One year after the beginning of the Arab Spring, Lebanon reflects on its own popular protests seven years ago, when Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s assassination unleashed the Cedar Revolution. Ambassador Mohamad Chatah, who has served in a number of governmental and advisory positions in the Lebanese government, discussed the implications of the Arab uprisings for Lebanon’s future. Carnegie’s Marwan Muasher moderated the conversation.
Reflecting on the Region’s Revolutions
- The Arab Spring: The Arab Spring isn’t a tsunami that comes and goes, but rather a complete process of transformation, argued Chatah. It is not a nationalist movement or an Islamist one, but rather, a call for basic universal principles. Chatah expressed confidence in this process of change, adding that democracy will bring better policies, which will, in turn, improve the standard of living.
- Lebanon’s Own Revolution: The goal of the March 14 Alliance was forcing the Syrian army out of Lebanon. But on a general level, Chatah said, the Lebanese people were also seeking good governance after 15 years of internal warfare and 15 years of external control.
Political Islam and Hezbollah
- Political Islam in the Region: Chatah stated it is natural for political Islam to gain strength and popularity after it had been choked by dictators so harshly. Ultimately, though, he believed that once Muslim societies are given the space to breathe, they will govern “normally.”
- A Democratic Nature of Islam: Chatah agreed that while many in the West misunderstand Islam, other religions have been misconstrued as well. He stated that Islam is one of the only religions that talks about a consultative government and other democratic principles, but acknowledged that people can find ways to use religion to support a wide variety of positions. Ultimately, he said, if people want Islam to be democratic, it can be done.
- Christian Fear: Chatah attributed the fear that political Islam strikes in the region’s Christian population to the significant amount of anti-political Islam propaganda that has been present since about 2005. Other factors provoking this fear in Lebanon include former Prime Minister Michel Aoun’s convenient alliance with Hezbollah and rumors regarding March 14th’s alleged ties to Saudi Arabia, he added.
- Hezbollah’s Persistence: While some Lebanese argue that Hezbollah has done wonderful things in standing up to Israel, Chatah suggested that Hezbollah’s insistence on remaining an independent entity regardless of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon is particularly problematic. Hezbollah has changed the balance of power. Lebanon cannot have a separate military organization independent of the will of the people, argued Chatah.
- Incorporating Hezbollah: Chatah stated that when the Syrian regime does fall, he does not expect Hezbollah to change right away. He contended that incorporating Hezbollah into the Lebanese army would be the most reasonable course of action to promote stability in Lebanon; this could be accomplished through a change of state policy on Palestine, among other things.
Reform and the Challenges Ahead
- Taif Agreement: Chatah argued that the political system in Lebanon needs reform. Although the Taif Agreement established important principles about representation and equality, diminishing the sectarian and ethnic divisions that could otherwise paralyze the country, there is a need, at some point, to go beyond the confines of the Lebanese National Contract.
- The Need for a Senate: Chatah emphasized the importance of a Senate where all communities get representation. He suggested that trying to achieve equal representation through the existing parliament will be unsuccessful.
- Challenges Ahead: Chatah recognized that many difficulties lie ahead. The economics of democracy and the issue of Palestine are two issues which must be approached creatively and must be resolved strategically, he said. He added that it is wrong to think that Palestine is no longer an issue for the Arab people, even if they currently seem focused on more local issues.