The heart of Lebanon's rural darkness

The heart of Lebanon's rural darkness

6 min read
28 Jun, 2017
Comment: Chronically neglected, Lebanon's rural areas could hold the key to the country's economic development, but dreary prospects mean young people are making their lives elsewhere, writes Bassel Salloukh.
A defunct train station in the northern Lebanese coastal city of Tripoli [AFP]

If you want to understand Lebanon's inescapably tragic future - and that of many parts of the Arab world - all you need to do is explore the forgotten parts of its rural hinterland.

I had the opportunity this summer to undertake some research that entailed visiting areas all too absent from the mental map of most Lebanese, let alone that of the trickle of visitors and immigrants who brave the country's increasingly dangerous streets every summer season.

These are the places the Lebanese state wishes they would just go away: Arsal in the Beqaa, Bab el-Tibané, Wadi al-Nahlé, and al-Mankoubeen - the latter translates literally as 'the devastated' - in Tripoli, and Wadi Khaled in Akkar.

Here you come face-to-face with the underdeveloped parts of the so-called underdeveloped world. Of course, there are other places in Lebanon with somewhat similar socioeconomic conditions - take the Palestinian refugee camps scattered around the country, for example.

But these areas stand out for the kind of state callousness that has become their hallmark. They are not only marginalised, but also demonised in the eyes of the state and society.

The first thing that strikes you as you make your way into this heart of Lebanon's rural darkness is the absence of any semblance of state symbols and institutions.

True, there are the odd checkpoints that remind you to slow down every now and then, but beyond this show of coercive power, there is little of the state symbols around which people could be rallied and organised behind a national, non-sectarian, cause.

Fanon's appeals landed on deaf ears across the global South, and, consequently, we are left with all this rural misery

Save for those suspect villas, the newly-constructed but disorganised isolated houses, and the ramshackle plastic refugee huts erected after the war in Syria, the barren landscape has remained unchanged for decades. They remind me of Frantz Fanon's plea in The Wretched of the Earth to a generation of post-independence rulers not to concentrate the state's resources and developmental activity in the urban areas at the expense of the rural ones.

Fanon's appeals landed on deaf ears across the global South, and, consequently, we are left with all this rural misery. Decades of infrastructural state neglect produced zero prospects for local economic opportunities, leaving whole communities at the mercy of sectarian parties, illicit activities, perpetual violence and recruiting by extremist groups, and the haunting spectre of exit.

I asked a local researcher in Baalbek how she saw the future of the area 20 years from now. "Empty," was her haunting reply. 

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It's an old story, one that dates back to the 1960s, when, as the Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi once noted, the roads created by Fuad Shihab's modernising administration brought waves of rural migrants to Beirut, instead of taking up the rural areas state-sponsored development projects aimed at enabling local communities to live in dignity and prosperity.

These dynamics ultimately created the political economic conditions for the outbreak of the civil war in 1975.

Every postwar government has promised the development of the rural areas

Every postwar government has promised the development of the rural areas. Yet beyond revamping the road networks, usually with foreign funds and supervision, no grand sustainable projects were inaugurated by either a government hyper-centralised in Beirut or toothless local authorities loyal to their sectarian protégés.

Instead, the state remains aloof toward the rural population, perceiving them as nothing more than a source of criminality, cheap labour, and recruits to the Lebanese army. For their part, sectarian parties remember that there are rural communities only during election times.

How all this will affect Beirut's long-term development is not difficult to discern. From a distance Beirut appears as a glittering city airbrushed by a skyline of lush modern apartment towers.

But when you descend to the trenches of everyday life, you are faced with a disastrous infrastructural mess and a perilous lawlessness that spares no one. You discover a city composed of an archipelago of neighbourhoods made out of atomised lifeforms spanning a spectrum of luxury gated communities, neighbourhoods struggling to maintain their middle-class identity, and decrepit areas devoid of any sense of rule of law, urban planning, and public utilities – a cheap imitation of many south American cities.

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The causality at work here is not magical: the more the government ignores the country's rural hinterland, the more the stress on Beirut's infrastructure increases and the differences between these disparate worlds widen. A veritable recipe for long-term disaster.

Yet given all this rural agony and dispossession, how come Lebanon has yet to experience its Sidi Bouzid moment?

Part of the answer has to do with the rural-to-urban dynamics described above, and how it ends up diffusing socioeconomic pressures generated by lopsided developmental planning concentrated in Beirut and its mountain environs.

The state remains aloof toward the rural population, perceiving them as nothing more than a source of criminality, cheap labour, and recruits to the Lebanese army

Another pertains to that age-old Lebanese pastime: emigration.

But a more comprehensive explanation has to necessarily take into consideration the political economy and ideological hegemony of the sectarian system.

It involves the ensemble of institutional, clientelist, and discursive practices that undergird the sectarian system and have hitherto obviated the emergence of the kind of class consciousness and regional-based movements that can challenge the system substantially.

The aim of these practices is to divide Lebanese along sectarian lines in spite of their common socioeconomic and regional misery. They obviate the emergence of otherwise counterfactual class, regional, or gender affiliations, thus reproducing sectarian identities as the main modes of political identification and mobilisation.

Consequently, where there should be solidarity and comradery across sectarian lines, there is division, hatred, and "otherning". Ironically, then, sectarianism trumps socioeconomic solidarity, thus perpetuating a cycle of cross-sectarian dispossession.

But it is not impossible to discern new movements emerging against all sectarian odds to challenge the system and imagine new kinds of political possibilities. These are the networks of local actors mobilising around developmental causes in a bid to push back against sectarian demonising and mobilising.

Yet to prove effective, they require a lot of grassroots organising, the necessary infrastructural work for any kind of Gramscian "war of position" against the ideology of the sectarian system and its own common sense, and the building of a new kind of cross-sectarian oppositional consciousness.

They also need substantial funding; a scarce resource indeed in a sectarian political system lubricated by clientelist relations. Their battles will be long and difficult, and sometimes impossible given this dearth of resources.

But they are well worth fighting for and monitoring, at least as an antidote to the demonic sectarian times we are passing through.

Dr. Bassel F. Salloukh is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) in Beirut. His recent publications include the co-authored The Politics of Sectarianism in Postwar Lebanon (Pluto Press, 2015), "The Arab Uprisings and the Geopolitics of the Middle East" in The International Spectator (June 2012), the co-authored Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World (Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012).

His current research looks at post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the challenge of re-assembling the political orders and societies of post-uprisings Arab states, and the geopolitics of the Middle East after the popular uprisings. Follow him on Twitter: @bassel67

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.