Interview with political scientist Abdalhadi Alijla

Trust in the state is a precious commodity

In his most recent book, "Trust in Divided Societies: State, Institutions and Governance in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine", political scientist Abdalhadi Alijla writes that not culture, but the failure of state institutions is what is causing the crisis of statehood in the Middle East. In this interview with Tugrul von Mende, Alijla argues for the reconfiguration of incompetent state bodies as a means of regaining the public's trust

In your book, your main argument is that state institutions play a crucial role in the general level of trust in divided societies. Looking at Lebanon, Syria and Palestine specifically, in what way do you think are these institutions in a crisis?

Abdalhadi Alijla: The institutions are in crisis because of the way they are designed, which fosters inequalities between individuals, classes, gender, ethnicities and groups. As a result, they also facilitate the informal institution of corruption within their respective societies. My work is part of an ongoing conversation and debate among researchers and scientists in sociology, political science, psychology and other disciplines. Despite the fact that institutions are the subject of much research in countries around the world, it seems that culture is always destined to be the main focus in the Middle East.

Trust in Divided Societies provides empirical evidence that the source of generalised distrust in divided societies is down neither to culture nor ethnic/sectarian divisions, but rather the institutions themselves, with all their attendant inequality, corruption, administrative arbitrariness and exploitation of power. My book is also an appeal to my colleagues to conduct more research into areas relating to the topic, either communities or in a different field of research.

Cover of Abdalhadi Alijla's book "Trust in Divided Societies: State, Institutions and Governance in Lebanon, Syria and Palestine" (source: Bloomsbury)
According to Abdalhadi Alijla, his book "provides empirical evidence that the source of generalised distrust in divided societies is down neither to culture nor ethnic/sectarian divisions, but rather the institutions themselves, with all their attendant inequality, corruption, administrative arbitrariness and exploitation of power"

Regarding Lebanon, you write that "the more unfair, unequal, corrupt institutions [are], the less likely people are to trust each other". How do you measure corruption as a factor for people's trust in or distrust of their government?

Alijla: Corruption per se is an informal institution that is found in almost every society, albeit in different forms and to different degrees. In my book, I refer not only to the international publicised rankings, but also to people's perception of corruption, which represents what they experience, what they hear and how they regard the services provided. People in Lebanon – and elsewhere – pay taxes; based on that, they expect to receive good services: security, safety, health care, education and so on. But in Lebanon, people do not receive fair treatment. They do not receive equal treatment. Take the country's infrastructure, for example. In some areas the roads are well made and maintained, but in other high-traffic areas they are not. The education system also displays inequalities.

How much did your understanding of the terms trust and distrust change while researching your book?

Alijla: Scientifically, trust remains that which it has always been. It is a virtue. It is about people not fearing they will be exploited by others and about the institutions that are supposed to protect and serve them. But when you are in the field as a researcher, things change. Trust can be manifested from different angles, reflecting different points of view.

In 2019, Saad Hariri resigned from his post amid mass-protests, but one year later, following the explosion in Beirut on 4 August, he was tasked with forming a new government. What are the implications of this development for trust-building in Lebanese society?

Alijla: It has nothing to do with the mutual trust between individuals and the people's trust in state institutions. It is part of a game played by the country's political elite for the benefit of regional and international audiences. Yet the people's demands remain highly relevant; they are calling for new institutions or the reform of those already in existence: judicial, political, security and social services. The problem is not only with the various political elites, but also with the institutions they have established. Regardless of whom they appoint – Hariri or anyone else – the people simply want, owing to the current economic and political crisis, to feel safe and secure.

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