Restarting Lebanon’s Reconstruction

Thursday, January 26, 2023
Opinion by Jean AbiNader

The US and International partners invested in the Lebanon file are frequently frustrated by two entwined challenges: where to begin with corruption and how to deal with Hezbollah. Perhaps part of the difficulty is trying to find separate solutions for these problems. We have the IMF package of reforms, which can’t pass through Parliament without the Speaker’s active blessing, on the one hand, and we have the lack of a way forward regarding Hezbollah without a functioning government to be a party to an agreement.

So it comes back to the same reality. As stated by a candidate for President, recently in the US, “Hezbollah took advantage of the corruption in Lebanon to build themselves into a political and military force.” So let’s reframe the approach and think of solutions that will work on both the issue of government reform and Hezbollah’s militarism simultaneously. Any clear analyst will then lay the challenge at­­­ Parliament’s leadership given their pivotal role, but then again, reality intervenes and reminds us that it was the agreement with the FPM that solidified Hezbollah’s legitimacy in the Lebanese government. So where do we look for solutions?

A friend in Lebanon with close ties to civil society points to these possible signposts. The Constitution as amended by the Taif Agreement has most of the steps required to reset the governing formula: two houses of Parliament, with open elections for the lower house and a sectarian upper house; decentralization of power between a centralized government with extensive, effective decentralization to the municipalities; an independent judiciary with appointments recommended to the president by an impartial board; appointments to merit-based senior civil service posts; and appointments to ministers who meet relevant professional criteria including knowledge and expertise in the ministry’s particular functions. He recommends that Lebanon start by implementing Taif and the constitution. No debate needed. They are already law.

A major conundrum is incentivizing the political leadership to take a radically different approach to governance which depends on the willingness of the international community to be proactive with its sticks (sanctions, etc.) and carrots. Civil society has the strength to pressure Parliament. The upcoming May Municipal elections are a start. Again, Parliament has passed most of the legislation needed to deal with corruption, from a whistle-blower protection law to lifting banking secrecy for investigations and a process for monitoring and auditing government spending. All of the tools are actually there, ready for an empowered Parliament. So why are they not employed?

The answer appears obvious. Iran is the catalyst for the erosion of democracy in Lebanon. Once it joined the great game through the penetration of God’s party (Hezb’ Allah) by the IRGC in the 80s, Hezbollah has become a convenient pawn in Iran’s power projection in the wider region. Strengthening its military capabilities fighting Israel and proving to be an extremely capable armed force in Syria – even accused of extending its reach into Asia, the Americas, Africa, and Yemen.

So is it possible, the argument goes, for the international community to close ranks and negotiate with Iran on its dramatically reducing its support for malign actors, rather than its nuclear development– something that does not threaten the national pride of the Iranian government? These friends of Lebanon should insist on two conditions: closing the borders to smuggling and ending armed provocations. The LAF on numerous occasions has identified the transit points for drugs and how they can be interdicted. Successful negotiating with Iran can remove the bulk of Hezbollah’s financial support, while also cutting out smuggling and drug trafficking internationally. Working with countries in Africa and Latin America, the drug trade can be halted and millions of dollars in illicit money can be erased from Hezbollah’s treasury.

Over time, this can also set a pattern for resolving issues with Iraq and Syria, even if the Assad regime prefers coercion rather than compromise. Assad relies on Russia and Iran for his survival, so all regional actors will likely remain involved, including Turkey. Its presence in Syria along its Southeastern border along with the 3.5 million Syrian refugees make Ankara a significant stakeholder in changing regional dynamics.

In this scenario of bypassing Hezbollah and negotiating with Iran, ratcheting up effective counter-smuggling on Lebanon’s borders, the seeds can be planted for more intense negotiations for repatriation of Syrian refugees to safe zones that can overlap with investment parks that rebuild refugees’ lives and not Assad’s brutal regime, it is proposed.

In the meantime, emphasizing decentralization can have several blessings if it’s navigated properly. New political leadership may emerge to challenge the current narrative of clientelism in Parliament. Services can be restored as local co-ops form to provide energy, water, waste treatment, and health services. The tax base of Lebanon will be based on actual, factual, and measurable monies, and employment will spread broadly through the population to include youth, women, and those who need upskilling.

This scenario is not a fantasy. It is an achievable reality. The task as defined requires a rethink of the US and international policy vis-a-vis Iran, and may set guidelines for dealing with Russia once the destructive encounter with Ukraine has ended. It is within the grasp of all actors. The major powers get satisfaction and Lebanon as well as the region get another chance at peace and prosperity.

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.