ArDO: Yes we want Lebanon to be the Switzerland of the East and Beirut the Paris of the East


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May 11, 2006 Gary C. Gambill - Mideast Monitor

By and large, the sclerotic governing elite of Syrian-occupied Lebanon has managed to survive the withdrawal of Syrian forces. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and President Emile Lahoud remain in their posts, while the premiership has merely passed to Fouad Siniora, a regime stalwart who ran the finance ministry of Syria's satellite state in Beirut twice as long as all others combined. Nearly all of the ministers in the current cabinet either held high-ranking government positions under Syrian rule or are politically subordinate to others who did.

Rather than bringing about the collapse of occupied Lebanon's ruling elite, the Syrian withdrawal merely precipitated a purge of one governing faction by its rivals. The victors are not a reformist wing of the regime, but a powerful clique, led by allies of the late Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, responsible for its worst excesses. While they've severed their affiliations with Syria (for the time being) and christened themselves the "March 14 coalition" (referring to the mass anti-Syrian demonstration in Beirut last year), they are intent on preserving the political and socio-economic power they derived from years of service to Damascus.

Not surprisingly, their bid for political hegemony in the new Lebanon has been resisted by the same grassroots nationalist movement that spearheaded challenges to their authority during the occupation - Gen. Michel Aoun's secular nationalist Free Patriotic Movement (FPM). By keeping in place a notorious electoral law drafted by Syrian military intelligence to protect favored incumbents, the Hariri-Jumblatt axis managed to win a majority of the seats in parliamentary elections last year, but the nationalists swept the Christian heartland and gained enough seats to obstruct parliament's election of anyone other than Aoun as president.

This has led to a critical impasse. Leaders of the March 14 coalition are loath to permit the ascension of their nemesis to the presidency. Recognizing that Aoun is overwhelmingly the most popular candidate in both the Christian community (for whom the presidency is constitutionally reserved) and Lebanon as a whole,[1] they are careful not to dismiss his candidacy publicly. Behind the scenes, however, they are feverishly working to thwart Aoun's presidential bid and appealing for the intervention of outsiders, including Syrian President Bashar Assad (who they believe is able and willing to force Lahoud's resignation for the right price). Even if they find a "regional solution," however, circumventing Aoun's ascension at a time when public demands for sweeping reform are at a peak would likely destabilize the country, particularly if it is brought about through foreign intervention.

In the meantime, the Hariri-Jumblatt coalition's refusal to share power with the FPM has saddled the government with a weak, discredited president, hindered reform of the security apparatus, and precluded serious negotiations over the status of Hezbollah's arms. More ominously, its drive to monopolize power is polarizing Lebanon along sectarian lines, with most Sunnis and Druze supporting the government, and most Christians and Shiites (the politically and economically disenfranchised of occupied Lebanon) uniting against it. As Sunni-Shiite antagonism engulfs Iraq in violence and stokes Iranian-Arab tensions, Lebanon's political paralysis and disunity virtually ensures that it will eventually pay the forfeit.

Functional Authoritarianism in Lebanon

"Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral."[2] Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, 1923

In 1992, two years after Syrian air and ground forces crushed Lebanese army troops under Aoun's command and swept away the last remnants of Lebanon's First Republic, the country was teetering on the brink of collapse. Inflation was running at 130% and rioting in Beirut had brought down two governments in just five months. The root cause of Lebanon's malaise was the fact that no one had any confidence that the motley assortment of ex-warlords entrusted to govern by the Syrians were up to the task of rebuilding a country they had so recently destroyed.

Hariri, the son of a poor Lebanese greengrocer who made a fortune in Saudi Arabia during the oil boom, had been quietly lobbying Damascus to be prime minister for some time. The billionaire construction tycoon not only had the reputation and international connections needed to boost investor confidence in Lebanon, but his Saudi benefactors were willing to sweeten the deal with considerable financial aid. The Syrians were wary, however, as Hariri's wealth and close personal relations with the Saudi royal family would make him harder to push around. Reeling from a cutoff of Soviet aid and increasingly desperate to jumpstart the war-shattered economy of his new satellite state, the late Syrian President Hafez Assad finally relented, and Hariri took office in October 1992.

The system of governance that evolved under Hariri has been called "functional authoritarianism,"[3] as it is largely devoid of any overarching ideological vision. While Hariri frequently talked of making Lebanon the "Singapore of the Middle East," his administration's frenzied reconstruction drive and runaway deficit spending were driven less by economic philosophy than by the imperative of extracting the greatest possible amount of graft. Hariri's defenders are quick to point out (correctly) that rampant embezzlement of public funds was already the order of the day in Lebanon, and that the prime minister was an outsider (having lived in Saudi Arabia for nearly three decades and assumed citizenship there) entering a political arena in which everyone from the Syrians on down expected to be paid for their political support. However, the scale and complexity of institutionalized corruption that arose during Hariri's tenure far exceeded anything that existed before. A 2001 UN-commissioned corruption assessment report estimated that Lebanon had been losing $1.5 billion in graft annually (nearly 10% of the its yearly GDP).[4]

There were three centreal mechanisms of extraction. The first operated through government borrowing. In just six years, Lebanon's national debt soared from $2.5 billion to $18.3 billion (and has since swelled to $38 billion public debt, or 183 percent of GDP, the highest such ratio in the world), most of it financed by issuing treasury bonds to select Lebanese banks at exorbitant real interest rates (as high as 42% at one point).[5] As Guilain Denoeux and Robert Springborg observed in their authoritative assessment of Lebanon's reconstruction boom, "the single largest owner of Lebanese bank stocks is the prime minister," making him "a primary beneficiary" of his own government's rising indebtedness.[6] Since the Syrians and many of their Lebanese allies were also heavily invested in Lebanon's banking sector, there were few objections to the frightening pace of Hariri's deficit spending.

The second form of extraction took place through government expenditures. Only 2.4% of $6 billion worth of reconstruction and development projects examined in above mentioned corruption assessment report were formally awarded by the Administration of Tenders.[7] Consequently, the government habitually overpaid for construction contracts by a large margin (over 30% by most estimates) and misdirected funds to redundant and inefficient uses.[8] Little reconstruction funding was spent outside the capital or outside of the construction and service sectors, in part because far less graft can be extracted from importing tractors or expanding public transportation.

The third level of extraction involved favored treatment of private sector companies in which Hariri and other elites were heavily invested (or from which they received hefty bribes). Solidere, a real estate development company in which Hariri owned a major share, was awarded an exclusive contract to rebuild the central district of Beirut (and the power to expropriate property at will). Hariri granted an exclusive monopoly over the wireless phone market to two companies in which his allies and other Syrian-backed politicians owned major shares, allowing them to charge exorbitant fees and reap windfall profits.[9] Lack of government transparency and reliable contract enforcement ensured that private sector investors (whether Lebanese or foreign) only entered a market if they had cut deals with governing elites. Consequently, almost none of the estimated $40 billion in expatriate Lebanese capital assets flowed back into Lebanon.

Although corruption was endemic in Lebanon long before Syrian troops marched in, the supercharged scale of profiteering in occupied Lebanon during the 1990s was sustainable only under the shadow of Syrian power. Economically, Harirism was almost perfectly convergent with Syrian interests. The unregulated flow of roughly one million unskilled Syrian workers into Lebanon during the 1990s was devastating to the predominantly Shiite urban poor, but it suited Lebanese construction tycoons just fine and drew billions of dollars annually into the cash-strapped Syrian economy. Hariri's conspicuous neglect of agriculture was a boon to Syrian farmers (and smugglers) who flooded Lebanon with untaxed produce. He distributed exorbitant payoffs to the panoply of Syrian officials who administered Lebanon, most notably Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam, Army Chief-of-Staff Hikmat Shihabi, and the head of Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, Gen. Ghazi Kanaan. For this, Hariri was given clear (if not always decisive) political preeminence over his rivals. Khaddam famously told a group of ministers pressing for Hariri's resignation that the prime minister was "here to stay until 2010."[10]

Institutionalized corruption shattered hopes of postwar prosperity for most Lebanon. Despite enormous injections of money, economic growth rebounded to 8% in 1994, then quickly tapered off, falling to under 2% in 1998. Income inequality steadily increased,[11] owing to socio-economic policies that privileged the postwar commercial elite. At a time when a quarter of the population continued to live beneath the poverty line, the prime minister cut income and corporate taxes to a flat 10%, while raising indirect taxes (e.g. gasoline) on the public at large, slashing social expenditures, and freezing public sector wages. 

Hariri's policies necessitated steadily more repressive measures to maintain. When Lebanon's historically vibrant labor movement rose in opposition, the prime minister banned public demonstrations and manipulated elections of the national trade union federation. Under the guise of "regulating" the audiovisual media, he placed control of all major television and radio stations in the hands of corrupt elites. Hariri's draconian restrictions on civil liberties forced him to rely heavily on the military and its commander, Gen. Emile Lahoud, to maintain public order, unwittingly strengthening a rival power center. More importantly, the clampdown contributed to the growth of a powerful nationalist opposition current.

The Aoun Phenomenon

Although Lebanon's secular nationalist revival was fueled by socio-economic and political conditions, its coalescence around Aoun reflected a deep reserve of personal admiration dating back to his brief but monumental appearance on the public stage. After serving as army chief-of-staff for four years, in 1988 Aoun was appointed interim prime minister by outgoing President Amine Gemayel after warring militias prevented parliament from convening to elect a new president.[12] When Aoun attempted to enforce a maritime blockade of illegal militia-run ports in the spring of 1989, Syrian forces retaliated by relentlessly shelling civilian areas of east Beirut, prompting him to declare a "war of liberation" against Syrian forces in Lebanon. Although he incurred the united hostility of Lebanon's militia elite and traditional political class, Aoun's crusade appealed to the public, drawing hundreds of thousands of people to the presidential palace in December 1989 to form a "human shield" against Syrian military forces encircling the free enclave. Thousands of Shiites and Sunnis crossed over from Syrian-controlled territory to participate in what were then the largest mass demonstrations in Lebanese history.

The political elite in Lebanon cynically dismissed the "Aoun phenomenon" as a fleeting outburst of popular frustration by a population desperate for a hero. "He was a David to an infinite Goliath," recalls former Foreign Minister Elie A. Salem, "and this image was well received by all the non-sophisticated in Lebanon, irrespective of religion and locale."[13] Aoun's modest background, barely disguised contempt for corrupt politicians and militia leaders, and honesty also struck powerful chords in Lebanon.

Syria's defeat of Aoun's forces in 1990 failed to extinguish the nationalist current. From exile, Aoun continued denouncing the occupation and worked to mobilize the Diaspora. Inside Lebanon, the movement went underground, perceptible mainly in the widely recognized "Aoun honk" echoing through traffic in Christian areas whenever Syrian forces were out of earshot. Over the next decade, this latent current of popular admiration for the general transformed into to a broad-based, highly organized nationalist opposition front that would decisively undermine Syria's grip on Lebanon.

Hariri unwittingly strengthened the Lebanese nationalist current by decimating two alternate poles of secular opposition - the labor movement and the Lebanese Forces (LF), a Christian nationalist militia-turned-political party led by Samir Geagea. The arrest of Geagea in 1994 (on charges of masterminding the bombing of a church) enabled the Syrians to pressure other LF leaders into quiescence by dangling the prospect of a pardon for the next eleven years. Aoun's absence from the country and strict adherence to non-violence (after leaving government) protected the movement from the fate that befell the LF.

By the 1995, a multitude of voices identifying themselves with the exiled former general began dominating elections for independent trade and labor unions, professional syndicates, and student councils. Because anyone could be an Aounist, Aounism became a catch all banner for secular nationalism that transcended sectarian boundaries, as illustrated by the triumph of "Aounist" candidates in the 1995 student elections at the predominantly Muslim West Beirut branch of the American University of Beirut (AUB). Aoun ranked third among Shiite respondents asked to name their most preferred Lebanese leader in an open-ended 1996 AUB survey.[14]

The growth of Aounism as a national political force substantially influenced Assad's choice of Gen. Lahoud to succeed Elias Hrawi as president in 1998 and promote him as a counterweight to Hariri (who was forced to resign for two years). Whereas Hariri built a strong base of support within Lebanon's postwar commercial elite and his own Sunni community, Lahoud presented himself as an anti-corruption crusader and guardian of Christian communal interests, hoping to capitalize on widespread resentment of Hariri and draw support away from Aoun. Assad replaced the heads of Lebanon's military and security establishment with officers close to Lahoud. This core military-security elite aligned itself with traditional Sunni politicians sidelined by Hariri's rise, ex-warlords, and pro-Syrian ideologues.

Although Lahoud and his new prime minister, Selim al-Hoss, lambasted Haririst economic policies, they made only marginal adjustments (e.g. taxation rates) to the economic edifice of Syrian-occupied Lebanon. The new administration launched an anti-corruption drive that indicted nine senior Haririst officials,[15] but was later forced to drop the charges - the Syrians wanted a balance of power they could manipulate, not a full-blown assault on the Harirists. Hariri was reinstated in 2000 after Bashar consolidated power, but his authority was thereafter strictly curtailed (and his allies were cut out of the lucrative cell phone business). Lahoud, not Hariri, was now first among equals in Syrian eyes.

While Lahoud served as an effective counterweight to Hariri for the time being, efforts to build Christian support for the president ran into problems. The key to the strategy was brokering an accord between Lahoud and mainstream Christian political elites who had been excluded from government. In order to bolster Lahoud's credibility and provide political cover for Christian elites to cut a deal, the Syrians took steps to reduce the public visibility of their military presence and exert control vicariously through the Lebanese security establishment. By 1999, few Lebanese still had to suffer the indignity of driving through a Syrian checkpoint on their way to work.

Aounist activists in Lebanon, now formally organized as the Free Patriotic Movement (Al-Tayyar al-Watani al-Hurr), responded with a campaign of peaceful sit-ins and demonstrations against the occupation on college campuses, often leading to heavy-handed responses by the security forces. Photos of flag-waving 18-year-olds being water-hosed or beaten by riot police in the morning newspapers thrust the reality of Syrian occupation squarely back into the public mindset.

Lahoud's handling of the protests played straight into Aoun's hands. When the FPM announced in March 2001 that Aoun was returning to Lebanon in 72 hours to lead a peaceful march on Syrian military positions, Lebanese and Syrian officials panicked. Residents of Beirut awoke to find Lebanese tanks positioned at major intersections of the city, military cordons around major universities, and traffic along major thoroughfares at a standstill as police stopped cars to check identity cards and search trunks. Aoun never showed up, of course, and the thousands of students who answered his call were quickly dispersed, but the spectacle was a monumental public relations triumph for the FPM. "Aoun wanted his activists to close down Beirut in protest against Syria's domination. The army has done it for him in their stead," one political analyst observed. "What more could Aoun want?"[16]

Aoun's critics complained that he was deliberately provoking the authorities into increasing the level of repression, which peaked in August 2001 with the arrests of hundreds of opposition activists. Realizing that FPM demonstrations were creating an atmosphere inhospitable to their talks with Lahoud and the Syrians, mainstream Christian political elites (loosely organized under the leadership of Maronite Christian Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir as the Qornet Shehwan Gathering) began routinely urging the public not to take part in the protests, but their appeals fell on deaf ears. In fact, the strategy hurt their leverage with Damascus. If the Christian political establishment was unable to bring about an end to frequent anti-Syrian demonstrations, why should the Syrians pay a high price for its support? While Aoun lobbied tirelessly abroad for American sanctions on Syria, playing a major role in building congressional support for the Syria Accountability Act, Sfeir and most Qornet Shehwan members alienated the Christian public by publicly condemning the legislation.

By 2003, Aoun's popularity and the FPM's organizational strength had reached a critical mass. Confident that the movement was capable of defeating pro-Syrian candidates in majority Christian parliamentary districts (barring a blatantly fraudulent tabulation of the votes), FPM officials decided to abandon their long-standing boycott of legislative elections (which had been progressively less effective in 1996 and 2000) and began preparing to mount a nationwide electoral campaign.

The death of aging Baabda-Aley MP Pierre Helou in August 2003 provided the FPM with an opportunity to test its electoral strength for the first time. By-elections in Lebanon are normally a formality - when a sitting MP dies, his next of kin is traditionally allowed to run unopposed. Qornet Shehwan decided not to contest the election, and for good reason - Christian voters in the district are outnumbered by its combined Druze and Shiite electorate, and Helou's son, Henri, had received a "perfect storm" of endorsements from Jumblatt and rival Druze leader Talal Arslan, both leading Shiite parties (the militant Islamist Hezbollah movement and Amal), as well as both Hariri and Lahoud.

To the astonishment of most political analysts, the FPM nominated Hikmat Dib to run for the seat. Expecting Dib to lose by a landslide, the vast majority of mainstream Christian politicians either endorsed Helou or declined to endorse anyone. Thousands of FPM volunteers canvassed the district, however, speaking to local communities about the party's platform and Dib's distinguished record as an advocate of public freedoms. Though Dib narrowly lost the election (with 25,291 votes to Helou's 28,597), he won the overwhelming majority of Christian votes and a sizable minority of Druze and Shiite votes, demonstrating that the FPM had the electoral clout not only to sweep the Christian heartland, but perhaps even to threaten the political establishment in mixed districts from the Shouf to north Lebanon, in the 2005 elections.[17]

The FPM triumph eliminated any serious prospect of an accord between the Maronite political establishment and Damascus. As Lahoud's term drew to a close in 2004, the Syrians desperately tried to entice Qornet Shehwan leaders into endorsing a three-year extension of his term (reportedly dangling the prospect of Sfeir choosing Lahoud's successor in 2007), but there were no takers - the popular backlash instigated by Aoun would have been overwhelming. Lahoud's isolation provided an opening for Hariri, who secretly encouraged American and European pressure on Syria to permit a constitutional presidential succession. In the face of strong Western pressure on Syria, two members of Qornet Shehwan - MP Nayla Mouawad and MP Boutros Harb - declared their candidacies and began meeting with Syrian military intelligence officials. Assad ultimately decided that neither had the clout to stand up to either Hariri or Aoun and went ahead with plans to extend Lahoud's term, precipitating the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.

Although eager to draw upon support from his allies abroad, Hariri never really aspired to lead Lebanon out of Syria's orbit, only to gain political hegemony within it. After 1559, the prime minister spent weeks trying to persuade Assad to let him name two-thirds of the cabinet and would no doubt have returned to the fold if the Syrian president had relented. After leaving office in October, Hariri quietly entered into talks with Qornet Shehwan over the formation of a tripartite electoral alliance (along with Jumblatt) capable of trouncing the Lahoudists in the 2005 elections.

Hariri's assassination in February was apparently intended to shatter this alliance and initially appeared like it might do so. For two weeks, as mostly Christian and Druze protestors demonstrated against the occupation, Hariri's family and political allies remained silent and the Sunni masses stayed at home. Only after it became clear that the West and the Saudis were committed to driving Syria out did the Harirists begin playing a major role. And it was not until Hezbollah mobilized an ill-timed half-million man (mostly Shiite) march in support of Syria on March 8 that they fully committed themselves to the cause, leading to an even larger demonstration against Syria on March 14. After several more weeks of vacillation, Hariri's 35-year-old son, Saad, picked up where his father left off.


  [1] Asked to name their favored presidential candidate in a recent poll by the Beirut Center for Research and Information, Lebanese Christians responded as follows: Michel Aoun (46.6%), Nassib Lahoud (12.1%), Boutros Harb (12.1%), Samir Geagea (4.4%), Suleiman Frangieh (2.9%), Chibli Mallat (2.9%), Riad Salameh (1.4%), no favorite (12.6%), others (7.1%). Al-Safir (Beirut), 2 March 2006. No polling data is available on Aoun's support among Shiites, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it is even more overwhelming. Together, Christians and Shiites comprise 70% of the population as a whole.

  [2] Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Knopf, 1951).

  [3] Volker Perthes, Myths and Money: Years of Hariri and Lebanon's Preparation for a New Middle East, Middle East Report, No. 203, Spring 1997.

  [4] The report was researched by a private company, Information International, and commissioned by the United Nations Center for International Crime Prevention. See "Lebanon loses 1.5 billion dollars annually to corruption: UN," Agence France Presse, 23 January 2001; The Daily Star (Beirut), 27 January 2001.

  [5] "Official: Lebanese banks profiting from debt," The Daily Star, 3 April 2006.

  [6] Guilain Denoeux and Robert Springborg, "Hariri's Lebanon: Singapore of the Middle East or Sanaa of the Levant?" Middle East Policy, Vol. 6, No. 2, October 1998.

  [7] Over 43 percent of companies surveyed in the report acknowledged that they "always or very frequently" pay bribes. Some 40 percent said that they "sometimes" do. See "Lebanon loses 1.5 billion dollars annually to corruption: UN," Agence France Presse, 23 January 2001; The Daily Star (Beirut), 27 January 2001.

  [8] Hariri spent over $2 billion, for example, in the early 1990s on a plan to boost the country's power capacity from 800-1,000 megawatts to over 2,000 megawatts by rehabilitating or constructing ten power plants and their accompanying grids. Not only was much of the money - over $500 million according to one former minister - siphoned off in the process, but rampant profiteering directed the remainder to redundant or ill-conceived projects. A decade later, the Lebanese government was struggling to produce 1,400 megawatts of electricity and rolling blackouts continue to plague the capital in summer months. "Amid spectre of New York blackout, Lebanon fears plunge into darkness," Agence France Presse, 15 August 2003.

  [9] Ali and Nizar Dalloul, two sons of a former Lebanese defense minister, owned 86 percent of LibanCell. Najib Miqati, a close friend of Bashar Assad who served as Lebanon's prime minister between April and June 2005, owned 30 percent of Cellis. The rate in Lebanon was 13 cents a minute, compared to 3-8 cents in other Arab countries. The Daily Star, Aug. 17, 2002.

  [10] See "Lebanon without Hariri--who holds the lock and key?" Mideast Mirror, 1 December 1998.

  [11] Although there are few reliable statistics on this, according to the World Bank "income inequality is generally believed to have increased" during the 1990s. Lebanon: Country Brief, World Bank, September 2005.

  [12] "There can be no doubt about the constitutionality of this government. Article 53 states that the president appoints the ministers, 'one of whom he chooses as prime minister'. The premier does not have to resign; the president can dismiss him and appoint a new prime minister. Moreover, the Aoun government kept the rules of the National Pact. If the presidency is vacant, the cabinet is the sole executive . . . There was a precedent for this: in 1952, President Beshara al-Khoury appointed the commander of the army, Fouad Chehab, who was a Maronite, Prime Minister of an interim government." See Theodor Hanf, Coexistence in Wartime Lebanon: Decline of a State and Rise of a Nation (London: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 1993), pp. 570-571.

  [13] Elie A. Salem, Violence and Diplomacy in Lebanon (London: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1995), p. 272.

  [14] See Judith Palmer Harik, "Between Islam and the System: Popular Support for Lebanon's Hizballah," The Journal of Conflict Resolution (Vol. 40, No. 1), March 1996, p. 52.

  [15] For example, former Oil Minister Shahe Barsoumian was jailed on charges of embezzling some $800 million through the secret re-export of crude oil. Others were indicted in connection with corruption schemes of similar magnitude at the Council for Development and Reconstruction, the Environment Ministry, the Beirut port, the National Bureau of Medicine, the Independent Municipal Fund, the Directorate-General of Antiquities, the Ministry of Transportation, and the Ministry of Electricity and Water resources.

  [16] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 15 March 2001.

  [17] See FNC Triumphs in Baabda-Aley, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, August-September 2003.

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