Lebanese Political Leaders “Unable” to Reform or Take Country Forward

Karim Makdisi of the American University of Beirut says Lebanon’s leaders are a closed elite trying to hold onto power for themselves and are powerless to reform the country’s political situation.

May 11, 2006 3:55 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Karim Makdisi, assistant professor of international relations at the American University of Beirut, tells cfr.org’s Esther Pan in Beirut that the situation in Lebanon will not improve unless the Lebanese people continue to push for change. He says they should reject power-sharing formulas designed to maintain the status quo of the sectarian system and preserve the structure of patronage that has long existed in Lebanon.

What is your view of the political situation in Lebanon? What’s happening with the national dialogue [an ongoing series of meetings between Lebanon’s top political leaders]?

The national dialogue has not gone very far, just as most people here expected. After all, it was really just a damage-limitation exercise meant to stabilize the political situation after the upheavals of 2005 and to reassert authority at a time when a political and security vacuum had been created. The assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri [the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in downtown Beirut in February 2005] was unquestionably a shock to the system, a shock that lead to the shifting of the balance of power within the country and that ultimately resulted in the expulsion of the Syrian army from Lebanon. Hariri was the one leader who, in many ways, was a larger than life personality renowned for his close personal contacts with a number of world leaders. After the initial shock [of his death] subsided, various movements and interests moved in and cynically manipulated (indeed re-fashioned) his legacy, which, after all, included both allegations of massive corruption and cronyism, as well as acceptance of, and cohabitation with the Syrian regime and the Lebanese security services.

Still, the shock of Hariri’s death produced—or should I say was about to produce—a movement for change, real change. But the political elite reacted swiftly, and, no matter how they felt about each other personally, most basically agreed to preserve the system’s status quo—thus the process that led to the national dialogue as opposed to radical change. It’s very dangerous for any government or ruling elite to have thousands of people out in the streets. It’s unpredictable. In my opinion, the Lebanese sectarian system needs an external hand to maintain the balance of power among the various elite, and with Syria now out, and conditions of massive domestic pressure, the system could crack. There would be chaos, but also, potentially, real change.

Is the national dialogue stumped over prospects for reforming the confessional system?

The national dialogue, unsurprisingly, has not really discussed reforming the sectarian [clientalist] system. It follows a long history of political settlements in which everyone acknowledges that reforming the sectarian system needs to be tackled, yet no one is willing to actually do it. It is important to point out that the sectarian or confessional system [by which certain government posts are reserved for members of different religions] is a product of European colonial and local elite interests that reflected the regional and national balance of power during the mandate period [time of foreign control]. Europeans saw us as a collection of sects and religions, and local elites used that logic for their own benefit, as the state apparatus was being institutionalized.

The sectarian system hides a system of patronage where ordinary citizens depend on their local patrons to provide the kinds of services that the state itself should be obliged to do (which of course has led to a weak state and powerful patrons). It is also a system that is vulnerable to changes in national or regional balances of power. The last official census was in 1932, and everyone knows the demographics have shifted since then, with, for instance, the Christian population now constituting clearly less than the 50 percent of seats in Parliament that it has been allotted according to the 1990 Ta’if Accords [which ended the civil war in Lebanon, enshrining the confessional system]. Ta’if thus reflected a balance of power between Christian and Muslim elites that doesn’t take into account the interests of ordinary citizens, at least not in the way liberal democracies would.

So the political elite is actively resisting reform?

To me, it’s clear this national dialogue is a way for the Lebanese political leadership to try and regain authority in the eyes of the people, and to find a political solution to the current impasse so that business as usual may go ahead. It’s like Europe in the nineteenth century, with all the kings fighting each other. At the same time, they were all extremely wary of nationalist movements in each of their countries. The one thing none of them wanted was a real revolution in any of their countries, as it would threaten all of them. As for "reform", what does that mean? Economic? Social? Environmental? Who is discussing all of this? "Reform" has come to mean implementing the economic neoliberal agenda [liberalization, privatization] being championed by the donor organizations and countries. In this sense the political elite welcome such reform, as it matches their interests. The problem is the apparent lack of debate on the policy level.

How much of the gridlock is caused by the Lebanese leaders, and how much by Syria?

It’s both. It’s all. I’m against the simplification of the issue. You can’t say Syria without saying America, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the international community. Competitive foreign interests in Lebanon have long affected the stability of the system here, and today the [U.S.] neo-cons are clearly encouraging further sectarian divides throughout the Arab world. You see the results of this strategy today in Iraq, and its tragic outcome. As I said earlier, the sectarian system seems to need an outside hand to keep the balance of power within the country stable (as Syria did in the post-war setting), but stability does not mean good, just, equitable or even desirable. The big question today is: who will be the "hand" that settles the new balance of power in Lebanon after Syria?

Does Syria still exert influence over Lebanese politics?

Yes, but it’s definitely much weakened since last year. Do they still have some influence on groups and people in Lebanon? Yes. President Lahoud, for one. There is also Hezbollah, of course, but this is a more complicated relationship, I think, than is commonly depicted. It’s a strategic relationship which has been enhanced by recent US foreign policy. The neocon "good versus evil" philosophy—so arrogant in its simplicity—has taken what was not an inevitable continuation of a relationship between Hezbollah and Syria and made it much more significant.

Has any progress been made on disarming Hezbollah, as is called for under UN Resolution 1559?

Not really. So much has happened over the past year, and it now seems that Hezbollah has—along with its political allies and Syria—succeeded in putting its disarmament on the back burner. In Lebanon, it’s widely known that the two parts of 1559 were written by the French and the Americans respectively. The first part, which calls for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, was from the French and their Lebanese allies. The second part, about the disarming of Hezbollah and the Palestinian camps, this was from the Americans and their Lebanese allies. Most Lebanese supported the Syrian withdrawal (though there were reservations about the speed with which they departed, leaving a security vacuum that has yet to be filled). But the insistent demands for disarming Hezbollah immediately and outside of the wider Arab-Israeli context have caused a lot of instability in the country, and are clearly seen here as part of the larger neo-con collaboration with Israel, ironically to the detriment of long-term US interests. Hezbollah portrays itself effectively as Lebanon’s only deterrent against Israel, which after all has invaded Lebanon twice and continues to threaten Lebanon’s sovereignty.

Their national popularity was highest in 2000, when the resistance forced the Israeli army out of South Lebanon, which they had been occupying since 1978. But after the Israelis withdrew, post-2000, most people figured the job was done. Things had changed. Like Palestine, South Lebanon was a remnant of the last colonial struggles in the region, and didn’t reflect the post-Cold War reality. If the occupation is over, many people not living in South Lebanon reasoned, what role is there for a resistance movement?

Hezbollah has a handful of seats in Parliament now, representing the south and the Bekaa regions, and remains very popular among its constituents.

How is Hezbollah doing?

At one point, I think they were fighting for their lives. They know there’s an international agenda to disarm them, and they have been trying to solidify their role in the mainstream of Lebanese political life. Most Lebanese would say, yes, you have to disarm Hezbollah, but not necessarily now and not in this way. Most Lebanese are uneasy about the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran. Still, there are a lot of problems in the country, and the Lebanese themselves should set their national priorities. Most people would be happy to see them disarm, however a good number want to see this only as part of a regional peace agreement with Israel, in which Israel would finally set its borders, pay compensation, and declare its intention not to violate Lebanese sovereignty.

So what are the prospects for change in Lebanon? Can the elites bring it about?

No. They are unable to do it. In the post-war era, when the Syrians were hegemonic, any time there was a dispute in Lebanon, the leaders would drive to Damascus to resolve the conflict. This was humiliating to most Lebanese. There’s no effective system for resolving major disputes in this country—not yet at least. It’s a very resilient power structure and the political elite will not want to change the system that has rewarded them so well. Unfortunately, the sectarian system breeds cynical subjects rather than responsible citizens, and it is exactly to change this situation that so many people took to the streets over a year ago. I believe they will take to the streets again in the near future, and that is where the hope for change lies.

Will the people force reform?

They can do it. There was the very beginning of it during last year’s mass protests. If people recognize that they can do something, they have the power to effect change. My only hope is that, as time shows, the system won’t change—and the current leaders offer no new solutions—the people will say, "We began this, now let’s finish it."

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