Struggling with a failing economy and underperforming or inadequate public services and divided over the not always welcome interference of two rival regional powers, many Lebanese hoped that elections in May 2018 (the first in almost a decade) might jolt the state's political establishment into addressing their many problems.

Others were more pessimistic, seemingly unconvinced that anything would change in a country where power is generally apportioned along sectarian or dynastic lines and corruption is widespread.

In the event, apathy won the day. Turnout was low and, although some parliamentary seats changed hands, to nobody's great surprise little beyond that seems to have changed.

So what is it about politics in this nation of six million people that makes it so resistant to change? We sent filmmaker Nada Issa to find out.


FILMMAKER'S VIEW

By Nada Issa

The arrival of spring in Lebanon brought with it hope for change as the country set a date for its first parliamentary elections in nine years. It was also the first time a grassroots movement - the Civil Society coalition - had dared challenge the long-standing establishment by running against it.

The movement had its roots in protests that began in 2015 when people took to the streets to demonstrate against the huge mounds of rubbish piling up at the time in Beirut, Lebanon's capital.

In 2015, people took to the streets to demonstrate against the rubbish piling up in Beirut [Al Jazeera]

The garbage problem was largely a consequence of squabbles between local competing political interests about where responsibility lay for cleaning up the mess, but to many the rotting rubbish quickly became a potent, if smelly, symbol of the state's dysfunction and its inadequate provision of public services.

But rather than addressing the root causes of the issue, the government quashed the protests.

In the aftermath, activists decided to form a political movement that they hoped would shake up the political status quo and influence change from within the system.

Dashed hopes

The elections held in May - after a number of postponements - were to be their first real opportunity. Its candidates were optimistic that popular dissatisfaction, born out of growing frustration at Lebanon's heavily indebted economy, battered infrastructure and concerns about endemic corruption, would provoke the electorate into opting for reform.

But as the ballot closed and the votes were counted, their hopes were dashed. Very little had changed. Turnout was less than 50 percent and, despite the country's many problems, most of those who had bothered to vote had backed the same sectarian parties they had always done.

On May 6, 2018, Lebanon held its first parliamentary elections in nine years [Al Jazeera]

Speaking later with people across the country, we heard the same story over and over again: people were bored with the political buffet on offer and cynical about the capacity of the country's seemingly unalterable power-sharing system - dominated by sectarian dynasties and embedded loyalties - to change things.

To better understand why this is so and why so much is wrong in Lebanon, you need to take a close look at its political makeup.

The country's distinctive parliamentary structure is based on an arrangement known as confessionalism, originally set up by the former French colonial power, and subsequently re-established after the country's brutal civil war between 1975 and 1990.

In essence, it means each of the main sects holds a position in government - the president must be Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim and so on.

'Fear between all the communities'

But while this power-sharing arrangement may once have had, or indeed still has, its benefits in keeping bitter rivals apart, it also has other consequences that continue to haunt Lebanon today.

Between the Sunnis and Shia there is fear, between the Muslims and the Christians there is fear, between the Shia and the Christians there is fear. All this is based on the fact that no one trusts the other communities.

Nadim Gemayel, MP for the Kataeb party

As Laury Haytayan, a Civil Society candidate in the election explained to us, "parliament is divided half Christians half Muslims … it's not at all easy to manage all of these diversities, which then have further divisions within their individual communities."

Her hope had been that the election might introduce an alternative form of politics, but it was not to be. "This is not sustainable division. You are dividing people according to their religion and their sect and this is the only identity you are forcing them to have."

It was, she added, based on fear of returning to the dark days of conflict, of which the major parties were always eager to remind people.

"This is the only thing they can offer to win votes - they bring back all these dark memories and tell people that they fought for them during the war and saved them, so you owe your life and therefore you should vote for them."

Laury Haytayan: 'you are dividing people according to their religion and their sect and this is the only identity you are forcing them to have.' [Al Jazeera]

It was something we heard again later when we went to meet one of the Christian figureheads in the country, whose family fought in the conflict 25 years ago.

Nadim Gemayel is an MP for the Kataeb party. His father Bachir Gemayel had been Lebanon's president-elect for three weeks before he was assassinated in 1990.

He admitted there was still "fear between all the communities. Between the Sunnis and Shia there is fear, between the Muslims and the Christians there is fear, between the Shia and the Christians there is fear. All this is based on the fact that no one trusts the other communities."

With so many divisions, it is perhaps no surprise that state affairs are so complicated to manage and welfare and public services are so difficult to coordinate. But in their absence, it means that people default back to sectarian affiliations whenever they need assistance. And that comes at a price.

As Haytayan had told us, it leads to a process she described as clientelism.

"We are in a situation where you don't have people getting what they want from the state and the state feels as though it is not its role to offer welfare," she says. "Instead the political parties or leaders take over and provide services. The state is left in a position where it's irrelevant. The people become reliant on the leaders who provide them help through the private sector - from medical health to providing electricity, from water to education. Wealthy businessmen profit, political leaders profit and the people get the support to survive another day."

Politics as family business

We wanted to see how this worked in practice. We'd heard that Teymour Jumblatt, a politician from one of Lebanon's traditional political families, holds an open event twice a week for people to come and request help, so we obtained permission to attend.

I don't want to be in politics, but I have to. I owe it to my father and to my family history. They have been basically working in politics for 400 years. It's a family business.

Teymour Jumblatt, politician

Dozens of people turned up that day to see him. One lady arrived with her husband. She told Jumblatt that they had voted for him and now her unemployed husband needed his help. Others wanted Jumblatt to intercede with the authorities or to arrange medical assistance, or schooling.

All of them had voted for him, all now expected his patronage in return.

Afterwards, Jumblatt was unexpectedly direct with us. He revealed that he personally had no great interest in the political world but that it was an almost hereditary responsibility from which there was no escape.

"I don't want to be in politics, but I have to," he said. "I owe it to my father and to my family history. They have been basically working in politics for 400 years. It's a family business. We don't want to cease to exist at some point. So we are always fighting to stay in power. It's almost like a feudal system and the community always come back to us for help or for assistance."

'It's almost like a feudal system and the community always come back to us for help or for assistance,' Teymour Jumblatt said [Al Jazeera]

The major downside of this patronage system, others told us over and over again, is that it also contributes significantly to Lebanon's widespread corruption because honest dealings and transparency can hardly be expected in a country where favours are privately dispensed. Thus what might be a haven for an elite of rich businessmen wanting to make big money can be a nightmare for anyone else.

In this accountability vacuum, we heard, public land can be sold to developers to build glitzy new high-rise flats or seaside resorts with no questions asked, but locals are priced out of housing they can no longer afford, rubbish can be left uncollected or toxic waste pollute the country's once famous beaches because no one gains anything from sorting out the mess. All the while, unemployment is rising and the economy stumbles into ever greater indebtedness.

But what is startling is that while everyone seems to know this and will be candid about the reasons why, few - least of all the politicians involved - seem to have any clear answers as to how it can be changed.

As Fouad Makhzoumi, an independent MP and billionaire, wryly agreed during one of the interviews in this film, the garbage crisis was indeed an apt metaphor for a system that smells to high heaven.

"The economy stinks, social conditions stink, politics stinks," he said.

'It's a miracle that we still exist'

Of course, Lebanese politics and society are truly complex in other ways. There are multiple layers of interests competing in every situation and crisis.

The people become reliant on the leaders who provide them help through the private sector - from medical health to providing electricity, from water to education. Wealthy businessmen profit, political leaders profit and the people get the support to survive another day.

Laury Haytayan, politician

In addition to internal players, there are regional and global actors constantly working for their interests, which, in many cases, are not the same as the interests of ordinary Lebanese.

"You have Israel on the one side, you have Syria with its civil war on the other," Teymour Jumblatt explained. "You have Saudi and Iran fighting proxy wars all over the Middle East. You have Turkey and the north of Iraq also fighting the Kurds. You have the US and Russia fighting for a piece of the pie. So it's a miracle that we still exist."

Time and time again, Lebanon is caught up in these affairs - most often these days as a minor piece in the endless game of geopolitical chess between Iran and Saudi Arabia - with Iran backing the Shia party Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia controlling the Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri.

Last year, Saudi Arabia sought to send a reminder to Lebanon as to who's in charge when according to the (Christian) President Michel Aoun, they allegedly detained and forced the prime minister to resign while he was visiting the kingdom. He later rowed back on that decision after international pressure and on his return to Lebanon, but the message was clear.

However, Iran too has for decades sought to increase its influence through its well-documented connections with Hezbollah - and in the see-saw world of Lebanese politics, it may currently have the upper hand after Hezbollah performed strongly in the elections.

[Al Jazeera]

Against this background, it wasn't surprising during our time there that many Lebanese told us they've given up on the current situation. But it was also possible to detect, through Civil Society and others, at least the beginnings of a belief that change and reform will have to come one day.

Among many we spoke to, especially the younger people, we heard a deep yearning for a secular state - an independent Lebanon divorced from Iran and Saudi Arabia, where people are free from dynastic and sectarian allegiances and obligations and can expect a government that addresses their needs.

Of course for that to do happen, next time more people have to get out and vote.

Source: Al Jazeera