Beirut and (Civil) Anarchy

Beirut's Corniche

After more than two years, Lebanon’s presidential vacancy has ended. Former army chief Michel Aoun of at-Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr (Free Patriotic Movement) has taken the reigns of the Lebanese presidency. But does it matter? Has it mattered at all that the Lebanese state has been without a president for the last 29 months? I contend no. In the absence of government, the people step up and actually do a better job. Below, I offer my thoughts on Lebanon as a prime example of the way in which anarchy works.

In 2006, I moved to West Beirut to study Levantine Arabic. A few months after my arrival, I watched as the war between Hezbollah and Israel unfolded. As the conflict took its toll on Lebanon, many talkingheads and journalists declared the coming re-descent of Beirut into the abyss from which it had briefly sprung. After all, Lebanon had just spent the previous few years attempting to rebuild and reassert its beauty, for which so many in the 1950s and 1960s referred to it as the “Paris of the Middle East.” And then, war abruptly returned.

In looking for ways to “fix” Lebanon, many scholars of comparative politics decry the Mediterranean country’s confessional system of government, and go as far as to blame it for the country’s history of internal as well as international conflict. The confessional system reserves roles and mandates positions in the government for Lebanon’s three main sectarian identity groups; by law, Lebanon’s president is Maronite Christian, its prime minister is Sunni Muslim, and its parliamentary speaker is Shi’a Muslim. Some argue that this formal institutionalization of sectarian divides precludes genuine political development and thus stability. For many, Lebanon’s weak government represents an inevitability of state fragility and failure that invites conflict and economic ruin.

To outsiders, the argument is easy to make, especially considering many Westerners still imagine the war-torn Beirut of the 1980s—dark, deadly and full of despair. Some Western films do a fair job of capturing the Civil War era’s zeitgeist (the late Tony Scott’s Spy Game, the epic Navy Seals starring Charlie Sheen and Michael Biehn, and Carlos with the remarkable Edgar Ramirez). But, those images belong to a different time. Beirut has moved on from the Civil War of the late 1970s and 1980s, the Syrian occupation of the 1990s and early 2000s, and even the brief 2006 Hezbollah-Israel War.

In recent years, I returned to Lebanon numerous times to conduct research on the political system. While little has changed in terms of Lebanon’s ever-deadlocked government, I immediately noticed how much else had changed—the skyline, the types of shops and restaurants, people’s general attitudes about their country, and for Beirutis their city. The Beirut of today bustles. High-end SUVs have replaced the old and run-down Mercedes sedans that plastered the landscape a decade ago. Many Beirutis work or live in new and extravagant high-rises in a revitalized Central Beirut and enjoy state-of-the-art malls and shopping districts that mimic Beverly Hill’s Rodeo Drive or Costa Mesa’s South Coast Plaza. Beirut’s famed Hamra Street features an influx of Western stores that blend nicely with the traditional charm of the largely Sunni neighborhood. Constructive and generative competition is alive and well in Beirut.

Dépēche Mode boutique at the ABC Mall in Achrafieh (Acosta 2014)

Yet, how has Lebanon’s capital achieved so much? —Not with the aid of government. Although the confessional system’s ineptitude stymies political “progress,” private investors and visionaries sparked Lebanon’s economic development. International firms, sensing a “shadow of the future,” have opened up avenues for investors to obtain a stake in Lebanon’s advancement. After Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon ranks highest in foreign direct investment inflows among countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Under such circumstances, who needs formal government and parchment rules?

Ultimately, Beirut’s success reflects the unruffled motivation of its inhabitants. While economic achievement generally revolves around individual motivations, the causal mechanism that drives Beirutis likely stems from the intoxicating concoction of incessant competition between sectarian groups in the face of a weak (or effectively absent) government. This speaks to the collective individualism that Alexis de Tocqueville alluded to when writing about the early American political economy.

(Acosta 2014)

Certainly the sectarian divisions of old remain visible. On entering East (Christian) Beirut one notices the prominent offices of the Phlange Party’s Lebanese Kataeb. Apartment blocks in West (Sunni) Beirut don the flags of various political parties, ranging from the liberal-democratic Future Movement to the Syrian Social-Nationalist Party. Traveling into South (Shi’a) Beirut, massive posters of Amal’s Nabih Berri and Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah greet observers. Nevertheless, these political and sectarian divisions have yet to intrude on the city’s resurgent economic and cultural vibrancy.

In this sense, Beirut has become a city-state. Newfound middle-class Beirutis will drive North to Jbeil for lunch by the Phoenician ruins or South to private beaches in Jiyeh, but Beirut life—in terms of culture and economics—stands independent from the rest of Lebanon. Notwithstanding, can a city sustain cultural and economic achievement in the face of lasting governmental weakness? Or do informal institutions and civil society pick up the slack of formal governmental bodies, and perhaps do a more effective job at generating quality of life?

The art of driving in Lebanon, and more so in Beirut itself, reveals the timbre of what I would call an efficient “civil anarchy.” Over the years, I have resided in three different Middle Eastern countries where driving is always a daring, if not soul-awakening, endeavor even for a battle-hardened native Southern Californian. Beirut driving has its own panache, which epitomizes the phrase “order out of chaos.” A fairly efficient set of norms emerge in the absence of governmental regulation. A language in the tongue of the car horn takes over. Four-way stops devoid of stop signs are seemingly terrifying on a first attempt, as are sights of scooters and taxis driving the wrong way down the street. Yet, the same self-interest that makes driving a loud and surficially hazardous act works to establish norms and care. (Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling’s point on the micromotivations of macrobehavior comes to mind.)

In a discussion with some Beirutis, one woman notes that the police (and army) “really don’t do anything in Lebanon. If someone steals your purse, maybe the police will do something; maybe they won’t. But the same is true in the United States.” True. In Los Angeles, it usually takes a fairly significant crime for the LAPD to take note and investigate. In Lebanon, larger crimes often become a matter for the sectarian group (and, if need be, a related militia). This is akin to the tribal system that many anarchists promote in abstracto.

As such, the Lebanese regularly police themselves at the inter-group as well as intra-group levels. A healthy rivalry persists between the different parts of the city, and for that matter the different sects. And while Lebanon’s formal rule-of-law remains flimsy, it has provided flexibility for the Lebanese people to excel in matters where the government has proved inept. In the words of philosopher Ayn Rand: “Government ‘help’ to business is just as disastrous as government persecution…the only way a government can be of service to national prosperity is by keeping its hands off.” Or, as former U.S. President Ronald Reagan once chimed: “…government is not the solution to our problem; government IS the problem.”

Beirut demonstrates that sometimes the institution of a severely weak government marks the best thing that can befall a city. À la James C. Scott, “perpetual uncertainty” tends to work as a positive force for development. Along these lines, perhaps we should applaud Lebanon’s confessional system. Due to the gridlock of its sectarian political system, which institutionalizes the inclusion of rival identity groups within a Madisonian governmental framework, Lebanon frequently goes through long periods of time without a president or prime minister—all with little consequence. As political scientist Alexander Wendt advises: “Anarchy is what you make of it.” Unlike the cities of Detroit, Chicago, or Baltimore, the darks times that Beirut has endured have had very little to do with its ruling government.

Most Lebanese, like many Americans, often denounce the slow-paced, if not deadlocked, legislative process; yet, both peoples tend to fail to recognize that Madisonian separation of powers mark a central source of political liberty and thereby economic and cultural strength. Separation of powers and the legislative deadlock the regularly ensues prevent idiotic and corrupt politicians and government bureaucrats from enacting stupid laws with ease or without inspection.

Notably, the Syrian Civil War and its refugee crisis, the success of the Islamic State in seizing and governing territory in Syria and Iraq, the continuation of Palestinian terrorism, and Iran’s push for nuclear weapons increase the likelihood of war spilling over into Lebanon. If armed conflict does once again reach Lebanon at catastrophic levels, and Beirut for that matter, it won’t be sparked by moves from the Lebanese government. It will, as it always has in the past, erupt due to the wishes of some foreign entity (e.g. the Palestine Liberation Organization in the 1970s, Iran and Syria in the 1980s, or Iran in 2006). Indeed, strong and tyrannical government—wherever the source—poses the real threat to Beirut and Lebanon’s future.