industries who (mainly) profit from mining the riches of the region. This arrangement works well for the partners: the businesses receive exploitation rights without being burdened with taxes or other inconveniences, the warlords get money… The irony is that many of these [extracted] metals are used in high-technology products like laptops and mobile phones. In short, this is not about the local population’s primitive customs: if we remove the high-technology companies from the line, the entire structure of ethnic civil strife driven by old hate will collapse.

You might not agree with the final conclusion about the collapse — and Žižek is prone to theatricals — but the heart of the argument holds in the concluding sentence, a play on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

There is definitely a lot of darkness in the dense Congolese jungle, but its heart is to be found elsewhere, in the illuminated head offices of our high-technology companies.

  • In the wake of Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s attack on Iran and the Shi`i expansionist threat it poses to Sunni Islam, rhetoric against Hizballah, Iran, and the Shi`a in general found new wind. Only this time, Salafi websites are using the writings of Christian kuffar to argue their finer points.
  • Nawwaf Musawi, Hizballah international relations officer, attacked David Miliband for calling Hizballah’s militant arm terrorist, asking whether De Gaulle’s resistance from Britain was also terrorism, as Nazi propaganda called it back then. Musawi further stressed his point by likening Miliband’s characterization to Goebbel’s Nazi propaganda.
  • With its transformation from financial to economic, the crisis finally made an entry to the Lebanese market… through the jewelry sector. Demand has apparently decreased by 50% [Note: maybe this means it is approaching normal]. While a certain class of people with investments abroad is obviously suffering over jewelry, the economy as a whole is now bracing for an upcoming world-wide recession.
  • The Lebanese national debt is now at $48,414,000,000, or about 196.47% of the GDP. Have a nice day.

Yesterday, all branches of the Lebanese University (public), private and public schools, professional and technical schools, as well as the general administration participated in a teachers’ strike. About 100,000 teachers educating 1 million students. The strike was accompanied by a well-attended sit-in in front of parliament. Press coverage was mostly pathetic, consisting of a few lines (as in al-Nahar), discussing primarily Fatih al-Islam under the heading of the strike (as in al-Balad), or covering more of Bahiya al-Hariri, Minister of Education, than the strike itself (as in al-Mustaqbal).

No surprises there. The strike is not interesting because this time it is not “political,” in the only definition of “politics” that finds resonance in Lebanon. i.e. The teachers are not being used as a mule by one political party or other in the pursuit of larger goals, such as the vagaries of identity, resistance, or democracy. The demands are, simply, their wages and retirement plans.

Given that their demands are not “political”, do not expect Ghassan Ghosn, head of the General Labor Union, to come out in support. According to Ghosn, the Union “mobilizes according to a set agenda.” It would have been a more honest, non-roundabout justification to say “mobilizes according to someone’s set agenda.” In an irony of ironies, president Sulayman called upon Ghosn to put an end to the divisions and unify the efforts of the workers.

Do not expect Hizballah, defender of the weak and liberator of the oppressed, to shut down the country on their behalf either. Do not expect “their” parliamentary representatives to take up the issue (only one parliamentarian was at the sit-in). And do not be surprised that Nabih Berri, Muhammad Shatah, and Fuad Sanioura have not even deigned to reply when the teachers’ unions tried to schedule a meeting. Bahiya al-Hariri responded the day before the strike was planned. Everyone is busy with much more important things, like David Miniband, Jimmy Carter and whoever else constitutes the real, rather than imagined, constituency of Lebanese parliamentarians and ministers.

The most audacious justification for not joining the strike came from the Workers’ Liberation Front. According to `Ismat `Abd al-Samad, “The political situation is comfortable, let it continue like this. Why would anyone want to unsettle it?” Which makes for a very interesting argument since if such a strike was to take place when the political situation is unsettled, then it would be termed a “political mobilization.” Ihtarna ya qar3ah min wayn badna n-bousik! (You have confused us, oh, squash, were to kiss you from).

Although the teachers’ unions made clear that this move comes at a time when there is a unity government and, therefore, does not play into party politics, there have been countless self-serving moles calling their demands “political.” No one heeded these sabotage attempts as calls for the strike were answered across Lebanon — in the south and Beqa` as well as Tripoli, Sidon, Kurah, and Matn. There is nothing more threatening to the complacency of Lebanese politicians than these strikes when the sectarian divisions they build their popularity on are momentarily forgotten. The frustration is that in a mess of complex, contradictory, and multifaceted identities the Lebanese like to wear, when the only accepted and narrow definition of “politics” rears its ugly head again, only the sectarian identity comes to the fore.

The same tone of careful optimism pervades the Lebanese press today with the regards to the financial crisis. Citigroup reiterated its positive assessment, saying that Lebanon’s economic “insulation” has become an asset under the current crisis. It warned at the same time, that Lebanon is not past the danger mark (Arabic & English links). An al-Nahar writer has even given himself the liberty of dreaming of a return to the “golden age” when Lebanon was the main bank of the region (Arabic link).

A more cautious assessment was delivered by economist Ghassan Dibah in a lecture at the Lebanese Communist Party’s HQ in Witwat (round the corner from the best fawwal in town). While repeating the mantra of the Lebanese banking sector’s relative immunity from the effects of the financial crisis, Dibah outlined three possible dangers:

  • Decrease in Lebanese commodities’ ability to compete in European markets, especially because the Lira is linked to the Dollar, which is rising.
  • Decrease in migrants’ remittances due to the crisis abroad. This might be somehow off-set by cash flow coming from the Gulf in search for a safe investment haven.
  • Increase in unemployment, due to the high rate of exported Lebanese labor or, what he calls, “exported unemployment.”

Dibah also said that while supply and demand is already bringing down real estate values, he thought it unlikely that a real estate crisis will ensue in the near future (since the real estate market is not linked to the elaborate investment schemes that triggered the international crisis).

The Lebanese, like everyone else, have been watching the international financial crisis with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. A crisis of a different sort has already hit Lebanon earlier with the inflation in the prices of primary materials. It hit Lebanon even harder because of a system of monopolies and cartels over gaz, petroleum, pharmaceuticals, and wheat. The inflation rate over the past year was 12%, three times the average of countries exporting to Lebanon (Arabic link).

But with the current global crisis, prices of primary materials are going down. The Lebanese Lira is also rising with the dollar (from 1EURO=2201 to 2051.26 LL). In addition, ironically, the fall in share prices on the international scene has invigorated the Beirut stock exchange. Investors who are losing money abroad are selling shares on the BSE to acquire liquidity, which has stirred up a buying movement (Arabic link). In addition, expats and Arabs have been transferring assets to Lebanese banks, which are regarded as safe by many (English link).

The reason Lebanon has been spared the repercussions of the crisis so far has less to do with its being a developing country and more to do with the Central Bank carrot-and-stick policy: high-interest government bonds and stringent rules on risky investments. The confidence inspired by the Lebanese banking system is the result of reputation as well as reforms undertaken over the past twelve years — a confidence recently reinforced by the positive assessment of a World Bank delegation (Arabic link).

All is not rosy, however. The director of the World Bank in Lebanon, Edward Gardner, believes the crisis might still hit Lebanon from the back door: the Gulf. Direct investments aside, a crisis in the Gulf could affect Lebanon in two ways: decreasing migrant remittances and increasing unemployment (Arabic link).

It is too soon to say whether this long-term scenario will materialize or not, and obviously it depends on how long the crisis will last and how severe its impact will be. But the short-term view is working to the country’s advantage for a change. With its characteristic blend of parochialism and internationalism — a finance economy revolving around local banks and an investor/depositor body in Diaspora — this particular cup might actually pass.

One of Marx’s more interesting thoughts on capitalism concerns its ability to overcome its internal contradictions by engulfing them. One such contradiction can be simplified as such: the desire to hoard is contradicted by the need to recirculate, for to only hoard would otherwise lead to stagnation. That is why capital is constantly looking for new ways for recirculating itself: by creating new market niches, investing in infrastructure, expanding into new geographical areas, etc. By constantly expanding and increasing its productivity in these ways, capitalist incentives generate more capital which, in turn, searches for more release – thus creating a vicious dynamic of which capitalism is both prisoner and generator.

What does this have to do with anything? Apparently, the Ministry of Telecommunications auctioned “platinum” mobile phone numbers in order to fund itself. 13 of the 110 richest people in Lebanon paid a total of $2.5 million for 32 numbers. 70707070 sold for $450 thousand. Next were 70777777 and 70700000 which sold for $400 thousand each. Ridiculous sums by ridiculous people. Or are they?

Doubtless, to some of the buyers, like Wadih Kassab, a few hundred thousand dollars is peanuts. Money is made elsewhere. It is spent elsewhere. Lebanon is just for “recreation”, including throwing money around for show. But it seems to others, this is actually an investment. To sell to the Gulfites, according to Bilal Bundaqji, owner of Petit Café.

A handful of people in Lebanon are making (too much) money that needs to be recirculated and Lebanon is as good a place to do it as any. Given the instability, however, investments generating work for people and producing more capital that can then be reinvested in the country — a sound basis for some economies — are a risk. The real estate market, a classical area where capital recirculates itself, has reached stagnation point — too much to sell and not enough buying power. The Lebanese themselves can barely cough up enough cash to lead a decent life, let alone spend it on Zein al-Atat ($42 thousand for two numbers) products and Ramadan nights at Petit Café. There are Gulfites, on the other hand, with even more capital in need of recirculation and we have already offered them all the vacation apartments we can build, all the women we can sell, and all the intoxicants we can ferment. So, what to do? Why of course, buy ridiculously expensive mobile phone numbers and sell them for even more!

Thus a new market is created. Ingenious. And when you feel like venting, you know the numbers to call.

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