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

Friday, October 5, 2018
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

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.