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, 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." 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," 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
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).
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. 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. 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. 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
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. 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
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."
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, 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. 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." 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.
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, 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?"
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.
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
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
 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.
 Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Knopf, 1951).
 Volker Perthes, Myths and Money: Years of Hariri and Lebanon's
Preparation for a New Middle East, Middle East Report, No. 203, Spring
 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.
 "Official: Lebanese banks profiting from debt," The Daily Star, 3
 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.
 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.
 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
 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.
 See "Lebanon without Hariri--who holds the lock and key?"
Mirror, 1 December 1998.
 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.
 "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.
 Elie A. Salem, Violence and Diplomacy in Lebanon (London: I.B.
Tauris Publishers, 1995), p. 272.
 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.
 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
 Al-Nahar (Beirut), 15 March 2001.
 See FNC Triumphs in Baabda-Aley, Middle East Intelligence Bulletin,