Lebanon's Dilemma

It was on the grapevine-covered terrace of my grandparents’ house on Mount Lebanon where I grew up that I first heard the question: “Are you for getting the grapes or haggling with the watchman?” It is an age-old Lebanese adage that urges the selection of the most effective means to pursue a desired end. Protesters in Lebanon forced their feckless government to resign last month following 13 days of peaceful demonstration. Their movement can gain now by testing the rest of its demands against this sage question. 

The path to the government’s resignation was marked by beatings from government-linked agitators, tear gas, and capricious arrests. The demonstrations encountered growing suppression by the government, which has refused demands to form a technocratic transition government and hold accountability trials for corrupt government officials, as well as calling early parliamentary and presidential elections.

To understand this crisis, one must trace the current political system back to the Taif Accord. This agreement brought 19 years of sectarian strife and civil war in Lebanon to an end in 1990 by crafting a principle of "mutual coexistence" between Lebanon's different sects. It declared their "proper political representation" as the main objective of post-civil war parliamentary electoral laws. It also restructured the National Pact political system. The accord transferred power away from the Maronites, who had held privileged political status and the presidency during French rule, and vesting it in a cabinet equally divided among the country’s three major sects: Sunni, Shiite, and Maronite Christian. Many of the prominent lords of the Civil War era went on to hold these cabinet positions.

In the thirty years since, the ruling class has turned into a professional kleptocracy, devouring the country’s limited resources while guarding its power through intimidation and nepotism. This kleptocracy has turned Lebanon into the third most-indebted nation in the world, dragging 1.5 million Lebanese below the poverty line.

The institutional graft has rested on three factors. First, the Lebanese social and political elite has relentlessly pitted the nation's sects against each other, with each kleptocrat promising to protect their own sect from the prospect of another civil war that always looms over the horizon. Second, these rulers have deliberately populated the judicial system with corrupt and pliable officials who undermine justice in favor of sectarian purposes. The third method of this ruling class has been to undercut the sovereignty of the country by opening the door to foreign interference, thereby strengthening the grip of the internal clients of these foreign powers.

The Lebanese people, many of whom are still reeling from trauma incurred during the Civil War, remained the passive object of this unseemly political sport until this year. On Oct. 17, the government proposed to tax barely functioning telecom services, some of which, such as WhatsApp, are meant to be free of charge. The proposal came after a year of crippling budget cuts impacting ministries that were already struggling to provide essential services such as electricity, drinkable water, social security, public health care, and education. Other measures included regressive taxation that exacerbated the economic plight of the average Lebanese while sheltering the ruling class. The WhatsApp tax proposal on the backend of a year of severe austerity added fuel to the slow-burning fire from 30 years of endemic corruption. It finally sparked massive demonstrations across Lebanon.

The protests have continued for more than two months. Over one two-week span, the road to the presidential palace was barricaded by the army; a 38-year-old protester, Alaa Abou Fakher, was shot dead by a soldier; five minors between the ages of 10 and 17 were detained by intelligence units for tearing down a banner picture of President Aoun; and armed thugs carrying Hezbollah flags traveled across Beirut and parts of Tyre on motorbikes, assaulting protesters and destroying civilian property. This rapid slip into violence followed an inflammatory speech by Aoun in which the president told Lebanese they could quit the country if they did not approve of its ruling class. This behavior mirrors early signs from the Syrian revolution, when Syrian leader Bashar al Assad sent clear signals that the only available choice was to leave his regime in place, or it would burn the country. It is vital that the international community takes note of these ominous trends and pressures President Aoun to form a technocratic government. This would isolate Hezbollah, which is still clinging to a political system that serves it well.

Meeting the demands of the street will be necessary to lay the foundation of a new order to replace the 30-year-old system of kleptocracy that has brought the country to the brink of economic collapse. Dollars are currently scarce, the pegged Lebanese pound has slumped by more than 40%, and controls imposed by banks are preventing depositors from withdrawing their savings. Nonetheless, the protesters have been forced by history, circumstance, or intimidation to leave out one fundamental demand: the removal of Hezbollah's arsenal of weapons. 

For the Lebanese Armed Forces to achieve a monopoly of force is a daunting but vital task if the uprising is to succeed in the long run. As the “second army” of the Lebanese state, Hezbollah is a structural threat to the country’s independence, safety, and prosperity. It is intentionally crippling Lebanese constitutional institutions. Furthermore, it has started to use the Lebanese Armed Forces as an arm against protesters under the command of President Aoun. To make progress toward a non-corrupt government, Hezbollah must be disarmed, and the monopoly on violence must be held exclusively by the national army as the guarantor of sovereignty. 

Such a monopoly will free the army from the internal intimidation that is preventing it from protecting the people. As Hezbollah thugs began to assault peaceful protesters across the country, the Lebanese army stood by and watched. It finally intervened -- to keep protesters at bay. This is a simple demonstration of how feeble the army has become internally. It has also been weakened outside of Lebanon, as Hezbollah acts openly as a proxy force of Iran in the region. 

It is essential for the Lebanese people to hold fast against the siege tactics of the political system. Lebanon needs reforms that will yield an effective government. It needs to forestall Hezbollah’s attempt to transform the revolution into a civil war. For many protesters, a modest list of demands holds the promise of meaningful economic reforms, and may even begin to build the social and political muscles of self-government. In addition to these laudable objectives, however, one demand is crucial to prevent a binary choice between keeping the regime and burning the country: a firm insistence that Lebanon is a land fit for only one army. Disarming Hezbollah's "state within a state" is the necessary precondition that will move Lebanon out of its hostage situation once and for all, allowing it to harvest the grapes of a truly independent nation. 

Dalia Tarabay is a Lebanese activist and resident of New York City. She is a Global Business Lead at Google (her views do not represent Google’s in any capacity) and was previously a Public Sector Consultant at Booz & Company Middle East. The views expressed are the author's own.

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