Nostalgia for war: does the Lebanese state function worse today than it did during civil war?

Armée libanaise, Beirut, 1982. James Case/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

“In the end it is perhaps one of the most striking aspects of the war: the Bank of Lebanon was able to hold on to all the gold it had… Nobody helped themselves to it.”

This statement, from a now-retired top executive of the Central Bank of Lebanon interviewed for this research, recalled the almost legendary story of former bank governor Edmond Naïm, who famously had slept on top of the gold kept in the vaults of the bank, refusing to leave the premises even though they were located in a combat zone.

This was 1987, in the middle of the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. The largest gold reserve in the region was within the reach of the militia, only a few hundred metres from other plundered international banks, yet it remained untouched.

The banks and other Lebanese state administration positions during the war resonate today with the problems faced by institutions in the country. Compared to the Lebanese ‘failed’ state nowadays, during the war the machinery of state seemed to continue to function more or less despite the circumstances.

This story brings us back to a forgotten civil war, noticeably different from the current conflicts in Syria, Iraq or Yemen. It points out to the other side of a war: the above-mentioned governor and a particular ‘corps’, the senior civil servants, who endure ordeals of those who do not take arms.

The forgotten clerks

Preventing offices from being plundered to the point of spending the night in them, crossing battle lines to keep a ministry open, sending paycheques to both sides of Beirut, transforming homes into temporary offices: these are some of the stories I’ve been told by public servants who worked through the Lebanese civil war.

Dozens of former ministry directors, senior civil servants, diplomats or heads of various institutions, such as those working for Electricité du Liban (EDL), still speak at every possible opportunity about the moments when they were personally involved in the conflict.

Martyres Place in Beirut, 1982. CC BY-SA

Such stories are in sharp contrast with what is going on in Lebanon today, which is often subsumed under a succinct line: ‘Ma fi dawle’ (‘The State does not exist’).

Yet listening to these former figures of the administration, the absence of the State has not always been ‘normal’ and the civil servants have not always been these symbols of a country in decline. Like Abdel Moneim Youssef, director of the company Ogero, nowadays systematically presented as ‘the most corrupt man in the country’.

Sometimes autonomous within a paralysed government, these senior civil servants have become, since 1975 and sometimes until now, the ‘state clerks’, the last to hold its reins on a daily basis and to have faith in its existence.

Not only the Central Bank of Lebanon (central for the survival of the budget and banking system), but also water, electricity, telephone lines, passport delivery, were under close scrutiny.

Bureaucracy during conflict

As heirs to the technocratic golden age of the years 1960-1970, Lebanon’s public servants made an attempt to preserve its achievements during the war. They were also striving to prepare for the aftermath of the conflict through dozens of rebuilding projects.

Some of them stood against the military order. One remembers with emotion the ‘Black Saturday’ in December 1975 when hundreds of Muslims were massacred in Beirut: ‘That day, when we heard the news, the Christian employees came to the offices of the Muslim employees to protect them.’

Some paid the price of their involvement, such as Khalil Salem, director of the Ministry of Finance, who was murdered in 1976. Others were threatened, such as Edmond Naïm at the Central Bank of Lebanon, and some chose to resign.

Those who remained became accustomed to the militia and found some arrangements to work despite them, or sometimes with them. A modus vivendi that served the interests of the militias who collectively drew a red line to preserve a minimal state.

It was a practical decision for the population, as well as a the result of international pressure to ensure a future for Lebanon. According to a former cadre from one militia, war was a ‘situation where we kept some control, some rules. Compared to Syria today, in Lebanon, destroying the State has never been an issue’.

A night view of the waterfront towers in Zaitunay Bay, downtown Beirut and business district today. Hussain Abdallah/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Indeed, the Syrian civil servants who remained in war zones and whose salaries had been cut by Damascus would probably be astonished to hear that the salaries of the Lebanese civil servants were paid with almost no interruption, in all regions of the country. In the same fashion, the case of the Bank of Lebanon is also striking compared to the current situation in Yemen.

Nostalgia for war

They perhaps number a hundred, those civilians and military personnel who held the reins of the Lebanese state at the highest level during the war, and all unanimously claim to have contributed to 'saving it’. For the most part they write their autobiographies or else share their memories, at the risk sometimes of falling into the trap of rewriting history in a legendary fashion.

While some remain living witnesses, serving the memory of their ministry, others exist in the shadow of their current directors general, and many were cast aside after the war.

‘In fact, I am like those displaced persons in war, only that I am a displaced person in the administration’, one engineer, who spent 30 years in a Lebanese institution, said in a tone between malice and bitterness. He was dismissed in the 1990s on the grounds that, as he put it, he ‘refused to let the public interest come after the political one’ at the time of rebuilding, which sanctioned the emergence of new political and administrative elites.

As this retired figure of the ministry of urban planning puts it: ‘In the end war has not been the worse thing. It is the aftermath of the war that made everything disappear.“ The most striking aspect of these forgotten actors is perhaps that there remains a strange feeling, close to nostalgia for war.

Lebanese people have been accustomed for years to a discourse of nostalgia in which the golden years of the 'Switzerland of the Middle East’ and president Fouad Chehab (1958-1964) are often central. For example, in 2014 electoral posters from 1958 were anonymously reprinted and posted widely in Beirut, as a reminder of an era in stark contrast to Lebanon today.

In a more surprising way, this nostalgia more and more encompasses the civil war. Power blackouts and overflowing garbage in the streets are sometimes cited as being less common during the war than they are today. While others point out that even in the middle of the civil war there was more hope for the country than there is today. Some are even unearthing political projects of this era.

Willingly or not, these civil servants are thus taking part in fostering an odd and ambiguous nostalgia. A vision of the past that reminds of many other Arab or non-Arab nations.

This article is published in collaboration with the academic project "Guerre et Po” (War & Politics).

This article was originally published in French