The origins of world order – on the streets of Beirut

With Lebanon on the brink of financial default, its protesters are demanding a new order in governance, one that global bodies can’t ignore.

A protester outside parliament in Beirut holds a placard denouncing a reshuffling of power in Lebanon Feb. 11.

What is often called “world order” usually refers to the rules imposed by powerful countries or global bodies. So it comes as a surprise when one of those bodies, the International Monetary Fund, sees order elsewhere. Last week, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva told the leaders of Lebanon, a country deep in an economic and political crisis, to respond to “the call of the Lebanese people.”

By “call” she really meant the demands of a million Lebanese who have been protesting on and off since October in an upwelling for integrity in governance. To these young people, who are fed up with electricity blackouts and other effects of entrenched corruption, “order” lies in accountability, transparency, and democratic equality.

Often a theater for Middle East conflicts, Lebanon is largely controlled by an Arab terrorist group, Hezbollah. Along with help from the country’s other major religious and ethnic groups, the Shiite militant organization has corrupted both government and the banking system. On Tuesday, its deputy leader, Sheikh Naim Qassem, said Lebanon will not accept any bailout money from the IMF to prevent a pending financial meltdown. Such a financial rescue would have come with too many troublesome conditions for Hezbollah, which acts as Iran’s primary guerrilla arm in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq.

By March 9, Lebanon must decide whether to repay $1.2 billion to international creditors – or default for the first time. Total debt stands at more than 150% of gross domestic output, making Lebanon one of the world’s most heavily indebted countries. The leaders in Beirut stand little chance of receiving aid from wealthy Arab states or Europe. The only fire brigade is the IMF. That Washington-based institution, one of many keepers of world order, would probably demand – guess what – accountability and transparency.

To really stem corruption, Lebanon would need to end a system of governance that divides up power to the political parties of Sunnis, Christians, and Shiites. This system has led to “muhasasa,” an Arabic word for dividing up of spoils. The protesters have pointed directly at this sectarian system.

The crisis in Lebanon, while small on a global scale, is big with meaning about the origins of world order. The IMF chief had it right. The call from people seeking to live under higher ideals than a division of power must be heeded.

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