Matt Nash

Cities to pitch in on Lebanon’s security

New plan faces financial, staffing hurdles

Not alone

In a move being cheered by decentralization advocates, Lebanon’s municipalities may soon play a larger role in policing the country. While the idea of local governments sharing the burden of security with the army and the national police force is not new, circumstances on the ground prompted caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel last week to announce a new plan incorporating municipal guards and police in keeping an eye on the country.


Describing what he called a “preventative security” plan at a meeting of some 800 heads of municipalities and municipal unions, Charbel cited fears of more car bombings, assassinations, and the presence of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in explaining why cities should beef up foot patrols, install security cameras, and keep streetlights on at night.


Speaking with NOW, Michel Karam – one of Charbel’s aides – said the minister envisions municipal police and guards working as a sort of neighborhood watch in close coordination with the Internal Security Forces (Lebanon’s national police), which does not have enough staff “to cover all the Lebanese areas in the sense of being ready to scrutinize and observe all areas.”


“The municipality,” Karam explained, “organizes [unarmed] patrols to overlook and observe. Those patrols contact the ISF if anything is happening, and the ISF does the arrest or whatever is needed to provide protection.”


Bassem as-Shaab, a Beirut MP from the Future bloc who is also a member of Parliament’s Defense, Interior and Municipalities Committee, told NOW that Charbel recently said he was considering the possibility of seeking legal authority to arm the municipal patrols.


“I’m not aware of a public statement, but he said it privately to me,” Shaab said of Charbel considering giving municipal patrols handguns.


Karam, who granted NOW an interview before Shaab, could not be reached for further comment.


For its part, the Municipality of Beirut has been trying to increase the activities of its municipal guards for years. Municipal Council President Bilal Hamad told NOW that the city first tried to implement municipal guard foot patrols back in 2006, but a political dispute kept the plan from seeing the light.


He said the council decided in late 2012 to revive the idea and so it approved a foot patrol plan. The new strategy was handed off to Beirut’s governor for approval, which the city is currently waiting for.


“We sent [the governor] a couple months ago a long-term plan to increase the training of the guards, to improve the training program, to address what [guards] need in terms of logistics and a headquarters,” he said.


Hamad said that Beirut has a total guard staff of around 720-730 currently distributed among the city’s handful of small parks, some 30 city-owned buildings and 10 fixed-location guard stations. He said half of them could be mobilized to work in shifts on foot patrols.


Beirut, however, is far better off financially than the country’s other 1,000 or so municipalities. Cities are legally allowed to raise their own funds via certain set fees and taxes while also receiving payments from the central government through the Independent Municipal Fund.


A 2011 study carried out by the Ministry of Interior (the most recent publicly available data) found that of 37 surveyed cities, more than 50 percent of their annual budget came from IMF transfers.


Sami Atallah, director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, told NOW that the fund is currently behind in transferring cash it owes to cities and that decisions to pay municipalities must come from the government, which collapsed in March.


Karam, the Interior Minister’s advisor, tried to remain upbeat when asked how much the new plan might cost and how it would be funded.


“Each municipality will plan according to its means,” he said. “Providing a [municipal] police officer to patrol a street is a priority now. If we can provide [even more] security and build and design walls, it’s better. But sadly, now we have to pick our priorities.”


Atallah, who has researched municipalities and decentralization, noted that while he did not have a specific number, he thinks the number of municipalities with guards or police (the law allows them to have both) is low.


“Probably only 150 out of 1,000 [cities] have a municipal police force of 4, 5, 6 or above,” he said.


Karam also did not provide an exact figure, but said municipalities could hire guards on a short-term or as-needed basis.


The wider implications of Charbel’s new plan, some think, could lead to more power for municipalities in the future.


“More interesting,” Atallah said, “is actually an acknowledgement that the central government needs local governments. We’ve been fighting for decentralization for years, and [past governments were] shying away from that. Now they say they need that for law and order, which should be the central government’s domain.”


Asked if he thought the new security measures might lead to more decentralization or a coming shift in government policy, MP Shaab pointed to the ISF’s own growth in the past few years.


“Once a system is set in motion, it’s difficult to reverse. The things that we’ve seen on the security level, like with the Information Branch [of the ISF], security apparatuses that have been added one layer after the other have persisted,” he said.

Lebanese police officers may soon have help securing the country from municipal guards. (AFP Photo)

“'Each municipality will plan according to its means.'”

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    While decentralization is a great step forward in Lebanon, I would not trust local governments because they are corrupt to the bone. In Bickfaya, for example, you will not get your road paved or repaired unless you vote for Amine Gemayel who then send you a truck to do the road. Walk into the Liban Poste office in Bickfaya and stand in line for hours to get a stamp, while the locals walk ahead of the line and get their business taken care of, or where the Director sits in her office drinking coffee and surfing the Internet, and like every other "employee" loitering around, smoking right under a big blue no-smoking sign saying "we care for your health". Or a municipality employee without any badge or any identifier walks up to your house with a school notebook and a pencil, demanding hundreds of dollars of dubious fees, or accuses you of violating building codes, etc. so that you bribe him with a few dollars. Local municipality police patrols in Lebanon are a recipe for more corruption, bribes, street justice by locals (often client appointees of the local feudal boss) against political opponents or outsiders. Many Lebanese live in areas to which they have been displaced by war, and yet they are still considered outsiders by the local inhabitants and the tribal-familial-religious socio-political structure in place. Unless residents of the area have a real say in the affairs of municipalities, deferring security to the local gangsters will make things worse, not better. In Lebanon, you first must eliminate the endemic corruption before even talking about local government.

    September 11, 2013