A Presidential Role In Saving Lebanon Is Possible
Let’s be frank. Lebanon needs a winner who can lead. Usually, we talk about capable leaders and managers as two different – but related – skill sets. In the past, this may have been a way to get by. Before, this may have been a more helpful distinction, now Lebanon needs someone who can channel both skill sets, projecting a vision for the country that both unifies and revives the spirit of resolution needed to win and mobilizes citizens for the challenges still to come.
The current situation has two constitutional outcomes: the election of a president within two months or the extended rule of the Council of Ministers who, in presidential absentia, assumes many of the presidential responsibilities. The latter scenario would illustrate the role of managers – a group of professionals who can carry on the day-to-day functions of governing in concert with the Parliament. While not ideal, a train wreck awaits the country if a fully functioning government cannot be assembled by October 31st. Caretaker Prime Minister Mikati is preparing for this team management scenario by pulling together capable ministers who can get Lebanon to move ahead with the IMF deal, reorganize some government functions, keep up sufficient support for the LAF and ISF, and maintain some semblance of a social safety net.
Some prefer the train wreck scenario, which would protect their interests and their capacity to address the needs of their constituents without competition or oversight. Others see calamity in a drawn-out presidential campaign cycle during which a number of coalitions will work to bring about the election of their candidate. The fact is that Lebanon cannot afford a melee as is continuing in nearby Iraq, the other state in the region divided along sectarian lines. Lebanon has neither the energy assets nor the political opposition that could provide options for survival.
So what are the qualities to look for in a presidential candidate and the agenda for the next six months? To be realistic, the president must be someone who can talk with every sectarian leader and understand their minimum and maximum demands. This is also true for communicating with the non-affiliated members of parliament, especially if their votes helped secure the victory.
Other qualities include patience – and a lot of it, a strong sense of anticipating the others’ moves, a clear commitment to policies largely defined at this point by the IMF, receptiveness to the people and the street, and little reluctance to call out the bluffs of those who would undermine Lebanese sovereignly or engage in protracted blame games.
On the platform side, the IMF’s ten conditions, as outlined in the staff level agreement, are clear, including the four pieces of legislation and the other points dealing with restructuring and reviving society. The priorities are also clear: to restore liquidity to the financial system, bring electricity up to 12 hours a day within six months, finalize the maritime agreement in order to have a more stable border with Israel, put sustainable programs in place to care for the people and the marginalized, refuse to engage in regional politics, and constantly communicate transparently with the people and the Parliament. This will begin to instill confidence in the government, especially by appointing capable and accountable personalities to manage the pain of the reforms, the restructuring of the banks, the implementation of capital controls, and the integration of the management of state assets into the recovery process.
Nothing will be achieved without some pain, unfortunately, but the middle and lower classes and the poor can be insulated from the most difficult changes if done transparently and if more of the burden is put on those who have used the system to increase their own prosperity. But the bottom line is, good leadership requires the building trust and recognition of a shared responsibility, thus exposing those who hide behind sectarian veils.
It would be valuable if the presidential candidates call for a consensus national vision to guide the government’s priorities and relationships with the private sector. Rather than impose an outline, a president could call for a series of town hall meetings to promote inclusive dialog and define the nation’s priorities. An associated critical initiative is to meet, discuss, and define a national defense strategy that ensures Lebanon’s prime role in its own security. The recent extension of the UNIFIL mandate for a year gives the new government time to define its priorities and strategy.
None of this is simple except to make wish lists. The candidates should be convinced by now of two realities: that Lebanon is running out of time, and that any reform agenda will be harsh medicine after 30+ years of corruption and mismanagement. Lebanon, however, has the talent at home and overseas to provide the best managers and leaders to SAVE LEBANON.
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.