To improve civic life, Lebanon should make locally elected agents more tech-savvy

Mukhar in Lebanon help citizens navigate the complex administration system. normalsanik/Flickr, CC BY-ND

Lebanon is one of the oldest democracies in the Middle East and citizens are proud of participating and engaging in civil and political issues. However, Lebanon public life and services are often under scrutiny and criticised for their inefficiency. In a country suffering from security and infrastructure problems as well as political instability, the deployment of e-services is not a priority for the government.

Lebanon is struggling to address these problems and building a comprehensive e-government program suitable for a broad-based population mainly in rural areas. Over the past 15 years, the country has undertaken a series of initiatives to implement e-government based on administrative reform.

While e-government services such as e-health, e-taxation or cadastre e-services have been implemented in major cities, many Lebanese citizens struggle to access facilities. One way of improving usage could be for the government to work more closely with the mukhtar. These local elected agents could play a significant role in bridging the gap between the central government and citizens to foster the diffusion of a new technology such as e-government.

The mukhtar, a dedicated community leader

Mukhtar means “chosen” in Arabic. it refers to the head of a village in many Arab countries as well in Turkey and Cyprus. Before the establishment of the Lebanese republic, villages were managed by a person the citizens trusted and held in esteem and who was respected by his peers. Over time, this position evolved to become that of “village chief”, nicknamed “Sheikh of peace” and later the mukhtar, the title used today. He or she is the locally elected leader of a given community (district or village) and officially represents its constituency in relations with the authorities.

The role of the mukhtar was created in an 1861 by the Ottoman administration for each village or neighbourhood with at least 500 residents. Under the Ottomans, mukhtars primarily managed taxation and oversaw the financial affairs of the village or neighbourhood. The institutions now fall under Lebanon’s ministry of Interior and Municipalities.

An old medallion with a mukhtar inscription. Rania Fakhoury, Author provided

A “Mukhtar Law” was issued in 1928 under the French Mandate and updated in 1947. It outlined the duties of the mukhtar in the realms of public administration, finance, real-estate management, general security and justice as well as agriculture and public health. This law requires that every inhabited place such as a town, village or neighbourhood with a population of more than 50 residents shall be managed by a mukhtar assisted by a board of local representatives. But due to internal politics and during the Lebanese civil war, the role was limited to local administrative tasks and social leadership.

A charismatic and crucial figure

Today the mukhtar facilitates, processes and countersigned the administrative procedures related to the Registry Office such as granting birth, death and marriage certificates, residency certificates, preparing ID cards and passports, and authenticating photos.

Mukhtars generally operate in small offices and are available at all times for the resolution of problems large and small. Often people drop by their offices or call. The proximity and trust they gather from their work make them crucial for citizens, whom they have sometimes known from one generation to the next.

As required by law, mukhtars don’t receive remuneration from the government and their services are free, but they are allowed to get a reasonable fee from the citizens for specific services such as certification – passports, inheritances and real-estate transactions, for example. Some refuse to take any payment or only accept a symbolic gift.

Mukhtars are seen as key figures in 64% of villages rather than religious leaders and elders, and they’re praised for their ability to resolve conflicts. They also represent all the centralised administrations – crucial for far-away villages – due to their proximity and detailed knowledge of both the neighbourhoods and administrative processes.

Currently, mukhtars are elected by voters in each district or neighbourhood for a six-year period by direct universal suffrage which runs parallel to municipal elections. In 2016, the Lebanese citizens elected 2,922 mukhtars and 4,079 mukhtar councils.

Mukhtar elections in Lebanon in 2016. almanar.com.lb

E-government lags behind

Because of their essential role and knowledge, mukhtars could play a much more important role in Lebanese administration life. For instance, nepotism, better known as wasta, and bribery are still rampant. Citizens are often confronted with such practices when dealing with government employees or intermediaries in order to complete a transaction with any agency or ministry in the republic. Lebanon was ranked 136 out of 176 countries in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) in 2016.

E-government could be a way to curb corruption, but the United Nations’2016 Electronic Government Development Index ranked Lebanon in the 73rd place globally. Indeed, Lebanese citizens tend to trust neither Internet nor the government. These results correlate with the 2009 UNDP report, which indicated that more than 62.7% of the total population said that they do not trust the Council of Ministers.

Previous research on public e-service acceptance in Lebanon also shows that a lack of trust related to privacy and to public e-services security.

This trend is also a result of the complicated Lebanese political, economic and social system chaos as well as the consequences of the Syrian and regional crisis since 2013. Any activities not involving or improving the political, social or economic situation do not generate interest from the Lebanese citizens. The results of a recent study showed also that 52% of the population in Lebanon don’t have intention to use e-services in 2014.

Re-introducing intermediaries

Disintermediation has been one aspect of implementing Internet government processes in various countries. E-government has relied on this model to boost citizen interaction with the government through direct digital connections or ICT intermediary and to decrease corruption. Yet the model did not work well in the developing countries where the citizen remains on the wrong side of the digital divide

Getting a passport, a driver’s license or even a lease can be difficult without a mukhtar’s help. Burj Hamoud, Beirut (2010). celinecelines/Flickr, CC BY-SA

As such, Richard Heeks of the University of Manchester has proposed to re-introduce a human intermediary between the citizen and the growing digital infrastructure of e-governance specifically in the developing countries.

That is why we argue that to improve Internet services, its usage and interest among Lebanese citizens including those left out from connectivity, Lebanon should increase its reliance on human intermediaries.

Mukhtar 2.0

The intermediary role is to locate government information, access it and help the citizen uses it or he/she will use it on their behalf.

Mukhtars in Lebanon can fill this role. They are already involved in communicating and providing information to the most underserved – for example, through community multimedia centres in rural areas. As human intermediaries they’re trusted, a crucial factor between two parties, and citizens are also more likely to trust someone they know rather than the government.

Several studies have showed that perceptions regarding the integrity and ability of the agency providing the service is an important factor to increase the intention of using e-services.

Mukhtars can also respond rapidly to citizens’ demands and needs. As such, he or she helps create a facilitating environment for citizens to adopt e-government services. They show all the positive aspects of such services and could thus become an important marketing tool for the government as well.

Challenges ahead

However, mukhtars may face many challenges if they want to act as a legitimate intermediary for e-government. They can only exercise a small proportion of powers and responsibilities, which in practice fall under administrations dependent upon the central authority via the governor (muhafez), the district administrator (qa’imaqam) or the municipalities.

Mukhtars don’t enjoy the status of a civil servant – they don’t have a salary, after all – although they have access to social security for the duration of the mandate. A 1947 law requires that be they be older than 25.

What mukhtars do need is training. Many live in their villages, read and write only Arabic and have little efficiency in digital tools. At times, their work might enter in conflict with mayors or notaries for the fulfilment of contracts for sale of goods. Overcoming all these issues requires real support from the central government. While some capacity-building programs have developed locally, more is needed.

Mukhtars are already helping several international organisations such as UNHCR, UNDP and many governmental institutions to establish local governance accountability towards sustainable livelihood for community group and promote partnership between central government, civil society and private sector. For example a number of Mukhtars and candidates demonstrated initiative by canvassing door-to-door to improve the quality of the register.

But the government has not taken any serious initiative to develop and build the capacity of mukhtars. Yet well-supported mukhtars could facilitate the lives of citizens and improve their relationship with the central government.