It is now universally accepted that there is something rotten in the Lebanese state. The August 4 explosion at the Port of Beirut was the culmination of a corrupt sectarian and feudal system heading into a precipitous fall since the end of the civil war in 1990. It was evident in 2015 that the state did not ‘had not even provided the minimum services required to keep the population healthy, let alone prosperity, when garbage piles up on the streets across the country. After failing to repair the electricity grid and refusing to provide an uninterrupted supply of drinking water to all homes, the banking system collapsed in the fall of 2019 and the state went bankrupt. Successive crises in government formation have only underscored the inability of the Lebanese political elite to tackle the roots of the problem. Instead, they continue to deal with the old-fashioned musical chair game – bickering over which sect holds what cabinet sits and for how long.
The Lebanese system is defined in a formal constitutional document first drafted in 1926 and in an informal, albeit equally binding, National Pact which was accepted by the Lebanese rulers in 1943. Both will need to be drastically changed for them to be real reform is taking place. The constitution, elegantly outlining the republic, its territorial boundaries and government institutions, has a built-in amendment mechanism. A two-thirds quorum of parliament must be physically present in the parliament building and a two-thirds majority of its members must approve the provision. This means, of course, that prior discussions between party and bloc leaders are essential to establish common ground on the need for change and the constitutional provisions that will be contested or voted on in parliament. The following topics should be part of the discussion for any serious reform attempt.
Legislative reform: An upper house of parliament was formally suggested in the Taif accord in 1989 but was never included on Beirut’s reform agenda. Otherwise, the agreement was maintained on a sectarian policy, although reshuffling the figures between the sects. It is essential, if one is to abolish bigotry, that there is a gradual separation between religion and politics, since bigotry is ingrained in the hearts and voting traditions of a large percentage of the population. Therefore, an upper house – similar to the British House of Lords – could be established to house sectarian representation, thereby allaying the fears of those who fear being marginalized. The same proportions currently used in parliament would then be transferred to the upper house, with circumscribed functions and powers. The lower house would keep fiscal, budgetary and security issues for itself, and its composition would be open to political parties and independents regardless of their religious and / or sectarian affiliation.
Electoral reform: A new electoral law should be approved before new elections are organized. The new law should be tailor-made to encourage independent candidates and new secular parties, which have been disadvantaged by current election laws. Proportionality in multi-member constituencies, for example, should be enshrined so that new candidates and parties have guaranteed representation even if they do not obtain a majority in a particular constituency or if they avoid joining larger blocs in order. to be on a winning ticket.
Truth and reconciliation: Corrupt officials’ calls for accountability are certainly well justified, since most of the foreign currency in the banks went to the Lebanese Central Bank to repay government loans and bonds, much of which was lost due to mismanagement or outright corruption. The difficulty in punishing corrupt rulers in Lebanon is twofold: it is impossible to choose who to punish since most elites are likely to be guilty and, if pressured, will certainly not help implement reform measures. To move forward, one idea would be to use a specially designed truth and reconciliation commission, as has been used in countries that have moved from abusive dictatorial regimes to democracies – South Africa is one example. The truth must be told lest history repeat itself in a new system of government. However, it can be futile to descend into a dangerous hole of crime and punishment at this point. Exposing the mistakes of the past, learning from them, and moving forward with minimal prosecution may be the best bet.
Investment Council: Lebanese anti-corruption laws are adequate as far as they go. On paper, corruption is prohibited and those who steal or abuse public funds can end up in court. The problem is the court’s slowness in actually finding evidence of major fraudulent acts and finding judges who are not themselves corrupted or intimidated by the accused. Among the many ways to embezzle funds in Lebanon, perhaps the most popular is to skim foreign investment and receive bribes as prizes for awarding contracts. An investment council on which sit international experts, as well as local financial experts, would go a long way in making this particular act of theft difficult. The board’s job would be to oversee the public procurement bidding process and ensure that procurement and disbursement of public funds is transparent.
Dealing with Hezbollah: Finally, Lebanese Hezbollah, the elephant in the room, poses a problem that must be faced with a solution on which all Lebanese factions, including civil society leaders, can agree. There is no doubt that this party, officially launched in 1984 in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion, has gone beyond its original raison d’être as a “resistance force”. With an army that ranks among the best military forces in the region, an extensive social welfare network, and a political wing that, along with its allies, currently form the majority in the Lebanese parliament, Hezbollah is a state within a state. More embarrassing is the fact that the party makes its decisions and acts independently inside and outside Lebanon, despite the fact that its actions can certainly have a serious impact on the rest of the country.
The 1943 National Pact is partly responsible for the current stalemate over Hezbollah’s weapons, status and role in Lebanon and the region. The country’s political and sectarian elite has long believed in the principle of consensus, if not always acted according to, in order to prevent one party or sect from feeling overwhelmed by the will of others; hence, why they tried to live by the motto of “no winner nor loser” in Lebanese politics. Applied to everything – from the independence of Lebanon to whoever takes the bribes to garbage collection – the quest for total consensus can have a crippling effect on decision-making. The leaders of the main factions and, therefore, the majority of Lebanese are now evenly divided on the legitimacy of Hezbollah. The alliance of President Michel Aoun, President Nabih Berri and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah includes a majority of the Shiite sect in Lebanon and arguably half of its Christian population. This half of the country believes there is still a critical need for a resistance force to oppose not only Israel, but also an extreme Islamist force that could have taken power in Syria and Lebanon without Hezbollah. , which – working with full Iranian support – thwarted al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in Iraq in addition to Syria and prevented attacks inside Lebanon. The other half of the country, comprising a majority of Sunnis and the other half of the Christian population, believe that the party, through its armed forces, is intimidating its path to domination of the Lebanese state and exposing the country to harm. constant dangers dragging him into wars not declared by the state itself.
Without anything in the constitution regarding a resistance force, the National Pact would have to be amended, either by abandoning the principle of consensus in favor of a democratic majority regime, or by agreeing on who should face regional threats to the country and how. While everyone agrees on the need for adequate defense, there is clearly no agreement on who should bear arms and under whose authority. Nothing less than a new founding national convention can put the Lebanese system on the table to establish new common standards for the institutions and the direction of the country’s foreign policy. It is literally either a new social contract for Lebanon or a war. The fifteen year civil war (1975-1990) was a national trauma; a second round would devastate what remains of the country and its people.
Nabeel Khoury is a non-resident principal investigator at the Rafik Hariri Center of the Atlantic Council for the Middle East.
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