In Lebanon, the clientelist octopus is in need of food

A study on the anatomy of an evil that has spread through the arteries of the state and society, but that can no longer endure due to the drying up of public finances.

Illustration by Ivan Debs

In Lebanon, you cannot get more formal than a funeral. Youssef *, a student at a top university in the country, experienced this last year when his father died. For a few days, he did what every good Lebanese must do in such circumstances: greet loved ones and acquaintances coming to offer their condolences, get up, sit down, get up, sit down, force himself to smile and make small talk. Many people came to pay their respects from all the neighboring villages in the South.

They had a good reason to. His father was a doctor and the chairman of one of the most renowned hospitals in the area. He was also close to Amal, a well-established movement in the South, known for its generosity to its supporters. This is where the story gets interesting. As he made his escape from the room where the memorial service was being held to smoke a cigarette, he saw two cars with tinted windows, and license plates with the word "Parliament" on them. He rushed to greet the occupants, two deputies from the district of Zahrani (the stronghold of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berry) whom he recognized immediately. "This is a great loss for the patients, for the region and for you," said one of the MPs, embracing him. Then he whispered in his ear, "We can get you everything you need.” A few days later, as if by magic, the young man’s tuition fees, which amounted to over $ 20,000 a year, were paid in full.

In the world of clientelism, Youssef's anecdote may elicit a smile but it will not shock you. There are countless Lebanese families who have resorted, at least once, to the help of a political party leader, known as a zaïm. Everyone knows that such practices exist and it is well understood what the generous patron expects in return. But it is the breadth of this system, one that stems from a mentality well embedded in the DNA of Lebanon, that is often overlooked. Clientelism is not merely a common practice in the country, it is a virus that has spread through every artery of the state, from the business sector to the justice system, through education and administrations across the country. It has thrived on the inability of the state to provide basic services to its citizens, a factor that has become one of the main causes of its dysfunction. But today, with the economic crisis, the resources that have long funded this practice are drying up, and this is not without consequences for the future relations between the rulers and the ruled.

How does this system work? The same way it does anywhere in the world where the state is almost nonexistent. Demand - for money, employment, or services - will be answered by a collective or individual offer. This is the basic deal, which can be summed as follows: "I pay your son's college fees, in return for your vote.” But in Lebanon, the clientelist system does not function in exactly the same way. Here, this virus is joined by another, just as harmful to the state when abused: sectarianism. The exchange of services thus depends most often - but not always - on the sectarian affiliations of the various actors. Each party, or zaïm, uses this system to assert their authority not only over their religious community, but also over their geographical area, which implies that they could help people from other sects when it is in their interest to do so. “It works like a mafia system. To get a service normally offered by the state, you often have to go through the politicians of your sect," said a mayor in Chouf, who wished to remain anonymous. “The distribution of rents links the sect to its oligarch. Power is then exercised at the national level by this coalition of sectarian leaders," summarizes Ishac Diwan, professor of economics at the École Normale Supérieure (Paris) and holder of the Socio-Economic Chair in the Arab World at Université Paris Sciences et Lettres.

"The Lebanese are not grateful"

The manifestations of clientelism peak during election time, when supply and demand raise the stakes. "People call us and offer electoral votes for a certain amount, which can be up to $ 1,000. The more votes a person has "to sell", the higher the price," said a candidate in the last election from a Christian constituency, who wished to remain anonymous. According to the latest Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) for the Middle East and North Africa, published by the world anti-corruption organization Transparency International, 47% of the Lebanese population has been offered money for their votes at election time.

Two types of offers complement one another or compete on the political scene. That of the traditional leaders or the nouveau-riche leaders who wish to have a direct relationship with their "clients", and that of the political party, whose relationship to the base is more organized but more distant. The leader generally uses his own funds to feed the system, since this also allows him to enrich himself in other ways, or at least extend his sphere of influence. The risk factor is higher for the traditional style of leader, who finds it increasingly difficult to be elected in the face of party-based competition. Especially so since there is no guarantee, despite the service rendered, that the "client" will vote for him when the time comes. “The Lebanese are not grateful. I have been supporting thousands of families for years, and they forgot me at election time," complained a candidate, who wished to remain anonymous, having lost in the last legislative elections.

Political parties have more resources and are generally more organized, but the essence of the deputy’s daily life remains the same: maintaining their relationship with their "clients". That means being forced to go to weddings and, more importantly, to funerals, or at least be able to render services at any time of the day or night. An example? Paying a hospital bill, paving a road, finding a job for someone’s nephew, or helping someone’s cousin get a scholarship. "Lebanon works like this: with just one phone call you can change people's lives," said an old activist in a Christian party, who also wished to remain anonymous.

"40% of my time"

"At the beginning, I organized an open day every week, but I quickly realized that it was not effective because every day people flocked to my office, at home or to the Parliament so that I [could] meet their demands”, Élias Hankache, the Kataëb MP for Metn, told OLJ. Unlike others, he believes that this part of the work is not something to be ashamed of, adding, “responding to these types of requests takes around 40% of my working time as a Member of Parliament. I also have two people who help me manage this work at the office. Sometimes I make a phone call in front of some people who ask me, for example, to show them that I'm indeed doing my best to help them.” The MP for the Metn says he tries to help everyone who reaches out to him and who is in need, regardless of their region of origin.

The services rendered by an MP on a daily basis can win or lose an election as it links his interests to that of his "clients". The bigger the client, the more likely they are to receive preferential treatment. “There are usually several circles of clients: first is a core with wealthy supporters who are the main beneficiaries and who finance most political activities; a second circle is made up of active political clients who play various roles (activists and other relays in the field); and a third circle formed by families who benefit from favors from time to time (services) and must play secondary roles in return (voting, demonstrating)”, explains Ishac Diwan.

Obviously there are winners and losers in such a system. But the origin of the dysfunction is what is often referred to as the sinews of war: money! How can an oligarchy that does not have significant resources feed this clientelist octopus? Simply put, by drawing from the coffers of the very state it is supposed to serve. "In order to be able to distribute profits to clients, they must be drawn from the economy - public and private sector - or from external actors," says Ishac Diwan.

"We already have one of us in this job"

The zaïms are doing everything they can to prevent the emergence of a strong state, since that would mean they would lose their mechanisms of control. Meanwhile, they have turned the state into a cash cow for their own benefit, with recruitment for public service jobs a good example of this.

It is difficult to obtain exact statistics on the size and extent of this phenomenon. So much so that in 2017, even the Ministry of Finance failed to correctly estimate the cost of the increase in the salaries of public servants, which turned out to be 70% higher than was originally budgeted for. The public service sector is estimated to employ approximately 270,000 people, 30% of whom are fictitious and do not actually show up for work. This is a real burden for the state because their salaries and allowances represent no less than 40% of total public expenditure, compared to an average of 31% in the MENA region and 15% in OECD countries.

Despite the sharp deterioration in public finances over the past two years, the political class has not given up on this particular cash cow. Shortly before the 2018 elections, almost 5,000 new positions were illegally created in the public sector despite a law being passed a few months earlier by the same political class that froze all public sector hiring.

Controlling a ministry means controlling its resources. For the relevant political party, each ministry constitutes a financial windfall which it can use to consolidate its base. "Public money is very often held by parties for sectarian and electoral purposes," said an entrepreneur who works regularly with the state. "Two government agencies, each controlled by a political party, can draw very different conclusions about priority investments within the same sector. In other words, political parties will fight for their people to benefit from public investment," he said. "I have already been faced with cases where a mayor would say he did not need public investment and where the minister insisted that it should be done to show the inhabitants that their region is, thanks to him, privileged,” the entrepreneur added.

The Lebanese University, and its tens of thousands of students, is no exception. "This is a small snapshot of Lebanon," said an official at the University, who wished to remain anonymous. "The Shia parties have control over the University. When appointing lecturers, they bring a list of names and tell you: it is either them or no one," he continues. "When you give a scholarship to a student or a position to a professor, you guarantee that the whole family will vote for you in the next election," he said. "Belonging to a certain sect does not guarantee you support from the party representing it. Regardless of your qualifications, if you are not part of the clan, the party will tell you: "You are good, but we already have one of us in the job"

This trend affects the entire public sector, from schools to hospitals, via the justice system. “There has always been political intervention in the Lebanese judicial system. But it now exists at all levels, "said a mid-career judge, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “In the last [judicial] appointments, political parties within each sect ranked the judges from the most loyal to the least loyal. They don’t just want people who are close to them and who can help them, they want them to be of service to them,” he said. But how does it actually work? "When you are confronted with a case that directly or indirectly concerns a politician, you receive a call either from the politician or his relatives, or from a high ranking judge who is loyal to him. If you say no, you are not threatened, but this will affect your career," he said.

"It has become the game itself"

The private sector is also confronted with such practices as the line between political and business circles is very thin in Lebanon. "The favors granted to certain companies - also called political buddies - allow them to make profits without being efficient, to increase their market shares and to behave as if they were in a monopoly situation", explains Ishac Diwan.

The telecoms field is a textbook case. Lebanon is one of the countries where telecom services cost the most and where their quality is less than desirable. This is due to chaotic governance which slows down any potential development. The former secretary general of the High Council for Privatization and Partnerships, Ziad Hayek, is familiar with the issue after having attempted for more than fifteen years to initiate the privatization of this sector with a view to "providing quality for lower prices”. "Privatization would have prevented political leaders from continuing to control [the] public revenues generated by this sector. For example, they used the mobile phone license management contracts to hire employees for Alfa and Touch, and to finance cultural and sports projects that these same leaders promoted. They were also involved in bidding for equipment which allowed them to line their pockets," Ziad Hayek recalls bitterly.

"The conditions for awarding public contracts in Lebanon lack transparency. For example, there are a much larger proportion of direct contracts than in our neighboring countries," says the entrepreneur who works regularly with the state. "There are also cases where the call for tenders is tailor-made, to ensure that the desired company wins. We know it's part of the game all over the world. But in Lebanon it has become the game itself," he adds. Even in the nascent renewable energy sector, companies hoping to be considered eligible to participate in public tenders by the Lebanese Center for Energy Conservation (LCEC, which is affiliated to the Ministry of Energy and Water Resources) must be in the organization’s good graces. How? By paying the participation fee for the exhibition forums the LCEC organizes each year, which can amount to $ 15,000 per company.

"These practices have undermined the private sector because they impose unfair competition on the rest of businesses and have led to excessive public spending which has led to an increasing public deficit and therefore to an over-indebtedness of the state at high interest rates: it is because of the rise in interest rates that the private sector can no longer borrow to invest and create growth", says Fouad Rahmé, president of the Lebanese Businessmen Association.

This practice has been used excessively for decades but today it is on its last legs. The state was in debt to the tune of 151% of GDP in 2018 with a growth rate of 0.2%. Its coffers are empty, which seriously complicates the distribution of resources. "It has become impossible for the ruling coalition to increase the funds needed to keep the system stable without causing a major deterioration in the economy," said Ishac Diwan. In other words: the cake is getting smaller and smaller, but more and more people want a slice. As any potential international aid is conditional on structural reforms, which notably involves reducing public spending and therefore further reducing the share the people benefiting from such practices receive, the system really does seem to have broken down.

"A real change"

The October 17 revolution is evidence of the disintegration of this damaging practice. The Lebanese are demonstrating against something they themselves have participated in, against a practice to which the population has grown accustomed, either by choice or by force. Some of the revolutionaries are part of what one could call the segment excluded from clientelism: people who have low incomes and who do not benefit from financial aid to pay for medical care or schooling for their children.

“Since October 17, there has been a real change. People are better informed and aware of the extent of corruption, and above all there is a phenomenon of denunciation between the different political leaders, who each reveal the infringements of others. We are witnessing the dawn of a new Lebanon," said Fouad Rahmé.

People are speaking out more than before, but are still afraid of paying the price. Proof that mentalities have not yet been completely revolutionized? The majority of those interviewed in this article wanted to remain anonymous.

And now? The political parties still benefit from a popular base linked in particular to the distribution of whatever remaining resources there are. Reforming the system would mean cutting off the branch they are sitting on, however, economists assure us that, given the situation, they will have no choice. In the short term, this could increase the numbers of those excluded from clientelism, which will have an impact on the poverty rate. It could reach 40% in the coming months according to some estimates. "The risk is that the country will fall into a chaotic state, which may allow some traditional parties (especially those with weapons) to dominate through divide-and-conquer strategies," says Ishac Diwan. Lebanese clientelism is struggling, but the fat lady has yet to sing.

*The first name was changed.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 18th of January)

In Lebanon, you cannot get more formal than a funeral. Youssef *, a student at a top university in the country, experienced this last year when his father died. For a few days, he did what every good Lebanese must do in such circumstances: greet loved ones and acquaintances coming to offer their condolences, get up, sit down, get up, sit down, force himself to smile and make small talk. Many...