On January 31, 2013, the Brookings Doha Center (BDC) hosted a policy discussion on the state of Lebanon at a time when the country faces grave challenges from within and without. Speakers discussed Lebanon’s failing governmental institutions and the possibility of reform, as well as the long shadow cast over Lebanese politics and society by the Syrian conflict. The panel featured Ziad Baroud, former minister of interior and municipalities; Mohamad Chatah, senior advisor to former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and former minister of finance; Ali Hamdan, head of the Foreign Affairs Bureau of Lebanon’s Amal Movement; and Rami Rayess, spokesman of the Progressive Socialist Party and media advisor to Walid Jumblatt. The discussion was moderated by BDC Director Salman Shaikh and attended by members of Qatar’s diplomatic, academic, business, and media communities.
Even as the discussion opened on Lebanon’s domestic challenges — namely, costly and unreliable electricity, underdeveloped infrastructure and high unemployment — it almost immediately turned to the Syria crisis. While moderator Salman Shaikh challenged participants to address the Lebanese government’s historic failure to deliver real services to its citizens, participants were ready to defend the current government as having maintained Lebanon’s stability amid what Mohamad Chatah called a “perfect storm in the region.” Ali Hamdan stressed that Lebanon “is not an island” and that this government, led by Prime Minister Najib Miqati, came to power amid regional “turbulence.” Rami Rayess, also from the March 8 bloc, said that, given events in Syria, the government’s effort was “good enough.” Even though Chatah, of the opposition March 14 coalition, offered some stinging criticisms of the March 8 government, he nonetheless emphasized that Lebanon is “lucky” not to be at war.
When the debate delved into the real dysfunction of Lebanese politics, however, participants found blame in the very nature of Lebanon’s political system. Rayess, for instance, pointed the finger at a political community that approaches issues in the narrow terms of how its members can secure gains for their constituents. Chatah attributed that to a Lebanese system “filled with moral hazard” – a system that drives politicians and leaders to act sectarian or else risk missing a promotion or being punished by their constituents. Chatah said that this dysfunctional system could probably be traced back to the birth of Lebanon, a sentiment seconded by Hamdan, who said that since its independence, Lebanon had failed to build up a real government and concept of citizenship. The result, he said, was a level of trust that was negligible and led the country’s parties to constantly level accusations against one another. Ziad Baroud, a political independent, said that the same problems had been going on for decades but still bemoaned what he saw as a purely reactive approach to dealing with Lebanon’s worsening social and economic problems.
These systemic problems have now helped shape the debate over the law governing Lebanon’s June parliamentary elections. Baroud described a situation in which there is no stable legislation for the country’s electoral law, which means that political parties simply draft a new electoral law from which they expect to benefit. Both Baroud and Hamdan complained that Lebanon was still hashing out the same legal issues that had supposedly been resolved with the 2008 Doha Agreement. Baroud, Chatah, and Hamdan all expressed sympathy with the Christian demands for more effective representation that have underpinned the proposed “Orthodox Gathering” electoral law. Baroud said, though, that the issue was less one of numbers than of the role Christians can play in building modern Lebanon.
Rayess emphasized that the dispute over the electoral law should not be an excuse to delay elections. Lebanon has been holding elections for the past 60 years, he said, and at a time when other Arabs are making sacrifices to realize democracy at home, Lebanon cannot be seen to go backwards. If Lebanon does not go to elections, Baroud asked, who guarantees that the country’s system will not collapse? And if it does, who guarantees that the country will get another system – and at what price?
In part, these fundamental issues return to disparate readings of the country’s constitution and what Chatah referred to as its “constructive ambiguity.” Both Chatah and Rayess pointed to the establishment of a bicameral system, with a Lebanese senate alongside its parliament, as a possible way out of the country’s political deadlock. Hamdan warned against a reliance on quick fixes. He said that the country’s problem lay in the selective implementation of the Taif Accord, which itself calls for the eventual establishment of a senate. Baroud said that, whether the solution was a senate or anything else, the real challenge lay in establishing mechanisms to “make diversity function” in Lebanon.
Of course, the discussion was not without some partisan back-and-forth. Chatah in particular made some sharp allegations against the country’s March 8 government. The government, he said, had come to power after its predecessor was toppled by the threat of force and sectarian war, and government figures had repeatedly shielded the assassins (attempted or otherwise) of March 14 leaders. He pointed to the assassination of Wisam al-Hassan, who had just uncovered an alleged Syrian plot to assassinate prominent Christian and Sunni leaders, as what finally forced March 14 to withdraw from any negotiations or dialogue.
Hamdan nonetheless called for a return to the national dialogue that began in 2006, a dialogue that has lately centered on Lebanon’s national defense strategy – that is, state authority over Hizballah’s arms. Even though Hamdan agreed that the dialogue had yet to show solid results, he said that even if the Lebanese wasted time in dialogue, it was better than boycotting. Rayess also thought that national dialogue is a necessary exercise and should be kept open at all costs. While he expressed appreciation for Hizballah’s liberation of Lebanese land from Israeli occupation, he said that the state had to monopolize military power. The faster Lebanon built a consensus on a national defense strategy, he said, the sooner it could build capabilities to confront Israeli aggression. Chatah, however, rejected Lebanon’s national dialogue as essentially pointless; the dialogue could only go in circles, he said, given that Hizballah’s sole objective was to maintain the status quo. He called the dialogue a “sham” and a “charade,” complaining that Hizballah’s “declared” strategic link with Iran means that Lebanese are left to wait for their next war, one whose timing will be decided by others. Still, Baroud said that the dialogue seemed to be the only remaining political alternative. He said that some factions had made the mistake of thinking they could defeat others outright; consensus, he stressed, is “how Lebanon functions.”
The conversation eventually returned to the Syria crisis, which Hamdan described as “the greatest threat” to Lebanon in its history. He praised the June 2012 “Baabda Declaration,” according to which Lebanon announced a clear policy of “disassociation” or “positive neutralism.” As he put it, the Lebanese have no other choice; Lebanon can do nothing to affect the situation in Syria, while the war’s spread into Lebanon would consume the country.
For his part, Chatah was willing to take sides – rhetorically. Those socially and ethnically closest to the Syrian people in Lebanon, he said, were among the foremost adversaries of the regime. He said that some in Lebanon, and in the North in particular, had been subjected to the sort of bombing and killing 25 years ago that can be seen in Syria today. Syria’s Lebanese allies, meanwhile, are those with a “strategic link” with the Syrian regime. Chatah nonetheless emphasized, in the same terms as Hamdan, that Lebanon should not be involved in Syria; he praised the Baabda Declaration, saying it was “historic” and should be enshrined in the country’s constitution.”
Participants voiced fears, however, that Baabda might not be enough, or that some were willing to flout it. Rayess warned that the commitment of the document had to be reinforced, as the presence of Lebanese fighters in Syria and other provocations like Hizballah’s Ayoub drone had threatened to destabilize the situation. Chatah likewise warned that sending fighters or amassing weapons for Syriainside Lebanon could only put the country in harm’s way.
At the time of this discussion, the previous night’s Israeli airstrike on a Syrian target had only complicated the Syria situation. Chatah, the most vocal critic of the Syrian regime among the participants, said that Lebanese were without exception against the Israeli action. If Israel thinks it can buy credibility with the Syrian rebels, he said, it is wrong. Hamdan complained of daily Israeli violations of Lebanese sovereignty by air, land, and sea, and warned that Israel was waiting for the weakening and division of Arab power so it could act again. Chatah discounted the possibility that the Israeli air attack on Syria was a signal of a broader campaign, as, in his reading, Israeli “aggression” is never declared or signaled in advance. Still, he said, the Israeli action drove home the need for the Lebanese to be united on this issue.
When asked about how the international community could help Lebanon, answers differed. Chatah said that the influence of the international community has “waned” and that there is “a lot of exaggeration” of the impact of international action. Still, he flagged Lebanese calls for international technical assistance in monitoring the country’s Syria border, but said that such help was hamstrung by strong opposition from Hizballah. Baroud reiterated Lebanese requests for international funding assistance in absorbing the country’s new refugee burden, and Rayess said that dealing with the humanitarian situation is the best way to preserve Lebanon’s stability.
In the diplomatic realm, Hamdan asked that the international community not adopt a double standard in dealing with Israel and its Arab neighbors, and Baroud and Hamdan warned against plans for a “new Sykes-Picot” that would divide Syria and the wider region. Rayess called for international consensus on the June 2012 Geneva agreement, while Chatah asked that the international community affirm and act on Lebanon’s declaration of neutrality. If the world treats Lebanon as a staging ground for Syria’s war, he said, the country will be in grave trouble.
Among those who spoke at the event’s end was special guest Miguel Moratinos, former foreign minister of Spain. He said that, after 20 years of dealing with Lebanon, he was optimistic for the country. There was no comparing the Lebanon of today with the Lebanon of 15, or even five, years ago, according to Moratinos; he could not imagine the Lebanon of previous years not being totally engulfed by the Syria issue. He expressed his hopes that the Syria crisis would be a moment for the Lebanese to take their destiny in their own hands; this time, he said, the Lebanese could have a dialogue in Beirut, not Doha or Taif.
This sort of forward-looking change may need to start now. As Chatah pointed out, in the coming decade Lebanon faces two milestones: the centennial of its founding in 2020 and the first returns from the country’s Mediterranean natural gas reserves. If Lebanon sees a huge influx of money into a government that continues to be dysfunctional or corrupt, real reform may be put off indefinitely. The Lebanese people’s ability to come together over the next few years, then, stands to determine whether Lebanon begins its second century with political change or with more of the same.