Getting it Right in Lebanon

June 16, 2010 Topic: Society Tags: Diplomacy

Getting it Right in Lebanon

The assassination of two Lebanese patriots has provided the basis for genuine reform of the country's fractious politics and elimination of Syrian dominance.

The assassination of two Lebanese patriots, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and pioneering journalist/commentator Samir Kassir, has provided the basis for genuine reform of the country's fractious politics and elimination of Syrian dominance.  As can happen, tragic events have led to exceptional opportunity in the convoluted political life of Lebanon. 

The barbaric murders have spawned positive and promising reactions.  Stifling Syrian suzerainty is being eliminated, with puppet President Emile Lahoud the last major figure to go.  Competing political factions are collaborating for the first time in 50 years, running jointly selected candidate tickets in all important parliamentary elections.

After 29 years' occupation, the Syrian army and intelligence forces were more than reluctant to withdraw.  Lebanon's economy provided ill-gotten wealth for a generation of Syrian military and political overlords.  Moreover, the very act of occupation was raison d'etre for Syria's dictator, the inept and unpopular Bashar al-Assad.

Hariri's February assassination triggered massive and unified support for Syria's withdrawal.  Uniformly seen as the work of Syrian intelligence, the murder of arguably the most broadly respected politician in the country's history triggered mass demonstrations, eventually forcing withdrawal from the land first occupied in 1976.

The May murder of Samir Kassir, deeply experienced columnist for the country's most respected newspaper, An Nahar, has also been traced to Syrian activists, and resulted in the demand for President Lahoud's resignation.  When this happens, Lebanon's tortuous path to freedom will be close to complete.

Lahoud, a Maronite Christian politician thoroughly co-opted by Syria, is resoundingly disliked by his base constituents as well as most of the Muslim population.  Oddly, opposition National Assembly member Nassib Lahoud, a cousin, is perhaps the most capable and most likely candidate to succeed him.

Halfway through a four week electoral process, it is virtually certain a coalition of political entities united in opposition to Syria's involvement in the country, will win a mandate to re-establish Lebanon's independence.  Equally, Saad Hariri, son of the murdered Rafiq Hariri, is certain to become his country's Prime Minister, should he finally decide to seek the office.

The younger Hariri's impending accession to one of Lebanon's two most powerful political posts begs the question: is Saad capable of filing his father's shoes?  At 35 and a graduate of Georgetown University, Saad Hariri has spent his adult years successfully tending the family's sprawling business interests.  The question nervous Beirut observers ask is whether the neophyte politician has inherited Rafiq's political, as well as his business, acumen.

Dynastic politics is the norm in Middle Eastern politics and has often created major problems.  Looking no farther afield than Damascus, trained ophthalmologist Bashar al-Assad inherited his father's 29 year Ba'ath dictatorship in 2000 and is clearly much less effective than Hafez al-Assad. 

Then neophyte politician Bashar came into office with a series of reformist policies which he tried to implement virtually overnight.  The younger Al-Assad had not taken the old guard surrounding his father into account, however, and he was threatened with being ousted from power almost before he could warm the presidential seat.  It can be argued that while Bashar has dropped most of his reform-minded ideas, he has not done much more than tenuously hold on to power - at least until now.

As one prominent Beirut businessman told me, "Saad Hariri is no oculist."  True enough.  Saad has extensive financial and business experience, but the question remains whether this newcomer to the convoluted cut and thrust of Lebanese politics has the innate political instincts of his remarkable father.

And one further issue looms over whether tiny Lebanon can resume its formidable 25 years post World War II economic and political advance, almost unique in the troubled Middle East: can the Hizbollah military numbering 6,000 to 12,000 trained fighters be peacefully disarmed, leaving a viable but no longer militarized political force?

The current elections have assured Hizbollah 14 seats in the 128 member National Assembly, and another nine with the allied Amal party, which among other things will assure Amal chief Nabih Berry reelection as Speaker.  Their relative strength will also make negotiating their militia's disarmament particularly difficult.

Based in Lebanon's Beka'a valley and along the Israeli border, founded by Iran and nurtured by Syria, the group has for 20 years been a major insurgent factor in Israel and trained thousands of Palestinian recruits.  If not disarmed, Hizbollah will remain a seriously destabilizing force in both Israel and Lebanon.

Saad Hariri's accession to his father's political mantle can be a powerful healing factor in Lebanon's tortured political life, involving a 15 year civil war that led to Syria's occupation.  Reining in Hizbollah's independent military might, so essential to the country's stability, will be a critical test for Hariri.

Given Hizbollah's electoral success, this can only be done by co-opting the leadership.  Direct confrontation would assure renewed and bloody factional strife.

However tenuous and despite the violent events of recent months, the glass is decidedly half-full in Lebanon.  Given careful maneuvering by a Saad Hariri government, including selection of a new President and disarming of Hizbollah's military force, the glass of democratic liberty and stability would become full indeed.

Hurdles aplenty remain.  Lebanese politicians long affiliated with Syria would be delighted if the progress of recent weeks were slowed, even stopped altogether.  One, Omar Karame, brother of murderously martyred Prime Minister Rashid Karame and a three time holder of the office himself [including earlier this year when Rafiq Hariri was assassinated], exudes pessimism about Lebanon's ability to right itself. 

Karame, who is not seeking reelection, blames everyone in sight for his country's woes, especially the United States who he claims want a major military base in Lebanon and citizenship given to some 350 thousand resident Palestinian refugees.  Unabashed at holding such a dreamy outlook, Karame told me that perhaps an armed Hizbollah is the only force that can deter such nefarious American ambitions.

Omar Karame has it all wrong.  The source of Lebanon's woes, as well as its resurgence, is the Lebanese themselves.  Freewheeling, often corrupt factional politics became so heated that a catastrophic civil war broke out some 35 years ago.  Nevertheless, after terrible decades of war and occupation, the Lebanese have the capability and, it appears, the commitment to make their vest pocket nation once again a regional base for democratic freedom and vibrant free market economics. 

The determining factor will not be the United States or any other outside force.  Rather, the country's emergence from three decades of political, economic and social chaos depends on whether this time the Lebanese can maintain their commitment, long term, to get it right.


Longtime Middle East resident John R. Thomson revisited Lebanon in the days prior to its current four week parliamentary election cycle.

Updated 6/10/05