Julia Choucair, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,
Emile El-Hokayem, Henry L. Stimson Center
Charles Adwan, Lebanese Transparency Association
Marina Ottaway, Carnegie Endowment for International
Julia Choucair presented her paper “Lebanon: Finding a Path from Deadlock to Democracy,” (published by the Carnegie Endowment in January 2006) which analyzes the prospects for political reform in Lebanon.
Choucair argued that the main obstacle to reform is the lack of any coherent central authority in Lebanon that has institutionalized decision-making mechanisms. The manner in which power is divided among the various sects results in de facto mini-states responsible for all the needs of their constituents, which leads to political and administrative paralysis. In addition, Lebanon’s confessional system creates instability because any degree of internal dissatisfaction can cause the government to disintegrate—the 1975 civil war is the clearest example of that. Because it is almost impossible for actors to generate enough power from the inside, they look for power outside, which in turn allows international actors such as Syria to manipulate domestic politics to their advantage.
There have been no structural changes in the Lebanese political system since the Syrian troop withdrawal in April 2005. While the Lebanese parliamentary elections were portrayed abroad as a turning point for Lebanese democratization, Choucair argued that in reality, the change was much more limited. Last year’s upheaval was branded by the Lebanese themselves as the upheaval for independence, not the upheaval for democracy. In fact, in the past few months, confessional divides have resurfaced and the crisis of authority is as pronounced as ever.
At this juncture, Lebanon must find a new balance among the factions, handle a very precarious security situation, redefine its relationship with Syria, and launch a new economic vision. These challenges require a unified vision, which is rendered very difficult given the current vacuum of authority. Any strategy for reform must take into account two contradicting realities. First, political reforms that ignore the key flaws of the confessional system are bound to fail. Second, there are no short-term prospects for a secular, non-confessional Lebanon. This creates a vicious circle. Therefore any effort that succeeds even in starting to break this circle would be significant.
Choucair outlined three priority areas for reform, all of which are already part of the political debate in Lebanon: security reform; electoral reform; and economic reform.
In the area of security reform, Choucair pointed to the lack of accountability, disarray, and fragmentation of the Lebanese security system and argued that a consolidation of various security forces would put the government as a whole rather than individual confessional groups in charge of security. While consolidation would not eliminate confessionalism, it would start to undermine it.
Another area of concern regarding security is Hezbollah’s militia, an issue that is complicated by the fact that Hezbollah’s militia has a political role. While an independent militia is cause for worry in any country, the debate over the disarmament of Hezbollah is complex because Hezbollah’s arms offset the fact that Shiites in Lebanon do not have a fair political representation. Political ramifications of disbanding the militia are huge.
This debate also has a regional dimension given Hezbollah’s multiple identities as a Shiite political movement and an ally of Syria and Iran. Despite these challenges, there are signs that a solution to this problem is possible in the future. Hezbollah recognizes that the principle determinant of its political future is Lebanese public opinion,
and that its future is as a Lebanese political party. Yet this does not mean that Hezbollah is ready to disarm its militia. This is a long-term goal that could be reached through negotiation but cannot be done suddenly by a governmental order.
In the areas of electoral reform, there is a growing consensus that a major reform of the electoral law is needed but discord over what form this would take. Choucair identified two flaws in the current legislation—the constant revision of the law at every election and the periodic redrawing of the districts. She argued that a proportional representation system could redress some of these flaws by making the confessional system fairer.
Finally, economic reform is essential to the process of political reform in Lebanon. Choucair contended that privatization, if properly designed and managed, could alleviate some of the key problems in the Lebanese economy. On the other hand, if poorly conceived, such a process could be counterproductive.
In terms of the role of international actors, Choucair pointed out that the possibilities of political reform in Lebanon today are a result of Syria’s withdrawal, which could not have happened without outside actors having played a strong role. Lebanon continues to need this international support. International actors could play the biggest role in the economic field by making economic aid conditional on specific economic reforms.
Emile El-Hokayem similarly highlighted the deep sectarian nature of the Lebanese body politic and Lebanon’s inability to overcome it. El-Hokayem described Lebanon as a country that might continue for some time to be seemingly ripe for change but not actually change much. In the Lebanese context, unlike in other Arab countries, political reform is neither about redefining the relationship between the state and its citizens nor decentralizing power. Rather, it is about the distribution of power between the different sects and the empowerment of state institutions. In the short term, the focus must be on the redistribution of power. The nature and magnitude of this redistribution are hotly contested in Lebanon, and the Taif agreement and the 1943 National Pact are at the heart of the debate. This is complicated by the fact that today’s parliamentary majority includes those who drafted and advocated the Taif agreement. El Hokayem then discussed the position of other players, such as the Shiite parties and the Christian community on the agreement, highlighting recent calls for a new national dialogue.
The process of political reform in Lebanon is further complicated by the assumption that community leaders actually represent their communities. The concern with the performance of the state rather with power sharing, and dissent within each community have made it more difficult to reach national consensus. Having outlined these challenges, El-Hokayem argued that there has been considerable progress since last year’s assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, namely in the affirmation of Lebanon’s existence as a separate political and cultural entity. The Shiite community’s attachment to Lebanon remains dependent on Hezbollah’s regional ambitions and on whether Shiites are offered a fairer political representation in Lebanon. El-Hokayem concluded by arguing that apart from a change in the electoral law, no significant steps would be taken on this issue in the short term. For understandable reasons, reform is largely absent from the agendas of key leaders. Ultimately, the call for political reform will have to come from the Lebanese themselves.
Charles Adwan pointed to problematic nature of Lebanon’s consensual system. On the one hand, it is impossible to reach agreement all the time. On other hand, this system inevitably invites foreign interference. Counterintuitively, consensus in the case of the Lebanon leads to instability, because it empowers actors to reshuffle their cards and disturb the entire system. Lebanon’s confessional system could be changed if a more proactive political party law is enacted.
During the question and answer period, Choucair commented on the presence of new movements in the aftermath of the Syrian withdrawal. She pointed out that one of the most positive consequences of the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon is greater freedom of speech, especially open criticism of Syria as well as government figures. El-Hokayem added that the there is a long list of groups of young activists who were very active before and during the popular protests. On the question of international involvement in the Lebanese reform process, Choucair argued that while Lebanon needs support from the international community, blatant international interference in Lebanese affairs is counterproductive. Reform initiatives lose credibility when they are perceived as allied with international actors.