Lebanon : a critical assessment / Fawaz A. Gerges - [Electronic ed.] - Bonn, 2001 - 17 S. = 55 KB, Text. - (FES-Analyse)
Electronic ed.: Bonn : FES Library, 2001

© Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung


  • Neither the withdrawal of Israel's forces nor the death of Assad in 2000 seemed to have changed a basic fact about tiny Lebanon: it is still being used as a staging arena for its neighbours' military-diplomatic operations and a political football kicked at their political convenience. Unfortunately, the Lebanese people are active agents and participants in this charade.

  • Israel presented a peaceful face to the world, demonstrating its respect for international obligations by its withdrawal from Lebanon as stipulated by U.N. Security Council Resolution 425. Israel portrayed itself as a besieged state, willing to live peacefully with its neighbours, who supposedly continue their aggression and who threaten its very existence.

  • The atmosphere is prepared internally and externally for Israel to retaliate against its two neighbours in case hostilities are resumed. It would be the height of misguided brinkmanship to count that Israel would remain passive in the future. It is in Lebanon's national interests to cooperate fully with the United Nations.

  • Lebanon should not expect any Western aid to rebuild the devastated south as long as the Lebanese-Israeli border remains volatile. The Syrian leadership appeared to know that the rules of game have changed in south Lebanon. Its critical reading of the dangerous new situation motivated it to cooperate fully with the UN efforts to maintain stability.

  • Beirut's ability to build a modern state depends to a large extent on redefining the one-sided Syrian-Lebanese relationship. The project of a modern state in Lebanon is unlikely to be implemented as long as the political survival of its ruling elite remains dependent on Damascus. Constructing a modern state will remain out of reach as long as Lebanese-Syrian interactions are hostage to tribal and sectarian interests rooted in Beirut's complex political system.

  • The results of the summer 2000 Parliamentary elections reflected the dismal failure of the Huss cabinet to tackle the structural problems in the Lebanese economy: financial restructuring, reducing the total budget deficit and national debts as well. Internal political bickering and short sightedness also complicated the government's efforts to tackle the entrenched socio-economic crisis.

  • Lebanon experienced the slowest growth of all Arab countries, zero percent growth in GDP, the total budget deficit amounted to $3 billion, or 52.2 percent of spending. The public debt also increased by ten percent, standing at about $24 billion and expected to top $27 billion by the end of 2001.

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Israel's retreat from South Lebanon: implications

Israel's 22-year occupation of a security zone in southern Lebanon is a classic case of power overextension. Israeli decision makers belatedly discovered that their ambition to dominate tiny Lebanon and isolate it from its natural environment crashed on the rocks of intangible variables. Israeli leaders miscalculated egregiously in assuming that their military superiority would trump the resolve of the Shiite followers of Hizbullah (Party of God). Despite a huge imbalance of forces between Israel and "the Islamic resistance", Hizbullah delivered painful blows to Israel's military apparatus and forced it into a protracted, costly war of attrition whose consequences reverberated within Israeli civil society. This two-decade conflict finally mobilized Israeli public opinion to demand an end to Israel's occupation of the so-called security belt in south Lebanon.

A qualification is in order here: Hizbullah's achievement could easily be reversed by Israel and turned into a strategic defeat unless Lebanon's humble victory is conceptualised and its lessons learned: the critical question is, what does a victor do with his victory, and what does a defeated power do with its defeat?

One of the major shortcomings that afflicted the Arabs from the onset of their conflict with Israel was belittling of the Jewish state's will to power and independence. On the whole, Arabs considered Israel a Western dependency, incapable of acting unilaterally in defence of its national interests, such as taking war and peace initiatives. While Israel concentrated on building viable and democratic institutions and establishing close diplomatic with the Western powers, young army officers seized and monopolized power in the Arab world and uppressed all forms of secular and religious opposition. Unlike Israel, which planted and nourished the seeds of a healthy civil society, the new Arab man on horseback bypassed and repressed civil society and became entrapped in inter- and intra-Arab dispute. These prolonged and costly conflicts sapped the strength of Arab state and society as well.

By contrast, the Lebanese example shows clearly the efficacy and success of shared responsibility between state and society. Hizbullah's effective performance resulted from the fact that it coordinated its actions with the Lebanese government and co-opted other Sunni Muslims and Christians, who fully embraced it, particularly during the last phase of the Israeli occupation. It may be convincingly argued that the weakness of the central authority in Beirut made possible the emergence of socio-religious forces that challenged Israeli occupation and played a decisive role in Israel's withdrawal from the south.

Can, however, this humble victory be maintained and consolidated without restoring the sovereignty and constitutional responsibility of the Lebanese state and rebuilding its institutions? It is essential that the Beirut government assume its legitimate duties in maintaining law and order in the south by deploying its armed forces. Despite widespread calls by the international community for Lebanon to deploy its army in the liberated security zone, the Lebanese government has not done so. Bringing the Lebanese state in does not imply giving it a new hegemonic role over society; rather it means the construction of a new healthy relationship between the two and linking the center (Beirut) with one of the historically marginalized regions (the south). With regard to south Lebanon, the consolidation of the victory requires the return of all Lebanese state institutions, including its security forces, and the reclaiming by the state of its sovereignty over all national territories. For the most part in the last year, Lebanese authorities did not act to achieve these objectives.

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Lebanon's diplomacy; Hizbullah's performance

Throughout the year, the procrastination of the Lebanese government to assume its legitimate duties in the south sent the wrong signals to the world community regarding their willingness to insure stability and order in the liberated areas. This ambivalence served Israel's diplomacy and invited competition and even fighting Amal and Hizbullah, the two dominant Shiite political rivals in the south. Despite their good intentions and declarations, throughout 2000 the two organizations came close to a major confrontation. In July 2000, several fighters from each group were either killed or injured in a bloody clash in the south. By contrast, Israel presented a peaceful face to the world, demonstrating its respect for international obligations by its withdrawal from Lebanon as stipulated by U.N. Security Council Resolution 425. Israel portrayed itself as a besieged state, willing to live peacefully with its neighbours, who supposedly continue their aggression and who threaten its very existence. In effect, Israel prepared the ground internationally for future punitive actions against Lebanon and its patron, Syria, in case of an attack from across its northern border. The United States and the European countries expressed their understanding for the new Israeli position and warned Lebanon and Syria against any armed action.

Israeli leaders sent unambiguous messages about the changed rules of the game after their hasty retreat from the south: Lebanon and Syria, not just Hizbullah, would be responsible for any outbreak of hostilities on the northern border. As then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak put it, if one Israeli civilian is harmed, Tel Aviv will retaliate against Syria and Lebanon with all its power. Indeed, all signs emanating from Tel Aviv point in the direction of such retaliation in case Israeli civilians are harmed. In a tête-à-tête with a retired officer, Barak confided that he would use all the weapons in Israel's arsenal against anyone who dared to attack Israel from Lebanon. In fact, even without a specific provocation, official and public figures alike called on Barak to attack Syrian and Lebanese targets to avenge Israeli military honour and test the new containment policy. Thus, the atmosphere is prepared internally and externally for Israel to retaliate against its two neighbours in case hostilities are resumed.

Despite an initially awkward diplomatic performance in the first few weeks after Israel's withdrawal, Lebanon and Hizbullah appreciated the new realities and showed restraint. Lebanon neither escalated the conflict nor fell into the trap of confrontation with the United Nations. Hizbullah also acted responsibly by refraining from unilateral action and attempting to transcend the sectarian divide. Although Hizbullah has made a bloody record, its new discourse emphasized the need for national unity and sought to build bridges to the other communities. Time and again, Hizbullah made it clear that it had no intention of encroaching on or replacing the state in the liberated territories.

Internally, despite some minor incidents, the Party of God challenged others to imitate its example, particularly the Palestinians. Its calls for Jihad seemed to have resonated among Palestinian youths, who rebelled and inaugurated another intifada in September 2000.

To what extent will Hizbullah's continue to exhibit the same restraint and political acumen in the future? Will the party revisit its ideological program in light of the substantive changes that have occurred on the Lebanese scene and fully accept the complex domestic reality? And will Hizbullah prove once again that it has grown deep roots in the Lebanese soil and will no longer serve as a Trojan horse, as some claim, for regional actors?

Several questions need to be addressed here: Does Lebanon and its resistance have a comprehensive blueprint for developing the devastated south? Do they really recognize the thorny challenge of development, which may be more difficult than the military confrontation with Israel? Can Hizbullah's rank and file be fully integrated into Lebanese civil society, and through what means and institutions? Are there any hurdles that might undermine the transition process from the resistance to that of citizenship? And will Hizbullah devote its energy to politics and gradually shed its paramilitary character?

These last two questions raise the important issue of how to enable Hizbullah to participate fully in the political field, with all that implies for a substantive shift in its ideological and tactical structure. No causal relationship exists between the military success of liberation movements and their capacity to confront the challenges of political and human development. Unfortunately, Arab modern history is littered with failed examples of developmental projects of populist liberation movements. Lebanon's achievement will thus ultimately depend on the country's ability to convert its intangible capital into a springboard to a comprehensive development strategy. Such conversion requires the reform and modernization of the country's political and legal institutions.

Throughout the summer 2000 Hizbullah confounded its enemies by showing restraint both internally and externally. Rather than continuing its struggle against Israel, its leadership appeared to recognize the inherent dangers of overextending itself and Lebanon's precarious political and geo-strategic position. Any further military operations against Israel would raise questions about Hizbullah's true intentions and would endanger Lebanon's fragile peace.

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Misguided brinkmanship along the Israeli-Lebanese border?

Hizbullah's initial restraint has given way to inflated discourse and misguided brinkmanship. Since October 2000, Hizbullah has inaugurated a new military campaign to liberate the disputed Sheba Farms. Although Lebanon has finally convinced the international community of its sovereignty over the Farms, it has lost a great deal of credibility by appearing to sanction Hizbullah's armed tactics in the south. The party's new military campaign led some local and international observers to fear that the Palestinian intifada, that has left almost 500 Palestinians dead and thousands injured, may easily spiral out of control and spread into neighbouring Lebanon, threatening to revive the dormant front in south Lebanon and endangering the fragile peace there.

On October 7, cutting through the security fence in the disputed Sheba Farms along the Israeli-Lebanese border, Hizbullah fighter’s captured three Israeli soldiers, signalling their intention to renew the struggle against the Jewish state unless the latter accedes to their demands. These include the release of scores of Lebanese detainees still being held by Israel and the return Israeli-occupied Sheba Farms, which Syria and Lebanon have said it belongs to the Lebanese and which Israel says it seized from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war (the United Nations has determined the Farms to be Syrian territory unrelated to Israeli withdrawal). Hizbullah's action was also designed to show solidarity with the besieged Palestinians. As Hizbullah's secretary general, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, put it after the kidnapping, "we say to the Palestinian people that you are not alone." On 16 November, Hizbullah attacked an Israeli patrol also in the Sheba Farms and injured a few soldiers. The party's leadership has vowed to continue its attacks until Israel withdraws from all occupied Lebanese territories and releases the prisoners. In the meantime, Israel continues to violate Lebanon's air and land, unrestrained by UN warnings.

Regardless of whether Hizbullah's armed actions are legitimate or not, they threaten to pit Lebanon against the United Nations and the international community which have already certified Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon based on UN Resolution 425. UN officials, including the secretary general, Kofi Annan, and his representative for southern Lebanon, Rolf Knutsson, criticized Lebanese authorities in strong terms for permitting armed incursions from their borders and implicitly held them responsible for violating UN understandings. The UN Security Council also approved Annan's report that appears to pin the blame on the Lebanese government for its inability or unwillingness to deploy troops along its Israeli border. The United Nations also criticized Israel for flying warplanes over Lebanese territory and demanded "that (Israeli air) violations come to an end immediately."

Furthermore, the Clinton administration bluntly warned Lebanon that it would pay heavy costs if it does not control and pacify its border with Israel. The direct manner and blunt tone in which Washington's warning was delivered by the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon reflects its seriousness and displeasure with the Lebanese government. It also represents an implicit signal that Washington might turn the other way if Israel delivers on its threats and bombs Lebanon. Being more diplomatic and nuanced than his American counterpart, the French Ambassador cautioned against military escalation in southern Lebanon and called indirectly on the Lebanese government to be extra careful and vigilant.

Although Hizbullah's daring operations were loudly applauded by Arab and Iranian public opinion inflamed by Israel's brutal crackdown against Palestinian civilians, it carries considerable risks to Lebanon and Syria, and it threatens further escalation. To begin, Lebanon, a small and vulnerable country, cannot afford to challenge or violate UN resolutions and understandings. Lebanon badly needs to align itself with international legitimacy, not appear as an international renegade. To ignore UN warnings would play into Israeli hands and would empower the latter to unleash its destructive military apparatus against civilian targets. Without the UN safety net, Lebanon would be exposed to Israeli military wrath, with devastating consequences to society and economy. The fact that the Israeli government had not retaliated against Lebanon after Hizbullah's kidnapped three of its soldiers and an alleged intelligence officer, who was duped to visit Beirut, should not lull the Lebanese authorities into a state complacency.

If Hizbullah resumes its military operations in the Sheba Farms, Israel would likely choose the time and place to punish Lebanon and its patron, Syria. For example, as soon as Hizbullah fighters seized the Israeli soldiers in October, Israeli Prime Minister Barak said he would hold Damascus and Beirut accountable for their safe return. His deputy defence minister, Ephraim Sneh issued a sterner warning to Syria: "We consider Syria, who controls Lebanon, as responsible for everything that happens there. It is the role of Syria now to stop the aggression promptly. Otherwise, Syria is the address for our response." No doubt American intervention with Tel Aviv, coupled with the fear for soldiers' lives and further escalation of Arab-Israeli tensions, prompted Israeli leaders to bid their time and wait and see.

However, it would be the height of misguided brinkmanship to count and assume that Israel would remain passive in the future. The Israeli military is reportedly dissatisfied with the civilian leadership for fettering its hands in Lebanon and weakening its deterrence capability. Further attacks on the Israeli army would provide with plenty of ammunition to retaliate against Lebanon and even Syrian targets there. The escalating intifada in Palestine may also motivate the Israeli government and his generals to expand the theatre of operations into Lebanon and Syria to divert world attention from the terribly deteriorating human tragedy in Palestinian territories and force the Syrians into the negotiating table. Israel's desperate domestic situation, coupled with the lack of decisive leadership in the United States, might also prompt him to go on the offensive in an effort to escape coming to terms with Palestinian fundamental rights. To put it bluntly, neither the Lebanese government nor Hizbullah should gamble on the fact that Israel is incapable of taking the initiative and retaliating against Lebanon. This estimate does not take into account the new developments in Palestine, Israel, and the United States. It is in Lebanon's national interests to cooperate fully with the United Nations lest Israel uses and abuses the UN cover to operationalise its strategy.

Next, Lebanon already paid dearly for its ambivalence toward sending its armed forces into the south and pacifying the area. Despite UN and Western requests for the Lebanese government to deploy troops along its Israeli border, the latter refused to do so saying that it does not want to serve as Israel's border guard and lest the army finds itself in confrontation with Hizbullah. The result is that the United States and the European powers have procrastinated in convening an international aid conference to assist in developing the war-torn southern region. Although neither the United States nor the European Union draws a direct link between the delay in providing assistance to Lebanon and the Beirut government's inability or unwillingness to maintain order and stability in the south, they acknowledge the need to pacify the area before granting any substantive financial assistance. Have no doubt about: the link is there, notwithstanding the diplomatic denials by the Americans, the Europeans, and even the Lebanese. Lebanon should not expect any Western aid to rebuild the devastated south as long as the Lebanese-Israeli border remains volatile.

Lebanon has established its legal rights to the Sheba Farms. After Syria had finally sent written instructions to the United Nations to this effect (in 2001), Israel may no longer pretend or claim not to be occupying Lebanese territory. However, the question that is worth stressing, should Lebanon defy UN wishes and continue its struggle against Israel until it withdraws from the Farms? Or should Lebanon use diplomatic channels, including the United Nations, to force Israel out of the Farms? Should the diplomatic option not be given a priority at this dangerous stage, and should not Israel's occupation of the Farms be made plainly clear to the world community, which was not initially convinced by the Lebanese case? Is it not about time that the Lebanese people begin to debate this critical and highly inflammable issue that can easily drown their life and society in bloodshed and destruction?

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The Syrian-Lebanese relationship

Immediately after Israeli withdrawal in 2000, the regional actors had a vested interest in de-escalation, particularly Syria, which underwent a political-economic transition. The death of Assad in June 2000 after 30 years of uninterrupted rule and his replacement by son, Bashar, made the Syrian leadership cautious and hesitant to take risks. According to reliable reports from Washington, the US-administration impressed upon Damascus the need for political stability in Lebanon after the hasty exist of Israeli forces from the south. In return, Washington promised to keep the Syrian-Israeli track alive. Little wonder that although in the first few weeks after Israel's withdrawal, Syrian rulers expressed their uneasiness about this new development, they suddenly shifted gear and showed diplomatic flexibility and moderation. For example, Syria's foreign minister, Farouq al-Shara also stressed that his country opposes any military escalation in south Lebanon after Israel's departure. He also expressed his satisfaction at Hizbullah’s responsible conduct in the areas vacated by Israel. Syria's stabilizing role was informed by the need to keep channels of communications open to Washington as well as to deprive Israel of any justification for unleashing its military apparatus. The Syrian leadership appeared to know that the rules of game have changed in south Lebanon. Its critical reading of the dangerous new situation motivated it to cooperate fully with the UN efforts to maintain stability.

The continued stalemate on the Syrian-Israeli track might motivate Damascus to exert pressure on Tel Aviv by giving the nod to Hizbullah to heat up the Lebanese front in the south. By the end of the year 2000, that is exactly what transpired. Although Syrian officials deny their involvement in Hizbullah's actions, they stress their support for armed resistance. The Syrians seem to be determined to re-establish the linkage between the Syrian and Lebanese tracks. The critical question will depend on Israel's ability to act on its threat and attack Syrian forces directly. At any rate, neither the withdrawal of Israel's forces nor the death of Assad in 2000 seemed to have changed a basic fact about tiny Lebanon: it is still being used as a staging arena for its neighbours' military-diplomatic operations and a political football kicked at their political convenience. Unfortunately, the Lebanese people are active agents and participants in this charade.

Ironically, in their attempt to both please and outbid their Syrian patrons, Lebanese officials miscalculated and acted prematurely regarding Sheba farms, a strip of land occupied by Israel and claimed by both Lebanon and Syria. Although in the first few months after Israel's withdrawal Syrian rulers sent ambiguous signals about their claims to the farms, by the end of 2000 the Syrian foreign minister subsequently agreed "fully" with the UN report that did not include Sheba farms in Israel's withdrawal and left open the question of their ownership. This did considerable damage to Lebanon's diplomatic credibility. Whatever the reasons behind Syria's revived position, it saved Lebanon from escalating tensions. In the summer of last year, Lebanese diplomacy committed serious blunders by failing to appreciate the complex dynamics of regional and international politics; otherwise, it would have coordinated its position more closely with Syria before outbidding it later. Lebanon's stand was viewed as a convenient pretext both to sabotage Israel's planned withdrawal and to rationalize the continuation of hostilities if withdrawal failed to occur. Syria's rational decision seems to have freed Lebanon's hands.

The infelicitous argument over the Sheba farms is part of a larger problem affecting Syrian-Lebanese relations. Beirut's ability to build a modern state depends to a large extent on redefining the one-sided Syrian-Lebanese relationship. The irresponsible manner with which Lebanese officials approached the Sheba farms in 2000 shows clearly the unhealthy nature of this relationship. The project of building a modern state in Lebanon is unlikely to be implemented as long as the political survival of its ruling elite remains dependent on Damascus. Constructing a modern state in Lebanon will probably remain out of reach as long as Lebanese-Syrian interactions are hostage to tribal and sectarian interests rooted in Beirut's complex political system.

However, the beginning of 2001 witnessed critical developments on the Lebanese-Syrian front. Israel's retreat, coupled with Assad's death and the Parliamentary elections in August and September, emboldened many Lebanese citizens and motivated them to question the nature and character of their country's dependency on Damascus. The debate on this issue is no longer restricted to the Christians, particularly the Maronites and their Patriarch, Nasrallah Sfeir, who advocated the restructuring of Syrian-Lebanese relations in order for Lebanon to regain its independence and sovereignty and for Syria to end its flagrant interference in the country's internal affairs. In August last year during their annual retreat the Maronite bishops inaugurated the new campaign by releasing a statement that called for a dramatic shift in Lebanon's relations with Syria. Sfeir subsequently escalated the onslaught against Damascus' hegemony and criticized the Lebanese authorities for their submission and dependence.

For a while in the summer 2000, the dominant call for reclaiming Lebanon's sovereignty was restricted to the Maronite Christians, threatening to get transformed into a sectarian fight between, on the one hand, the Muslims, who appeared to be pro-Syrian and, on the other, the Christians, who advanced a Lebanon's first approach. During the Parliamentary elections and in its aftermath, however, Walid Jumblatt, an influential Druze leader, dropped a historic bomb by joining the growing calls in Lebanon for Syria to refrain for interfering in the country's internal affairs as well as re-deploy its troops from Beirut and other cities and towns to the Bekaa valley in accordance with the Taif accords. Jumblatt and other critics pointed that Syria and its ruling clients in Beirut ignored and violated the main clause in the Taif accords, which regulated the Syrian military presence in Lebanon. The Syrians and their allies in Lebanon could no longer accuse the opposition of being narrow, sectarian, and unrepresentative. Jumblatt's intervention changed the nature of the debate and broadened the opposition's social and political base.

In the last months, the wall of silence and fear collapsed and civil society engaged in a heated debate about Syria's role in Lebanon. The genie is out of the Pandora's box and neither the new Syrian President, Bashar, nor his Lebanese counterpart, Emille Lahoud, could put it back safely in the box and lock it. The new leadership in Damascus showed signs of confusion and hesitation and did not know how to contain or respond to the assertive voices emanating from Beirut. This ambivalence manifested itself in the initiative by the speaker of the parliament, Nabih Berri, who tried to mediate between the Syrians and Patriarch Sfeir. Berri informed Sfeir that the Syrians had already decided to re-deploy their troops before Sfeir's call for their withdrawal. Lahoud reportedly felt that Berri's initiative overshadowed his presidential prerogative and that he, as head of state, should be in charge of how Beirut's interacts with Damascus. The Syrian leadership concurred and withdrew the carpet from under Berri's feet, thus embarrassing the latter, one of Syria's closest clients, and re-establishing Lahoud's sole authority over this critical question.

Regardless of Syria's military presence and political pre-eminence in Lebanon, particularly its ability to play off the ruling elite and the various religious sects against each other, the last year marked a watershed in Damascus' previous hegemony over its small neighbour. The Syrians authorities faced critical challenges that they cannot escape from addressing for too long. Indeed, a consensus is gradually emerging in Lebanon regarding the need to bring the bilateral Lebanese-Syrian relationship into a balance based on respect for one another's sovereignty and independence. Many voices in Lebanon have begun to openly question Syria's role in their country. It is doubtful if Syria can maintain its traditional role and dominance in Lebanon for long. Israel's retreat from the south complicated Syrian-Lebanese relations, especially after Assad's death. Aware of the upheaval in Lebanon, the new Syrian president alluded to the need for greater efforts to improve the nature of the "special relationship" between the two countries.

It remains to be seen, however, if the Syrian leadership would have the will and vision to chart a dramatically new course of action with Lebanon. Observers of Syria agree that the economic, political, and strategic importance of Lebanon to Damascus has increased rather than decreased following Israel's departure and will continue even if Syria signs a peace treaty with the Jewish state. The Syrian ruling elite has built intricate financial and economic links in Lebanon and benefits considerably by preserving the status quo there. In this case, Syria's political dominance of Lebanon serves the elite's vested economic interests. Assad's death did not dramatically alter this reality. The critical question to address revolves around Syria's strategy to deal with the restiveness and upheaval that are rocking its Lebanon's boat. How will the unseasoned Bashar Assad contain the growing calls and demands in Lebanon for restructuring the one-sided relationship? Will Syrian rulers employ old, effective means, such as the fear of rekindling the bloody fires of sectarianism, to divert attention from their new predicament in Lebanon and keep the unruly Lebanese under a tight leash? Will the Lebanese again fall victims to their own sectarian divide? Or will the liberation of south Lebanon contribute to the emergence of a new and inclusive nationalism that may serve as the basis of a modern state, one that has often been aborted in the contemporary history of Lebanon?

The key question is whether the liberation of south Lebanon will promote a rethinking of traditional loyalties and a nurturing of liberal constructs. Of course, the project of building a modern state must await both the rethinking of the unequal Lebanese-Syrian relationship and intra-Lebanese relations as well. The fear is that the seizure and monopoly of Lebanon's external role could retard the further evolution of its quasi-liberal institutions. In this context, to what extent does the current Syrian-Lebanese relationship inhibit the growth and consolidation of liberal institutionalism in Lebanon? Do the tensions and contradictions inherent in Syrian-Lebanese relations strengthen Lebanon's culture of sectarianism and fuel and produce authoritarianism as well? What are the prospects of state- and nation-building in light of the emergence of the new elite and its dismal subservience? And how does the further dilution and monopolization of Lebanon's external role complicates Lebanon's crisis of governance and economics?

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The parliamentary elections and Hariri's comeback

The question of Syrian-Lebanese relations and Lahoud's conduct lay at the heart of the Parliamentary elections and the decisive victory by the opposition, particularly the coalition assembled by Hariri and Jumblatt. As usual, Damascus aimed at drawing the broad contours of the political map by assisting in the construction of convenient, loyal electoral coalitions. Although partly successful, the elections resulted in a backlash against Damascus’ preponderant influence as well as the economic failure of the Salim Huss' cabinet to deliver on its promises after two years in power.

The new dynamic in electoral politics witnessed a rapprochement between the Christian community and Druze leader, Jumblatt, a move that helped both parties in the elections because it was directed against both the Syrian and Lebanese governments. Jumblatt, a shrewd politician, sensed the general dissatisfaction in Christian and Druze ranks and capitalized on anti-Syrian sentiment to score a decisive victory, more than 80 percent of the Druze votes. Similarly, Hariri, a Sunni leader, was not on good terms with either the Syrians or the Lahoud administration and in 1998 was replaced by Huss as Prime Minister. Lahoud and Huss made the discrediting of Hariri, his men, and his previous policies one of their top priorities. They not only accused Hariri's tenure of being monstrously wasteful but also un-abashedly corrupt, dragging several of his close associates into courtrooms and prisons. Lahoud and Huss went as far as to devise a new electoral law in greater Beirut, specifically designed to reduce Hariri's influence and marginalize him in the upcoming elections.

Regardless of the veracity and legitimacy of some of these charges, the Sunni community in greater Beirut resented the bitter campaign against its generous son and did not forgive Huss for his perceived subordination to Lahoud. At the heart of this resentment lie the contested prerogatives of both the Sunni premier and Maronite president. Hariri was also assisted by an amateur government that invested much energy and resources to discredit him by assaulting his character and legacy. Far from discrediting Hariri or Jumblatt in the eyes of the electorates, the media onslaught by the government produced opposite results. Hariri and the opposition benefited considerably from the public's sympathies and widespread dissatisfaction with Lahoud-Huss' policies. The perceived interference by shadow army officers in the presidential palace did not help either; neither did Huss' constant stress on the role of "political money" utilized - supposedly by Hariri - in the election campaigns.

The results were a rout for the anti-Hariri camp. Hariri won handsomely, 80 percent of the Sunni vote in Beirut, and all seats in his precinct, 19 in all. Huss, a highly respected politician, lost his own seat in the Parliament and his allies as well. Hariri made his political comeback overnight. Despite their previous misgivings, both the Syrian and Lebanese governments acknowledged the obvious and accepted Hariri's return to power. In October, Hariri appointed new cabinet and said that priority will go to leading Lebanon out of a recession. The elections were mainly a referendum on the performance of the Lahoud-Huss administration as well as Syria's heavy handedness and control of political life in Lebanon. Both were found wanting by a restive electorate, who voted for the opposition. This is not the whole story, however. It was the "loaf of bread" that facilitated Hariri's political comeback.

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It is the economy, stupid!

More than anything else, the results of the summer 2000 Parliamentary elections reflected the dismal failure of the Huss cabinet to tackle the structural problems in the Lebanese economy. Far from being the year of a breakthrough, the last year witnessed a deterioration in the living standards of most Lebanese and increased poverty and the alienation of the youths and their desire to emigrate. One popular story has it that every morning the Canadian Embassy places 300 applications for immigration outside its main door - and that by 9 a.m. they are all gone. One would expect a similar situation at other Western and Gulf embassies. Many citizens had high hopes that Huss would succeed in turning the sinking wheel of the economy around and plant the seeds of recovery. These initial hopes crashed on the rocks of political and financial reality and lack of vision and fear of risk taking measures that paralysed economy and society further. In other words, the Huss cabinet failed in carrying through its economic program that was based on financial restructuring, reducing the total budget deficit and national debts as well. Internal political bickering and short sightedness also complicated the government's efforts to tackle the entrenched socio-economic crisis.

Some statistics are in order. In 2000 Lebanon experienced the slowest growth of all Arab countries, zero percent growth in GDP, according to the 2000 edition of World Outlook, the annual forecasting guide. Some private forecasting reports indicated negative growth rate. Finance minister George Corm kept his promise to reduce the total budget deficit to below the 43 percent mark in 1999, defying those specialists who said that the figure would top 50 percent. However, his prediction that the total budget deficit will be 46 percent of spending by year's end (2000) was off the mark. According to the finance ministry, by the end of the year, the total budget deficit amounted to $3 billion, or 52.2 percent of spending. Mainly dwindling revenues caused the deficit and a high government spending after it adopted austerity measures the previous year. The public debt also increased by ten percent, standing at about $24 billion and expected to top $27 billion by the end of 2001, from that of 1999 and the government acknowledged the need for more effective strategies to manage and reduce the ballooning public debt, especially since it exceeded 140 percent of the GDP.

According to a recent study entitled Employment and Unemployment in Lebanon, 2000 conducted by The Centre for Development Studies and Projects (MADMA), the total labour force in Lebanon in the year 2000 was estimated at about 1.1 million individuals, of whom 165,000 were unemployed. What is alarming is that the larger portion of the unemployed, 49.1 percent, are better educated. These young men and women are more inclined to emigrate, a situation which, left unchanged, will leave Lebanon bereft of talents as well as vulnerable and incapable of competing in today's competitive and sophisticated markets. Some unofficial reports put the number of unemployment around 40 percent, a fact, as a local newspaper correctly noted, that hardly surprises when one considers the sheer number of idle young men standing about on Beirut's street corners.

How long will the government be able to keep these unemployed and restive young men quiet? What will be the social and political consequences of any further deterioration in the peoples' already strained standards of living? How will discontent manifest itself? And to what extent will dismal socio-economic conditions dress in sectarian cloths and rekindle social conflict? For example, the last year witnessed a highly disturbing phenomenon - a bloody four-day insurrection by a young group of Sunni militants in the Dinnieh region in north Lebanon. The military staged a show of force, mobilizing hundreds of troops, backed by tanks and artillery to put down this uprising. At least 50 soldiers, militants, and civilians were killed. Sixty-three people were tried, at least eight of whom people were reportedly sentenced to death, though none of the sentences has been carried out. These militants hoped to manipulate the wretched social and economic conditions in the north to gain public sympathy, particularly among Muslims, fuel general dissatisfaction and disorder. The fact that the Lebanese authorities put down this insurrection should not lull them into complacency. Now in some areas in Lebanon dismal living social conditions provide a fertile territory for social discontent.

Although after Hariri assumed office in October 2000 made improving the sickly economy his top priority, Lebanon's structural problems defy simple and quick remedies. His hands are also fettered by domestic political considerations and geo-strategic realities. In the final analysis, the crisis confronting the Lebanese leadership is as much political as it is economic. During a two-day visit to Beirut in December 2000, World Bank president James Wolfensohn put his finger on Lebanon's festering wounds. He warned his Lebanese interlocutors not to expect critical financial assistance by the world community unless they stop their internal political bickering and put their house in order: it is no longer "a question of winning or losing internal battles," adding that "if the boat's got some holes in it, you all sink together unless you come together." Wolfensohn also stressed the urgent need for debt reduction and restoring confidence in the Lebanese economy by not only cutting taxes but also avoiding waste by collecting them more efficiently. He added that Hariri's plan to stimulate growth must be accompanied by steps such as privatisation. Nevertheless, in Wolfensohn's view, the first condition for recovery revolves around domestic stability and internal political unity of the ruling elite because unless that is achieved, the government's efforts would be in vain.

Despite the elites' awareness of the enormity of the economic burden, they are unlikely to close ranks. They are neither independent nor free to pursue the national interest. Furthermore, some of the new elite lack a solid social base, which makes them insecure and motivates them to outbid each other. The new elite does not see eye-to-eye on many important issues, such as the nature of the Syrian-Lebanese relationship, the role of Hizbullah's in south Lebanon, and the question of peace and war with Israel. Developments in recent months showed the existence of serious disagreements among Lebanese politicians, and there are no apparent signs pointing to the dilution and disappearance of these differences in the near future. Lebanon's economic survival is likely to remain hostage to internal political bickering.

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Human Rights and personal freedoms

The deteriorating economic and political conditions negatively affected human rights and personal freedoms and liberties. Political arrests, summary trials, and prison torture were widely practiced in Lebanon while asylum seekers were forcefully expelled, according to Amnesty International's (AI) 2001 report. Detailing accounts of political arrests, the report stated, "hundreds of people, mostly students and people suspected of opposing the government, were arrested, mostly for holding protests or peaceful demonstrations."

Suspected members of radical Islamic groups and students associated with the Free Patriotic Movement of exiled former army commander General Michel Aoun were singled out. Last August, at least six people were jailed after calling for a boycott of parliamentary elections. In September, at least 90 suspected Lebanese Forces members were arrested in Mount Lebanon commemorating the 19th anniversary of the assassination of the LF founder, President-elect Bashir Gemayel. The report underlined alleged cases of unjust trials, saying that more than 1,000 political prisoners were sentenced in summary trials by military courts. In April, 12 students affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement were handed sentences ranging from 10-45 days in prison for assaulting members of the Internal Security Forces. The report added that more than 2,300 former SLA members or convicted collaborators were sentenced by military courts and given summary trials that barely lasted seven minutes per case. "This haste," according to AI's report, "doesn't give way for proving anyone's innocence, nor to discovering war criminals."

As for "torture and mistreatment," AI said they had received reports of "brutal conduct on behalf of police officers," none of whom were reported to have been investigated. The reported accounts included physical and psychological torture, beating, electrocution, and unethical interrogation methods such as hanging suspects down from wooden stakes in a process commonly called farrouj, or roasted chicken. The report also tackled other issues such as the harassment and pursuit of two human rights activists, Kamal Batal, the director of MIRSAD, a human rights organization, and his lawyer, Mohammed Moghrabi, on vice allegations. According to AI hundreds of political refugees in Lebanon, from Sudan, Iraq and other countries, were detained and many were tortured and forced to give up their refugee status and return to their countries of origin, despite the potential threat to their safety.

The report spoke of Khiam prison, liberated during the Israeli withdrawal May 2000, where inhumane treatment and torture of Lebanese citizens by SLA members had resulted in at least 16 deaths over the past 15 years.

There is, it seems, a causal relationship between economic and political decline and setbacks for human rights and personal freedoms in Lebanon. Instead of expanding the space of freedom to compensate for deteriorating social and economic conditions, the state is steadily and gradually encroaching upon society. As the Amnesty International's report shows, the conduct of the internal security services threatens citizens' basic freedoms and liberties as well as plants the seeds of authoritarianism in Lebanon. Lebanese politicians, including Hariri and Berri, expressed their fear and their inability to reign in the security services, particularly their disregard for the constitution and law. They have portrayed them as unruly, out of control, and a danger to Lebanon's liberal institutions; a state within a state. Although never stated explicitly, it is insinuated that the security services are not accountable to the Lebanese cabinet or government. From whom then do the security services take their orders? What does this situation reveal about the nature and character of the state in Lebanon?

For all their historical importance, developments in the last time did not dramatically change the complex dynamics of Lebanese politics or the country's geo-strategic predicament. Lebanon's political class still lacks the vision, courage, and a blueprint to empower the citizens and free their genius. Internal political bickering lies at the heart of the crisis that tearing the Lebanese body politic apart. The danger is that these political tensions strengthen the culture of sectarianism and impede efforts to tackle the country's structural difficulties. Lebanon's very destiny also remains intricately inter-wined with its regional environment. Will Lebanon be able in the near future to address these problems decisively and resolve as well, or will it, as usual, improvise and apply half-measures which prolong its peoples' agony and suffering?

    Fawaz A. Gerges holds the Christian A. Johnson Chair in international affairs and Middle Eastern affairs at Sarah Lawrence College, New York. He conducted intensive research on the rising social and political movements in the Arab world. His latest book, America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures Or Clash of Interests?, was published by Cambridge University Press, 1999. He has written several books and many articles on various aspects of Middle East history and politics.

© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | net edition fes-library | September 2001