Is Lebanon’s Government Formation Actually Coming Together; Will Lebanon Realize the CEDRE Commitmen

As Lebanon winds its way towards the formation of a government, there are many questions concerning the expected contentious discussions around the ministerial statement that sets out the priorities of the new government. There have already been reports coming out of the prime minister’s office delineating the more obvious issues: adopting reforms called for in the international donors conference, ensuring that the national budget is adhered to and public funds are used effectively, the policy of dissociation is restated and emphasized as the way forward for Lebanon’s regional foreign policy, the status of the Syrian refugees and repatriation are urgently addressed, opposing efforts to make Lebanon responsible for generations of Palestinian refugees, affirming the strength and independence of the banking sector, and relations with Russia among other key players in the region.

In addition, there are concerns that the statement may be as opaque as labne, a very thick version of laban, Lebanon’s yogurt, and avoid the hot issues of the environment, health care, waste management, the role of the Lebanese Armed Forces and Internal Security Services, regionalization, deteriorating infrastructure, overbuilding in urban areas, and how to build an inclusive and sustainable economic opportunities for youth and women.

There will be many observers looking for key terms that affect their relations with Lebanon, for example, what will be said about Hezbollah, Iran, and the continued presence of Hezbollah forces in Syria; future ties with a resurgent Syria; how Lebanon will respond to US redlines related to the role of Hezbollah within the new government and continuing as a regional proxy for Iran; will Lebanon restate its commitment to its independent existence as a multireligious, multi-sectarian entity; will economic issues related to the opening of the Nassib border crossing be specifically mentioned; what will be said about the demarcation talks needed to push ahead with energy exploration; will there be a reference to Israel’s violations of the southern border and Palestinian rights in the West Bank and Gaza; and what will be said to calm potential investors and promote economic growth and stability.

As noted in a recent article in Executive Magazine, Lebanon received pledges of support amounting to $11 billion: $10.2 billion in soft loans and around $800 million in grants. The bulk of the commitments came from The World Bank in a package of soft and concessionary loans totaling $4 billion.

Recounting Lebanon’s not so successful history with international donors conferences, the article poses a number of questions including, “Do the CEDRE proposals have any chance to succeed, given the regional dynamics and the conflicting interests of the different stakeholders? Can Lebanon’s economy go on despite the worrying economic indicators?” And if economic growth declines even further, will Lebanese join their Syrian counterparts in seeking livelihoods elsewhere?

Lebanon’s offer at CEDRE is based on four assumptions: increasing public and private investment; ensuring economic and financial stability by bringing order to the national budget and fiscal policies, implementing key sectoral and cross-sectoral reforms including fighting corruption and modernizing public sector financial administration and management; and building a long-term strategy for economic diversification and growing exports.

Regardless of what Lebanon agreed to in Paris, “Lebanese and international economists are increasingly warning that the country is experiencing a financial crisis that, despite reassurances by politicians and central bankers, could threaten the national exchange rate and the banking sector if appropriate and specific actions are not implemented. “

While the major political players have committed themselves to the CEDRE agreement, the article concludes that “In the end, reforms needed to unlock CEDRE financing and put Lebanon back on the path toward renewed economic growth and monetary stability will require compromises from political and economic Lebanese stakeholders, and a willingness to break from past behavior.” Looking backwards, the way forward doesn’t look straightforward.

While there are no clear indicators as to the disposition of the political leadership regarding the ministerial statement, there are signs that the major players are tiring of the stalemate pitting Christians against Christians and Druze against Druze, thus giving other players the opportunity to angle for concessions that favor them and their constituencies. While this is especially bad news for Prime Minister designate Hariri and his Future Party, it continues to demonstrate that Lebanon’s political leadership counts on dysfunctional and zero-sum strategies to keep themselves in power.

Collateral Damage – Lebanon

Summer is over; the UN has completed its 73rd annual opening session with the charges, countercharges, and conspiracies that we have come to expect in the speeches of various world leaders and regional luminaries. The US was one of the main accusers to take center stage along with China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia, each trading dark analyses of others’ intentions, motives, and end-games. Lebanon’s friends should be concerned that it was singled out far too often either directly or indirectly as the locus of much of what is wrong in the Middle East, due chiefly to the influence of Saudi Arabia and the US, or conversely, the machinations of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah. Lebanon is on unsure ground for sure.

President Michel Aoun alluded to the many contradictions in the in the global system in his UN speech when he remarked about the selective enforcement of UN Security Council Resolutions as a fact of political life, which leaves small countries like Lebanon at the mercy of more powerful countries. Today, Lebanon’s status as an independent, multi-religious, multicultural entity is threatened by the interests of Israel, Syria, and Iran through its proxy Hezbollah, states and forces not concerned with human rights of the “other,” whether they be their own citizens or neighbors who have different interests and priorities.

Even those analysts who are predicting an inevitable conflict in the region, as a consequence of Israel’s threat perceptions and the likelihood of a clash with Iran and its proxies, tend to measure their assessments from an Israeli perspective, or how Russia will benefit, or any other scenario that avoids recognizing the horrendous existential damage that will be done to Lebanon as a consequence of Israel and Iran’s regional ambitions.

You could follow Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu’s viewpoint that Hezbollah and its “massive” missile inventory is poised at the heart of Israel and so Lebanon will pay an extraordinary price for not acquiescing in the logic for Israel’s incursions into the country over the past 40 years. As its supporters note, “The potential for yet another war—one of unprecedented scope and complexity—is an outcome of the Syrian civil war, which has enabled Iran to build a military infrastructure in Syria and to deploy its Shi’a ‘foreign legion’ to Israel’s borders.”

This has resulted in a nightmarish series of scenarios pitting Israel against Iran in various configurations. The challenge is clear. “Because of the size of its rocket and missile arsenal and its ground forces, keeping the bulk of Hezbollah’s forces out of a northern war and preventing such a war from spreading to Lebanon may greatly facilitate efforts to prevent a limited local war from becoming a much bigger war, and from perhaps sparking a regional conflagration.”

Scholar Daniel Byman provides another perspective on why Hezbollah and Israel will not go to war, at least not yet. He argues that due to the accuracy and number of Hezbollah missiles, Israel will be reluctant to mount a full-scale operation without extreme provocation. Hezbollah, he believes, has not endeared itself to the majority of the Lebanese people by its adventures in Syria and elsewhere. “Siding with the butcher Assad against the Sunni Muslim opposition, however, made Hezbollah look like an Iranian- and Syrian-controlled sectarian actor rather than an Islamic resistance force. For much of the Sunni Arab world, Hezbollah became the devil incarnate.”

Also, he argues that its recent electoral success counters more militaristic bravado. “In sum, because Hezbollah wants to wield power in Lebanon, it is less likely to use the country as a theater for the fight against Israel, especially if it can do so in Syria instead.” Unfortunately, Hezbollah’s role in the government gives Israel a rationale for demanding that the Lebanese government rein in Hezbollah, without recognizing its own culpability by working with past US administrations to ensure limits to Lebanon’s military capabilities and manipulations of its internal political regime.

The ambivalence in the Israel-US posture towards UNIFIL is another indication of how the lack of a strategic policy beyond Israel’s survival instinct may have unintended consequences. Recent claims at the UN by Netanyahu about Hezbollah missile batteries around Beirut proved to be unfounded charges when 73 foreign diplomats toured the areas three days later (prompting Israeli officials to claim that the facilities could have easily been moved in that time period).

If the US and Israel endorsed and supported UNIFIL’s role, which is much further to the south, there would be much better intelligence about threats on the ground and possibly a more robust surveillance regime that would enhance prospects for deterrence. When asked if Israel’s many aerial and ground violations of the armistice line were provocative acts, the UNIFIL spokesman responded: “UNIFIL continues to work closely with all the parties to help keep the area of operations stable. From the UNIFIL’s point of view, and in the context of our mandate, the most important consideration is the continued commitment of the parties to a cessation of hostilities and to full cooperation with the UNIFIL.” As we have argued elsewhere, it is time for the US to work with UNIFIL as a partner to both counter disinformation from Israel and clarify what UNIFIL could do more effectively to fulfill its mandate.

Overall, there is a pall over Lebanon’s future. Its government is still “in formation” some five months after the elections. Although the conflict in Syria is winding down, there is great uncertainty about the implications for Lebanon both externally, for example, re-opening of trade routes, refugee repatriation, and relations with Syria; and internally, like how Hezbollah’s new regional role will affect Lebanon’s internal dynamics, and if political alignments will attempt to change the constitution to disadvantage the Christians and Druze even further. A bell-weather will be the composition of the new government, the ministerial statement setting out its agenda, and whether the body politic becomes more splintered as a result. It may be a long time before summer comes again in Lebanon.

What Would Dad Think of Lebanon Today?

When I think about Lebanon today, I always end up remembering my father. He was born on 10/10/1910 and died 104 years later. As many of his generation, he attended primary school in the north of Lebanon, worked with his family in their fields, went to Brazil to work with his father and brother selling household goods from a dugout canoe on the Amazon, lost it all in the Depression, returned to Lebanon via a stay in France, and then rebuilt his family farm so that they could have a continuing source of food. For cash he made charcoal to sell in the surrounding villages and then went to work in a bicycle shop in Beirut. Not very glamorous to be sure…but along the way he learned Arabic, French, Spanish, and Portuguese, at least enough to survive and succeed.

Then along came my mother Elizabeth, who had emigrated to the US years before and returned to Lebanon to marry the man she had decided was for her…and my dad’s life changed forever. Not that he had much choice. She was strong-willed, a relative, and knew what was best for him. So they traveled to the US and followed so many before them in selling goods to local communities first as peddlers, then from trucks and small stores. Not much news here but it is useful to learn from the past when we are trying to figure out why so many of us still love Lebanon despite its various attempts at self-disfiguration as in the abuse of the environment, and its efforts at self-destruction as reflected in the political culture of the country.

Fortunately, my parents lived close by in their last years so I had some time to reflect with them on their journeys. When I asked my dad how he was able to take on so many new responsibilities during his lifetime, his response was simple, “To survive, I was always ready for the next adventure.” When I see the frustrations in Lebanon today, as he must have when he first returned 30 years after he left, I wonder what happened to those Lebanese qualities of risk-taking, entrepreneurism, sense of community, and initiative that are absent in its political culture today.

You can argue that there are many business start-ups, that the Lebanese continue to showcase their talents globally, and that it can master its future if only left alone without external interference, but that’s not what is evident in Lebanon today. The private sector is grossly under-resourced and constrained except for its wealthiest members. Lebanese abroad are reluctant to invest significantly due to the lack of transparency and corruption in dealings; and Lebanese politicians seem content to mortgage Lebanon’s future to authoritarian allies in the region and beyond. Confessionalism eats away at the body politic so that even the best and brightest feel obliged to find champions outside of the country. Syria and Iran and likely Saudi Arabia act as if they have rights in Lebanon to dictate its future and too many Lebanese are ready to comply, if only to settle long-standing grievances with other clans and parties. And who can tell how Russia’s interests will further skew Lebanon’s independence.

There are many issues emblematic of these dysfunctional tendencies that are on the agenda once government formation occurs, or new elections are held: a realistic and rapid timetable for the professional and transparent implementation of political and economic decentralization; the role of Hezbollah in the future of Lebanon; the need to invest heavily in the education and health sectors despite the current overloads caused by the refugees; rapid and transparent implementation of the reforms needed to respond to the international donor community as well as private sector investors; placing quality of the environment among the top action items for the government, particularly in enabling communities to take local initiatives; acting to reduce the challenges limiting opportunities for youth, women, and the marginalized; and integrating strategies for infrastructure initiatives in power, communications, transportation, and services sectors, among others.

These and other concerns have been identified in multiple studies, the proposals to the CEDRE conference, and in negotiations with multilateral organizations including the World Bank Group and UN agencies. Lebanon would be well-served by recalling and re-acting on the intentions in the Taif Agreement to implement functional decentralization to provide training and resources for local populations to manage their affairs within a national strategy for services such as waste management, power generation and distribution, access to potable water, and a nation-wide youth services program that rebuilds the environment, promotes hygiene and health services in underserved areas, and connects young people across sectarian and geographic boundaries.

One thing the Abrahamic faiths share is the belief that “God helps those who help themselves.” This was very true of my parents who never lost their faith in God or in Lebanon. Unfortunately, unless a consensus for moving forward comes together in the near future, it may more likely be that others, including Israel, Iran, and Syria will be helping themselves to a fractured Lebanon, and only the Lebanese can keep that from happening.

How many chefs does it take to bake a cake in Lebanon?

It’s very tempting to post a blog that avoids the principal questions facing Lebanon since there doesn’t seem to be any political will to find even an interim solution to the gridlock over the composition of the government. The economy continues to deteriorate according to outside sources such as the World Bank and IMF, despite claims to the contrary from President Aoun and Riad Salame, governor of the central bank. The numbers are stark, and the falling levels of remittances from Lebanese abroad and the decline in Foreign Direct Investment are just two indicators of the necessity of implementing widespread financial and fiscal reforms. The World Bank has already shelved $1.5 billion worth of projects for Lebanon, and the international donors at the Paris Conference, in collaboration with the World Bank, are not going to wait much longer for Lebanon to enact specific reforms to qualify for an $11.5 billion loan and grants package.

Lebanon is clearly suffering from the burden of supporting so many refugees and all of the main players want to see a responsible repatriation policy enacted. But instead of serving as a starting point for a joint policy agreement, the refugee issue is divisive as parties jockey to politicize the issue even further. Lebanon’s friends are not being as helpful as they could be. On the one hand, the US cut off all foreign assistance to the UNWRA for its Palestinian programs, and has made cryptic statements about redefining refugees as only the original generation affected, implying that some 380,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are the responsibility of the Lebanese. While the US continues to be the largest supporter of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) as well as economic and technical support to Lebanon’s civil society and NGOs, it continues to call for ending any kind of support to Lebanon that might benefit, in any way, Hezbollah members.

Check out this possible scenario…young people in southern Lebanon, playing in a field, are damaged by mines left by Israel and Hezbollah after the 2006 war. They are rushed to the burn unit at AUB, where US legislation implies that they cannot be provided treatment if their parents are Hezbollah affiliated, as if that declaration is on the admitting form. [By the way, ATFL is sponsoring another Mine Detection Dog from the Marshall Legacy Institute. Contribute here.] You think that this is improbable? One of the American concerns with any Lebanese government is that Hezbollah is not allocated a ministry that receives US support, such as the Ministry of Health. And AUB and LAU are primary recipients of US assistance. What a conundrum.

So while the Christians and Druze bicker among themselves over allocating ministries, whatever the rationale, the Lebanese people and others residing in Lebanon are the real losers. They are powerless to change the system, as the recent election demonstrated. In large part, people voted for those with whom they are already affiliated, not for a political platform that laid out a clear, consistent, and credible series of policies.

None of this is new…these points have been raised and flogged abroad and in Lebanon since the elections and still the garbage piles up, electricity is in short supply, education is underfunded, health services are spotty and expensive, public debt grows on the back of an inefficient, corrupt, and passive economy, and youth, the unskilled, and women continue to play a minimal role in energizing the economy.

Lebanon is paying dearly for the delays in government formation, critical legislation in parliament, and badly needed infrastructure projects. Without an economy that performs well and some level of consensus about the future, Lebanon is increasingly marginalized in regional and international discussions concerning the key issues in Syria and the region, because either: (a) because its government cannot speak with one voice, (b) the role of Hezbollah is damaging Lebanon’s relationships and credibility with the West, (c) it does not effectively use its historic role as a regional mediator and intelligent analyst to propose solutions (see “a” above), or (d) the political elite are dreaming if they think that the approaching end to the conflict in Syria will somehow transform its economy via its role in Syria’s reconstruction.

Lebanon must avoid deluding itself that Russia, Iran, Syria, or even the West is going to solve its problems. Engaging the Lebanese overseas is a positive start but without concrete follow up on concrete projects with concrete measurable results enabled by the appropriate legislation, the current flaws will only be magnified. The Lebanese people deserve better but the low voting numbers tell the story of a disheartened and distrustful body politic. It is time for its leadership to come together and collaborate on what must be done. The way forward is clear – reform, refocus, and revitalize institutions to serve all of the country. The Lebanese can do it. They have to.