Friday, August 25, 2006

Poltical reform should accompany aid in Lebanon

Political reform should accompany rebuilding in Lebanon
Ghassan Rubeiz, August 25, 2006

Humanitarian aid is rushing to Lebanon. But rebuilding a stable Lebanon goes beyond administering humanitarian aid and securing its borders. Political reform to achieve national unity and regional integration should accompany rehabilitation and reconstruction. A divided country without willingness for genuine political restructuring will not properly utilize humanitarian and military support.

The Lebanese emerged from civil war that ended in 1990 without heeding the lessons of the 15-year conflict. The Lebanese reconstructed their country efficiently with new housing, a new downtown, a new airport and a new image, but they failed to fundamentally change the political system that had led them into the civil war.

To be fair, the Lebanese achieved some political progress after their civil war, but they left the divisive power sharing system intact. In addressing political reform to achieve peace, the 1989 Taif Accord enhanced the balance of representation of the various religious sects, called for the withdrawal of foreign forces and stipulated termination of rival local militias.

In matters of parliamentary representation, Christian-Muslim parity was achieved, but the largest community, the Shiites, remained under-represented. Moreover, Shiites could not assume the position of prime minister, chief of armed forces or the presidency of the Republic. Although the Christian community is about one third of the population, it retained the privileged monopoly over the presidency and army command post. Though the Sunnite community is smaller than the Shiite, both communities have the same number of parliamentarians. And, the Sunnites retained the prestigious and powerful post of the prime minister. In Taif, the post of the speaker of the house of parliament remained with the Shiites. Despite the Taif restrictions on the power of the presidency and the upgrading of the Speaker’s position, the Shiite community felt somewhat neglected in the Taif Accord, but this majority community initially remained silent.

The inadequate Taif reforms kept the Lebanese divided. The country’s weak national unity indirectly delayed the withdrawal of the Israelis and the Syrians. The Lebanese factions argued about causes of their two occupations, how to resist local and international hegemony, and whether the Syrian occupation was as bad as the Israeli occupation. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in the year 2000, they argued whether the Israeli occupied Shib’a farms were worth fighting for. When Syria withdrew in the year 2005, they argued about future relations with this country, and whether this neighbor regime had killed their popular Prime Minister, Rafic Harriri. The Lebanese keep forgetting that Syria is a sister country, no matter how naughty a sister can be.

The last fifteen years of partial recovery of Lebanon have given the three dominant communities a strange and deceptive balance of power that kept the politicians satisfied and the people anxious. To a degree, Sunnites dominated politics; Christians dominated the cultural orientation and Shiites built a military state within a state.
The former (Sunni) Prime Minister Harriri led Lebanon into a rapid and financially risky business recovery that erased the physical marks of the destructive civil war at a high price. A national debt of US 40 billion dollars faces the Lebanese today. In five weeks this summer, the many years of costly post civil war recovery were reversed significantly.

After the civil war, the Christians were hyper-active in bringing back Western consumerism and rapid (and some would say superficial) modernity to a country that was once called Paris of the Middle East. In recent years, East and West Beirut looked European but South Beirut, where the Shiites lived in dense communities, looked like congested Cairo. Not long ago, Michael Hudson, an observer of the Middle East, described Lebanon as two culturally and politically distinct societies. Pointing to the growing cultural and political split in identity among the Lebanese, Hudson spoke of “two Lebanon’s”.
Representing the Shiites, Hizbullah indulged in military build up to resist the Israeli occupation and to create its own world of political reform. Critics of Hizbullah accuse it of facilitating an invisible Iranian occupation while disrespecting the Lebanese state.

The current ceasefire in south Lebanon is fragile. The current mood of national unity against Israel’s harsh attack on Lebanon may not last long. Societal unity against a common enemy will not endure. However, the unity of the country can be cemented only when all the religious communities are treated equally under the law.

Political reform should occur on several fronts. Enhancing and harmonizing relations of Lebanon with Syria, Iran and the US are top political reform priorities. As long as the US, Syria and Iran are close to some Lebanese factions and distant from others, the Lebanese unity is at risk. Iran, for example is perceived as an ally of the Shiites while the US is seen as an ally of most Christians and some Sunnites.

Dealing with the political future of Hizbullah is urgent. If the Shiite community gains political power domestically, and with an improved political atmosphere in the region, a solution to Hizbullah’s arms will ultimately materialize. But rushing to solve Hizbullah’s armed presence ahead of domestic reconciliation is counterproductive.

The power sharing formula that assigns parliamentary seats unfairly and restricts access to certain leading political posts is archaic and immoral. In about a year, the Lebanese Parliament will be electing a new president. Can the parliament start soon to prepare new legislation that would rotate the presidency and other leading posts among the various communities? Post Tito Yugoslavia and the current Swiss system provide examples of presidential rotation.

Another measure of reform would be to increase the number of electoral districts to allow minority politicians to run independent campaigns. Currently, political tycoons run and finance long slates of co-opted candidates. Christian candidates tend to run on Muslim led lists to win.
Allowing Lebanese Diaspora citizens who hold Lebanese passports to vote would advance the cause of unity; the Lebanese abroad feel isolated politically. More of Christians left during the civil war than Muslims. Diaspora voting would heal the psychological wounds of all emigrants and empower Lebanon, economically and politically, domestically and abroad.

Fifteen years of civil war were followed by fifteen years of reconstruction in Lebanon. Now, at the start of a second round of rebuilding, it is important to realize that no matter how generous humanitarian aid is, and no matter how large and empowered the UN-assigned forces may be, Lebanon will not benefit from the external aid without internal political reform.

The author is an Arab-American commentator. His new blog is “”.


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