Opinion |

Lebanon and Iraq Are Heading Straight for Failed-state Status

The protesters have the best intentions, but their countries’ problems are far too deep for reform to turn things around

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Government soldiers walk at the site of a Houthi missile attack on a military camp's mosque in Marib, Yemen January 20, 2020
Government soldiers walk at the site of a Houthi missile attack on a military camp's mosque in Marib, Yemen January 20, 2020Credit: Ali Owidha, Reuters
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

Over the weekend, demonstrators in Lebanon marked 100 days of protests against the regime by gathering in front of the central government building in Beirut.

As has increasingly been the case, things turned violent, with protesters hurling rocks and firecrackers and the police responding with water cannons and tear gas. The protestors chanted “revolution, revolution,” although what they really want is nothing more than the bourgeoise ideal of honest, effective and responsive government. They would prefer peaceful rallies and responsive officials over stone-throwing and tear gas.

They are up against a corrupt leadership dominated by Hezbollah, and you can’t help but want to cheer the protesters on. The same goes for Iraq, where protestors with approximately the same to-do list face an even more venal, incompetent and violent government. Yet if history is any guide, neither movement will end in a better Lebanon or better Iraq, just in two more countries added to the list of failed Middle East states.

Nine years ago similar protests shook Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen, and the result is hardly encouraging.

Tunisia has come the closest to realizing democracy, but just barely. Economically, the country is in worse shape than before the revolution. Even with President for Life Zine El Abidine Ben Ali long gone, Tunisia’s government has failed to provide the basics of economic development and meeting ordinary people’s needs. It’s not an encouraging foundation for a democratic future.

From there it goes downhill. The Arab Spring didn’t lead to a better world for Arabs but to two failed states (Libya and Yemen) and one that barely scrapes by with a D-minus (Syria). Iraq and Lebanon look increasingly poised to join them. What’s in store for them?

Minister of –

Libya and Yemen both provide distressingly similar models. Libya has two governments (only one in Tripoli), neither of which do much of anything except award “minister of” titles: the country is ruled in effect by the militias.

Since civil war broke out in 2014, Yemen has also had double governments – one controlled by the Houthi armed movement and the other controlled by exiled President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi – that do little but fight each other.

But it’s not as if either country is split neatly into two. For all its two governments, Libya is really controlled by a grab bag of warlords. Its vast deserts are a haven for ISIS and other radical groups. Yemen is one big humanitarian crisis of refugees, war casualties, malnutrition and disease.

Remarkably, until two weeks ago, Libya mostly did manage to export its oil, but the riches never reached ordinary Libyans: In a country of 6.5 million people, 1.3 million need humanitarian aid.

In Libya if you don’t have a finger in the oil pot, there’s nothing for you. In Yemen, there’s no pot, and war has made it worse – from half the population living under the poverty line to an estimated three quarters.

Meanwhile, in Iraq

Iraq is further down the road to ruin than Lebanon. Government corruption and ineffectiveness is too embedded for mere reforms to make a difference. The country’s oil wealth flows into the pockets of a small elite. ISIS has been defeated, but Iraq is still cut up into fiefdoms, not to mention Iraqi Kurdistan. The militias that were formed to defeat ISIS haven’t put down their weapons. Its economy is growing far too slowly to employ all the young Iraqis entering the job market every year, creating a vast pool of future gunmen.

Lebanon has further to go to reach failed statehood, but not much further. Its government has long failed to provide basic services like 24/7 electricity and garbage collection, leaving the job to the business equivalent warlords. Its economy has been kept afloat artificially by the central bank, but with the debt piling up, that’s no longer an option.

You would have to be a little delusional to think that somehow its leaders, even the “technocrats” that the protestors want to take over the government, stand a chance at ever rescuing the country and putting it on a stable footing anytime in the foreseeable future.

Why is the Middle East so prone to failed states?

In the end it comes down to economics. In a world where skills, education and technology are the keys to creating jobs and a higher standard of living, the Middle East has made virtually no progress for the last two decades. While China and India are investing heavily to become global tech powers, the Mideast is at a battleground between Islamists and autocrats, neither of whom offer so little as a relevant vision for the future.

The threat of climate change, which requires countries to mobilize the resources of an effective government, a dynamic business sector and scientists, is only going to make things worse by adding to the problems of economic underdevelopment drought and heatwaves. There will be something else to fight over.

The only exceptions to this future of failed states are the Gulf petro-states. You have to give some credit to rulers like Dubai’s Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman for trying to create dynamic, diverse economies before the oil runs out. But they’re the exception, and it’s by no means clear they have found the formula for long-term success. The list of failed states may grow even longer.

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