The author was political adviser to the Minister of International Trade in the Harper government from 2011 to 2015. He is now a consultant and lecturer at several universities on trade and international affairs.
We like to talk about Lebanese cuisine, but less about its politics. The news is rarely good, and the outlook for the future, bleak. However, the seriousness of the situation cannot be ignored. To nurture hope that things will change, we have to talk about them.
At the time when it was nicknamed “the Switzerland of the Middle East”, Lebanon was considered the economic, academic, cultural, cosmopolitan and tourist capital of its region. We can no longer evoke the country today without a feeling of nostalgia and desolation.
Lebanon accumulates crises: economic, humanitarian, social, political, institutional, and so on. The explosion at the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, the result of a mixture of negligence, incompetence and corruption, was symptomatic of the ills that plague the country. This was, alas, only the tip of the iceberg in this series of disasters that the country is going through.
In Canada, we sometimes question the Central Bank and its monetary policies, especially these days, with inflation. In Lebanon, the banking system has collapsed. Accounts have been frozen, withdrawals restricted and limited. Savings evaporated with the collapse of the currency. One American dollar has been worth 1500 Lebanese pounds since 1997, today it reaches more than 40,000 on the parallel market.
Billions have been embezzled. The governor of the Banque du Liban is suspected of having benefited from transfers abroad of which he is, moreover, an accomplice. He invokes his immunity to avoid being questioned by the courts. Several parliamentarians do the same to escape from a paralyzed system. That is why in Canada, there is independence between the judiciary and politics.
We’re starting to talk about energy sobriety in Quebec, but the Lebanese have long been alternating between a few hours of electricity a day from the state, generators, if they can afford it, and the blackout. Small consolation: the winter is not as harsh as here. Still, it is difficult for Lebanon to win sympathy, while Europe will also face energy problems this winter and Russia seeks to freeze the Ukrainian people by systematically destroying their infrastructure. energy.
In Canada, people are wondering about the price of gasoline. One wonders if there are not sometimes too long delays to pass on the fall in the market price at the pump. The Competition Bureau is investigating refining margins. In Lebanon, the collusion is sprawling: trafficking with Syria, shortage and diversion of imports from Iran and Iraq.
Lebanon has not had a president since October. Political and religious divisions lead the country to an impasse. This is not the first vacancy at the head of the state. Its system is dysfunctional and unstable, with a mixture of proportionality and religion which decides whether one can be president, prime minister or speaker of parliament, by sectarianism.
The party of God, Hezbollah, is all-powerful in Lebanon. Iran’s ally, the party is a kind of power within power in competition with state institutions. It has its militia, its hospitals, its social services and territories that it controls. France, the United States and Saudi Arabia, which once helped Lebanon, no longer want to deal with a government with members of this party in its midst.
Social tensions are high, exacerbated by the presence of more than a million Syrian refugees. The Palestinian refugee issue has been going on for decades. This is both a political and social cohesion issue in Lebanon.
There is potential good news for public finances in offshore hydrocarbons. An agreement between Israel and Lebanon has been signed to assess its exploitation. Lebanon will perhaps be able to benefit from it in five to seven years, but in the short term there is no improvement in sight. Many consider exile and live on the support of family members abroad.
It is no secret that Canada’s development assistance is influenced by the strength of diasporas. Canada already had an important connection with Ukraine, long before the invasion of Crimea, due to its strong community. More than 200,000 Canadians declare Lebanese origins. Former Prince Edward Island Premier Robert Ghiz is one of them. The first member of Arab origin in the Canadian parliament was Pierre De Bané, born in Palestine and son of Lebanese parents, in 1968, and minister under Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
The question arises as to whether Canada is doing enough to help Lebanon, in terms of development assistance. Can Canada and Quebec promote the entry of more immigrants and more Lebanese students? Yes, no doubt, but if it empties and loses its relief and its lifeblood, how will the country recover? Can Canada help improve its public administration to strengthen its institutions? Yes, in theory, but when an entire political class is ossified, there is, in practice, no impact.
This reflection, alas, does not bring any concrete solution. This is the whole dilemma of the Lebanese reality.