Addressing The Way Forward In Lebanon
In 2019, at the onset of the thawra the two key opposition themes were combatting corruption, “kullon ya’neh kullon,” and a reversal of the economic decline of the country. That was then, and now, post-election, the themes remain the same. Protests, anger, and desperation are still rooted in the mismanagement of the country and its finances. Finally, there may be a bit of opportunity for possible change ahead.
A major breakthrough, at least with respect to addressing the financial disaster, is the advance of charges against the Central Bank governor, Riad Salameh, and others, for corruption, embezzlement, money laundering, illicit enrichment, forgery, and tax evasion. After a year-long investigation, Prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat referred the case to a Beirut court. This comes at a time when several European countries are also investigating Salameh and his younger brother for illegal enrichment and other charges. It would have been quite an embarrassment if the Europeans acted before the Lebanese judicial system.
There has been speculation that Salameh enjoys political cover from those who want his deep knowledge and embodied record of transactions within the banking sector, the Central Bank, and the government to remain obscured. It is claimed that he knows “where the bodies are buried” in relation to contacts, fund transfers, and the “infamous financial engineering” scheme that kept the Lebanese pound afloat. Just several years ago, he was still winning regional and international awards and plaudits for saving Lebanon, up until the crash of 2019.
Another reason for the longevity of his almost thirty-year tenure at the helm of Lebanon’s financial vessel is the political quagmire that surrounds questions of his successor. It is a position long coveted by Christian elites, as the position is named by the President, who is, historically, a Maronite. There have been multiple conspiracies voiced over the years as to who stands next in line, though. As a recent Reuters account noted, “Few if any top Lebanese officials have ever been convicted of crimes, despite decades of rampant corruption, high-profile assassinations, the port blast, and the country’s 2019 financial collapse, described by the World Bank as ’deliberate’ and one of the worst in modern times.” Inherent in this sentiment is the widely erratic judiciary which still does not enjoy independence from the country’s political leaders.
Nevertheless, the appointment of a resident IMF representative to advise on Lebanon’s financial recovery and report directly to the IMF Board, and the restart of the Central Bank audit and subsequent lifting of several banking secrecy laws only add to the speculation surrounding the future of the Central Bank. It currently answers to no one, as its internal monitoring and governance responsibilities actually lie in-house, with only sporadic reporting required or offered.
It is precisely this concern for the lack of accountability that several of the new members of parliament (MPs) are seeking to change. The standard Parliamentary procedures of nominating and selecting committee members exposed flaws in the system, namely secret ballots for the committee positions. The voting process also exposed the lack of a unified, or at least coordinated, strategy for nominating seats by the new group of independents who have yet to present some structure and definition to their political aims amid the multiplicity of campaign issues.
As Michael Young, a penultimate observer of Lebanon’s politics wrote, “While their motive is eminently laudable, these legislators will face major challenges in creating a space for themselves in Parliament. Not only are they a minority in a legislature under the control of the mainstream parties; not only will they have to deal on a daily basis with parties they claim to abhor; but for the moment, they are known mainly for what they oppose rather than for what they seek to achieve.”
Their lack of cohesion prevents them from mounting an effective effort to people several critical committees. Given their numbers, oppositionists have the opportunity to be the swing vote on issues but this would require a disciplined and thought-out strategy. Young writes, “If this bloc picks its fights carefully and advances specific causes that its members have long defended, and if it can position itself as a swing bloc in the event of divisions over major legislation, it could garner considerable influence.” Of course, several of the independents are initially reluctant to agree, even among themselves, on how to promote their platforms, but this will improve as they gain experience and learn how to cooperate with others who share their concerns.
Young concludes, “They will also have to ignore criticism that compromising with the major parties constitutes accepting Lebanon’s corrupt order. Bloc members did not enter Parliament to take a holier-than-thou attitude towards their peers…Nothing would be more damaging for the contestation bloc than to come out looking ineffectual because it has become a prisoner of its principles.”
It is only the beginning for this Parliament, and there is much learning to be done from all those who bear animus towards the existing order. With experience and mindfulness of national needs -instead of narrowly defined interests- there is an opportunity for oppositionists to become major players and decision-makers in the upcoming appointments of the cabinet and prime minister, as well as in the vote for the president. It is indeed a trajectory worth watching.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.