Page last updated at 13:23 GMT, Thursday, 12 November 2009

Lebanon's struggle to move forward

After months of negotiations, Lebanon has a new unity government comprising several factions but, as Natalia Antelava reports, many people there now view any government as largely irrelevant.

Beirut skyline
While Lebanese people are good at looking after themselves, looking after the country has been a bigger challenge

The noise was becoming unbearable. From all sides, dozens of drivers blared their horns, waved their fists and shouted at the person in front of them.

"It's all his fault," my taxi driver spat out, pointing straight ahead. I ducked out to look.

There, in the middle of the sea of honking cars, stood a thin young man in an oversized policeman's uniform.

Helplessly he waved his skinny arms trying to steer angry drivers. The problem was that he was steering them in all directions at the same time.

"He is the one who created the jam, he should just mind his own business," my taxi driver said. The fact that traffic was the policeman's business did not seem to cross his mind.

Ask anyone in Beirut and they will tell you that, if there is a really bad traffic jam, chances are there is a policeman behind it. It is not always true, of course, but it is certainly indicative of how Lebanese people approach authority.

"The best thing that the government can do is stay out of my life," a friend recently told me.

Political paralysis

The attitude is not surprising. For decades, Lebanon's politicians have done nothing but drive the country into deadlock.

New Lebanese government meeting
The new government's first meeting was on 10 November 2009

The country's current crisis is just the latest episode of its chronic political paralysis.

The most recent one lasted for five months. That is how long it took for Lebanon's rival politicians to divide up ministerial portfolios.

In a country where in the past political stalemate has often led to violence, many Lebanese sighed with relief when politicians finally came to an agreement.

But just as many, like my neighbourhood shopkeeper Vartan, simply shrugged their shoulders.

"What difference will it make?" Vartan said. "We will carry on with our lives, and they will carry on fighting each other. It never changes."

Lebanon's private sector works so well that many Lebanese like to say that they do not need the government at all

Frighteningly little, it seems, has changed in Lebanon since the civil war which started in the 1970s and lasted for almost 20 years.

Many of the former warlords are now the country's top politicians. They still recruit supporters into privately run militias.

Buildings destroyed in the fighting still scar the Beirut skyline. Power cuts are still part of everyday life. There is no functioning public transport here, and in many neighbourhoods there is no running water.

'Tribal society'

Beirut may boast state-of-the-art shopping malls but its streets cannot even handle the changing weather. The drainage system is so weak that every time it rains, roads turn into rivers.

"Fixing this mess would mean doing something for the public good and here we don't do that," a friend commented sarcastically the other day, as we made our way through the flooded streets.

Prime Minister Saad Hariri (L)
The unity government will be led by Prime Minister Saad Hariri

Behind the glitz and urban sophistication of Beirut, he said, hides a truly tribal society, whose leaders are preoccupied with fighting for the interests of their communities, not the nation as a whole.

In Lebanon, he added, you first identify yourself by the sect you belong to: Sunni, Shia, Christian, Armenian or Druze. Only then are you Lebanese.

People who visited Lebanon in the last five months would hardly notice that the country was living through a major political crisis. Life here was carrying on as usual.

Over the years - and out of necessity rather than belief - the Lebanese seem to have created the ultimate laissez-faire society.

They do not rely on the government. When water runs out, they ring their neighbourhood water man who fills their rooftop tanks.

They buy electricity from neighbourhood generator men. Even rubbish collection in Beirut is privatised.

Lebanon's private sector works so well that many Lebanese like to say that they do not need the government at all.

'Stuck in the present'

But while Lebanese people are good at looking after themselves, looking after the country has been a bigger challenge.

Lack of regulation is taking its toll.

Mountains of garbage are piling up along the Mediterranean, Lebanon's famous cedar forests are dying and no-one is trying to stop the construction that is wiping out the historic buildings of Beirut.

And however joyful and robust people here are, they too are affected by this never-ending political uncertainty.

"We have learned how to live the moment, how to take life day at a time," a friend recently told me.

"But the problem with that," she said, "is that we are stuck in the present. We don't know what will happen next, we can never plan ahead."

But now, with the government in place, could Lebanon finally move forward, I asked her. She shook her head.

"The system is still the same - and it simply doesn't work," she said.

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