Is there a recovery model for Lebanon without a revolution?

It is intriguing to compare what is going on in Lebanon with other states in various stages of unrest in the Arab world. While they may not be precisely comparable or offer any solutions, they do raise a concern about how and if Arab countries can evolve into a form of democratic states, and even if that is desirable. One hears from time to time the comment that the Arabs are better off when there are strong personalities leading the country. But that facile opinion is not supported by people fed up with the corruption, economic malaise, weak governance, and overzealous role of security forces in autocratic Arab countries. What seems to be missing is a way forward, a model that can serve as a roadmap for inclusive, comprehensive, fair, and equitable change over a tolerable period of time.

Many analysts have pinpointed the lack of an effective opposition and enduring allegiance to clientelism as key factors that disable the revolution in Lebanon from becoming more effective in pressing its claims with the country’s sectarian leaders. As one commentator wrote, “There is no doubt that the protest movement succeeded in articulating a widespread sense of frustration with a system that has routinely failed to deliver jobs, affordable health care, and education. But the protesters have so far been unable to articulate a coherent long-term strategy for change—and that’s because it never bothered to develop one.”

Another mentioned that “so far, the protests have been impromptu and lacking any meaningful political patronage—little more than a leaderless outburst of public anger. Although this style of politics initially gave the movement a certain degree of credibility, it has not been conducive to advancing a defined plan and vision.”

These may seem like quick and harsh judgements. Others who share the same sentiments add that the Diab government, while nodding towards the concerns of the demonstrators, seems unprepared for the seismic reforms that are required. Steps have been announced that will move the country in a better direction, but will contribute minimally to the comprehensive and thorough commitment to change that is needed. Nothing in the media or in public statements even remotely suggests that the current leadership is considering stepping aside and diminishing their influence and manipulation of the government’s resources.

Looking across the Arab world to Algeria and Tunisia, one can see how institutions affect the balance of influence between the ruling elites and the demonstrators. Algeria just celebrated the first year anniversary of the movement or Hirak, and the new government even declared it a national holiday since the ruling elite has been able to maintain its power albeit with quite a few notable casualties from the previous governing group. This was possible because of the effective maneuvering of the Army, which literally outwaited the demonstrators so that fatigue and their general disarray played in favor of the status quo. As a recent article pointed out, “However, [the opposition] has no clear path to realizing its aspiration to overthrow the political class that has ruled the country for decades and to force the long overdue generational transfer of power. It has avoided defeat, but it is not likely to achieve victory, either.”

Although they were successful in forcing a change in government and delaying new elections over eight months, the protestors could not stop the selection of candidates from the traditional political class or mobilize to force changes in the election law. More troubling is that the newly ensconced leadership is promising change, but without the input of the protestors. As the article noted, “[Gaining the confidence of the Algerian people] will be difficult to accomplish because the Hirak has no place at the table where reforms are being discussed. It is clear that whatever steps the government decides to carry out, they will be designed and implemented without the participation of new political forces.”

In Tunisia, until now, it has been about disruption and slow going in effectively constructing a new vision for the country. Unlike Algeria, there is no military or comparable institution to act as arbiter of government longevity and programs. Although the country is considered the only success story of the Arab Spring, it has relied on institutions and leaders from the previous political generation for leadership. Tunisians are worn down by the continued lack of economic development, job opportunities, quality services in health and education, and continued corruption at all levels.

Based on results of recent elections, there seemed to be a clear demand for new leaders, but fighting among the parties in Parliament delayed a government formation, even threatening the need for another election. Finally, under pressure from President Kais Saied, the government under Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh may finally have a chance to gain Parliament’s approval and tackle key economic issues and gain needed credibility for the government.

The core issues in Lebanon, Algeria, and Tunisia center on the economy, inequality, corruption, and lack of institutional coherence and government integrity. While the army may be able to keep the street calm in Algeria for now, as generational change occurs it will be an interesting case study of how that transition will be managed. The Hirak has not disappeared. It is still a force for action as it realizes its abilities to organize and define its strategic goals.

In Tunisia, the fuse is short for the demonstrators. The new government includes some well-qualified personalities but the fractured parliament, with members elected with low-entry thresholds, may continue to be a disruptive rather than cohesive voice for the people.

In Lebanon, as has been noted the challenge is clear. “As the new status quo begins to settle, the protesters will need to develop an organized political strategy to unseat the ruling elite at the ballot box. One of the main obstacles they face is finding a way to overcome voters’ default sectarian impulses. Otherwise, the movement could split along sectarian lines, putting it at risk of being outmaneuvered by a ruling elite that is far more politically experienced than the protesters are.” At this point, the cards favor the old guard. Stay tuned.

US Government Sets the Bottom Line for Relations with Lebanon

Dorothy Shea, a career member of the US Senior Foreign Service, whose last post was as Deputy Chief of Mission in Cairo, has been confirmed as the new US Ambassador to Lebanon. She is no stranger to the region. She previously served in the Consulate General in Jerusalem, in US Embassies in Tunis and Tel Aviv, and several posts in the State Department and National Security Council with a direct remit over issues in Lebanon. Ambassador Shea earned a B.A. from the University of Virginia, M.S. from Georgetown University, and M.S. from the National War College. She speaks French and Arabic.

It is no understatement to say that she takes up the reins of the embassy in Beirut at a particularly critical time in US-Lebanon relations and there has been a lot of anticipation and speculation about the messages she is carrying to the new Diab government. To gain some insights into how she sees the assignment, here are remarks she made during her confirmation hearing in the US Senate on December 17.

Ambassador Shea began with her conception of her work in the Foreign Service. “I realized early on that the key components for job satisfaction for me were that I continue to learn, to be challenged, and to be able to contribute in some way, however small, to the greater good. I reasoned that as long as those criteria were met, I would stick with this peripatetic career.” And she can count on being challenged in her new job, from both sides, the US and Lebanon.

In the US, critics of Lebanon are quick to point out the dominant influence of Hezbollah in the naming of the new ministers and the potential for undermining the LAF and the security entities, as well as concern for the renewed role of Syria in Lebanese politics. Then there is last year’s mystery of the holdup in FMF and ESF assistance to Lebanon with little explanation.

In Lebanon, the new government has yet to prove it mettle. Its members have signed a promise not to run for office or support anyone in an election and has asked the IMF for technical assistance, but has not taken any significant steps to address the basic crises that brought people into the streets and the fall of the previous government.

In her testimony she noted that “At the core of our interests in Lebanon are efforts to ensure a stable and prosperous nation with whom we can effectively partner to advance vital national security interests in the country and region. Working with the international community and the Lebanese people to address its now faltering stability is at the heart of US interests in the Middle East and remains critical to ensuring our success in our efforts to defeat ISIS, foster regional stability, and counter Iran’s destabilizing influence in the region.”

So her two-fold mission is a strategy that is “supporting constructive political voices responsive to the needs of the Lebanese people and building the capacity of Lebanese state institutions, including the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF).”

The ambassador said that the spillover from the Syrian conflict and “deadly incursions by ISIS” have given new urgency to US efforts “while unprecedented nationwide protests have presented new possibilities for responsiveness and reform.” She made a particular point of saying that “Demonstrators have been calling for an end to the endemic corruption and economic mismanagement that has plagued Lebanon for decades. The United States supports the right of Lebanon’s citizens to protest peacefully and has called for their continued protection.”

Ambassador Shea reflected Secretary of State Pompeo’s statement that the US will assist Lebanon insofar as it works to heal itself. “Until Lebanon’s political leaders embrace the need for real and lasting reform, no government can succeed. But if leaders do embrace change, we stand ready to work with the government and people to rebuild Lebanon’s shattered economy…We will work with anyone who is dedicated to reform and will put the interests of the Lebanese people first.” This latter remark emphasizes the wait-and-see position of the State Department despite the alleged impact of Hezbollah on the new government.

She also said that “Lebanon’s economic difficulties are profound; it will not be easy to enact the structural reforms necessary to increase public investment, lower public debt, and diversify its economy. Several sectors of the economy will need to be completely revamped, because they generate massive debt and fail to collect adequate revenue, while failing to deliver satisfactory services. A new Lebanese government also needs to pass measures that markedly improve transparency and root out corruption so they can regain the confidence of Lebanon’s citizens and the international community.” It is clear that Ambassador Shea is well-prepared for the monumental task of encouraging, without directing, as with the ISG and others in the international community, the hard decisions that Lebanon must make to survive.

Her testimony preceded and laid the groundwork for Secretary of State Pompeo’s response to the formation of the Diab government. He called on the new government to enact serious reforms to tackle the twin challenges of a collapsing economy and angry street protests. “The test of Lebanon’s new government will be its actions and its responsiveness to the demands of the Lebanese people to implement reforms and to fight corruption,” Pompeo said in a statement. He added that “Only a government that is capable of and committed to undertaking real and tangible reforms will restore investor confidence and unlock international assistance for Lebanon.”

He also said the US wanted a “non-corrupt government” that reflects the will of the Lebanese people. “If this government is responsive to that and there’s a new set of leaders that’s prepared to make those commitments and deliver on that, that’s the kind of government that we’ll support around the world and the kind of government we would support in Lebanon.” The emphasis on serious and tangible reforms and protection of the people are clear in positions taken by the US and the international community that are the bottom line for the new Lebanese government.