Translation of Part 1 of reporter Amani Juha’s discussion with the Secretary-General of “Citizens in a State”, Charbel Nahas, published in Al-Sharq newspaper on June 24, 2020, on this link.
Part 2 is available on this link.
In his house in the Ashrafieh district of Beirut, a room full of books is salient. There, he welcomes his guests in what feels like his own state, a small area yet very rich with information on economy, politics, philosophy, sociology and others. This is the house of Charbel Nahas, Secretary-General of “Citizens in a State”, who starts by talking about the movement’s struggle for a “democratic, just, strong civil state”. The movement presents itself with a full-fledged political, social and economic project to manage the crisis that the “expired” Lebanese regime is living.
Nahas, who has twice served as minister (telecommunications in 2009-2011 and labor in 2011-2012) in the Lebanese government, is known for having resigned from office. He refused to sign against his principles, and ended up creating his own political party before the latest municipal elections in March 2016. In brief, the purpose of “Citizens in a State” is to “launch an organized political movement that contributes decisively to the establishment of an integral, civil, democratic, just, and strong State in Lebanon”. A Lebanese project for a State, as much as it grants value to th citiziens within it, it “is also actually a regional and international political project, that, if successful, would present a new paradigm justifying building effective and legitimate states across the region, starting with the relations between Lebanon and Syria. This political project stands in opposition with a long and entrenched path manifested in a fragmented society”.
The past 8 months saw the movement grow into media and popular prominence during Lebanon’s large-scale demonstrations. In this part of the discussion, Charbel Nahas explains the Lebanese economic model.
Two main events
Nahas explains that “the beginning of the civil war in 1975 coincided with two main events: The historic peak in oil prices, and the huge regional geopolitical change that started with Egyptian President Anwar Al-Sadat negotiations with the Zionist entity. Fast forward to the 2011 events in the Arab world, and we see similar wars in neighboring countries. In the past, the Lebanese Civil War lived off the funds that were pumped into it causing massive social changes”.
He adds that “the war ended, not because of the leadership’s will, but because of foreign interference and factors, such as the fall of the Soviet Union, American interference and the peace process in the Middle East. All of this led to the gather of warring parties and some Lebanese funders in Saudi Arabia in 1989, where the Taif agreement was signed.”
Why did most accept this agreement? Nahas points out that they did so because of the “exorbitant price they paid during the 15-year civil war, the exhaustion of living in shelters, and the everyday danger. Since the Taif agreement until today, Lebanon has lived as if it was an oil-rich country. This calls the neighboring countries (whether they are in a state of war or relatively stable) to learn from our bad experience”.
A coalition of leaders
Nahas explains the situation in Lebanon as follows: “In an oil-rich country, the leader bets on his own capacity to keep up his act, and must calm down opposers using available riches. Now imagine the situation if we have not one leader but a coalition of leaders who have waged wars against each other and now need to appease each other as well as their “followers” (their sect, party or tribe). To maintain his rule, he needs to claim –out loud- that the other group leader is also strong and that he has the power to resist him; and to distribute riches of shady origins. A society that got used to living this way faces a problem when the riches dwindle, for example, if oil prices plunge”.
Emigration and luxury
Although Lebanon is not an oil-rich country, “it is in a well-off situation, as many Lebanese have emigrated and send money to their families back home. It is as if Lebanese is exporting humans”. Despite the high amount of remittances, the Lebanese rulers have created an economic system that led the people to believe in safeguarding their money in banks. But these funds have now vanished, either stolen or used by the state.”
The ex-minister explains the social consequences of such an “economic plan that drives people who have accumulated money to hire others to work for them and make their lives easier. They hung on to this system for two reasons: On one hand, the benefits of easy money; on the other hand, not wanting the comfort to end.”
According to Nahas, there of course are altercations between the different sides, for example when one of them grows richer than others. However, the situation ends up resolving itself, and the pattern continues. The same pattern also seems to take root in most neighboring Arab countries, and they should take heed of its consequences.
He also points out that unrelated external factors also affected the situation. For example, the drop in the price of oil affected Lebanese emigrants and the volume of funds they can send back home. Wars such as in Syria have also affected the situation at the borders. Nahas singles out recurring indicators of the crisis: the freezing of credits and loans and the rationing of fuel and diesel, among other warning signs.
All of the above finally led citizens to take the streets in protest on October 17, 2019 as a reaction to express their refusal of what’s happening. This will be the topic of this discussion’s second and final part.
Who is Charbel Nahas?
Born in Beirut in 1954.
- He studied engineering and planning in Paris along with economics and anthropology. After returning to Lebanon in 1979, he taught at the Lebanese University for 12 years.
- He was responsible for the reconstruction of central Beirut between 1982 and 1986, and worked in the banking sector until 1998, then ran for municipal elections in Beirut against the regime’s coalition list.
- He developed a “Financial Correction Program” (1998 and 1999), worked within the team that developed the “National Physical Master Plan for the Lebanese Territories” (between 2002 and 2004) and led the team that developed the “Public Investment Plan” (2005 and 2006). Since then he has worked in economics and urbanconsulting and research.
- He set a “Social Development Strategy in Lebanon” and prepared a law proposal on reforming the Old Age Security system. He has published several research papers, particularly on issues of education, migration and labor.
- He held the ministries of Communications (2009-2011) and Labor (2011-2012) in the Lebanese government.