I’m in Japan, the capitalist powerhouse where the people are imbued with a sense of duty that is almost communist. You see it in the masked cops standing obediently at the airport; the firemen exercising in the forecourt of the fire station; the men and women with flashing batons who help you cross the road or who wait patiently at depot entrances to stop you getting run over, and the woman I saw on her hands and knees weeding between the cracks in the pavement. It’s impressive stuff.
They are also painfully polite. The cleaners in hotels bow and say good morning as the jet-lagged traveller – me – struggles down the corridor grumpily pulling his suitcase; sales assistants greet you in chorus if you happen to walk in, as I did, just as the shop is opening. Then there are the guards on the Shinkansen “bullet” train who salute each other when they come off shift. Everyone wants to do the right thing.
Which is more than can be said for the good people of Beirut, who last week did completely the wrong thing by once again voting in a bunch of scoundrels in the municipal elections. Last week they had a rare chance to elect a stellar group of unimpeachable (by Lebanese standards at least) and capable candidates from a broad spectrum of occupations campaigning under the banner of Beirut Madinati – Beirut My City – which hoped to finally turn the Lebanese capital into a greener, happier and more prosperous city, one that just might take a step forward to realising its enormous potential.
It wasn’t as if the electorate needed any convincing that it might just perhaps be time for a change. One only needed to go out on to to any Beirut balcony (and everybody has one) and breath in the wholesome aroma of the Mediterranean rubbish, that has been allowed to pile up on the city’s streets over a period of eight months, which still lingers in the city’s DNA and which came to symbolise the breathtakingly inept way the city was run. The choice was simple: the corrupt and useless versus those who wanted to rebuild the integrity and performance of one of the world’s fascinating and vibrant entrepôts.
The result of the election was that the Beirutis List backed by Saad Hariri, a former prime minister and son of the slain former prime minister Rafik Hariri, swept the board. This wasn’t just a victory for an establishment that has spat in the face of the opportunities it has had to develop infrastructure, tourism, the financial sector, reform housing development and encourage economic activities in local neighbourhoods.
It also showed that while we Lebanese might claim to be the most freethinking of all the Arabic nations – something we have been boasting about since the so-called Cedar Revolution of 2005 – the reality was that the only genuine free thinkers who took to the streets that day 11 years ago were the people who last week voted Beirut Madinati.
The rest just happened to have shared partisan and sectarian interests and didn’t give a stuff about progress; about creating a nation predicated on prosperity, self-determination and democratic principals or honing its human and natural resources. So not such a watershed moment after all.
Elsewhere, normal service was resumed when Hizbollah, the militant Shia party, threw its toys out of its pram when the Lebanese Central Bank, the only institution that has kept the country from going bankrupt, suspended bank accounts belonging to three party members and warned the government, of which it is part, that the Central Bank had “crossed a red line”.
The Central Bank was merely abiding by the recently enacted Hizbollah International Financing Prevention Act, which targets those banks that deal with Hizbollah or individuals, businesses or institutions linked to the group. One Hizbollah MP called the law “a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty”, forgetting perhaps that it is a concept that his party has played fast and loose with for the past 16 years.
Beirut Madinati will have its day. In the meantime, plus ça change, as they say in Tokyo.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton