Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Lebanon's unacceptable Lèse majesté laws

The news that Zeid Hamdan was briefly arrested for insulting our Dear Great Leader President General Suleiman (henceforth DGLPGS) was unsurprising, but nonetheless a sad reminder of the atavism of Lebanon's legal system. Indeed, every once in a while we hear of one person or another arrested for insulting DGLPGS.

In a normal country with a real "majesté" such as Britain, the laws against insulting the Queen or King have not been prosecuted since the 18th Century. In Holland, calling the Queen a whore can set you back a €400 fine.  Lebanon seems to be in a league with fine beacons of progress like Thailand in enforcing Lèse majesté laws

The problem is that DGLPGS is not a near-deity like the Thai royals. He is merely an elected official in a ramshackle democracy. Even ramshackle democracies can't function if elected officials cannot be (harshly) criticised.  

In the 19th Century, the Queen of Thailand's boat capsized. Because the Lèse majesté laws barred anyone from touching the royals, no one was able to save her. She couldn't swim. She drowned and died.

Somewhere in all of this should be a moral for DGLPGS, but now that I am sipping my third Scotch of the day, I can't quite articulate it.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Open letter to Mufti Qabbani

Dear Mufti,

Your press release regarding the domestic violence law is simply unacceptable.  It is slap in the face of every civilised Lebanese.

I am not going to go through the press release and make an argument over whether Islam provides adequate protection for women, as you claim, or not. My problem lies with the logic of the press release. Basically, you are arguing that because Islam provides adequate protection to women, this law infringes on their religious rights.  In case you have not noticed, dear Mufti, Moslems don't live in vacuum.

In trying to understand your actions, I see two possibilities:

1. If you believe every other religion in Lebanon provides the same "protection" to women as your religion, you need to make that argument clear.  In this case, why not team up with the representatives of every other religious community and make constructive proposals on how the law can be improved?  The law that was drafted by the Lebanese government was intended to take into account the constraints of every religious community.

2. If you believe that at least one other religion in Lebanon does not provide the same "protection" to women, then why not make some constructive proposal and insist that the law be passed? That would be in keeping with the morality that you preach.

Assault, battery and rape are crimes, not religious rights. Arguing that a law to protect women is an infringement of the autonomy of your community is simply not acceptable, unless you believe that your autonomy is more important than they morality that you preach. In this case, why not follow the example of  Hassan Nasrallah and start building a state within a state? You can't be "Mufti of the Republic" and undermine the Republic at the same time.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Default is neither inevitable nor desirable

I had a brief online debate with Ghassan Karam on Lebanon's debt sustainability (see comment section of Lebanese Sovereign Debt Default: An Inevitability) , which is worth highlighting for two reasons:

1. I think Ghassan Karam is a reasonably credible commentator on several issues.

2. I think his opinion on this particular issue is both wrong and reckless.

To start with, and to be very clear: I am in no way defending the fiscal policy of Hariri's last government.  As I argued in "When government by auto-pilot is better than active government"  Lebanon was "more lucky that good" in having a primary surplus. But I also argued in Lebanon's $18,000,000,000 question:

" a Hizbollah-inspired government will have to try harder than a Hariri-led government to instil ... confidence ... This is in part because they have no track record in government, and in part because their past pronouncements on economic issues are reckless"

I think that at this stage it is pointless to argue over how the debt was accumulated, unless you are planning to write a sequel to South Park's Captain Hindsight.  All that matters is that Lebanon has a ton of debt of short term maturities. The question is how to get out of this predicament, which is taking a big toll on public finances. There are only three options: cut spending, raise taxes or default.  Ghassan thinks  that cutting spending is impossible, raising taxes is difficult (he thinks that raising the VAT is wrong because it impacts the poor more than the rich) and so thinks that default is inevitable.

I think he is wrong on all three counts.

Cutting spending is not impossible. Subsidies to our dysfunctional electric utility alone (over $1.2 bn) are equivalent to more than half of the debt service payments. Cutting government staffing is also possible. Walk into any government office and all you will see is a hoard of navel-gazing underemployed. As an example, let's take the number of times your passport gets checked while leaving the airport (4): before check-in, after check-in and before passport control, at passport control, and then one last time before getting on the plane. One employee at passport control is enough for most countries. Firing the rest means a saving of three salaries.

I also don't think we exhausted the possibilities of raising revenue. VAT is not regressive. Higher income groups tend to spend more on higher value-added goods, lower income groups spend more on more basic goods. The VAT makes sense, its efficient, hard to avoid, and creates an incentive for saving over consumption. (Personally, I would rather go for a flat tax on all income, but I understand that most Lebanese tend to be too left-leaning for such a radical idea, preferring Byzantine loopholes).

We have not exhausted the possibility of raising revenue through privatisation either. How many countries still have government owned telecom operators, for example? It's a scandal that we have not privatised the obvious.

Default will be the most difficult and most damaging solution. Lebanese debt is held mostly by Lebanese banks, and so a default by the government will wipe out everyones savings. The examples of how this plays out are many, but for a short 1 page summary of potential implications, take a look at this article and insert the word Lebanon for Greece. Now ask the average Lebanese if they would they rather see  their life's savings wiped out, or a combination of higher electricity bills, a slightly higher VAT, a private telecom service and some government officials fired? I suspect the answer will be clear.

Monday, June 13, 2011

New Government: More good news than bad news

So, Lebanon finally has a new government. First the bad news: for a country that has a Guinness Book of World Records fetish, it is a shame we did not break Belgium's record of number of days without a government.  It would have been a nice complement to our existing records of the biggest Hummus plate, largest glass of wine, world's largest Kibbeh and other significant stuff.

Now for the good news. We have broken the taboo of maintaining the "sectarian balance."  Compare the number of Druze to Shiites to get the picture. This is big stuff! It sets a good precedent.

As an added bonus, this comes with other benefits: 

1. We have ensured that only the best and brightest get into government, regardless of their family background. We have two members of the Karami family, for example.

2. We demonstrated to the world that we do not judge a book by its cover. This is how a party that uses a Swastika in motion as an emblem gets a seat in government.

3. While we did not break Sri Lanka's records of most number of Ministers in Government (52), we certainly broke it on a per capita basis: 52/20,000,000 < 30/4,000,000. Ha! Suck on that Sri Lanka!

4. I also suspect that we broke the world record in the number of ministers who actually lost seats in Parliamentary elections but still got into government. Confirming this suspicion, however, will take more  research than I'm willing to invest.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Shame on AUB Faculty and Students

I found the news that James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, cancelled his speech at AUB amid accusations by faculty that he "supports Israel" deeply disturbing.  Before anyone accuses me of being insensitive to Palestinians, you can read my blog posts here and here.

Faculty have the right to express their view, of course. But this incident exposes something disturbing about the atmosphere at AUB and in Lebanon. It betrays a complete lack of intellectual depth, as well as an intolerance that borders on psychosis. You can read the whole thing here, but the main points are that:

 "We believe that honoring Mr. Wolfensohn – a former president of the World Bank[1], standing member of the international advisory council of the Israel Democracy Institute[2], and investor in a company (Better Place) that among other activities intends to build infrastructure to serve Israeli settlers in the West Bank[3]– symbolically undermines AUB’s legacy in the struggle for social justice and its historical connection to Beirut, to Palestine and beyond."

For [1] they argue that the World bank is no good because "Numerous books and scholarly articles have documented the devastating effects of World Bank policies in the global South." Global South? This is generally the vocabulary of dinosaurs like Clovis Maksoud.  As evidence they cite the work by anti-globalisation activist Danaher, a sociologist  that pretends to understand economics 101.

Item [2] is their big "gotcha" item. But this one is perplexing too. The Israel Democracy Institute, actually, sounds like a pretty neutral organisation on a lot of issues. They publish a "Peace Index" and reports that do not paint a flattering picture of Israel. This "gotcha" item is only relevant if you are a die-hard supporter of Hamas, because even Palestinian Authority is not disputing Israel's existence.

Finally, item [3] is that Wolfensohn invested in a company that has a subsidiary that is doing business in Israel. Really?? This is the sort of tenuous connection that I would bet you can make for most Arab leaders! I would not be surprised if the same professors that signed this petition have their pensions invested in funds that have invested in companies that have subsidiaries that are doing business in Israel.

In a normal country, this sort of frivolous protest would be heard but largely ignored. But Lebanon is not a normal country, unfortunately.  James Wolfensohn probably cancelled because he was scared of the atmosphere. I don't blame him.

UPDATE: AUB President Peter Dorman published an excellent statement regarding James Wolfensohn. I encourage you all to read it, as it highlights Wolfensohn's many contributions in support of Palestinians.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Something is rotten in the state of Syria

Something stinks about what's happening in Syria. No, I am not just talking about Assad. But I'm getting the feeling that the activists stink as well.

The mystery of Gay Girl in Damascus is best summarised by Andy Carvin. She may be a hoax, but who is behind it?

The more I look at some of the videos shared by activists, the more I wonder what percentage of these are staged.  Take a look at the video below, highlighted on Hussain Abdul-Hussain's otherwise excellent blog. Who could have filmed this? Would the Syrian army allow someone to film at such close proximity? Doubtful. Is this produced by the Syrian army? But why would they do that?  Could this be staged? Possibly.

Don't get me wrong: I fully support the demonstrators. I also don't have any doubt that the Syrian army is doing the sort of stuff shown in the video, and a lot worse.  I just have doubts that a lot of the videos we are seeing are real, and, as a result, I can't help but feel that it is a shame for Syria that so many activists are so damned sloppy.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Democracy is a means, not an end

Two recent and thoughtful pieces on the Middle East are worth contemplating:

"Democracy or Liberty" by Steve Hanke in Asharq al-Awsat (also in Arabic) and
"The Weak Foundations of Arab Democracy" by Timur Kuran in the New York Times

One of the striking features of the revolutions in the Arab world has been the difficulty in understanding what the demonstrators want. Yes, they wanted to do away with the Mubaraks and Assads of the world, but what do they want their countries to be like the day after the next election? ( In a previous post, I highlighted the confusion in Egypt).

Democracy cannot be an end. It is simply a workable formula for self government, which has been proven successful when certain preconditions are met. It has led to disastrous results when these conditions are absent, If in doubt, take a look at Chavez's Venezuela.

Hanke raises a very important point: the success of the US is precisely because the Founding Fathers subordinated Democracy to Liberty. Individual freedom was the overarching principle that circumscribed policy.  Democratic decisions that breached that principle, no matter how popular, were taken to court.

The absence of a serious discussion on the role of the state, and individual rights, is woefully absent from political discourse in the Middle East. The demonstrators (in Egypt in particular) are focussing on entitlements, not liberties. If asked to explain their position, the demonstrators effectively call for bigger government, not a government constrained by the protection of individual rights.

Timur Kuran presents an interesting hypothesis of why this is the case. Kuran's point is that the preconditions of democracy are lacking in the region because the culture is based on Sharia law. In turn, Sharia law does not provide for the concept of a corporation, and this is why civil society is weak. Without civil society to champion individual rights democracy is bound to fail.

I'm not familiar enough with Islamic issues to opine on the validity of Kuran's hypothesis. But regardless of its validity, I'm not convinced that civil society is a precondition for success. Civil society can also mean special interest groups that will turn any constitution into Salmagundi. Brazil's experience in writing it's 1988 constitution with far-reaching input from civil society is instructive. Since 1988 Brazil needed 67 constitutional amendments and three serious economic crises (including a default) to get policies "about right." Since enacting the Bill of Rights in 1791, the US amended the constitution only 17 times (bringing the total to 27 amendments).

The problem in the Arab world is the complete absence of thoughtful leadership. I don't expect the average demonstrator to have read either Adam Smith or Thomas Paine. But unfortunately, few people are even vaguely familiar with their ideas at all. I was surprised and dismayed to discover through an article in the Wall Street Journal that most liberal thinkers have never been translated into Arabic.