Patrons, Clients and Civil Society: A Case Study of Environmental Politics in Postwar Lebanon

By Kingston, Paul | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Patrons, Clients and Civil Society: A Case Study of Environmental Politics in Postwar Lebanon


Kingston, Paul, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


WHY HAVE POLITICAL ELITES in Lebanon, not known for their public-mindedness, begun to show interest in questions of the environment? Certainly, their wartime activities provided no hint of an interest in 'green' politics. Indeed, save for the truly 'green line' that separated East and West Beirut, Lebanon suffered untold environmental devastation during the war. Moreover, with the return of peace to the country, the overwhelming priority of the government has been to promote the reconstruction process, an imperative that has relegated many environmental issues to the backburner. Industrial pollution remains a serious issue virtually untouched by government regulations, quarrying has gone on with impunity carving out whole sections of Lebanon's beautiful mountain heritage often to be dumped into the sea as part of the many private sector-led land reclamation projects, and Lebanon's Mediterranean coastline, ostensibly publicly owned, has been increasingly encroached upon by private developers. Yet, it is also undoubtedly true that environmental concerns have become a more prominent part of the 'public domain'. Lebanon now has a Ministry of the Environment, created in 1993; in response to the emergence of local environmental NGOs in the postwar world, the government has also sanctioned the creation of the Lebanese Environmental Forum (LEF), a national NGO environmental coordinating committee; and, in partnership with many of those NGOs, it has also become increasingly involved in issues of conservation through the creation of numerous protected areas. Further distinguishing Lebanon from its neighbors has been the establishment of a local office of Greenpeace, the only one in the Arab region to date.

The most prevalent explanations for movement on environmental issues revolve around the advocacy role of civil society, both local and global. Certainly, since the end of the civil war, Lebanon has seen the rise of a whole host of local NGOs, often supported by international partners, concerned with various aspects of environmental protection. This has been complemented by the increased availability of capital for environmental work from both foreign bilateral and multilateral donors. Hence, both the pressure on and incentives for political elites to become more interested in environmental issues have been present. Yet, this reliance on civil society to explain the emergence of more prominent environmental politics is problematic in Lebanon, not only because civil society is weak and divided, as is the case in many developing countries, but also because the paradigm itself raises more questions than it answers. John and Jean Comaroff, for example, noting its lack of clarity with respect to both its make-up and dynamics, wrote that "the idea of civil society has proven impossibly difficult to pin down. The more its advocates have sought to make it a mantra of sociomoral regeneration and social analysis, the more elusive and ambiguous it has become" (1999, p. 5). Moreover, given the fluid political contexts that exist in many developing countries, it has also proven difficult to locate civil society within the standard state-society frameworks. Rather than witnessing the emergence of clear distinctions between the state and civil society, for example, Chabal and Deloz, in the context of Africa, have observed a more prominent dynamic characterized by "the constant interpenetration and straddling of the one by the other" (1999, p. 17).

To overcome these problems of definition and location, this paper seeks to examine civil society politics in Lebanon within a patron-client rather than a state-society framework. This has two immediate advantages. First, while recognizing that patron-client relations exist in conditions of structural inequality and are often generated by more underlying class dimensions (Gilsenan, 1977), most authors also recognize the resilient and enduring quality of patron-client relations in the developing world, notably in the context of democratization in Latin America (See Hagopian, 1994; and Oxhorn, 1995).

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