kelly stedem

January 3, 2020

Simon Goodacre | Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Kelly Stedem, a PhD candidate in the politics department, discusses the current protests in Lebanon and her dissertation, which explores clientelism in the country. Stedem recently coauthored an article for the Washinton Post's Monkey Cage blog about the protests.



Hello. Welcome to another episode of the Highlights Podcast. I am Simon Goodacre, the Associate Director of Communications and Marketing for the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Brandeis University.

Today's episode will be all about Lebanon, both the country's history and the current protest situation that's happening all over the nation. To help me with this, I have Kelly Stedem, a PhD candidate in politics, who recently published a piece in the Monkey Cage Blog, hosted by The Washington Post, in collaboration with Christiana Parreira, a scholar at Stanford. It's worth noting that we are recording this podcast on November 22nd, Lebanon's Independence Day. Welcome to the podcast, Kelly.


Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm really happy to be here.


To make sure that everyone's up to speed, I thought it might be best to start with a little bit of a potted history of Lebanon since the colonial period, then we'll dive right into the protest and the current situation. Would you mind telling us a little bit about the history of the country?


Sure. Lebanon is a very tiny country in the Middle East. It's bordered by the Mediterranean to the West and then Syria surrounds it from the East to the North, and Israel is to the South.

Lebanon got its independence on November 22nd in 1943 from France. Previous to that, Lebanon had been under a French mandate. What actually happened was France cut out a piece of territory from what was known as Greater Syria, this area around the Lebanese Mountains and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, and created that as a new state. Part of it was to create a homeland for Christian Maronites other minorities who lived in that area.

Lebanon was under French mandate for about 20, 23 years, gained independence in 1943, although French troops did not actually meet until 1946. But what also happened was, because Lebanon is this very diverse state, there's 18 officially recognized religious secs, including, Sunni and Shia Muslims, Jews, a variety of Christian denominations, Maronite Catholics, Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Protestants, you name it, everybody was there in Lebanon.                  

They created a consociational power sharing system, which functioned for a number of decades. But if we cut forward in time into the 1970s, what actually happened was a civil war broke out in 1975 that lasted until 1990. We refer to it as The Civil War, but it's really a number of smaller wars that started out as a conflict between Palestinian militias and Christian militias within the country.

That's why when fighting first broke out was between these two factions. But it soon morphed into a conflict among Lebanese that had to do with the power sharing arrangements, because the power sharing arrangement was a six to five split in favor of Christians to Muslims. So for every six Christians, there would be five Muslims in representation. They divided in other ways. The President has to be a Christian Maronite. The Prime Minister has to be a Sunni Muslim. The Speaker of Parliament has to be a Shia Muslim. But it was codified based on a 1932 census, and there's not actually been a census in Lebanon since 1932 because of population issues and concerns over disrupting this delicate balance.

What happened when you got to the 1970s it became clear that the divisions of power sharing in the country did not actually accurately reflect the population on the ground. So there were, for example, the Shia Muslims wanted a more fair representation and that fed into The Civil War, that fed into the fighting that went until 1990.

At 1990 when the war "ended", actually some people to say, to give you a preview, the protests going on right now, people are saying that actually this feels like the real end of the war, where we finally see people coming together across sects, but officially the war ended in 1990.

But then Syria effectively occupied Lebanon until 2005. Part of this was done because of The Civil War ending document actually granted Syria defacto control over Lebanon by saying that Syria should help them rebuild, politically and otherwise.

But essentially Syria controlled Lebanon politically, they had military presence in 2005. Israel also occupied South Lebanon until 2000. But it's after 2005 things have really started to change where Lebanon really gained actual autonomy over its own government and its own political situation.


I really want to ask you of course about the piece that you published last month in The Washington Post. You were working with another scholar from Stanford I understand, Christiana Parreira, is that right?


Yes, correct.


I noticed in comparing the current protest situation to 2005 and 2011, one of the things you noted is that this is something that's happening all over the country now. Could you elaborate on that a little bit and tell us why it's significant that this is something that's happening across the country now?


Sure. What has happened in Lebanon is religious identity is really the most salient identity that people have, because of the way the power sharing system is, because of the way the government is set up. What has happened is that the political parties in Lebanon, not 100%, but mostly map on to a specifically religious sect. So for example, Hezbollah, infamously, the militia/political party is predominantly a Shia supported, Shia dominated political party. It's ally [foreign language 00:00:05:23] is the same.

Other parties, like the Lebanese Forces are predominantly a Christian political party. Even The Future Movement, which is headed by Saad Hariri, primarily caters to and is supported by Sunni Muslims. So what has happened is that in the past when there had been protests, so for example, when there are protests in 2005, the protests were primarily centered in Beirut, they are primarily by political parties that were in opposition to the Syrian regime.

So for example, Hezbollah and [foreign language 00:05:53] these two allies of the Syrian regime, their members, or supporters, their voters, did not join in the protest. So the Shia writ large, we're this big absent gap in those protests, even though that those protests were reunited across other sects.

The same thing with other infamously, there was protests, the You Stink Protest in 2015, because in Beirut, and in the Mount Lebanon area generally around Beirut, there was a crisis and a failure of waste collection. Beirut, the Capitol, was literally just a river of garbage. There were just mountains of trash bags everywhere. It became a really big issue. Even then we saw a protest, but they were centered in Beirut.

This is the first time that we really see first protest outside of the country in these urban peripheries. Which is notable because in cities outside Beirut and villages outside Beirut, that's typically where you see higher levels of support for the classic entrenched political parties.

Beirut has tended to have more support for civil society actors and non-traditional political parties. So that's new. You're seeing protests in places where people more effectively support the parties. Have a stronger connection to the parties. So that's major.

But then the other thing is, as I mentioned, because religious identity is most salient identity, this is the first time that we see every single sect participating in a unified protest. So back, like I mentioned, 2005, Shia weren't involved, but Shia are involved in this protest. It's cross sectarian and it's in many ways more about a class based issue among the poor and the middle class in Lebanon, which actually they have a shrinking middle class.

That's what's so significant. It's the first time we see people coming across from all religious sects, protesting against parties that even they support. Which is unprecedented.


The protests are still going on. It's been almost exactly a month since you published the piece in the Washington Post. What is the current situation? Has there been any movement in the last month or so?


It's been up down. The protests are still ongoing. We have see some Ministers, some Parliament members resign, first from the Lebanese Forces. We saw the Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, also resigned.

But essentially what has happened now is it's almost as if they're playing a game of chicken where the three most dominant political parties in the country are now the majority power holders in parliament are, Hezbollah, [foreign language 00:08:07], and the President, Michel Aoun's, Free Patriotic Movement.

They hold the majority. They have not stepped down. They have made no movement. They are buckling down, doubling down, and continuing to support each other, refusing to make moves. Actually one thing that has been going on is there was a law put forth that was supposed to be debated in Parliament that was written in such a way that it was given broad enough jurisdiction that it could essentially be an amnesty law for all politicians guilty of corruption previously, which is one of the major issues that people are protesting about.

We've actually seen protestors starting to engage around the Parliament to prevent politicians to come in for session to meet a quorum. Essentially what's happened is they block the road so politicians couldn't get in, so they didn't have enough people to have a quorum to even debate it.

That's what we see right now, is protests are still out. It's not the same before, as many blocked streets, as many people in the streets. But now they're engaging in more of a strategic game to try and force the government to do something.

I think the real fear is that Lebanon has been in a pretty poor economic situation for many years and now it feels a waiting game of how long until there is an economic collapse. There's all sorts of questions and debate going on with how to enforce capital controls, how to ensure that there's no capital flight, there's been indications that there actually has been strong capital flight despite the fact that there's allegedly capital controls and banning of [inaudible 00:09:37].

Actually at this point in time you can't even get US dollars really in the country. What's typical is there's Lebanese lira but they're pegged to the dollar, and a lot of people use the dollar for everything. Actually, a fun anecdote is that Hezbollah often pays all of its fighters and its members in US dollars.

People want US dollars, and actually four weeks now it's been extremely difficult. You basically can't take dollars out of the ATM. What's going on right now is that people are getting concerned with the end of the month, whether they're going to get a paycheck, whether they're going to be able to get money out of the bank. So therefore, whether they're going to be able to buy food, pay rent. People I've talked to in the country are stocking up on necessary food supplies, nonperishable items, just in case. So there's a real fear that there's going to be an economic collapse before there's a political movement.


I guess the potential outcomes of this situation, it could be that there will be this economic collapse. When you say the political movement, what would that look like, do you think?


Well, this is the big question. Protesters demands are essentially that they want a dissolution of parliament. One of the primary demands I've seen is having a temporary judiciary oversight while they plan new elections. Which is interesting actually because the judiciary in Lebanon is also in many ways guilty of corruption and is an extension of the political parties. Political parties will often appoint judges or pay off judges. So it's not as independent I think as some people make it seem, but essentially people are asking for dissolution of Parliament and a new election.

It doesn't seem the parties in control right now are willing to do that. That's what I mean by political movement. It's hard for me to imagine that people are going to stop protesting until something of that nature happens.

So now its, are the parties going to give in before the economic collapse? I think. Although the economic collapse is debatable about when it will happen, but it's just there's a palpable sense of fear among Lebanese right now that it's imminent.


Let me ask you, how did the collaboration come about with Christiana Parreira?


Christiana is actually a friend of mine, who I met through a mutual friend. Actually, we shared an apartment for a brief time in Beirut when we crossed paths doing research.

When the protest started, we actually started a WhatsApp chat with her and a couple of other friends who are interested in Lebanese political issues. We had been talking about what was going on with the protest, sending each other updates and tweets and things we saw.

We had been talking so much about it that I believe it was I who said, "Why don't we write something for this blog called The Monkey Cage?" Which is hosted ad in The Washington Post. The Monkey Cage is a political science blog, but it's political science written in a way... most of their articles are, here's what's happening and here's why it matters.

They're usually written by experts, people who have knowledge about a specific country or a specific issue, but they write it in such a way to try make it accessible for anyone to understand about what exactly is happening, what to expect, why it matters, why it's important.

It essentially was, we had been talking about it so much, and we had already gathered so much information in this little chat of ours, that I said to her, "Why don't we just write this?" it actually took us 24 hours to write the piece of just her writing a section, me adding a section, and sending it back forth before we sent it off. It was a very spur of the moment thing, but it also just seemed easy because we'd had this ongoing discussion.


I wanted to take a step back and talk a little bit about your dissertation, because obviously we're talking about current events in Lebanon right now, but your dissertation is not about that. It's about clientelism and international patronage in Lebanon. Is that correct?


It's specifically about clientelism and policing. clientelism is, there's lots of debate about the specific definition of this term, but as I define clientelism, it's the quid pro quo exchange of goods and services conditional on things like political support or otherwise. Parties will, say, give you a toaster, or give you a job, or give you subsidized healthcare, on the belief that you will then vote for them in the next elections or give them political support.

This is rampant in Lebanon. This is also how the political parties map on to sectarian identity is that oftentimes what happens is almost every single political party, all of the major political parties in Lebanon, are clientelistic in nature. They do things like offer subsidized healthcare, subsidized education, cash payouts. During election, they also just do flat out buying, of giving people money, giving people gas cards, those things.

Oftentimes they're targeted towards the same ethnicity of the party. So for example, everybody in [foreign language 00:14:17] is overwhelmingly Shia, and when it comes to election time support, they give preferential access and services to other Shia.

The bread and butter of most studies of clientelism, because it's a little bit tricky to study because the quid pro quo nature of it, the conditionality, it's very hard to prove and it's hard to study, but most of most of the research on it looks at things like healthcare, or other types of services. I focus specifically on policing, and it's actually a function of my own experiences.

I lived in Lebanon for three years, between 2011 and 2014. A typical part of a Lebanese day is your interaction and negotiation with all these security provisions and security services.

I remember very vividly there was a spate of bombings that started. I lived in this neighborhood called Shia, which is on the cusp of South Beirut. I remember just waking up one morning and suddenly every street was barricaded. All these streets that had been previously open, suddenly were barricaded close, or there were checkpoints.

These things ebbed and flowed as to how permanent the barricades were or not. But there's other things, like people from the party would ask you to put your name and your phone number in the window of your car, so that they could identify cars that weren't meant to be in the neighborhood, because those are potential car bombs. People come to you, "Who is that person that came to your house?" These things become very, very typical. They're very typical of an average Lebanese day.

When it came to working on my dissertation, I'd actually originally been interested in a totally different topic, but the fact that political parties do this is such an unusual thing. The fact that political parties might do this in some instances, my dissertation argues that some types of these services that they do are operating on a clientelistic basis.

Parties will operate certain security measures or offer certain help. For example, solving a crime. If your car gets stolen and you have a connection to the party, maybe they'll try and help you identify what happened to your car.

I have a story in my dissertation of somebody I interviewed whose car was hit, a hit and run, when it was parked in the street. He was able to go to the party to look at their video cameras and then through party connections, identify the person, contact them, and get them to pay him for the damage to his car.

That never would have worked really if he had to go through the typical police. So I argue that some of these types of services are clientelistic, they're offered on a conditional basis. Parties are doing it, and offering it, to certain people, certain supporters, because they know, or expect them, to vote for them or support them in the next elections.


How did you first become interested in Lebanon and I suppose the Middle East more generally?


I graduated high school in 2006. I remember not really understanding about the Iraq War, what the point of the Iraq War was. The connection to September 11th seemed tenuous. I didn't seem tenuous. I just didn't, as a high schooler, there was a lot of questions that I had and I really didn't get it. So I ended up taking courses on the Middle East. I ended up taking Arabic, and my first Arabic professor was Lebanese.

Lebanon is a place that it's very easy to fall in love with. It's very easy to also become very frustrated with it when you live there, because part of the problem with corruption is, for example, the electricity sector. It's one of the worst in the world. I think it's above maybe Somalia and Haiti, and I think maybe Iraq. it's horrific. In the Capitol you get maybe 21 hours of electricity guaranteed, but in the periphery you can have more than 10 hours of these rolling blackout cuts.

So when you live there, those things become extremely frustrating. But as a country, Lebanese love to say, you can go skiing in the mountains and then go swimming in the Mediterranean Sea in the same day. But it's a very diverse geographic country. You have mountains. You have these beautiful valleys. The food is excellent. The people are extremely friendly and welcoming. It's a very easy place to fall in love with. That's essentially what happened once I started taking Arabic and learning more about it.


I understand your undergraduate institution and the way you received your Masters, you were at much larger universities than Brandeis. So why did you choose Brandeis for your PhD work?


One thing I found that I felt that I wanted when I was doing a PhD program is I wanted a little bit more of intimate, perhaps we can say, access to my Professor. Which sometimes is hard. If you're in a really big department, it's sometimes hard to be able to get as much time with your Professor as you feel is you might need. Which is not to say anything about the Professors, it's just the constraints when you're at a very large program.

I chose Brandeis as well because I was looking for who I wanted to work with, what Professors and what types of departments. The Politics Department of Brandeis is a qualitatively focused department, which is pretty rare at this point in political science. Most departments focus pretty heavily on quantitative methods or mixed methods, but I wanted a department that was going to be able to teach me very effectively how to do qualitative research, because that's just the type of methods and research that resonate with me, that I enjoy.

I also had been given advice that you should think carefully about who you want to be as your advisor. Eva Belen, who has written wonderful articles, one of her articles is about authoritarianism in the Middle East. That was very well received, particularly after the Arab Spring. So I came here to work with her.

It was a variety of I wanted a smaller qualitatively focused department, which Brandeis Politics Department offered me. I wanted a Professor whose work I knew and respected, and that was, Eva Belen. Then I also had this wonderful opportunity at The Crown Center, which is here at Brandeis, as a Middle East study center.


One of my follow on questions there was about The Crown Center. You're a Crown Center fellow. You're the first that we've had on the podcast. I was going to ask you if you could just tell us a little bit about what that experience has been like.


The Crown Center for me has been one of the greatest, if not the greatest opportunity for me at Brandeis. The center is fairly small, but they offer you wonderful opportunities. Every year they have a retreat where you get to present your work, you get to provide feedback, they have constant brown bag seminars, and all sorts of events.

But the thing that I think has been most valuable to me with The Crown Center is that I've been able to see how actual doctors and Professors do academia, to put it bluntly. When you're in graduate school, and you're in graduate seminars or for example, the Politics Department has a pro-seminar for graduate students, the room is dominated by graduate students. I have found that the feedback that you get, the focus that you have when you're in a room of graduate students, not to say that it's lesser, but it's just different than the way that professors will often critique each other's work, ask questions.

That's what's been really interesting for me at The Crown Centers is to watch how Professors, how new PhDs go about doing their work. I've also had wonderful access to see numerous practice job talks, which is invaluable as I think about going on the job market. Things like preparing book proposals. These are all longterm goals, I guess, as an academic, but there are things that I never would've been exposed to if I hadn't had the opportunity at The Crown Center.


All right, final two questions for you. First of all, your dissertation, you're a fellow this year, I think. I wanted to ask you, we're opening up that competition for the coming year pretty soon. What advice would you have for people who are applying for that?


The dissertation year fellowship has actually been a really wonderful opportunity. It's a bit odd because you're in a room with people who are completely outside of your field. We have a musicologist, someone in English, some historians and anthropologists, so it's a bit of an odd room, but it's actually been so rewarding and has stimulated me in ways that I didn't expect it and has actually given me some great ideas about my own research.

So the advice that I would have for people as they prepare that application is one of the thing I did is I looked at previous fellows. If you have access to someone who has been a dissertation year fellow, just looking at how their application was structured was helpful for me. We had a few people in the Politics Department who had had that, so I read through and saw how they formatted it, how they presented their materials.

Make sure other people read your application materials, not just for spell check and editing, and that sort of thing. But when you're so deep in your own research, you often take for granted that some things that are really necessary and basic are not on the page. So having other people read your work and be able to point out, this doesn't make sense or something's missing here and I'm not making that connection, was very useful for me as I put forth my application.


Final question. Do you have any advice for prospective students who are interested in pursuing graduate studies in politics?


I would say do your research. Brandeis has been a great fit for me, but there's plenty of people that it wouldn't be a good fit for. So like I said, if you're a quantitatively focused person, if you love statistics, or if you love game theory, or big data, this would not be the department for you.

I think that anybody who is interested in politics generally, and political science generally, do you research, look at the departments, look at the courses they teach, look at what their training is going to be, look at their professors, make sure that there's going to be people who are able to support your own research. Sometimes it doesn't need to be a perfect match. Professor Belen does not study clientelism specifically, which is what I study, but there are other ways in which our research overlaps.

I would say look at the department, look at the people, look at the training. Make sure that you think that that's going to be a good fit for what you're interested in. If possible, reach out to graduate students within that department and ask them what their experience has been like. Ask them advice on applying, what to look for, what not to look for.

Those I think are all really valuable because you want to make sure that the department fits you. A big problem, I think for graduate school in general, is sometimes people end up in a department that doesn't fit them. It's not that they're a bad scholar, it's not that that department's bad, it's just sometimes it's not a match. I think finding a place that you feel comfortable, that you feel like you'll be able to thrive, that you think is going to be intellectually engaging, is key.


Fantastic. Well, Kelly Stedem, thank you so much for your time today. Listeners, I hope you'll join us next time on the Highlights Podcast.