Friday, May 19, 2006

"The Attempt to Disarm Hizbullah is Ruining Chances for Reform in Lebanon," by Reinoud Leenders

Reinoud Leenders has asked me to publish and push a brilliant policy article he has written on Lebanon. Reinoud was the International Crisis Group analyst based in Beirut until last year, who wrote on both Lebanese and Syrian affairs. He is now an assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam. The entire article is posted on his website. It is due to be posted by MERIP in the future. Here are the first several pages, but you should read the entire report here. It is a must read. He explains how the Western powers are dooming any chances for Lebanese reform, either economic or political, by their narrow minded insistance on fighting Hizbullah and Syria. Brilliant stuff.

By Lebanon’s Twisted Logic: How calls for disarming Hizbullah block urgent reforms
By Reinoud Leenders
May 17, 2006

When the last Syrian soldier left Lebanese territory in April 2005, jubilant crowds gathered at Beirut’s Martyr Square to celebrate the coming of a new era. Adding to the festive mood were American and French statements praising Lebanon’s “Cedar Revolution” as the first in what was to inevitably be a series of popularly led regime changes and reforms awaiting the region at large. Discussing an expected upsurge of democratic aspirations in the Middle East, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stated confidently, Lebanon’s “supporters of democracy [were] demanding independence from foreign masters [and] called for change. It is not only the Lebanese people who desire freedom [..].” Yet one year has now passed and the once joyous atmosphere in Lebanon has turned unmistakably sour. Gone are the Lebanese flags draped over Beirut’s balconies in the midst of last year’s dazzling events. Gone, too, is the widespread optimism over comprehensive political and economic reforms. Instead of national unity, sectarian tension is currently running high. Moreover, exasperation over perpetual political bickering and socio-economic malaise is now common. Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators are taking to the streets of Beirut to protest against the government’s economic reform plans. Yet the international community seems undeterred. On 17 May the UN Security Council adopted yet another forceful resolution amplifying an already daunting list of demands laid down in Resolution 1559 (2 September 2004).

One can make two preliminary observations regarding Lebanon’s still young post-Syria epoch. First, Lebanon’s political settlement, shaped by the 1989 Ta’if peace accord and its reading by Lebanon’s political class, is in need of a major revision. Without such modifications, it continues to hinder the country’s ability to reach at and implement any sort of effective government policy, let alone one anchored in a spirit of reform. Second, European and American support for much-needed Lebanese economic and political reforms has shown to be incompatible with their simultaneous and unsuccessful efforts to disarm Hizbullah. Against this background, both domestic gridlock and the approach taken by primarily the US and France will largely determine whether Lebanon is going to achieve any progress on reforms and Hizbullah’s weapons in the foreseeable future.

Goodbye Syria, hello reform abyss

During its three-decade presence in the country, the Syrian mukhabarat certainly had a negative impact on governance and political life in Lebanon. However, it has now become abundantly clear that homegrown Lebanese factors were also at play in perpetuating the country’s political malaise. When asked in an opinion poll held in May last year what they expected from a newly elected government, a majority of Lebanese stated it ought to devise radically new policies to boost the economy, create jobs, and fight corruption. Yet nothing of the sort has materialized. Until last January, the current government led by Fu’ad Siniora even failed to adopt a national budget for the preceding year while one for 2006 is still to be discussed and voted on in Parliament. A public debate on the future of Lebanon’s ailing economy, loudly trumpeted last year by former Prime Minister Najib Miqati, never took place. Even more seriously, it took the government until last month to produce a plan for economic reforms. The full plan is yet to be made public. Yet Sami Atallah, a Lebanese economist who was briefed on the government’s reform proposals, described them as vague on reducing and streamlining spending, awash with lofty but ambiguous goals such as “improving social services” and lacking any reference to institutional reforms. The plan’s only concrete proposal –hiring public servants on 5-year contracts instead of offering them open-ended employment—has already been withdrawn, as soon as labour unions indicated their discontent.

This stands in stark contrast to the economy’s dire need for vision and assertive action. With official debt amounting to 180 percent of the country’s GDP, or about USD 10,000 per capita, payments on debts and interest are strangling economic growth (currently standing at zero percent). Furthermore, there are strong indications that Lebanon’s distribution of income is worsening as a result. Elites in control of Lebanon’s private banks are making magnificent returns by subscribing to state bonds while salaried lower-middle class employees effectively pick up the bill by paying for increased VAT rates on essential goods. As a result, only the country’s banking sector is undergoing a boom while virtually all other economic sectors –and their employees-- are stuck in a grave recession. It is under these dire conditions that more Lebanese than ever decide to leave the country, thereby perpetuating a brain drain that has dwindled Lebanon’s human resources since the mid-1970s.

Fighting corruption would be one obvious strategy, both to reduce government spending and to mobilise public understanding and support for fiscal austerity measures. Even a cursory look at Lebanon’s crippled public institutions would easily spot candidates for a serious anti-corruption campaign. For example, both the state-run electricity company and the National Social Security Fund are riddled with corruption, offer lousy services and are running mounting deficits depleting the state’s coffers. Yet the government’s only remedy has so far been a highly publicized decision to hire international auditing firms to “review the accounts of private and public figures” and expose rampant corruption of the last 16 years. Less publicized has been the fact that, in this same period, most expenditures by the government’s Council for Development and Reconstruction (which managed some 80 percent of the state’s capital investments) were already screened by such international auditors –without causing even one crooked Lebanese politician to lose any sleep. Other such foreign inspections, like a World Bank study into corruption at Lebanese customs in 1999 and a review of road building contracts in 1996, did unearth corruption –but without prompting any measures to curb it. In effect, therefore, Lebanon’s anti-corruption drive has made little or no progress ever since a 1998 government led by Salim al-Hoss proclaimed graft as the nation’s public enemy.

Lebanon’s voters are also still waiting for a new electoral law to replace the seriously flawed 2000 law then designed to ensure victory for pro-Syrian candidates in Parliamentary elections. The electoral law’s numerous pitfalls include effectively disqualifying candidates who gather a significant number of votes but nevertheless fail to be granted even one seat. Moreover, many Christian candidates only make their way into Parliament by relying disproportionately on non-Christian votes. One of its results is that elections turn into sectarian plebiscites as was amply illustrated in May-June 2005 when each of Lebanon’s confessional groups rallied behind ‘their’ one strong leader simply because the electoral law defeated the chances of less influential, non-sectarian candidates even before they had begun their campaign. Sure enough, virtually all of Lebanon’s political leaders vowed they would strive for amending the electoral law immediately after they got elected. A special commission was established to study proposals to this effect. However, two of the commission’s academic members recently resigned in protest against attempts by politicians to gerrymander future election results in their own favour. Promising suggestions put forward by others, including a sophisticated blueprint for a more balanced electoral system based on the principle of proportionality, failed to in this climate even reach the commission’s attention.

A similar lack of reform cripples the country’s judiciary. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri has led to the launch of a UN investigation that is likely to soon evolve into a tribunal containing both foreign and Lebanese judges to bring the perpetrators to justice. Yet the fact that many Lebanese called for such an international intervention in the first place is testament to a profound and justified lack of trust in their own judiciary. Apart from dismissing a few exponents of the worst judicial excesses of the past, this lack of trust remains today unaddressed. As a result, the judiciary’s independence still fails to be upheld, judges are still being bribed, and political favouritism and lack of professionalism carry on casting a shadow on this institution’s performance. Moreover, parallel military and state security courts, once viewed as outlets of Syria’s security chief Rostom Ghazali, still overstep their military jurisdiction by issuing indictments against civilians. Last April a military court finally dropped its highly politicized and trumped up charges against human rights lawyer Muhamad Mugraby. However, this was only when an army of foreign attorneys arrived to Beirut to defend him and after behind-the-scene pressures by the EU had started to embarrass the Lebanese government.

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 the sacking of a few security chiefs and to arresting four figureheads who were allegedly involved in Hariri’s assassination. Lebanon’s politicians failed to agree on suitable candidates to fill all ensuing vacancies. Last April, the Lebanese government informed UN-envoy Terje Roed Larsen that “the process of transition and re-organization in the Lebanese security forces is ongoing, and that it has not yet established full control over all services”. Against this background it is hardly surprising that the security services failed to make any headway in finding the perpetrators of 13 car bombs and attacks that followed Hariri’s assassination, the latest one killing Lebanese journalist Gebran Tueni on 12 December 2005.

Hizbullah’s reliance on political gridlock....

Against this background, Hizbullah’s strategy has become crystal clear. While its supporters were preparing a nation-wide strike purportedly to protest the government’s economic plans, the party’s deputy chief Na’im Qassem offered further clarifications to those who had not yet received the hint: “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 Hizbullah. I will be extremely clear. Hizbullah’s disarmament is not up for discussion, not around the dialogue table or anywhere else.”

Are the US and France abandoning the reform agenda?...

Even though foreign pressures on Hizbullah are helping Lebanon to once again slide into political chaos, the US and France –the two main sponsors of Resolution 1559—show little inclination to change course. Both countries are now preparing yet another resolution that, regardless of its exact wording, will be viewed in Lebanon as one more sign that the world is after Hizbullah’s arms. In response, Hizbullah is likely to perpetuate the country’s political gridlock even more... (continue here)

Reinoud Leenders is assistant professor in political science at the University of Amsterdam and was analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Beirut.


At 5/19/2006 03:00:00 AM, Blogger Joe M said...

Excellent article. I think his criticisms of Hizbullah are fair, though over done. Every faction in lebanon could be attacked for being problematic, and it seems to me (and Leenders basically admits it) that Hizbullah is basically the only honest and competent political faction in the country. I guess he focuses on them because they are 1) the biggest organized force in the Lebanon 2) they are under the most international pressure. In that respect they do deserve the attention because they are tied to a lot of the issues. Unfortunately, i think they come under more criticism then they deserve because they do a lot right too.

It is too bad that Hizbullah sticks too strongly to some of its positions (like keeping Lahud), where political accomidation would do them little harm. but at the same time, it just goes to show that the people of the lebanese political class are some of the most immature in the world. It is beyond belief that they continue to allow themselves to dwell of useless issues or (again, and again and again) become agents of foreign powers so easily or that they have so little long-term vision that they get obsessed about someone who is as unimportant as Lahud...

All and all, it seems that the basic problem with Lebanon is that their entire political system is based on personality and not platform. No one (with the exception again of Hizbullah) is elected based on achievement, but mostly on stupid sectarian considerations. It really is too bad. I only hope that they are not the model that all the other countries in the region will follow as they move towards political reform (Iraq, Syria, Kuwait and Egypt (though, the judges in Egypt seem to be hope that things stay non-political and true to reform) especially).

At 5/19/2006 06:20:00 AM, Blogger Innocent_Criminal said...

Its nice to see such a great piece from a fellow Amsterdammer ;)

But I can see the anti-Syrian spin-doctors criticizing Reinoud’s piece for its lack of criticism toward Syria. Some will be more than comfortable in blaming the remnants of the Syrian presence and its continuous interference on economic problems, corruption, election overhaul, bird flu, HIV/Aids etc.

To be fair though, Lebanon’s economic predicament was a tough nut to crack even before Hariri’s assassination. And Syria’s presence in Lebanon has helped launch corruption in both countries to new heights. But the Lebanese masses are hopefully starting to understand what they failed to see while being blinded by the euphoria of the “independence” demonstrations. That the causes of their plight are the same leaders they supported then and now.

Again an excellent article. Goed gedaan jonge ;)


At 5/19/2006 12:56:00 PM, Blogger Nafdik said...

Sorry for dragging the discussion of the previous post here. But I think it is crucial. I

Syria30 said:
I think you might be reading more in the piece than there is. The grade of "A" is given relative to other countries in a region ..."

Dr Landis reply:

" Syrian30, that is really all I am saying. If you were born into any one ....
I think the comparison between the countries is important. The terrible situation in Iraq reminds us of how dangerous change the region is and can be again. Wishing for regime change in Syria if fine. We all do it. But it must be under the right circumstances and the people have to be prepared for it. Having an outside force unsettle things is asking for trouble, it seems to me."

So clearly the grade A is not given just for information purposes but there is an underlying message:

The middle east is unlike any country in the world. A dictator is a very good way to insure secure life.

Proof: Iraq, Lebanon.

Again Dr Landis nummbers are compelling. What is wrong with this picture.

At 5/19/2006 02:02:00 PM, Blogger syrian said...


I think if you have to get a message out of the post, then you got the wrong one. I think a better message would be that if you have to have a dictator then you may as well have a decent one (as decent as dictators can be.)

I don't think the numbers are compelling. I think its a tragedy that any person has to be imprisoned because of his/her belief.

I also do not whole heartedly agree with Josh that comparing to other countries is important (I see why it would be interesting to do that, I just don't see it as particularly important.) If you would move away from attempting to quantify misery and stick to qualitative comparison between then you would know that there is really no difference between 200 prisoners or 2000. The same logic that places one person is prison is used to place 20,000 when the need arises. The fact that Syria now has only 200 political prisoners is a temporal phenomena; should there be a change in the environment that compells the government to put more people in prison, then more people will go in prison.


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