When the last Syrian soldier left Lebanese territory in April 2005, jubilant crowds gathered in Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square to celebrate the coming of a new era. In Washington and Paris, the mood was also festive, as officials praised what they called Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” as the first in a projected series of popularly led regime changes, or at least changes of regime behavior, all across the region. As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proclaimed at the American University in Cairo in June, Lebanon’s “supporters of democracy [were] demanding independence from foreign masters [and] calling for change. It is not only the Lebanese people who desire freedom.”
A year has now passed, and the joyous atmosphere in Lebanon has turned unmistakably sour. Gone are the Lebanese flags draped over Beirut’s balconies. In place of these symbols of national unity, sectarian tensions are running high. Gone, too, is the widespread optimism over comprehensive political and economic reform. In its place is exasperation at perpetual political bickering and socio-economic stagnation. In early May, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Beirut to protest the government’s economic reform plans. Yet the international community seems undeterred in its quest to consolidate the post-Syria order in Lebanon. On May 17, 2006, by a vote of 13-0 with Russia and China abstaining, the UN Security Council issued yet another forceful resolution amplifying and adding to the daunting list of demands laid down in Resolution 1559 passed on September 2, 2004. To wit, all “Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias” are to be disarmed, and Syria is to demarcate its border with Lebanon as a prelude to establishing “full diplomatic relations” with its smaller neighbor.
One can make two preliminary observations regarding the post-Syria epoch in Lebanon to date. First, Lebanon’s political status quo, shaped by the 1989 Ta’if accord that helped end the 1975-1990 civil war, is in need of major revision. Without such modifications, confessional rivalries will continue to hinder any effective government policy, let alone one anchored in a spirit of reform. Second, the European Union, led by France, and the United States are pushing in two directions at once. They support much-needed Lebanese political and economic reforms, while simultaneously pressing Resolution 1559’s demand that the armed wing of the Shiite Islamist party Hizballah lay down its weapons. Hizballah and its allies are thereby alienated from government programs they might otherwise support. The result is stalemate on all fronts.
Goodbye Syria, Hello Gridlock
During its three-decade presence in Lebanon, the Syrian mukhabarat, or secret police, certainly had a negative impact on governance and political life. However, with the Syrian withdrawal, it is now abundantly clear that homegrown factors were also at play in perpetuating Lebanon’s political malaise. When the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies polled Lebanese in May 2005 about what they wanted from a new government, a majority stated the government ought to devise radically new policies to boost the economy, create jobs and fight corruption.
Nothing of the sort has materialized. The grand public debate on the future of Lebanon’s ailing economy trumpeted in 2005 by caretaker Prime Minister Najib Miqati never took place. Instead, the current government led by Fuad Siniora has failed for two years running to adopt a national budget in a timely manner. Even more serious, it took the government until April 2006 to produce an economic reform plan. The full plan has yet to be made public. Yet Sami Atallah, a Lebanese economist who was briefed on the proposal, describes it as vague and lacking specific prescriptions for controlling spending. Nor, he says, does it provide for reforms such as bolstering the independence of watchdog agencies, enforcing merit-based hiring and promotion in the civil service, cutting red tape suffocating investors, and putting in place a transparent framework for privatization. Instead, the plan is awash in ambiguous aspirations such as “improving social services.” The plan’s only concrete proposal—hiring public servants on five-year contracts instead of offering them open-ended employment—has already been withdrawn at the behest of the ruffled labor unions.
This government inertia stands in stark contrast to the economy’s dire need for visionary intervention. With official debt amounting to 180 percent of the country’s GDP, or about $10,000 per capita, debt and interest payments are strangling economic growth (currently standing at 0 percent), according to the International Monetary Fund. There are strong indications that Lebanon’s income gap is widening as a result. Elites in control of Lebanon’s private banks are making magnificent returns by subscribing to state bonds used to finance the mounting debt. But lower middle-class consumers are effectively picking up the bill, since value-added tax rates on essential goods have increased, and it is this tax income that is plowed back into making debt interest payments. As a result, the country’s banking sector is booming, but virtually all other economic sectors are stuck in a grave recession. These conditions have the additional effect of perpetuating the brain drain that has plagued Lebanon since the mid-1970s.
Fighting corruption would be one obvious strategy for reducing government spending, improving the quality of services and mobilizing public support for fiscal austerity measures. Even a cursory review of Lebanon’s crippled public institutions would turn up candidates for a serious anti-corruption campaign. The state-run electricity company and the National Social Security Fund, to cite two examples, are riddled with corruption and burdened with mounting deficits that deplete the state’s coffers.
The government’s highly publicized remedy has been to hire international auditing firms to “review the accounts of private and public figures” and expose the rampant corruption of the last 16 years. Unfortunately, other government offices, such as the Council for Development and Reconstruction, were already screened by such international auditors—without a single crooked Lebanese politician losing any sleep. Other foreign inspections, like a 1999 World Bank study of customs collecting practices and a 1996 review of road building contracts, did unearth corruption—but did not prompt any measures to curb it. Despite many gusts of hot air, Lebanon’s anti-corruption drive has made little or no progress since 1998, when Salim al-Huss’ government proclaimed graft as public enemy number one.
Lebanon’s voters are also still waiting for a new electoral law to replace the seriously flawed law designed under Syrian tutelage before the 2000 parliamentary elections to ensure victory for pro-Syrian candidates. The 2000 law effectively disqualifies non-sectarian candidates who want to run on a secular program, even if they can garner a large number of votes. In Lebanon, 64 seats in Parliament are reserved for Muslims (including Druze) and 64 for Christians, and each denomination within the two religious groups is given a number of seats according to dated estimates of the denomination’s weight in the population. In each district, citizens vote for prefixed slates of allied candidates, each mirroring the confessional balance in the district, so that in a majority-Shiite district, for example, each list features a majority of Shiite candidates allied with a few Sunnis and Christians. Usually, it is non-sectarian candidates who suffer from this system, since their rivals logically prefer to team up with sectarian leaders who have a proven track record of mobilizing their confessional constituency. The 2000 law worsened this effect by gerrymandering districts to make Christians the majority in only a handful of districts. So elections are turned into sectarian plebiscites to an extent unwarranted by the nature of the confessional system. This was amply illustrated in the May-June 2005 parliamentary contests, when each of Lebanon’s confessional groups rallied behind “their” one strong leader. Maronite Christians, who feel an acute sense of marginalization because of the electoral law, voted for Michel Aoun not because of the ex-general’s self-proclaimed secularism, but because other communities had already voted in strongmen who would represent “their” confessions first and foremost.
During the 2005 campaigning, virtually all of Lebanon’s political leaders vowed to amend the electoral law if they won a seat in Parliament. A special commission was established to study proposals to this effect. Two of the commission’s academic members soon resigned, however, in protest of attempts by politicians on the commission to gerrymander future election results in their own favor. Promising suggestions put forward by others, including a sophisticated blueprint for a more balanced electoral system based on the principle of proportional representation, failed to grab the commission’s attention.
The country’s judiciary is similarly hobbled. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri has led to a UN investigation, which will likely evolve into a joint Lebanese and international tribunal to bring the perpetrators to justice. Yet the fact that many Lebanese called for such international intervention in the first place is testament to a profound and justified lack of trust in their national court system. Apart from the dismissal of a few exponents of the worst judicial excesses of the past, this lack of trust remains unaddressed today. Judges are still being bribed, and political favoritism and lack of professionalism continue to cast their shadow over the courts. Moreover, parallel military and state security courts, once viewed as pawns of Syria’s security chief Rustum Ghazali, still overstep their jurisdiction by issuing indictments of civilians. In April, a military court finally dropped trumped-up charges of “defaming the military” against human rights lawyer Muhammad al-Mughrabi. Yet this only happened only after an army of foreign attorneys arrived in Beirut to defend him, and behind-the-scenes pressures from the EU began to embarrass the Lebanese government. Two similar charges against al-Mughrabi are pending before regular criminal courts, while attempts to bar him from practicing law continue.
Finally, and despite all the talk in the spring of 2005 about dismantling “Syria’s security state in Lebanon,” the country’s security and intelligence agencies have yet to undergo a major overhaul. Reforms have been limited to sacking a few top officers and arresting four figureheads who were allegedly involved in Hariri’s assassination. Lebanon’s politicians failed to agree on suitable candidates to fill all the ensuing vacancies. In April, the Lebanese government informed UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen that “the process of transition and reorganization in the Lebanese security forces is ongoing, and that it has not yet established full control over all services,” according to his report to the Security Council. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the security services have failed to find those responsible for the 13 car bombs and other attacks that have followed Hariri’s assassination, the latest one killing journalist Jibran Tuwayni on December 12, 2005.
In Dialogue with Hizballah
Following the Syrian withdrawal, Lebanon’s internal balance of power has undeniably changed. Still, flawed implementation of the 1989 Ta’if formula of power sharing among the country’s 18 ethno-confessional communities continues to block development of clearly defined and authoritative government policies.
Because the Ta’if agreement has gone unrevised, Lebanese politics is subject to institutional gridlock, epitomized by excessively inclusive governing coalitions. According to Ta’if and the 1990 constitutional amendments, representatives of the six main confessional communities—Shiites, Sunnis, Maronites, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholics and Druze—should be part of every cabinet of ministers. Past practice further dictates that cabinet members should represent the country’s geographical regions. If only for these reasons, Lebanon’s post-war cabinets have been extremely large and heterogeneous, comprising up to 30 ministers. Cabinet meetings require a two-thirds quorum. Voting takes place only when consensus proves impossible, with “fundamental issues” requiring a two-thirds majority for action. Because it has proven impossible to reach agreement on what issues are “fundamental,” decision-making based on consensus has become the rule even when consensus had not been reached, meaning, in other words, that all parties in the cabinet have an effectively veto. The most trifling matter, therefore, can precipitate a political crisis. Moreover, because the cabinet as a whole is charged with defending each ministry’s policies before Parliament, all ministers have a say in all ministerial portfolios. No prime minister can be expected to enforce discipline in the resulting cacophony of dissent, as his own constitutional powers make him little more than primus inter pares.
Another obstacle to effective governance has been the overlapping distribution of constitutional powers between the “three presidents” who supposedly represent Lebanon’s main confessional communities (the president of the republic, the prime minister and the speaker of Parliament). In order to break the perpetual gridlock in the cabinet, this troika has usually reached a grand bargain partitioning the spoils of public office, privileges and resources—a phenomenon called muhasassa (allotment). However, with President Emile Lahoud and Prime Minister Fuad Siniora’s camps at each other’s throats, even this extra-constitutional device has been paralyzed. Lahoud needs only hint at exercising his veto power for a government decision to be nipped in the bud.
There is no doubt that Syria capitalizes on Lebanon’s gridlock to serve its new strategy of remote control. Its strong ally Lahoud has held onto his position despite having only modest backing inside Lebanon. Syria derives additional leverage from Shiite wariness of the Sunni-Christian-Druze forces of the “independence uprising,” and many Shiites still regard Syria as the natural guardian of their political prerogatives. As a result, Syria’s friends and foes alike have come to view the Shiites’ good fortunes in Lebanon’s internal power struggles as indicative of Syria’s continuing grip.
Initiating fundamental political changes in a complex and divided society like Lebanon would surely be difficult under any circumstances. However unwittingly, the US and the EU have raised the stakes even higher by effectively connecting large-scale reforms to Hizballah’s disarmament and Lebanon’s full implementation of Resolution 1559. Proposals or changes in the rules of the political game have come to be viewed in terms of Hizballah’s chances of surviving international pressures to lay down its arms. In fact, Hizballah’s unprecedented participation in the cabinet was prompted by its determination to prevent the government from succumbing to such external pressure. The habitually frank Hizballah officials acknowledged as much in interviews. In the words of Deputy Secretary-General Naim Qasim, “What has changed [after the Syrian withdrawal] are issues related to Lebanese developments, which made us directly responsible for providing the domestic protection in a better way than before.”
The same logic applies to the “national dialogue,” initiated in March 2006 and attended by 14 confessional leaders, including Hizballah’s secretary-general, Hasan Nasrallah. Thus far, no agreement has been reached on the most contentious issues, primarily because Hizballah is in no mood to compromise while the US and France are breathing down its neck. Even the national dialogue’s meager results to date have been put into question. Hizballah denies it ever agreed to demarcate the borders with Syria, including in the vicinity of the Shebaa Farms, the Israeli-occupied plot of land that Israel and the UN claim is Syrian and Lebanon and Syria claim is Lebanese. Syria, for its part, is balking at the Lebanese insistence on establishing bilateral diplomatic relations, now a demand of the Security Council as well, as expressed in Resolution 1680 of May 17. Moreover, Palestinian factions are attaching conditions to their disarmament “outside the camps” as envisioned by the national dialogue. But, most pertinently, Hizballah has refused to discuss its arms or to name a candidate to replace President Lahoud, whose term was extended (in violation of the Lebanese constitution) under Syrian pressure in September 2004.
Hizballah’s obstruction of the national dialogue is clearly prompted by fear that its domestic rivals will seize on foreign demands to strengthen their own negotiating position. Hence, when UN envoy Roed-Larsen repeated his call to disarm militias and review Lahoud’s term in office, Hizballah vowed that the president would remain until his term expires in 2007. Flexing its muscles further, Hizballah began mobilizing its constituency, together with like-minded activists within the country’s trade unions, to protest the government’s austerity proposals. On May 10, an anti-government demonstration hit the streets of Beirut, with Hizballah’s al-Manar media outlets claiming that at least half a million protesters were in attendance. The march was a thinly veiled demonstration of the party’s influence in anticipation of the new Security Council resolution. It also fell on the eve of renewed discussions within the framework of the national dialogue on the future of Lebanon’s “defense strategy”—code for the question of whether Hizballah will disarm or integrate into Lebanon’s regular armed forces. Earlier, Nasrallah had implied a threat to block any future privatization plans, arguing that this issue should also be part of the national dialogue and, hence, become tied to Hizballah’s arms.
While its supporters were preparing a nationwide strike purportedly to protest the government’s economic plans, Hizballah’s deputy chief Naim Qasim did not mince words: “Over the past few days, we heard statements that force numerous question marks upon us—statements by some of those who openly declare their goal is to disarm Hizballah. I will be extremely clear. Hizballah’s disarmament is not up for discussion, not around the dialogue table or anywhere else.”
Shifting International Priorities
Even though foreign pressures on Hizballah are helping Lebanon to slide into political paralysis once again, the US and France—the two main sponsors of Resolutions 1559 and 1680—show little inclination to put the disarmament issue on the back burner. No doubt many in Lebanon agree with Hizballah MP Hajj Hasan’s reaction to the resolution: “The aim of all Security Council resolutions is to disarm the resistance.… The purpose of 1680 is to pressure Syria and disarm the resistance, while not once does it mention the daily Israeli attacks and our prisoners in Israeli jails.” Hizballah is likely to perpetuate the country’s political gridlock. Prime Minister Siniora’s long awaited visit to Damascus, where he is to talk about bilateral diplomatic relations and demarcation of borders, as envisioned in the national dialogue, looks like it may be further delayed. The Syrian foreign ministry denounced Resolution 1680 as “unwarranted pressure and a provocation which complicates things rather than resolves them.”
While the US and France remain adamant about disarming Hizballah, they now appear to be softening their uncompromising stand on the need for tough reforms as a precondition for financial aid. Western donors have hailed the paltry outcome of the national dialogue and the government’s unimplemented and meager reform plan. Speculation is rife that a long-delayed donor conference will be given the green light. US and French officials now argue that a financial package will boost Hizballah’s domestic opponents and reveal the party’s role as a spoiler of the country’s regained independence.
Gone is the talk of sweeping democratic change and political reform triggered by what Western officials still call the “Cedar Revolution.” In its stead has come International Monetary Fund pressure for a financial regime consisting solely of managerial and technical remedies for Lebanon’s financial problems, even though these problems, as any Lebanese could tell the IMF, are political to the core. In its consultations with the Lebanese government in October 2005, the IMF called for fiscal adjustment, monetary and financial reforms, and privatization, without referring to political issues like corruption, nepotism in the civil service and the compromised judiciary. Meanwhile, the entering into force of Lebanon’s Association Agreement with the EU in April passed virtually unnoticed, despite this treaty’s inclusion of a commitment to implement political and economic reforms.
Hence, by the logic of Lebanon’s political bickering, the US and European obsession with Hizballah has effectively caused the party’s disarmament, which is important but not so urgent, to take priority over the vital and urgent necessity of genuine reform. The result is that neither reform nor disarmament is on the horizon.
Confronted with such criticisms of their role in Lebanon, Western diplomats respond that it has been their aim from the start to let the Lebanese decide how they will comply with Resolution 1559. Disarming all militias, they say, is an integral part of the Ta’if accord, after all. Moreover, they claim that allegations about foreign meddling in Lebanese affairs are unwarranted. In their view, Lebanese politicians have developed a habit of calling on Western diplomats to deal with the pettiest political errand, a habit they want to discourage lest foreigners wind up “micro-managing” Lebanon. As one official protested: “It is not us who are imposing solutions on them. The Lebanese are calling on us to do that. We didn’t want to sit at the table of the national dialogue, we didn’t want to prescribe an electoral law, we didn’t want to set the parameters for an international tribunal on Hariri’s assassination—all this was asked for by the Lebanese.”
Whatever the merit of such arguments, they clearly fail to convince most Lebanese. In Beirut, the debate is now about the desirability of Western interference—the existence of this interference is hardly disputed anywhere on the political spectrum. Hizballah’s supporters and others believe that the US and France are trying to fill the vacuum left behind by Syria. In their eyes, the US and France are drumming up UN support for their demands while institutionalizing their pressures by sending an ever increasing stream of UN investigators and rapporteurs. Expressing a typical view, Talal Salman, publisher of the al-Safir newspaper, dismissed the UN’s impartiality. “The US holds a hegemonic grip over the Security Council while fighting the Arabs in Iraq, fighting with Israel against Palestine, isolating and weakening Egypt, using Libya’s Qaddafi, controlling the oil states in the Gulf and besieging Syria.”
Back in 2003, one foreign diplomat had already questioned the usefulness of the “international babysitting of Lebanon,” a reference to the several UN emissaries and institutions tasked with keeping the lid on one or another of the country’s crises: the blue helmets of UNIFIL in the south, the secretary-general’s personal representative for south Lebanon, the UN Relief and Works Agency in the Palestinian refugee camps and the special envoy for the Middle East. Since then, international fixation upon this tiny country has only intensified, in the form of another UN official charged with monitoring implementation of Resolution 1559 and the commission investigating Hariri’s assassination. Not only has the number of UN envoys increased, but their mandates have also tended to widen. Thus Resolution 1680 adds to Syrian-Lebanese obligations to honor Resolution 1559 the need to establish diplomatic relations and demarcate borders. When presented with the fact that these demands were not part of Resolution 1559, one Western diplomat simply remarked that the new resolution would authorize Roed-Larsen’s already existing efforts in these areas ex post facto. In a similar vein, the secretary-general’s personal representative for south Lebanon, Geir Pedersen, is mediating between the Lebanese and Syrian governments over the encampments of Syrian troops in Lebanon’s eastern Biqa‘ valley, nowhere near the south.
A Way Out
Though international pressure has thus far proven counterproductive, there is a way out of the Lebanese political imbroglio, provided that the US and France modify their approach. Most importantly, Hizballah is now in the government. If the US and the EU would put the arms issue on the back burner (as they initially hinted they would), Hizballah would have a hard time explaining to its relatively marginalized and impoverished constituency why it will not take part in the reform program. Without international hounding, Hizballah would have no real justification for clinging to Lahoud as an indispensable ally. The outcome of the Hariri murder trial would do the rest in consigning the president to irrelevance. In other words, Hizballah would be left with little choice other than prioritizing its self-declared mission to improve the plight of Lebanon’s deprived and get down to the business of reform.
It should be recalled, in this vein, that Hizballah was among the first to present a blueprint for a fair and balanced electoral law. The party’s current ministers have vowed to clean up corruption in state institutions they control. Moreover, since it began participating in local government in 1998, Hizballah has worked to provide effective public services, especially in Beirut’s southern suburbs, for which efforts the UN gave its Best Practices Award to the Ghubayri municipality.
Ironically, without the heavy external pressures for it to disarm, Hizballah’s military agenda would likely become less pertinent by the day. Hizballah’s position in south Lebanon would return to the low-intensity conflict preceding the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, with the added complication for the party that Israel could now hold the Lebanese government, in which it takes part, directly responsible for any attacks in the south. The US and the EU could further demand that Israel stop its intimidating and almost daily incursions into Lebanese airspace, and withdraw from the Shebaa Farms—steps that, after the party cried victory, would make Hizballah fighters appear to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hizballah would surely try to find alternative pretexts for continuing its armed “resistance.” But it is unlikely that even its own supporters would get excited about a jihad on behalf of others, whether Palestinians or Iranians, or rally behind the party’s remaining quarrels with the Blue Line separating Lebanon and Israel. Driven out of the limelight, Hizballah fighters would have nowhere else to go than the Lebanese army barracks. Only in such a changed atmosphere could any Lebanese government become attentive to the pressing need to finally embark on a serious reform program and start addressing the high expectations expressed in the spring of 2005.
For details, see UN Development Program, Millennium Development Goals, Report for Lebanon (New York/Beirut, November 2003), pp. 7-8.
More than half of Lebanese banks’ income accrues from yields on treasury bills. See Samir Makdisi, The Lessons of Lebanon: The Economics of War and Development (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004), pp. 114, 204.
Recent figures on emigration are unavailable. Yet for the period 1991-2000 it is estimated that 1.28 million Lebanese left the country to settle abroad. Strikingly, this number is much higher than the estimated 500,000-895,000 émigrés who left the country because of the violence between 1975 and 1990. See Boutros Labaki, “Lebanese Emigration After the Ta’if Agreement, 1990-2000,” unpublished paper presented at the Lebanese-American University, June 29, 2001.
Government subsidies for the ailing electricity company currently reach no less than 4 percent of GDP. The company’s operating losses alone stand at around 2.5 percent of GDP. See International Monetary Fund, Lebanon: 2005 Article IV Consultation Discussions Preliminary Conclusions, October 28, 2005.
Al-Nahar, April 14, 2005.
World Bank, Staff Appraisal Report: Lebanese Republic National Roads Project (Washington, DC, June 1996); Paul Kimberley, Trade Efficiency for Lebanon: Debrief on the World Bank Funded Project (Beirut, 1999).
‘Abduh Saad, head of an independent think tank in Beirut, suggests an electoral system drawing on governorate-based districts, proportional representation and the possibility of casting a “preferential vote.” For details, see Beirut Center for Research and Information, Aliyyat Tatbiq al-Nizam al-Nisbi fi Lubnan (2005) and ‘Abduh Saad,“Waqa‘i Mu’tamar bi-‘Unwan Nahw I‘timad al-Nisbiyya fi al-Intikhabat al-‘Amma,” Abhath fi al-Qanun al-‘Amm 1 (2005).
Al-Manar, June 14, 2005. Also, author’s interview with Hussein Nabulsi, Beirut, June 14, 2005.
Al-Nahar, March 22, 2006.
Al-Manar, May 7, 2006.
Al-Hayat, May 22, 2006.
Agence France-Presse, May 18, 2006.
Author’s interviews with Western diplomats and officials, Washington and New York, April-May 2006. A spokesman of the French embassy more ambiguously declared that “the international community is ready to support the [government’s] reform plan.” Al-Nahar, April 7, 2006.
Author’s interviews with Western diplomats, New York, May 1-4, 2006.
Author’s interview, New York, May 2, 2006.
Al-Safir, May 9, 2006.
Author’s interview, Beirut, December 2003.
Author’s interview, New York, May 2, 2006.
Consultative Center for Studies and Documentation (Hizballah), Electoral Law Amendments (Beirut, April 25, 2005)