In Lebanon, politics is theater

In Lebanon, politics is theater

02 Dezember 2010

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Lebanon —  A fire in December … might prompt one to think of a hearth decorated for the holidays, as family and friends gather around for food, drink and fellowship.

A forest fire in December, however, is another proposition altogether.

The blaze in the Nahr Ibrahim valley of Lebanon on December 1 is the kind of news item that should set alarm bells ringing. Not the kind of alarm bells that mean people should respond to an unforeseen emergency, but rather the kind that signal: the government is largely clueless when it comes to long-term planning and implementation.

Government officials, practically by definition, are supposed to prepare for the worst. In Lebanon, it seems they have gotten into the habit of preparing for the best.

They’re the kind of politicians who are perpetually surprised. A heavy downpour during the winter months often surprises them. Sunny skies and warm temperatures in December have surprised them, although one can hardly miss the words “climate change” and “global warming” if even a few minutes are spent perusing what the media has been offering on a daily basis for several years.

Lebanon has seen unseasonably warm temperatures for week after week, as people await a winter that still seems distant. This alone should see officials scramble to act, and beef up the country’s firefighting capabilities. Instead, a fire in the lower Chouf region on November 30 saw local residents up in arms, complaining about the few fire trucks on the scene, and the primitive equipment being wielded by fire-fighting personnel.

The warm weather has also highlighted a growing water crisis, and according to the minister in charge of the portfolio, the shortage could serve as a spark for civil war. This naturally begs the question, if the situation is that serious, why isn’t more being done about it?

For decades, the government has unveiled its plans and blueprints for building dams to alleviate the situation, since Lebanon’s wastage levels are atrocious. The plans haven’t materialized, however, and when they do, as with the Shabrouh Dam, the facility turns out to be ineffective.

The problem isn’t a lack of awareness about issues such as the environment, water, or fire. It’s a structural problem, involving accountability. The public officials who are tasked with protecting society and preparing for the worst simply ignore their jobs. In a country like Lebanon, politics is theater, not public service. If a given minister is attacked for not doing enough to address the water problem, or the environment, politicians from his or her camp easily dismiss the criticism, as being politically motivated. The citizen’s interest is ignored, and problems are swept under the rug, as politicians drag people into endless discussions of their principles, and not their plans of action.

Don’t be fooled by the lovely weather in December. Lebanon is facing a full-fledged emergency.

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