What is Erdogan’s End Game in Lebanon?

The last year has seen a significant uptick in the Erdogan’s playmaking in the Mediterranean. From west to east, through hard and soft diplomacy, he has stirred up quite a brew blending historic Turkish ambitions with his profound conviction that now is Turkey’s time to reassert its regional influence. While there has been a great deal of attention paid to the “hard diplomacy” tactics in Libya and along the border with Syria, to a growing presence in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, and to procuring/testing weapons systems, little has been written about Erdogan’s soft power projection in the region.

Turkey’s financial prospects have been buoyed by the discovery of natural gas in the Black Sea. Erdogan’s provocative energy exploration agreement with Libya’s GNA and actions in the Eastern Mediterranean challenging both Greece and Cyprus have given indigestion to the EU. He is seeking to expand trade ties across North Africa, opening port facilities to China, and increasing his country’s LNG storage capacity. Gas pipeline diplomacy is also on the agenda and plays a role in Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan.

So with all of these contentious issues, why is Turkey growing its presence in Lebanon at a time when it has an ongoing conflict with Syria? The top priority appears to be to have its own intelligence sources in the country, so Turkey has a presence in UNIFIL in the south and is providing social and humanitarian relief efforts in the Tripoli and Akkar regions, carried out by TIKA, the Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency. Most of its activities are in northern Lebanon, the Sunni center of the country, where there is still a jihadist presence.

Rather than big splash projects that might draw a reaction, it is focusing on rural humanitarian relief such as extending expertise and supplies to households to build poultry and beekeeping businesses. After the Beirut explosions, it started repairing mosque windows and donated 400 tons of wheat. A Turkish hospital is to be inaugurated soon in the city of Sidon. Its foreign ministry has also made a point of stressing solutions that exclude the West, particularly France’s recent initiative, as Erdogan and Macron are feuding over Turkey’s role in Libya and Azerbaijan as well as its conflict with Greece over energy exploration.

Growing Turkish outreach has drawn its share of critics, especially since there are no natural political allies in the country in the major political parties. Since its coloration is more Muslim Brotherhood than secular, it does not readily align with the urban Sunni centers in Lebanon. The Carnegie Middle East Center noted that “These claims of a Turkish role or conspiracies in Lebanon are difficult to substantiate, as Ankara, unlike Iran and Saudi Arabia, hasn’t actively pursued a political agenda in the country.” It is working to build stronger relations through cultural ties with the small Turkic ethnic communities that exist by “providing scholarships, engaging in cultural activities, and granting citizenship to thousands of Lebanese.”

It has rehabilitated the Ottoman-era Tripoli train station and opened cultural centers where thousands of people are learning Turkish. This has raised the stakes for Lebanon’s Armenian community as “thousands of pro-Turkish protesters have shown up at their rallies waving Turkish flags and chanting threatening slogans, often calling for another genocide.”

The end game of all of these activities is hinted at in an analysis by the Middle East Monitor that opines that the Mediterranean provides a theater for Turkey to act as a lever between East and West, building relationships and alliances that will upset or at least delay the objectives of the US, EU, and Russia in the region. Erdogan is not content to be in either camp and would rather carve his own path forward that will give him the power to curb actions that he believes run counter to Turkey’s interests.

Given that he has now refashioned the political system in Turkey to his desire to remain on center stage for decades and restore a central role to the country in the future of the region, Erdogan’s forays into Lebanon can be seen as a small bet with large payoffs as the influence of the GCC and the EU /US declines, and it can build on existing ties and sentiment to develop alternatives that fit his vision of the new Turkey. It remains to be seen if Erdogan can figure out how to outflank Iran, the other serious contender for regional hegemon…

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.

What’s the difference between a failed and a fragile/weak state?

Years ago when I worked for another Arab country, and critical observations were made about how the country was governed, its human rights record, level of corruption, and so forth, the standard response was “Well, we’re doing better than our neighbors.” To hold up any country in the Arab world as a model was hardly convincing to outsiders if the comparison was another Arab country. They share unfortunate similarities when talking about basic freedoms, transparency, rule of law, and other markers of political and social development.

A term that is used to describe Lebanon’s condition as a result of its chaotic condition is that it is a “failed state,” or at least a “fragile state,” using sets of criteria developed more than 15 years ago by the Fund for Peace. Yet many readers do not understand how these terms are constructed, sensing only that “fragile” and “failed” sound right when describing Lebanon. I want to elaborate on these terms in order to get at a better understanding of what Lebanon isn’t doing that would make it a functioning/stable state.

First of all, several years ago; “failed” was replaced by “fragile” in recognition that some states can continue to carry out some of its responsibilities and not be on the verge of collapse, e.g. Sudan, Venezuela. Some further definitions from Wikipedia are helpful. “A fragile state or weak state is a country characterized by weak state capacity or weak state legitimacy leaving citizens vulnerable to a range of shocks.” And apropos of Lebanon, “Failing states lack the monopoly of force, while the other areas function at least partially.” “Weak institutions are the central driver of state fragility. Other factors associated with fragility include: economic development, violent conflict, natural resources, external shocks, and the international system.”

The World Bank produces an annual report that provides insights in a country’s capacity and sustainability. In its 2020 Annual Governance Indicators, covering performance in 2019, just at the onset of the current series of crises, Lebanon did not perform well. It is instructive to chart the changes from 2018 to 2019, and compare Lebanon to the rest of the region. Its performance indicators fell in several categories which could be taken as signs of the pending chaos that began after October 17. For example, its highest ranking was in Voice and Accountability where it ranked second among Arab countries. However, in Government Effectiveness, it was 15th in the region, only above Iraq, Sudan, Syria, Libya, and Yemen.

The 2020 report on 2019 performance also noted that Lebanon placed 15th among Arab countries in Control of Corruption and 14th in both Political Stability and Rule of Law. Lebanon declined in both in Rule of Law and Government Effectiveness from 2018 to 2019. To be clear, no Arab country even approached 50% in any of the six categories, further validating my point that measuring against the neighborhood is seldom useful. When looking globally, for example, 80.3% of countries and territories around the world have a better score than Lebanon on the Rule of Law category according to an analysis by Byblos Bank Economic and Research Department.

The Council on Foreign Relations recently released an article titled, “Is Lebanon a Failed State? Here’s What the Numbers Say.” The author examines a number of indicators and sums up her analysis writing, “Whether Lebanon can avoid becoming a failed state is unclear. The government…will have to install a new cabinet and institute certain reforms to receive much-needed foreign aid. But while the reforms would address major issues including electricity and corruption, the country’s flawed political system would remain intact.”

So what does this data suggest for Lebanon’s future? It doesn’t bode well for the needed steps to form an effective coalition to make the necessary reforms. The International Support Group (ISG) called on political parties to come together to form “an effective and credible government that will meet the legitimate needs of the Lebanese people and address the main challenges facing the country,” according to the same Byblos Bank analysis. Reflecting the issues addressed in the World Bank report, the ISG “Urged Lebanese authorities to swiftly implement the needed measures to reestablish economic stability, improve the delivery of public services, restore the credibility of the financial sector, resume negotiations with the IMF, and prioritize key governance measures.” With the continued obfuscation of the French initiative by Amal and Hezbollah, that seems an ever more remote likelihood.

Finally, in a quarterly country risk survey of 174 countries, the Euromoney Group ranked Lebanon in 162nd place worldwide and in 15th place among 18 Arab countries during the second quarter of 2020. This represents a decrease of 62 spots, the steepest decline worldwide and a drop of 10 spots in the region from the same period of 2019. Rather than go into further details, all of which are depressing, you can consult this link . Suffice to say, Lebanon only placed higher that Yemen, Syria, and Sudan…not reassuring to investors, citizens, businesses, and policy makers.

There is little doubt that if Lebanon’s leaders continue to insist on writing their own rules for the country’s recovery that Lebanon will indeed achieve a “fragile” state status with few hopes of recovery. For an instructive video from the Financial Times, just look here, and weep.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.

Continued Disagreements on Reforms of Banking and Financial Sectors Threaten New Government Mandate

It’s been clear for months that a key issue blocking negotiations with the IMF is the reluctance of the Central Bank of Lebanon (BdL) to open its books to a forensic audit that would allow for the accurate accounting of the country’s debt, assets, funding allocations to the government, and overseas and domestic transfers of funds. Finally in early September, the caretaker Finance Minister Ghazi Wazni signed the three long-promised contracts with outside firms to conduct a forensic audit, financial audit, and financial restructuring plan.

What is unclear, and is the subject of much discussion, are the conditions and limitations the Minister has placed on the forensic audit that would protect the BdL and conceal those who profited from its machinations in the financial sector. In fact, despite public disclosure laws that could force the publication of the contract, there appears that Alvarez & Marsal, the contracted firm, has little recourse but to follow the imposed limitations.

Tracy Chamoun, Lebanon’s Ambassador to Jordan, wrote that she can understand why Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri wants the investigation restricted since he may be “Protecting the 30,000 fake employment jobs in the government that he institutionalized? As well as, the more than 5000 fictional positions he created? What about all the illegal daily employees that he also hired in the public sector?”

There is also an alleged restricted time frame on the forensic audit. The previous Diab government opted for a five-year audit, but it is unclear if this is still the case. As Karim Daher pointed out, “A forensic audit traces financial transactions and identifies possible legal infringements, particularly in the context of BDL’s financial engineering or bond issuance/subscriptions. For the international community, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the challenge is to determine the exact amount of financial losses. But for the public opinion, the issue is whether there has been embezzlement, money laundering, corruption, insider trading and so on.” Without at least a five year timeline, it will be difficult to establish patterns of illicit or improper actions.

Daher makes the point that misdeeds will have both legal and public consequences, adding to the perception that the opaque nature of the sector is detrimental to an open and credible audit. This was further reinforced by BdL Governor Salame when he promised to cooperate with the government on the implementation of the audit, but “He could not promise that BdL would hand over all the information requested by the forensic auditor because he is bound by Lebanon’s powerful banking secrecy laws.” Ironically, the commission that can lift the laws especially in the cases of investigations is headed by Salame.

The health of the financial and banking sectors is being further eroded by the rapidly depleting foreign currency reserves by a monthly average of $1 billion a month in 2020. According to the Byblos Bank Economic and Research Development team, the drop is due to a combination of decreased trade transactions, “weaker remittances from overseas Lebanese, capital flight in the absence of an official capital controls law, and a growing parallel market for foreign currency.” In the same report, Goldman Sachs noted that “external leakages (of money going abroad) could have originated from capital outflows in the absence of formal capital controls.” It estimated that BdL’s reserves will be fully depleted in the coming 12 months if the contraction rate continues.

In terms of the forensic audit, this decrease reinforces the red flags already apparent in the investigation process. For example, an accurate accounting of the BdL’s reserves is critical to any capacity for the country to borrow funds without paying excessive interest or sacrificing national assets at fire sale prices to raise money.

In the same edition, it was reported that Moody’s Investors Service said that “The economic recovery will depend on access to externally-funded investment projects from the international community, which in turn, is conditional on the swift formation of a new government and the implementation of a specific set of reforms…including restoring the solvency of public finances and the banking system through a comprehensive restructuring of the sovereign debt, enacting legislation to formalize capital controls, eliminating the current multiple exchange rates, implementing comprehensive audits of BdL and state-owned enterprises, and expanding the social safety net to support the most vulnerable segments of the population.”

Speaking of options for growing government revenues, The Hayek Group suggested the establishment of a National Real Estate Fund (NRF) that would include state-owned properties across the country. Of course, there is no centralized system for identifying what properties the government owns, estimated to be worth from $69.1 billion, and little enthusiasm for a public accounting among the private interests currently exploiting these lands.

Which brings us full circle to the importance of an accurate and fully disclosed forensic audit. It is a critical piece of accurate data required to move Lebanon out of its current quicksand of inaction that is leading to default and failure. A credible disclosure will allow consideration of solutions that may yet save the sectors from collapsing.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.

Mamas – Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Bankers in Lebanon

In the complicated and arcane world of Lebanese finance, the banking sector has always been held in high esteem and regarded as one of the pillars of the country. Parents could not be happier than if their offspring worked for a bank or investment house. With the right connections, and usually if you were the “right” gender, there was a promising career ahead rewarded with an upper middle-class lifestyle.

Fast-forward to the current day. In Lebanon’s economic downfall this past year, the banks are seen as a key member of the evil forces that have eroded the country’s finances, degraded its currency, and deprived the country of its future. Chief among these villains is the Central Bank (BdL) which drew the banks into a financing scheme for the country’s budgets that enriched the banks, their leadership, stockholders, and biggest depositors. It all collapsed towards the end of 2019, bringing about the first ever default by the country of its Eurobond obligations. Banks have been targeted by angry demonstrators who have destroyed or damaged a number of banking facilities.

Government negotiations with the IMF are not off to an auspicious start as the banks are balking at any reforms that would affect their profitability such as haircuts on their largest depositors and consolidation of the sector. So once again, the Central Bank is attempting to take the lead in strengthening banks, only this time it has drawn the wrath of the Association of Banks in Lebanon (ABL) which represents the banking community. BdL has issued several circulars directing the banks to increase their loss provisions for hard currency deposits and Eurobonds; increase capital by 20% by the end of 2020 with the option of allowing shareholders to transfer ownership of property to their bank for a limited period; and provide depositors an option to convert their deposits into bank shares or convertible bonds.

There is also a wishful thinking recommendation that “Banks should also urge depositors who transferred more than $500,000 abroad as of July 1, 2017, to deposit funds in a special account in Lebanon that will be frozen for five years and equivalent to 15% of the transferred amount. The directive applies to bank chiefs and large stakeholders. The equivalent deposit amount is raised to 30% for “’politically exposed persons.’”

It didn’t take long for the banks and their allies to counterattack, both in the press and in recent meetings with French government officials. Claiming that the measures “will have negative repercussions on the economy and will put additional strains on the already suffering industrial sector,” The Association of Lebanese Industrialists (ALI) objected to several provisions related to conditions for settling loans that in effect would increase funds needed by requiring settlement in foreign currencies.

The BdL also asked banks to encourage importers to transfer from abroad the equivalent of 15% of the aggregate amount of the letters of credits that they opened in any of the past four years, and to deposit these funds in a “special account” and block them for five years, without making a distinction between standby or purchase-related LCs. The ALI warned that the implementation of the circulars could put at risk the remaining productive capacity and sustainability of businesses in the country. These concerns were also echoed by the Beirut Traders Association (BTA).

Another blow is that law suits against the banks in Lebanon and abroad claiming damages resulting from blocking access to depositors are increasingly being decided in favor of the plaintiffs, further diminishing the strength of the sector and leading to the erosion of its credibility. As The 961 opined, “At this stage, with the economic and financial crisis, the banks’ reportedly low liquidity, and their unethical freezing of their customers’ money, Lebanon is losing one the main features that made it stand out in the region: Its banking services.”

And their troubles are far from over. The banks are insisting on selling state assets to repair their balance sheets, a plan rejected by both the IMF and the previous government, so they are now lobbying France which is pushing for reforms in Lebanon as a condition of it receiving international assistance.

The outreach by banks suggests they are “still in denial” over finding a solution that doesn’t inflict losses on their shareholders, according to Dan Azzi, former chairman and chief executive of Standard Chartered Bank in Lebanon. “Banks that were somewhat successful in their local lobbying efforts against a solution which involves a bail-in of their shareholders have realized that the international community will not release any funds until such losses have been recognized.”

However, French authorities prefer to emphasize deep reforms that must be undertaken to restore health to the sector. Among these measures are the swift implementation of capital controls and bank consolidation in a country with 64 banks controlled by 32 groups. Yet the banks are clinging on to the hope of avoiding any painful, large-scale changes in hopes of retaining their once vaunted status as a pillar of the economy. The reality is that the sector isn’t a shining star any longer and won’t be again without serious reforms and consolidation.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.

Do the US and France See Eye to Eye on Lebanon?

It is instructive to review the French draft Plan presented by President Macron to the oligarchy during his September 1 visit in light of the subsequent visit, statements, and interviews by Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East David Schenker. There has been some commentary that France’s position on Hezbollah is less stringent – proposing that political and economic reforms will weaken its control over large swaths of the Lebanese government and people – whereas the US prefers to use sanctions to change Hezbollah’s behavior. France also regards Hezbollah as made up of a political and a military wing, to which Schenker responded, “In democracies you have to choose between bullets and ballots. You cannot have both. Political parties do not have militias.”

The differences over a Hezbollah strategy notwithstanding, a closer reading of the plan shows a strong correlation between the approaches and reflects what Schenker refers to as the close collaboration between the US State Department and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Schenker notes that the US and France are on same page when it comes to political and economic reforms being a prerequisite to unlock any international financial assistance to Lebanon.

According to the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, “The plan requires the majority of the commitments (20) to be achieved within one month of the government gaining confidence, two within the first three months, one by the end of this year, and one within one year.” Here are some of the highlights of the French draft Plan that demonstrate overlapping approaches.

The first two points refer to the need to address the impact of Covid-19 on the most vulnerable and marginalized segments of society. This is accompanied by the statement that immediate steps should be taken to set up a coordinating mechanism with the UN to facilitate the distribution of international aid in a “transparent and traceable manner.” The US is currently the largest contributor of humanitarian assistance to Lebanon to fight Covid-19 and is working to strengthen its initial allocation of $30 million in both humanitarian and reconstruction assistance after the Beirut blasts. On the ground, the US is working with the UN to provide food assistance despite the White House’s known disdain for UN bodies. Even France is insisting that the government of Lebanon keep its hands off humanitarian assistance to circumvent pilferage and the resale of donated products on the open market.

Another area of cooperation mentioned in the proposal is the reconstruction of neighborhoods and the port of Beirut according to “fair standards.” Given the general reluctance of the international community to provide direct assistance to the government, it will be challenging to develop a comprehensive redevelopment plan without some official involvement as there are many issues including zoning, utilities, transportation access, etc. that will require coordination. Perhaps this is one of the areas in which the yet-to-be-named government can make a credible attempt to gain recognition and support. A good start would be implementing the plan’s call for “Conducting an impartial and independent investigation within a reasonable timeline.”

Of course, underlying all of the issues in the Plan is the need to engage the IMF in reforming the economic and financial sectors, which will require extensive reworking and a myriad of regulations. One recurring condition mentioned in the plan are time specific deadlines for actions. This includes implementing passed reforms to the electricity sector, launching tenders for gas-fired power plants while reducing the reliance on private sector generators, and recasting the current Selaata power plant project that is mired in controversy.

On the issue of raising electricity rates, the plan calls for rates that first affect more affluent users. It also mentioned the importance of the capital controls draft law that must be completed and implemented, again according to a rigorous timetable. While US statements have not been as detailed, this is consistent with the general thrust of its policy recommendations. Importantly, as in Schenker’s statements, throughout the Plan, the French insist that the government regularly exchange views and ideas with civil society.

Rather than giving immediate access to the CEDRE funds as steps are being taken, the plan envisions a local follow up conference to review priorities and set schedules. This is to be in conjunction with implementing actions to approve the proposed law on an independent judiciary and transparent appointments based on competence in the judiciary and electricity, telecommunications, and civil aviation sectors. In tandem, it is recommended that the new government work an international body on an analysis and census of the public sector and an assessment of the public administration.

On the pervasive issue of corruption, the French Plan calls for setting up the National Anti-corruption Commission that has been drafted and provide it with the necessary resources to do its job. It encourages the government to establish within 90 days controls to provide oversight at the ports of Beirut and Tripoli, the airport, other cross-border entry points, and implement customs reforms. To strengthen the investment environment, it stresses the need for a law on public procurement and to provide adequate resources to the Higher Council for Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships.

It calls for the now instituted forensic audit of the Central Bank and asks Parliament to vote on a 2021 budget by the end of 2020.

Although there are no additional explicit terms in the French plan regarding political reforms, there is a call for election reform in that “The government will organize new legislative elections within a maximum period of one year,” and, “The electoral law will be reformed to fully include civil society, allowing Parliament to be more representative of the aspirations of civil society.” This also reflects the US position that steps need to be taken to more broadly engage civil society in governance whether through electoral reform or other mechanisms.

Both the US and France refer to the imposition of sanctions if steps are not taken in the short term. While the French have made some explicit references to deadlines, the US has already imposed initial sanctions against leaders who are charged with enabling Hezbollah to subvert the Lebanese state. A well-coordinated pressure campaign towards the new government, when it is installed, will be a crucial opportunity for the US and France to make a significant contribution to Lebanon’s recovery. With Gebran Bassil and Nabih Berri already saying they will not be part of a new government, it is hoped that other old regime paragons will likewise fade and give some semblance of new leadership emerging to lead Lebanon forward.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.

Rescuing Pets in the Aftermath of the Beirut Blasts

I have friends who are rather generous in their posting of beasts of all sizes on Facebook, both entertaining and really cute, but I try to avoid paying attention to them except when it’s Watson or Jack, our family canines, neither of whom live with me – I might feel differently if they did. Among the stories that are streaming from Lebanon are several about organizations working to reunite pets and their owners and caring for those who have been abandoned. The Lebanese greet each rescue and reunion as a sign of hope, giving us stories that reject the notion that all is lost.

My friend Ken Close wrote to tell me about Animals Lebanon, featured in many of the stories, which is sponsored by a US non-profit, The Last Animals Foundation. It is an organization founded, run, and managed by women with over 200 volunteers searching through rubble and destruction to find lost animals whose owners have registered their pets’ pictures and descriptions online. Together they launched a GoFundMe campaign complete with a poignant video to bring attention to their work and some of their early successes.

Animals Lebanon works to change legislation and the culture of animal welfare in Lebanon. The group also rescues trafficked and abused endangered animals from all over the Middle East and resettles them abroad. It has received a donation of 74 acres of land in the mountains east of Beirut on which to build a large-scale rescue and recovery center for animals of all sizes and an educational center to continue their work changing the culture around caring for animals.

According to Ken, these new facilities will allow them to have the space and proper resources to give the animals they rescue time to recover until they are well enough to be resettled elsewhere in the world. The specialized infrastructure has already been designed on a pro-bono basis by architects in Europe who have experience designing animal sanctuaries.

It is intriguing that in the midst of the reporting on the catastrophe in Beirut, major news organizations such as BBC, AP, CBS, and CNN featured stories on Animals Lebanon and Lebanon BETA and their efforts. The BBC segment tells the story of two dogs separated from their owner who used the recovery network set up by volunteers to reclaim her pets, even though one was 50 miles away, picked up by someone who found the injured pet on his way back to Tripoli.

CNN focused on the initial impact of the blasts and how Animals Lebanon mobilized to pull together volunteers from all over the country to engage in the rescue effort. According to Jason Bier, the executive director, they search for animals trapped in the rubble, tend to the injured, and care for those whose owners died. With 300,000 homeless, it is a great challenge to both find the owners and resettle pets in new locations.

One of the first stories to cover the rescue efforts was posted by The 961, a very helpful site that early on captured the challenges of working in the wreckage to find survivors. It noted that “In the chaos of the blast, too many animals and family pets went missing; close to a thousand as reported by activists.”

AP reported that “Animals Lebanon Teams go out at night and early mornings to search for the pets, before the streets become too crowded with people going through what remains of their homes or noisy bulldozers and forklifts trying to clear the rubble. The noise and the commotion keep the animals in hiding. Kamal Khatib, a volunteer, said that “We had a few cases where we would rescue a cat and then the building would collapse. Since the day of the explosion, we have maybe climbed more than 300 floors going up and down, looking, looking into elevator shafts, looking under cars, looking amid in the rubble.”

In a segment that was shown in many stations in the US, CBS updated earlier reporting on Animals Lebanon, saying that it had received 540 requests for help and 331 people have volunteered in search, rescue, and care efforts. It also noted Animals Lebanon’s extensive use of social media including Facebook and Instagram to issue reports. So far, the organization said it has provided veterinary care to 216 animals. It said it was able to reunite 110 lost animals with their owners, and that 61 animals are in need of adoption.

Thanks to Animals Lebanon and other generous groups, there is a bit of good news is all that is awful about the aftermath in Beirut. Again, its GoFundMe site is here.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.


Living through Letters – the Last Days of Bim Nakely

I don’t have much time for casual reading. Keeping up with US foreign and domestic policy issues that affect my work takes hours every day so when I take a break, I really want to enjoy what I’m reading or viewing. So it was a great pleasure to hear from an old friend, Sam Hazo, a doyen of Lebanese-American literati, that his latest book had been published and he sent me a copy. It is loosely based on his musings about letters that might have been written by an elderly Lebanese woman in the US knowing that she would die in several months.

His own family immigrated to the US from a small village near Saida in the early 1900s. Patterned after a great aunt who was a fixture in his growing up, it offers letters written by Bim (Barbara) Nakely to her sister Lottie (Charlotte), as well as to FDR, Mae West, Rita Hayworth, Charlie Chaplin, and others, many of whom have already passed away. She felt that she had something to say to them, and want to share her thoughts about life before hers ended.

Her letters are a way of capturing the values and concerns of someone transplanted to a new land and life, who lived in a circumscribed world expanded by her readings and movies. For example, when she writes to FDR, she recounts how President Theodore Roosevelt intervened to save her and Lottie from being sent back to Lebanon from Ellis Island because they had eye infections. A story quite similar to my own mother’s family except there was no presidential reprieve!

The book’s title, “If Nobody Calls, I’m Not Home,” is a classic Arab formulation. Loath to talk about death directly, she calls death “Nobody,” which I have found a common practice to reference death by another name among older generations throughout the region. The book is a series of letters, no commentary, no introduction. The letters provide the milieu for her life, expectations, reminisces, experiences, and final wishes. They are easily digestible, and at 143 pages, it’s a summer’s gift, a book club classic, and an all-around great read.

In a conversation with me, Sam said that her character was based on his aunt: courageous, independent, who didn’t know the meaning of defeat. In the book, her sister Lottie dies at a young age and leaves her two boys to Bim’s care who raises the boys and, as a consequence, has no life of her own outside of her family. The letters let us see her candor and admiration for icons of the 20th century. Bim’s attitudes and opinions certainly resonate with those of us who have older immigrant relatives. One difference I appreciated was the strength that came through, even though she lived her life for others, again reminding me of my mother – devoted to her extended family, misused by her elders as a child, and rooted deeply in values that she found lacking in her children to the very end!

Here are some selections.

To Mae West. “You were always Mae West, and if others didn’t like it, that was too bad. That’s something special, especially in a woman. I know so many women who change the way they really are depending on the people they’re with. With men they’re all flirty, and you know the rest…I’m not a great believer in all this business about men and women being the same. Equal is all right, but not the same.”

To Babe Ruth. “Sometimes when I look at flowers in bloom, I feel like I’m going to cry. I can’t explain it, but I just start crying. You were no flower Babe, but you lived the way flowers live. You were always yourself, and you stood out because you were never competing with anybody else. You just went and did your thing, and it was good enough to make everybody take notice. That’s not much different from what flowers do, is it?”

To Charlie Chaplin. “A lot of people who didn’t know a word of English came to the Nickelodeon and really enjoyed themselves just watching you. There was nothing to translate. Isn’t that something? In those days, there was every kind of nationality up on the Hill and all over Pittsburgh – Polish, Germans, Italians, Syrians, Jews, Slovaks, Irish, and a lot of Slavs. Except for the Irish none of the others could speak English that good, but it didn’t matter. They all spoke Charlie Chaplin.”

Enjoy the read. You can order the book on Amazon.

Or directly from the publisher Wiseblood Books, which offers discounts on multiple orders.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.

Any real hope of one-two reality punches from France and the US?

President Macron of France is due in Lebanon September 1 to insist on political and economic reforms required to free up international financial support for the country. Despite warning during his previous visit August 6 that he would return with the same message of reform required before funding, it appears that the same cast of political elites intends to stay in power. There is no sign that the political oligarchy has any intention of ceding control, and President Aoun began Monday, August 31, with consultations at the Presidential Palace on naming a new prime minister.

In the meantime, Sunni leaders designated current Ambassador to Germany Mustapha Adib as their nominee. Like his predecessor, not a career politician, he has already garnered support from a majority of the leadership. So the old faces are choosing the new face of the government while the street seethes with discontent, indicating there will be immediate opposition to more delays in critically needed changes.

Macron “insisted that France would follow a policy of being ‘demanding without interfering’ and awaited reforms like passing an anti-corruption law and reforming public contracts, the energy sector, and the banking system,” according to the Times of Israel. Yet there is skepticism that he will be able to sway the oligarchs to abandon their fiefdom mentality and put in place a government that will in essence put them out of business, at least temporarily. It is this caveat that worries most Lebanese; that somehow the elites will once again succeed in their shell game to delay real reforms while going through the motions of passing laws that have little chance of being implemented.

Enter the US. The State Department has announced that Assistant Secretary for the Near East David Schenker will arrive in Beirut on September 2 to “meet with civil society representatives, discuss US assistance efforts in the wake of the August 4 Beirut port explosion, and urge Lebanese leaders to implement reforms that respond to the Lebanese people’s desire for transparency, accountability, and a government free of corruption.”

The difference between the two visits is that Macron may be the carrot and Schenker the stick as the oligarchs are cowed by the prospect of US sanctions coming down on them in the case of not heeding the need for significant and credible change. US Ambassador Shea has not been reluctant to pass this message on to the Lebanese authorities who face increased pressure to form a government with executive and legislative powers to both adopt and implement reforms and pass the laws need to finance and regulate the reform agenda.

Key concerns of both France and the US is that humanitarian relief in the short term not be affected and the need to strengthen the social safety net to provide a modicum of support for the people.

While France and the US are not offering specific recommendations, all of the needed steps have been discussed for months by the Lebanese internally and with the World Bank and others, starting with the banking, finance, and economic sectors. Covid-19 is reemerging as a public health concern which further undermines social stability and overtaxes existing health care entities. A related issue is whether or not a new election law and elections are called for when it is clear that the traditional parties, with their discipline and national networks, would easily overwhelm the demonstrators who have yet to coalesce and define points of contestation.

Given the catastrophe at Beirut Port, the old guard is discredited in the eyes of their constituencies, regardless of who they designate as the next prime minister. Only  Hezbollah, it seems, is weathering the fallout from the blasts. Some analysts are proposing that the major Christian parties walk away from their alliance with Hezbollah and Amal and join with the Sunni, Druze, and other parties to reclaim the majority in the Parliament. It is not an inconceivable scenario. This is where the US stick may have its most beneficial impact – by sending Hezbollah’s Christian allies into a break-up that would enable the Lebanese to direct their country’s future once again.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.

What is/are the Truth/s Behind the Beirut Explosions?

I prefer not to think in terms of conspiracies, even when they feed my perceptions of certain events. Certainly, the US political landscape thrives on plots and claims built on muck, reminiscent of countries where rumors are the dominant form of news coverage. Having spent most of my life working on US-Arab issues, conspiracies are part and parcel of the territory. I can remember staying at the Intercontinental Hotel in Amman, Jordan, in the early 80s, checking with the hotel switchboard operator as to who was in town and catching up on the latest gossip. Even earlier, in the 70s in Lebanon, it seemed that all the regional players had a captive press outlet that provided their particular spin to the news.

Although the media has exponentially expanded, whether it’s the gray zone of social media or friends sending Whatsapp clippings, the bottom line is the same: a competition of “truths” that are seemingly endless and bottomless. So we are confronted in Beirut with competing narratives, long on claims and short on facts. Ironically, the long-anticipated judicial decision on the elephant of all conspiracies in Lebanon, the assassination of former PM Rafic Hariri, was rendered in the middle of the current imbroglio and only added more competing narratives. Although his son, former PM Saad Hariri said that, “I see that the tribunal issued a judgment that we must accept and move forward,” this still hasn’t stopped those drawing a straight line between that past devastation of Beirut and this month’s horrible events.

Adding a chorus of “of course” to the cesspool is the unequivocal opposition of the ruling oligarchy to an independent international investigation as called for by France, the US, and others. President Aoun, Hezbollah Secretary General Nasrallah, and Speaker of the Parliament Berri all categorically rejected an international inquiry limiting the current investigations by France, the FBI, and Lebanese investigators to the causes of the blasts, not the maddening trail of why. This has given conspiracy fans free rein to claim:

  • Hezbollah’s role in storing munitions and other lethal supplies at the port

  • Israel’s role in attacking the Hezbollah stores while the US is incapacitated by the 2020 elections

  • Syria’s role or conversely, the Syrian opposition’s role in siphoning off the materiel for use in explosives

  • The oligarchy’s role in oversight at the port, blaming Christians, Sunnis, or Hezbollah officials for mismanaging their control over various sections of the port

  • The lack of LAF precautions regarding the stores since it has a base in the port area and must have known

  • That the ammonium nitrate was always destined for Lebanon in a plausible deniability episode to cover its acquisition by Hezbollah/Syria/Syrian opposition…take your pick

While these various versions do not “cover the waterfront,” they do indicate the realm of possibilities, some with more credibility than others. Suffice to say, any party that would knowingly allow even the remote possibility of such blasts to occur should be criminally arraigned on more than charges of negligence, mismanagement, and misappropriation. The largely Christian areas and poorer sections that were seriously damaged require more than cosmetic repairs. The trauma and psychological scars may diminish but will hardly heal.

So how is it possible to bring some degree of clarity to the investigation process and findings? First of all, the need for an independent international investigation must be insisted on by the international community in its discussions with the caretaker government and the president. This can be tied to the incremental provision of direct assistance to NGOs for reconstruction of housing for the neighborhoods. The more cooperation means more funding…to the NGOs and communities.

The Lebanese Transparency Association (LTA) notes “The importance of conducting an open and transparent inquiry with far-reaching powers able to establish legal, administrative, and criminal responsibilities.” A Lebanese court will not suffice as many judges are still beholden to various political parties. At the same time, various Lebanese officials are engaging in off-the-record selective leaking of information designed to further conspiracy theories and undermine their rivals.

With international assistance increasing into Lebanon even though Beirut is no longer in the daily news cycle, the need for establishing culpability and motives behind the blast cannot be allowed to diminish. An international investigation may take more time than the current analysis of the site and documents pertaining to the ammonium nitrate, but it is the only way to separate the searing memories of the explosions from conspiracies that reflect political posturing rather than truth-telling. Otherwise, the people, the victims, and the city will become the latest casualties in Lebanon’s war on itself.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.

Okay Lebanon, What’s Next?

Watching the many webinars on the crisis in Lebanon has been  enlightening but sobering. While analysts often refer by way of illustration to the well-known facts and figures behind the country’s systemic failures, it is truly literally the most recent shock that has brought the country to a point of no return. Here is where those who want Lebanon to survive have met their challenge: what to do next?

I just saw a story that the Lebanese parliament has given its staff and contractors a month off from work, illustrating that there won’t be any leadership coming from that body – no surprise there. Maybe that’s one way to avoid further publicity about resignations. Hassan Nasrallah has made known his opposition to anything but a national unity government which is code for “bring back the guys who ruined the country so we can do it again.” No one is fooled, despite echoes of his position from President Michel Aoun and Speaker of the Parliament Nabih Berri. It’s clear that they want more time in a game in which time has run out.

Much has been made of the lack of public appearances by Lebanese officials at the blast site to visit survivors and survey the damage, offer words of condolence, and pass out bulgur. On the other hand, at last count, more than a dozen countries are at the port area trying to assist. What did the Lebanese people expect? The leadership saw themselves being hanged in effigy and got the message. International leaders are focused on the people, on recovery, on change…wanting to help Lebanon longer term when the Lebanese are ready to reform. Special recognition goes to the European leaders, led by Macron of France, and the US Under Secretary David Hale for their forthright and reassuring comments challenging the status quo.

After initial success in containing the pandemic, it has now come back in force, with over 400 cases reported on August 16. With three hospitals in the area out of commission, clinics and care facilities destroyed, and public health equipment non-functioning, it has been the international community that is equipping the public and private health sectors with the resources and support they need. At least four countries have sent field hospitals, tons of wheat are being shipped, medical supplies and equipment are both airlifted and on their way by sea, and millions of dollars in relief services are enabling NGOs and civil society to provide services long neglected by the government.

ATFL is coordinating with Anera, CAAP, Direct Relief, and the Afya Foundation in a significant effort to assemble and airlift critically needed medicines and supplies. The first plane is scheduled to arrive on August 24. Many other organizations, Lebanese-American and Arab-American, private and public charities, and US pharmaceutical companies and business corporations have stepped up to supply specific needs requested by hospitals and care-givers in Lebanon.

There are many inspirational stories about the survivors and the victims, the trauma and the homeless, those rescuing animals, wedding parties caught up in the blasts, José Andrés and World Food Kitchen providing meals for first responders and survivors while he learns about manakeesh, all of which testify to the durability and anger of the Lebanese.

Interviews with Lebanese government officials are also quite revealing, including Economy and Trade Minister Raoul Nehme on BBC and president-in-waiting Gebran Bassil on CNN; with special plaudits to the Middle East Institute, Arab Center, Carnegie Middle East Center, Brookings Doha Center, the Wilson Center, and many, many others who had sharpened our insights which, in many cases, only drive us into greater sadness. But we are learning and so are many others who may have only touched Lebanon through our restaurants and friends and the bad news of this past year.

The one question facing all of the analysts and well-wishers is what’s next for Lebanon. While the old guard is touting the benefits of a national unity government, there is a better option, one that the demonstrators can support and that will bring real change, as detailed in the latest article from The Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. It calls for a specially empowered interim technocratic government with legislative authority to address specific issues as delineated in its mandate that must be granted by the parliament. Yes, I hear a collective groan that parliament reflects the worst excesses of the political system in Lebanon and is unlikely to budge. Yet the case is persuasive, especially as it depends on collective action from the street to make it a shared demand from the people, which will draw strong international backing.

Lebanon may be one last gasp away from collapse. It will take an alliance between civil society, the professional associations, NGOs, and reform-oriented younger leadership, not to mention those disaffected voters who have had enough. But it is doable and the time for credible action is now. Much of the world wants to help. This is a clear way for ward.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force for Lebanon.